After 20 years in Milwaukee, I've heard all of the stereotypes: We subsist on cheese and beer. There's a bowling alley on every block. We talk like those Minnesotans in "Fargo." We must be so fat from eating all that cheese and beer and riding around on our Harleys that you can see us from cruising altitude above Flyover Country, dotting the urban landscape like so many polar-fleeced Holsteins.
Thing about stereotypes is, they don't come out of nowhere. Milwaukeeans do love cheese and beer, and we have an unnatural fondness for bowling, and we are consistently rated one of the drinking-est, fattest cities in the country. And if the sun happens to come out and it's over 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the sound of Harleys breaks out across the city like the buzz of an angry bees' nest. These are only a few of our charms.
What these half-truths add up to is exactly what makes Milwaukee a great place to visit: We like to enjoy ourselves, make noise, get outside, soak up the sun, eat, drink, and party. We don't take ourselves too seriously and we're going to show you a good time. And although you might hear a few prim grumbles over the church bingo table about "the gays," our pretty relaxed, live-and-let-live attitude means that Milwaukee is a comfortable place for queers.
This being Wisconsin, we even have a weird, German-like word for this feeling of being in a cozy crowd, eating and drinking, and just being accepted the way you are: "gemütlichkeit." Look it up.
A Note on Diversity
I'm going to get to the really good stuff here in just a sec, but I can't talk about Milwaukee without talking about race. Milwaukee is one of the most hypersegregated cities in the nation. We're not proud of it, but there are still very clear-cut white, black, and Latino areas of the city. The bright spot in this story is that we queers are doing our part to mix it up. With the exception of the upper East Side near UWM, the gayborhoods described below are also some of the most integrated parts of the city.
In general, the neighborhoods along the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan are the most queer-friendly. Must be something in the water. Four areas of note:
On the west bank of the Milwaukee River sits the gayest of 'hoods, Riverwest, with its passionate embrace of Birkenstocks and vegan cuisine. You can get your fill of tofu scramble and nutritional yeast at the Riverwest Co-op (733 E. Clarke St.), drink strong coffee among the tatooed-and-pierced at Fuel Cafe (818 E. Center St.), and get a quirky cocktail or local beer at the member-owned Riverwest Public House (815 E. Locust St.). If your DIY skills have lost their gleam, you can polish them up at the Cream City Collectives with Free School classes in anything from container gardening to American Sign Language (732 E. Clarke St.).
The East Side, particularly Brady Street, Brewer's Hill, and the area around the UW-Milwaukee campus, are progressive districts where nobody'll hardly bat an eyelash if you kiss your girl over brunch. Plentiful independent coffee shops, art-house movie theaters, galleries, boutiques, bookstores, and parks make these areas fantastic places to while away a weekend. Try all seven Oaxacan moles at gay-owned Cempazuchi (1205 E. Brady St.), make a pilgrimage to the aptly-named Landmark Lanes to bowl a game or two (2220 N. Farwell Ave.), and work on your tan at Bradford Beach (2400 N. Lincoln Memorial Dr.). If you have some coin to spend, you can take in the view of downtown while savoring a locally sourced meal at Roots (1818 N. Hubbard St., Brewer's Hill). (If you're broke, you can get basically the same view for the price of a steep climb up onto the old reservoir in Kilbourn Park.) A drink at Hybrid (707 E. Brady St.), one of the few gay bars not located in the Walker's Point bar district, is a nice way to start an afternoon stroll down Brady Street, an 8-block stretch of stores and restaurants in what used to be the city's hippie hangout.
Bay View is a hip neighborhood on the lakeshore south of downtown. Quiet but vibrant, Bay View is also known as "Gay View" for the many LGBT folks who are raising families there. Walking down Bay View's main drag, Kinnickinnic Ave. ("KK" to the locals), will give you a chance to update your rockabilly wardrobe at the Tip Top Atomic Shop (2343 S. KK) or peruse the vinyl at Rushmor Records (2635 S. KK). I also recommend indulging in local coffee at Hi-Fi (2640 S. KK) and scrumptious from-scratch food at Honeypie Cafe (2643 S. KK) or a crazy-good pizza from lesbian-owned Classic Slice (2797 S. KK). In the summers, you can hit the farmers market in South Shore Park (Saturday mornings, 2900 S. Shore Dr.) or listen to local bands in the great out-of-doors at Chill on the Hill (Tuesday nights, Humboldt Park, 3000 S. Howell Ave.).
Walker's Point is the center of LGBT nightlife. Radiating out from the intersection of 2nd St. and National Ave., you'll find the majority of the city's gay, lesbian, and mixed bars. Some closer to the harbor can be a little hard to find without a native guide, so ask for directions before setting out. Walker's Point has some tasty Mexican and other Latin American food options, including taco trucks for the bargain-minded, and there are some excellent places for brunch, including Zak's (brunch every day, 231 S. 2nd) and Noble (brunch Mondays only, 704 S. 2nd St.).
Milwaukeeans drink a lot and our lesbians are no exception. Although just about every Milwaukee LGBT bar will happily welcome all four letters of our alphabet, here are four bars that are lesbian-focused, in descending order of lesbi-osity:
Walker's Pint, aka "The Pint"
818 S. 2nd St. (Walker's Point)
This is the lesbian epicenter of Milwaukee's bar universe. You don't have to be a tank-topped dyke to get in, but it will help you feel most at home. After enjoying some pool, darts, or local music, commemorate your visit by buying a t-shirt featuring the Pint's slogan, "Lock up your daughters."
4107 W. Lisbon Ave. (Washington Park)
A new place off the tourist's beaten track, LickaDSplitz has an R&B and hip hop vibe, with DJs on Friday and Saturday nights.
The Nut Hut
1500 W. Scott St. (west of Walker's Point)
A Milwaukee institution, this homey Near South Side bar kinda feels like having a lesbian affair in your grandparents' 1970s rec room. In a good way.
Mona's Out 'N About
1407 S. 1st St. (Walker's Point)
A good-sized dance floor, friendly bartenders and clientele, plus a kitchen that offers more than bar food, make Mona's a must. All genders welcome. Check the schedule for line dancing nights, if you're into that sort of thing.
Other bars for your queer-beer and dancing enjoyment
LaCage (Walker's Point)
801 S. 2nd St.
With multiple bars and dance floors, LaCage is the grande dame of Milwaukee's gay dance clubs. It's boy-heavy, but welcoming, and it's a must-go because your mother will be disappointed if you don't bring home a photo of you dirty dancing in the big metal cage suspended from the ceiling.
Wherehouse/Hot Water (Walker's Point warehouse district)
818 S. Water St.
Two hot clubs in one hard-to-find building. Check the online schedule for the LGBT-focused events, Salsa Saturdays, and lesbian line dancing. Sequins seem to be mandatory for salsa, but even if you left yours at home there is no better way to place to see the pretty ladies on a Saturday night.
722 E. Burleigh St. (Riverwest)
A fantastic gay-owned Riverwest bar, featuring local art and generous drink specials, plus live music and poetry on its tiny stage. The owner likes collaborative art projects, too, so you'll probably find yourself making one of those crayon hand-turkeys out of a paper plate at some point. You have been warned.
Places to Avoid
If you're a self-respecting lady-lover: the heterobnoxious Water Street bar scene, at the north end of downtown.
If you want to hold hands with your wife in the park: pretty much the whole conservative far south and far southwest sides of the city. I'd say north of Greenfield Avenue is usually pretty good. (Speaking of Greenfield Ave., the gay-owned Ca–averal at 2501 W. Greenfield Ave. has some of the best Mexican food in the city.)
Also, don't wander around alone after closing time in the Walker's Point gay bar district. Like any gay-centric area full of people who have had a few drinks, it has been the site of occasional gay-bashings. (My mom made me add that.)
The Nights Out
Even though we have a lot of queer bars in Milwaukee, we like to spread the love around, so here are a few other opportunities you shouldn't miss:
Guerrilla Grrrl Bar
One Friday night each month
When the Guerrilla Gay Bar scene got a little too boy-centric, the grrrls at Sapphic Adventures Milwaukee formed this straight-bar-takeover alternative with a focus on women having fun. There is also an after-party at a genuine LGBT bar. (Milwaukee is a big-little town, so it wouldn't hurt to let Sapphic Adventures know you want to be looped into whatever is happening with an email to [email protected])
Ladies' Night Out
First Friday of each month
For the 40+ set, a very happening get-together at Hot Water (818 S. Water St.) featuring drinks and dancing that still gets everybody back home to bed by 11 p.m. Recent LNO's have drawn 125 women who "still love to party but don't want to wait until 10 to get started."
Keep It Dirty
Monthly kinky-queer dance parties at the Milwaukee Public House in Riverwest. Suggested dress is "devastatingly, haphazardly, and genderfuckingly glamorous." The $10 suggested entrance fee goes to trans/queer charity.
Out to Brunch
First Sunday of every month
OK, not technically a "night out" but if after that night out you still haven't had your fill of Milwaukee lesbians, you can get some more here. Generally at the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center (252 E. Highland Ave.) but location can vary.
Milwaukee is the City of Festivals and we mean it. When the 75-acre Henry Maier Festival Park is not occupied by Summerfest, the world's biggest music festival, it's home to festivals celebrating world cultures. In early June, the grounds host Pridefest, which runs Friday afternoon through Sunday night. With fireworks, a giant dance tent, and national acts like Joan Jett, Kathy Griffin, and Margaret Cho, Milwaukee's Pride is kind of a big deal, attracting up to 30,000 attendees. There are celebrations of history, educational events, a mass commitment ceremony, and a kids' area, too, so it's fun for the whole family.
The Milwaukee Pride Parade takes place on the Sunday of Pridefest but is run by a separate organization. The route winds through the Walker's Point bar district and many bars make space available on their sidewalks and patios for patrons to view the show.
Milwaukee LGBT Community Center
The Milwaukee LGBT Community Center has been providing social, educational, and health services to the LGBT community since 1997. Located downtown (252 E. Highland Ave.), the center offers an art gallery, a lending library, a computer lab, and meeting space. The center maintains a list of LGBT-friendly doctors, lawyers, therapists, and other professional services, and occasionally hosts some of those services on site. The city's main safe-space program for queer youth, Project Q, is housed here, too, providing youth ages 12 through 24 with mentoring, friendship, and life skills education.
Outwords Books, Gifts, and Coffee
2710 N. Murray Ave. (UWM area)
Outwords is Milwaukee's LGBT bookstore. This little gem has something for everyone and is the city's main outlet for rainbow-bedazzled pride gear.
Milwaukee is a major city so we do have major league teams, but wouldn't you rather get sweaty yourself? Yes? Well, you have lots of options. Here are a few of my favorites:
Check out the Southeastern Wisconsin scenery indoors and out with a hike, a dance club outing, or a camping trip with the girls.
Pedal Pusher Society
Billing itself as "Milwaukee's premier women and trans bike gang," the Pedal Pushers take rides around Milwaukee that often involve ice cream, tater tots, and, you guessed it, beer. Even if you don't want to ride with them, you can still check out their legendary "Eye of the Tiger" promotional video.
Nobody else will tell you that the "B" in our gay softball league's acronym originally stood for "Beer," but it did indeed. Welcome to Milwaukee. Watch a game or hone your skills at one of their clinics.
Milwaukee Gay Sports Network
You sporty girls can find info on everything from bowling tournaments that benefit AIDS research to queer volleyball and soccer at this federated site.
Milwaukee Gay Arts Center
703 S. 2nd St. (Walker's Point)
The MGAC houses a combination art gallery and theater space, with art shows changing every six weeks and several theater productions each year.
The Tool Shed
2427 N. Murray Ave. (East Side)
Woman-owned Tool Shed is a sex toy boutique that offers a comprehensive range of products, plus sex-ed workshops you didn't get in school. Queer- and trans-friendly and fiercely feminist.
The city's premier drag troupe, featuring kings, queens, and everything in between, generally performs at the Miramar Theater on the East Side.
Brew City Bombshells
Milwaukee's own burlesque troupe, putting the tassels back into performance art.
Brew City Bruisers
Our four-team roller derby league competes with teams from all over the country, with support from their pom squad, the Beer Leaders. (I know, beer again. Ha.)
Millions for Music
WMSE radio DJ Susan Million has the skinny on underground concerts and local appearances by up-and-coming female bands. She hosts a concert series at Live Artists Studio (228 S. 1st St., #302, in Walker's Point).
I'm a happily married woman so my recent knowledge of the lesbian dating scene is completely second-hand. If I were looking for a date, I would scroll back up to the many fine events mentioned in this travel guide and get myself to as many of them as possible. I also would buy a tank top and a big belt buckle and go to The Pint. If those strategies don't work out, here are a couple of suggestions from a single friend who is a devoted resident of the aforementioned queer-happy Riverwest:
"Dating scene? Um, there are lots of queer people getting involved in gardening, but this time it's not the stereotypical gay men growing flowers, but women growing food more and more permaqueers (permaculture queers) in this city. And, of course, there are lots of lesbians with dogs and many of them walk their dogs down by the Milwaukee River. At some times of the day or year, it's a scene down there."
It really must be something in the water. But she's right about the river paths. There is gorgeous walking down there in Milwaukee's hidden "Central Park" for you and your bandana-wearing golden retriever (easiest entrances at Gordon, Kern, Riverside, and Caesar's parks). You and some lucky woman might just get your leashes all tangled up just like in "101 Dalmatians."
Our family policy situation in Wisconsin is a mix of good and not-so-good. Wisconsin banned discrimination against gays and lesbians way back in 1982 and now offers a state registry giving domestic partners rights such as inheritance and hospital visitation. On the other hand, we have a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Milwaukee City and County governments and the Milwaukee Public Schools offer domestic partner benefits to their employees and many local companies do, too. Second-partner adoption of children is not technically available, but an accommodating judge has been known to make that happen for LGBT families.
My wife and I have raised five kids in Milwaukee. With great parks, beaches, libraries, museums, and festivals, the kids will never be bored. The queer-friendly neighborhoods I've mentioned in this article are also kid-friendly. The public schools have a nondiscrimination policy and generally strive to treat same-sex parents well, including using non-gender-specific forms so you don't have that awkward moment of crossing out the "Student's Father" line on the enrollment form. Sometimes it's the little things.
Milwaukee is a college town, with UW-Milwaukee's campus anchoring the East Side and Marquette University and Alverno College to the west and southwest, respectively. UWM is a pretty gay-friendly place, with an LGBT Resource Center for students, a much-anticipated Annual Drag Show, and an exceptional LGBT Film Festival. Marquette is a Jesuit university and has the same struggles most Catholic organizations do. While their Gay-Straight Alliance has blossomed in recent years, Marquette was also in the national news recently when the president suddenly withdrew a job offer from a lesbian dean candidate after key donors learned who she was. At the other end of the Catholic education spectrum is Alverno, a mostly all-women's college run by nuns. Alverno has a stellar reputation for its education and health programs, an active GSA, and even a nascent drag show.
Other Support Services
SAGE Milwaukee (older adults)
Diverse & Resilient (health & safety)
Lesbian Alliance of Metro Milwaukee (social & support)
Galano Club (addiction)
Wisconsin Rainbow Families (family)
BESTD Clinic (health)
Planned Parenthood (health)
Putting the "Gay" in Gemütlichkeit
Back in 2001, Girlfriends Magazine dubbed Milwaukee the "#1 City for Lesbians." We weren't sure why we were so special then, but we're feeling really good about ourselves right about now.
I'll admit, Milwaukee isn't the most LGBT-friendly city in the country, but it isn't the least either. We are politically, socially, and geographically in the middle of the nation. That said, Milwaukee is a fantastic place to be a lesbian. We have all of the big-city amenities with few of the hassles. We're making progress in getting our relationships recognized by the state. We have all the social opportunities a queer girl could want, whether that particular girl wants to square dance or cage dance, become a roller derby queen or a drag king, camp out in the woods or camp it up at Pridefest. We've got a freshwater ocean and beaches and those dog paths by the river. We've got the Harley Museum and the Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum. And we've got all this spectacular beer and cheese that we should probably share. You should come by so we can show you how good and gay this gemütlichkeit thing can truly be.