The drag scene in Milwaukee not only survived but thrived throughout the city’s history, despite discrimination and bans on the practice, according to a new book out this month.
About three dozen people came out to the Boswell Book Company last week for a book talk on “A History of Milwaukee Drag: Seven Generations of Glamour” by Michail Takach and B.J. Daniels.
Nestled between a Starbucks and an eyewear shop, the bookstore provided a warm and welcoming venue for the talk on a brisk Monday evening.
The authors opened by acknowledging the store stands on land that once belonged Indigenous people of Wisconsin, also noting that many Indigenous cultures recognize “two-spirit” people.
Daniels introduced us to a time when dressing in drag was banned around the country, but shows in Milwaukee flourished. Takach spoke about some of the different characters who were bold enough to be drag performers in the early days, performers such as Francelis Leon who was celebrated on the stage in the 1880s, but not off. They said he was so popular that he had a lot of imitators – so many, in fact, that he added “The Only Leon” to his title.
The era of the dime museum was another interesting period of exploration for the duo. In the late Nineteenth Century, for the price of a dime, you could see a traveling show. During that time it would be known as a “ Freak Show.” Takach said such shows featured “gender play as entertainment. However, they could not live their life outside of this arena.” In the dime museum, the drag act was well-paid and protected, Takach said.
The authors took the audience through the ups and downs of drag history, especially as it relates to Milwaukee. I felt like I learned a lot. This book event is happening on the tail of the Netflix series Dahmer, about the serial killer who literally feasted on gay men in Milwaukee in the early 90s. His victims were primarily Black and brown. The show outraged many but intrigued everyone. Unfortunately, it feels like it is the only portrayal of being gay in Milwaukee. Milwaukee Drag: Seven Generations of Glamour is a welcome addition to the narrative.
The book does briefly discuss the experiences of Black folks in the drag and LGBTQ communities. Drag artist Tempest Heat, who is Black, is featured in the book.
“It spent a small part speaking on poc (people of color) in the community but it didn’t go deep enough,” she said. “But that also speaks to the community here in Wisconsin, how it’s been and continues to be when it comes to certain aspects … I’d love to see this segue into a larger discussion of the Black LGBTQ community because it was quite segregated at a point. Unfortunately, the Black clubs have all gone away and most of us have found a ‘group home’ at This Is It downtown (Milwaukee).”
Just as there were different characters there were different venues. The first gay gatherings were at the St. Charles Hotel, which was across from what was city hall. Club La Tosca, Fountain Inn, Bon Ton and the Tic Toc Club and many other clubs are mentioned in the book.
Ending on a high note, Takach and Daniels speak on acts we can find locally in Wisconsin and how the art form has grown. The book highlights clubs to go check out around the state.
The authors offered a wealth of information of how the gay and drag community navigated life and tried to make a living, painting a vivid community of those not only fought to survive but managed to thrive despite everything.
Attendee Corey Haywood expressed his appreciation for the book.
“The extended history was not just welcoming to a lot of artists but needed. In the 1980s when I came out, I was underground. Gay folks had to just adapt,” he said. Another guest, Lana Holman added: “I am Queer and I have Queer children too. I would have been interested no matter what.”
“A History of Milwaukee Drag: Seven Generations of Glamor” is published by The History Press as part of the American Heritage Series. It is available at Amazon and other book retailers.