Si Smits was the subject of an interview by the Milwaukee LGBT History Project early in 2003, and was featured in a display first appearing at PrideFest 2003.
Si Smits got involved in the gay community around 1970. Having grown up in Appleton, WI, he joined the Army and went to Vietnam. On being discharged in 1968, he moved to Milwaukee and enrolled in business school. He's been here ever since, meeting other LGBT persons in a variety of ways, participating in and creating several different organizations - and therefore creating LGBT community.
Smits was not directly involved when the Gay People's Union formed in 1971. He does not remember the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York City having a major impact on the creation of the GPU. The underlying issue, however, was similar. Just as the Stonewall Riots were a response to routine police harassment at gay bars, so Smits says police harassment was a problem in Milwaukee at that time.
Smits' interest in leather also provided opportunities for community involvement and leadership. After traveling to other cities in the early 1970s and seeing gay male leather groups there, he and some friends returned to Milwaukee to form The Silver Star in 1974 or 1975. It was a social organization for motorcycle enthusiasts and others who were interested in leather for aesthetic or erotic reasons. It existed for roughly ten years. Several successor organizations in Milwaukee and around the state continue to provide gay leathermen with social opportunities.
Smits recalls leather organizations raising money for charitable purposes and, in 1977, to help activists in Florida who were battling to save the Dade County lesbian/gay rights ordinance from attacks by Anita Bryant. Anita won that battle when voters repealed the ordinance by a two-to- one vote, but in retrospect we see that the attention and organizing effort that the Dade County fight produced were important in creating a national LGBT civil rights movement during the late 1970s.
Smits opened and ran the Bootcamp Saloon for 27 years, until its destruction by fire in May 2011. (The building, a total loss, also held his home in the second floor.) He was also the key supporter of the Milwaukee Gay and Lesbian Community Center Trust Fund, which operated a building about 2 blocks from the Boot Camp Saloon; that building and organization (not to be confused with the separate Milwaukee LGBT Community Center) was for some time best known as the location for monthly after-bar parties, and later (as recently as 2010) for making small but regular contributions (a few hundred dollars) to a few organizations' operating funds.
With the loss of the Boot Camp Saloon, it's anyone's guess what Si's next step will be. But given his history of involvement in efforts such as the Pride Parade, PrideFest, and other causes, it's certain that Si Smits will continue to be a force in Milwaukee's LGBT landscape.
Additional photos attached to Bootcamp Saloon pages.
Bio information from Project interview (conducted by Jerry Johnson
and transcribed by William D. Turner), and by webmaster Don Schwamb.
Many photos provided by the subject.
Last updated: May-2011.