Autobiography of Don Schwamb

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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.


Don continued to be involved with Gay People's Union, but initially in his gay life Don had more interest in social and sports activities as opposed to political activism. Thus he becamse involved with a group called GAMMA, where John Cowles quickly took Don under his wing and mentored him. After a year or two Don was asked to join the Board of Directors, on which he served for about 8 years, including one year as President. He spent many years working on the newsletters, and maintaining computerized membership and mailing lists.

Cream City Foundation
Being in business himself (Don was trained in college as an engineer, but later went into corporate administration and computer work), Don became interested in the Cream City Business Association, and joined that group. After a few years there, he was invited to join the Board of a spin-off, the Cream City Association Foundation by then-President Ralph Navarro. When the CCAF began working on a project to found a community center, Don took over as President, a position he held for 8 years. During Don's tenure, the CCAF was renamed the Cream City Foundation (CCF).

AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin
During Don's tenure as President of both CCF and GAMMA, the AIDS epidemic had reared its ugly head. The BESTD clinic (of which Don had been a long-time client and supporter) had started what they called the Milwaukee AIDS Project, and Sue Dietz was hired to organize the gay community's response to the crisis. It quickly became apparent that AIDS would require more time and resources than could be handled by BESTD Clinic (partly because of the stigma of an STD clinic and the diffciulty in finding government support for a project attached to it), and so in his role as CCF President, Don worked with the Presidents of the CBBA and BESTD to spin off MAP as a new and separate organization, which was named the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin (ARCW). The then-President of the CCBA became the ARCW's first President, and Don its first Vice President. After a year, Don resigned from the ARCW so he could continue to devote his attention to CCF.

Milwaukee Historic Preservation
Don has been interested in history in general since a young age, and it continues to be a favorite topic in his television viewing. He began being involved in architectural preservation in Milwaukee in the 1980s, working with the City of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Committee and assisting with background work on historic designations, including that of the East Side Commercial District and others, in the late 1980s.

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
Early in 2000, after being laid off from a job and with some spare time while doing consulting work, Don once again became more active in the community. He had always been interested in books and preserving history, and so volunteered to work at the fledgling Community Center on South 2nd Street to organize the library. He worked with this group for about two years, overseeing the computerization of the collection, its rapid expansion as donation of books poured in, and its relocation to a new Center location on Court Street.

Brady East STD CLinic
In 2002, shortly after partner Gary's death of heart failure (Gary had had several transplants in the mid 1990's due to complications from diabetes), Don was asked by a friend to volunteer with the Brady East STD Clinic, which needed HIV counselors. Don went through training, and quickly took to working primarily as an outreach volunteer, doing HIV counseling and testing in bars, the local Spa, and PrideFest venues. Don was an HIV counselor until 2017.

Don's interest in LGBT history was intensified by the PrideFest History Exhibit at PrideFest 1995 and 1996, created by then-board member Steve Brondino, and Jamakaya. Unfortunately, there was some sort of disagreement and that content was all withdrawn and hasn't been accessible since. For some time after that, Jerry Johnson, previously editor of 'Wisconsin Light', and LGBT newspaper, was creating an exhibit. Then, in 2002 and 2003 a group of community leaders met and focused primarily on interviewing individuals in the local LGBT community who had been instrumental in moving the community forward, and that led to the development of the first permanent "panels" for the PrideFest History Exhibit; 2' x 5' informational panels about each of about 10 community leaders. Over the next years, the biography interviews ceased while a small core team of Jerry Johnson, Michael Doylen, Bill Serpe, and Don developed more panels for various organizations and anniversaries, a year-by-year Timeline of notable LGBT events in Wisconsin since Stonewall, and one of Don's favorite ideas, decade by decade bar maps. Don bowed out of planning the PrideFest History Exhibit after 2015 due to other commitments at PrideFest. Since 2010, he has been managing the Cash Room for each PrideFest.

Milwaukee LGBT History Project
Being involved in the LGBT community in the early-1970s, historical references were mostly an oral tradition. Mainstream media had a largely negative or at most semi-tolerant attitude toward the "gay community". While there were a few organizations (primarily the GPU, Gay Peoples Union), only their newsletter, and some coverage in Amazon, covered the LGBT community in any positive light. This changed with several "bar rag" publications in the mid-late 1970's (G Milwaukee, GLIB, Gay Milwaukee, Escape), and then the first Wisconsin-based LGBT newspaper 'OUT!' in 1982. But all of the locally produced LGBT media were 'here today, gone tomorrow', and he early on realized that learning more about the local fight for acceptance and community development would take more intense digging.

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
Through his work on the Wisconsin LGBT History Project, Don has become a recogized local LGBT historian. He has been consulted to contribute to numerous articles and books (including articles in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; television affiliates WISN, WITI, WTMJ, and PBS; local community-access cable news programs; Quest magazine; Q-Life newspaper; and the book "Bottoms Up- A Toast to Wisconsin's Historic Bars and Breweries", published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press). He was featured on the cover of Quest Magazine in October 2007, for the cover article "Capturing Wisconsin's Gay Story". In 2012, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel consulted Don for the article "Tolerant Times bring change to gay bars".

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.

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Written by Don Schwamb in 3rd person biographical form.