Milwaukee’s drag scene has not only survived, but thrived throughout the city’s history, despite discrimination and a ban on the practice, according to a new book out this month.
About three dozen people came to the Boswell Book Company last week for a talk about the book A History of Milwaukee Drag: Seven Generations of Glamor by Michail Takach and BJ Daniels.
Nestled between a Starbucks and an eyewear store, the bookstore provided a warm and welcoming venue for the conference on a busy Monday evening.
The authors began by acknowledging that the stores were on land that once belonged to the indigenous peoples of Wisconsin, also noting that many indigenous cultures recognize “two-spirited” people.
Daniels introduced us to a time when dressing in drag was banned nationwide, but shows in Milwaukee flourished. Takach talked about some of the various characters who were bold enough to be early drag performers, performers such as Francelis Leon who were celebrated on stage in the 1880s, but not off. They said he was so popular that he had many imitators – so many, in fact, that he added “The Only Leon” to his title.
The Dime Museum era was another interesting period of exploration for the duo. At the end of the 19th century, for the price of a penny, you could see a traveling show. During this time, he would be known as the “Freak Show”. Takach said these shows showcase “genre gaming as entertainment. However, they could not live their life outside of this arena. At the Dimes Museum, the drag act was well paid and protected, Takach said.
The authors took the audience through the highs and lows of drag history, especially as it relates to Milwaukee, WI. I felt like I learned a lot. This literary event takes place on the heels of the Netflix series Dahmer, about the serial killer who literally feasted on gay men in Milwaukee in the early 90s. His victims were mostly black and brown. The show scandalized many but intrigued everyone. Sadly, it feels like this is the only representation of being gay in Milwaukee. Milwaukee Drag: Seven Generations of Glamor is a welcome addition to the narrative.
The book briefly discusses black experiences in the drag and LGBTQ communities. Drag performer Tempest Heat, who is black, is featured in the book. O
“It spent a little bit talking about poc (people of color) in the community, but it didn’t go far enough,” she said. “But it also speaks to the community here in Wisconsin, how it has been and continues to be when it comes to certain aspects…I would like to see this transition in a larger discussion about the Black LGBTQ community because it was separated enough at a point. Sadly, the black clubs are all gone and most of us have found a “group home” at This Is It Downtown (Milwaukee).
Just as there were different characters, there were different locations. The first gay rallies were held at the St. Charles Hotel, which was across from 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 positive note, Takach and Daniels talk about acts we can find locally in Wisconsin and how the art form developed. The book highlights clubs to visit throughout the state.
The authors offered a wealth of insight into how the gay and drag community navigated life and tried to make a living, painting a vibrant community of those who not only fought to survive, but managed to thrive despite everything.
Participant Corey Haywood expressed his appreciation for the book.
“The extended story was not only welcoming to many artists, but necessary. In the 1980s, when I came out, I was underground. Gay people just had to adapt,” he said. Another guest, Lana Holman, added, “I’m Queer and I have Queer kids 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 on Amazon and other booksellers.
. new book relates of a century of history drag Milwaukee