Autobiography of Don Schwamb
Donald F. Schwamb (known to everyone as Don) was perhaps a typical 50's child dealing with coming out as gay. He remembers telling his parents when he was 12, "I don't like girls, I like boys". This of course caused them to threaten to take him to a doctor, but Don stuck to his convictions even at that age, and when he told his parents essentially the same thing at age 18, it "stuck"- and they accepted him and his friends from then on (with natural reservations). When HIV became known in the 1980's, it caused his parents additional concern (which continues to this day), but other than that they and all of Don's sisters have been supportive. (Don's sisters?- yes, as Don likes to say, his parents "had all girls LOL")
Born and raised in West Bend, a small city about 30 miles north-northeast of Milwaukee, Don was initially active in local politics, forming a Young Democrats group in Washington County, and attending state and even national political meetings and conventions- including the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. (Don has vivid memories of the controversy there; the clashes between police and protesters outside the Conrad Hilton Hotel, including venturing into the park on several occasion to see first hand the protestors- and almost being tear-gassed himself when he got too close to some of the more violent demonstrations. The controversy was over the Vietnam war, and pitted Hubert Humphrey against peace candidate George McCarthy.) Don's interest and involvement in Democratic politics continued into the 1970s. But more importantly to his future, these meetings and conventions were the first opportunity to discretely meet other young gay men, as a side benefit to his true interest in political involvement.
Don remembers first becoming involved in Milwaukee gay life in the late 1960's. He scoured the newspapers and made some phone calls, and decided to attend a meeting of the Gay People's Union, which was scheduled to meet in the basement of a church on the east side of Milwaukee. He remembers driving to the meeting, and circling the block several times: Are there any police cars around? Will anyone see me? Is anyone else going in? After parking and screwing up his courage, Don decided to go in.
Walking into the meeting room, where people were just beginning to gather (Don hadn't mastered the art of being "fashionably late" yet), he was first encouraged to see a group of "normal looking" people spanning the age groups. Then, amazingly, one of Don's closest friends from politics walked in-- and that was all it took; Don never looked back or hesitated to be involved again: he knew how he fit and that this was "right" for him.
Hooking up with this friend, "Bob", Don began spending Friday and Saturday evenings with him. Bob lived with a group of other men around 20th and Vliet in Milwaukee, in a house that also served as a small ministry/ church building. From this base, Don and Bob explored the gay bars in the city, especially Wreck Room and Factory.
Don has fond memories of many of the legends of Milwaukee gay life from the late 1960's into the 1980's, hanging out in bars a lot as a favorite venue- a place to dance, mingle, hear the latest music. The Factory was just about to open, and The Wreck Room was in full swing. He explored The River Queen, The Mint Bar (not quite his type of places) and many other places. He looked forward to annual events such as the Wreck Room Classic (later to be the Milwaukee Invitational softball tournament) and later the MAGIC picnic in Madison. The first Pride celebrations in Milwaukee were also well received by the community, and Don tried to attend them all.
And of course this was also the era of free-sex: post-Hippies and San Francisco's Haite/Ashbury, gay men in Milwaukee and the nearby cities of Madison and Chicago indulged in relatively care-free sex. There was no AIDS, hepatitis and herpes were little known; it was generally believed that the only thing you could catch could be cured with a dose of shots or pills and a week without drinking. An encounter could be had and enjoyed without worrying about condoms and safe sex- and while never promiscuous, Don did endulge and enjoy the feeling of freedom.
But throughout the years, Don was a joiner and a doer- he enjoyed working to advance the community and help other gays cope better with coming out.
Cream City Foundation
AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin
Milwaukee Historic Preservation
During most of the 1990's, Don took a break from gay organizations, a case of "burn out", but also to spend more time with his partner Gary and to accomodate work travel and other demands on his time.
Milwaukee LGBT Community Center
Brady East STD CLinic
Milwaukee LGBT History Project
In the mid-1990's, Don had the vision for a web site to document and cross-link people, places, and events in Wisconsin's LGBT history. In the beginning (starting around 2000) it was related to his interest in architecture: how gay bars had gradually been self-identified and how they moved and became more 'open' as homosexuality became more acceptable. When the 'Project' to do interviews began, he incorporated that content; and that quickly transitioned to organizational history, events, and (as primary source material) the history of LGBT-focused print media in Wisconsin.
By 2020, the web site had grown to some 1,700 HTML pages; 23,000 images; and 2,800 PDF's. The site continues to grow as new content is added and cross-collated with local LGBT periodicals as they are scanned and OCR'd.
In 2020, a national film producer contacted Don and Michail to colaborate on a to-be-announced project, and a large format scanner was donated to Don on behalf of the project, who has scanned and created individual PDF's (which are also OCR'd) of magazine and newspaper-size Wisconsin LGBT periodicals (such as 'Wisconsin Light' and 'IN Step').
Local LGBT Historian
Don was recognized for his work for the community, and especially the LGBT History Project, by being awarded a PrideFest Community Activist Medal in 2015.
In 2015-2016, Don collaborated with Michail Takach, who curated "LGBT Milwaukee", an 'Images of Modern America' book celebrating Milwaukee's gay and lesbian heritage over the past 75 years. Don also wrote the Foreword for the book.
Don and his work creating and maintaining the Wisconsin LGBT History Project are also recognized in the book "Coming Out, Moving Forward: Wisconsin's Recent Gay History", the second volume in Madison LGBT activist and author R. Richard Wagner's two-volume work on gay history in Wisconsin. The book credits the web site in numerous footnotes.
In September 2018, Milwaukee Pride agreed to sponsor the Wisconsin LGBT History website, funding the costs of domain name registration and hosting, and commissioning a logo. From that announcement, Don was intervewed for several new articles, appeared on WISN-TV news, interviewed for the local PBS station, as historical reference for a special news report about an unsolved gay murder for WITI-TV6, and briefly spoke at the first Milwaukee Pride "Stonewall Stage Talk" event hosted at the Milwaukeee Public Library, among many other appeals for his knowledge and expertise.
Written by Don Schwamb in 3rd person biographical form.