Milwaukee Journal Sentinel OnLine
June 9, 2012
"Tolerant times bring change to gay bars"
Tolerant times bring change to gay bars
By Kathy Flanigan of the Journal Sentinel
View the original article on JSOnline
George Schneider (right) is bar manager at This Is It, a longtime gay bar at 418 E. Wells St. He calls the place "one of the last remaining bars that existed in time when you didn't see a gay man or woman on TV."
Younger crowd less concerned with hiding away
Gunkel, the current president of PrideFest, came out when he was 19 years old. Gay bars, he said, were "our community center, our meet and greet, our place for organizing. That was the bars. That was the bloodline of the community."
A generation later, things have changed. Gay bars no longer have to serve as fortresses for men and women concerned about taking their private lives public. Younger gay people who've come of age in a more enlightened time often feel comfortable going to what are considered "straight" bars. Gay bars that once had an automatic audience must now compete for customers.
Many of Milwaukee's longtime gay bars have closed or are struggling to stay in business. The three-floor nightclub La Cage in Walker's Point narrowly avoided foreclosure a few weeks ago. Another Walker's Point building that houses the Ball Game sports a for-sale sign. The owner of the Triangle died last year, and the bar closed recently. The 35-year-old Boot Camp burned down, and C'est La Vie, once a landing place for those who wanted to see drag shows or stripper revues, is now Zak's Café. The only vestige of dance spot Club 219 is the name on the awnings still attached to the building's façade.
The scene is changing in other ways, too.
That mainstreaming is reflected in local night life. When Don Krause, who is gay, wanted to open a bar eight years ago, he said, "the plan from the beginning was to capture the gay audience as well as the typical straight bar audience."
Krause, the owner of Art Bar, 722 E. Burleigh St., in Riverwest, said he thought "there were enough gay bars" in Milwaukee.
Labels are going away, he said. "In the gay world, I think it was starting to go away a while ago."
Milwaukee's bar scene might not be as tolerant or as comfortable for the LGBT community as, say, San Francisco, but "Wisconsin in general is a pretty tolerant state," Krause said.
Gay bars once banked on the gay community for business, but their constituencies have "reached an expiration date," said Michail Takach, public relations director for PrideFest. Many gay baby boomers are aging out of the late nights of drinking and dancing, and Generation Y, Takach said, doesn't feel the need to protect or hide who they are in a gay bar.
Xavier Matthews puts the east side's Hotel Foster and the Nomad World Pub on his list of preferred bars to frequent with his boyfriend. His pal, Tyler Stanley, 22, said he doesn't wrap up "in a rainbow flag" to make his night life choices. He's just as likely to hang out with friends at a straight bar.
Ryan Manning is treasurer of a gay dart league. He and his friends used to visit La Cage so often they once rented a house only a few blocks away. But if he wants to play darts and have a beer with family, he goes to Marx Pioneer Inn in Muskego where he has a nickname that, it turns out, was given with affection.
"They call me the 'gay guy,' " Manning said. Nervous at first, the 27-year-old window washer from Milwaukee wears the title like a badge of honor.
"I go there more than I go to the gay bars now," Manning said.
An institution evolves
Joe Brehm's mother opened it in 1968 aiming for a specific clientele.
"Right away, a lot of gay men started coming in," Brehm said. But not all patrons were out to the public, so regulars sipped cocktails at the back door. From there they could see who might come in the front door and make a hasty retreat if necessary.
These days, the faces of the bar's patrons splash across the flat-screen television in a revolving loop. That's the most obvious change in the bar that still boasts a pay phone and an eclectic collection of show tunes on the jukebox.
Brehm took over the bar after his mother's stroke in 1981. There were signs of the evolution then, said Brehm, who calls the '80s "an awakening of the gay community," which was both blindsided and unified by the AIDS crisis. Around the same time, Wisconsin's gay rights act passed, and bar life "was completely different. Everyone felt more at ease," he said. "Men started coming in the front door."
Until then, some straight bars reserved one night a week to serve gay customers.
"Believe me, if a gay man went in on a Tuesday, they would say 'No, your night is Sunday,' " Brehm said.
Looking back, he said, "I'd say the big changes were AIDS, gay rights and the openness young people have today. They don't have the stigma. They don't care who knows they're gay."
Brehm didn't have to look far to find an example. Bar manager George Schneider, 28, calls This Is It "one of the last remaining bars that existed in a time when you didn't see a gay man or woman on TV."
"Gay bars have the same problems as straight bars," PrideFest's Gunkel said. "They're a business for business' sake and they make or break it on their own."
"If you want to be a gay bar, then you're really going to have to induce people to come to your side of town, or change and move to a different neighborhood," he said. "Any neighborhood has a gay community."
That the LGBT population feels as comfortable going to a mainstream bar as a gay bar is a sign of cultural progress, but there's more to go.
"I hate to use the word acceptance because I think we're far from acceptance," he said. "We're in that space between tolerance and acceptance."
This isn't the first evolution of local gay nightlife. In the 1980s, most of the city's gay bars were centered in the Historic Third Ward, home to the M&M Club, the Factory, the Wreck Room and more. As they closed, new bars opened in Walker's Point. On S. 2nd St., for instance, you can play drag-queen bingo at Fluid, dance the night away at La Cage or grab a beer at the lesbian-friendly Walker's Pint.
Don Schwamb chronicles gay nightlife in Milwaukee. It's a hobby for the business analyst. He keeps track of what bars are closing, which ones are ailing and which ones are flourishing. His history project is shown at PrideFest in the same way cultural tents are set up at the ethnic festivals. (His website: mkelgbthist.org/project/index.htm)
"I really don't feel like we're losing any more bars than we're gaining," Schwamb said. However, he said, there's a generational change among the gay community.
"Young guys that I know are much more likely to go to straight bars," Schwamb said. "Gay bars, I think, are still popular from the standpoint of going to socialize. You know there are going to be other people like yourself and you're just having a good time. I think gay bars still have that draw."
On this night, Schwamb moves from the bar at Kruz, 354 E. National Ave., to the patio, where Kruz recently hosted a Leather Man / Leather Boy contest. Many gay bars have themes: leather bars, drag shows or the Harbor Room where men who take their shirts off get half-price drinks. But the scene keeps changing. Hamburger Mary's, a restaurant in the Bay View neighborhood that bills itself as LGBT friendly, hosts weekly drag nights.
"It's more difficult for a bar owner to differentiate themselves from other bars," Schwamb said. "They're not going to draw many people if they have a leather night or a Levi night. They draw people with a good atmosphere, happy-hour prices."
And bar owners are searching for what will draw loyalty in an economy where rents are going up and profits are going down.
"I think we're going to see gradually the disappearance of the gay bar central around Walker's Point," Schwamb said. "I don't think they're going to disappear entirely. I think we're always going to have gay bars around. I think they're going to be fewer, but I don't see that happening yet."
'Gay Guerilla' nights
"Gay Guerrilla is a way to see the straight bars and become more comfortable with them," Schwamb said.
Last week they gathered at the Irish Rec Room on N. Old World 3rd St., and the month before that MGGB met at RC's on E. North Ave. The bars don't know that the group is coming. They just show up.
A year or so ago, 100 members of MGGB converged on Steny's Tavern and Grill, 800 S. 2nd St. The number of people caught them off guard, said Jerry Steny, but the fact that it was MGGB wasn't a problem.
"A lot of our clientele are gay," said Steny, who sees "a lot more acceptance" in general among bar-goers.
Some bars set aside nights for gay patrons: The Riverwest Public House, 815 W. Locust St., for example, is booked for Mix & Mingle, an event aimed at the African-American LGBT community, and a gay dance party once or twice a month.
Xavier Matthews (from left), Tyler Stanley, Bill Lison and Christian Richmond frequent This Is It. Patrons of the bar, oepned in 1968, are said not to feel as much need today to hide their orientation as they did in the bar's early days.
Two years ago Bill Lison and Nate Fried opened Hybrid as a "gay bar that is straight friendly." After years of working at the Triangle, the shuttered Switch and La Cage, Lison located his gay bar across town from Walker's Point on the east side at 707 E. Brady St.
And as a customer, he doesn't just stick to gay bars, although tonight he's with a group at This Is It.
"Society has changed," he said, "People are just more open. They don't care if you're gay or straight."
The theory swings both ways, he added. Some teams on Saturday Softball League, a league formed 34 years ago for gay, lesbian and bisexual players, play in drag.
As Lison noted, "More and more straight people are joining the league."
From JSOnline (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).