It’s midnight at LaCage. Artificial smoke clouds the air, heavy beats pulse that air, and a bespectacled 20-something puts on airs as he enthusiastically evaluates the posteriors of passing patrons.
Historically, the gay bar has been a safe haven and gathering place for people to mingle without fear. But in the 1970s, ’80s and even into the ’90s, they existed in shadowy, cloak-and-dagger secretiveness, boarded-up taverns with blacked-out windows and inconspicuous entrances. Today, only one of Milwaukee’s dozen or so gay bars maintains that mystique – the hard-to-find Downtown cocktail lounge This Is It, which has no sign and a doorway in an alley.
The kingpin of Milwaukee’s gay-bar scene, however, is LaCage, which opened on South Second Street in 1984 as a video bar and transformed into a three-level nightclub colossus. The clientele has transformed as well. On any given weekend, co-owners Kris Heindel and Michael Jost estimate the gay-to-straight ratio at 60-40.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” Jost says. “You know, careful what you wish for. The gay community has always wanted acceptance and integration, so it’s a good thing, I guess.” When it’s suggested that Jost doesn’t sound entirely convinced, he quickly says, “No, I do think it’s a good thing. For me, personally, I like the mixture.” Unsurprisingly, there’s embittered wistfulness from a few customers who yearn for the old days. But Heindel and Jost insist (also unsurprisingly) that there is still irreplaceable value in the gay bar, both as a concept and as an establishment.
“It’s still very important,” Jost says, “especially to younger people because you’re uneasy and uncomfortable when you’re in your 20s.”
Aaron Thompson, 24, is one of those young people. He works at The Knick Salon and Spa and says gay bars maintain meaning, but that they’ve “calmed down because of the Internet.” For example, geosocial networking application Grindr allows people to meet and interact from their phones and computers rather than going out to a bar.
And then there’s the popular Milwaukee Guerrilla Gay Bar (MGGB) effort, a social-media driven campaign that, once a month, encourages members of the gay community to take over a straight bar by surprise. “The concept is good because it demonstrates the economic power of our community,” says Shorewest real estate agent and noted LGBT donor Jack Smith, who has supported MGGB. “I’d call it passive activism.”
Outside of the once a month takeover of a straight bar, LaCage and its Walker’s Point neighbors are the gay bar scene. Fluid is next door, and Walker’s Pint (motto: “Lock up your daughters!”) is across the street. Boom is down the block, and several others are in the area. Heindel and Jost say they imagine a day when they can partner with the other bars and businesses on Second Street and create a “gay-borhood” similar to Chicago’s Boystown. Or, even more locally, “the next Brady Street,” Heindel says, “to revitalize an area that is already an entertainment district.”
But they’ll have to contend with Bay View (“you mean Gay View,” as Joe Pabst corrects), which has as fair a claim as any. It’s long been gay-friendly and now has restaurant chain Hamburger Mary’s, an openly LGBT-targeted knickknack-filled purple building with weekly drag shows, to help its case. But no gay bars.
Even Pabst, he of the broaden-your-circle appeal, says there is still a need for them. “It’s that rare opportunity to meet and feel safe. A lot of the LGBT organizations in town bash the gay bars, but I don’t think that’s right because they’re providing a venue for you to be you.”
Diverse and Resilient is one such org that takes issue with the LGBT community’s association with alcohol. Hollander says that, due to unfavorable social conditions resulting from anti-gay discrimination, LGBT people are already more at risk to develop addiction and substance abuse-related disorders. Beyond the adverse health effects of tobacco use and binge drinking, there are auxiliary consequences – partner violence, depression, anxiety and suicide – exacerbated by alcohol. Milwaukee being such a drinking city doesn’t help.