Gay Media and Media Coverage in the History of the LGBT Community in Wisconsin

A Brief History of Media and Media Coverage in the History of the LGBT Community in Wisconsin

Local LGBT media, especially publications, have been a critical component of Wisconsin's, and most states', move toward wider LGBT rights and self-awareness. While the maiinstream media historically suppressed more positive LGBT news and stressed the shadier side, there were exceptions. But by and large, mainstream newspapers and TV news were not supportive or helpful to the LGBT community, and 'gay bars' could not advertise as such. It was thus difficult for men or women 'coming out' or visiting to find like-minded people.

The first breakthrough was probably in the 1960s, when national "gay guides" began appearing. These small books, usually small enough to fit in a back jeans pocket, began to appear. Arranged by city within state, they listed 'gay' bars and often cruisy areas where guys could often find other gay men.

Dedicated LGBT publications were the biggest advancement. Now there were platforms for LGBT people to both find more locally-relevant news, find gay bars and other gay-friendly businesses (restaurants and later retail), and also to collaborate on ideas and meet others with similar interests. These publications allowed things like softball leagues, choirs, and similar groups to form and continually find new participants. (See the Wisconsin Print Timeline.)

In Wisconsin, the 'GPU News' was the first such publication. Founded in 1971 by the Gay Peoples Union to communicate with its membership, it became nationally recognized for its content.

During the late 1970's, a variety of small local bar guides appeared, often called 'bar rags', which were widely distributed in bars for free. While these continued to come and go into the early 1980s, the early 1980's also welcomed more news-centric publications including fledgling newspapers.

The late 1980s and early 1990s also saw locally based television programs form. Usually facilitated by local cable access laws, programs such as Tri-Cable Tonight and The Queer Program opened up video programming and news to the LGBT community.

The "Golden Age' for Wisconsin LGBT publications was the 1990's. During this decade, long-running publications such as IN Step magazine, Wisconsin Light newspaper, and Quest magazine flourished. They covered the gamut of local bar information, the drag scene, and hard LGBT related news (both local and national).

The 2000's were a period of transition however. The internet had taken things by storm, and more bars turned to free social media postings to communicate with their clientele, often no longer paying for print advertisements. The state's longest-running publications began folding: notably Wisconsin Light in 2002, IN Step in 2003. While a few new publications were founded to fill the gaps caused by those two major failures (largely OutBound, Edge, Queer Life News), long-running publications continued to fail. OutBound ceased publishing in 2011, and in 2018 both Quest and Wisconsin Gazette ceased publishing. Only the Madison-based 'Our Lives' was publishing in 2019 to 2020, and it focused almost entirely on Madison, Dane County, and Central Wisconsin.

This was a serious shortcoming for both the current LGBT community and for future researchers. No longer was there a vehicle for new bars or other LGBT businesses to announce their openings or events. While existing bars maintained some presence on social media (primarily Facebook), this served only their 'friended' clientele; newcomers to the LGBT scene (either coming out or relocating) had no state-wide listing of LGBT businesses to refer to. (And of course internet sites and social media are fleeting; they are not historically available for future researchers of a particular period in time.)

Then the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020 appeared. With many businesses closed or restricted in capacity, and people avoiding going out or traveling, 'Our Lives' advertising revenues dropped severely, and the publication was forced to lay off staff. This might have been the end of Wisconsin's last LGBT publication. However it continued to publish every other month, and began early in 2021 to expand state-wide coverage and distribution. We hope for its continued existence.

What the future holds for Wisconsin LGBT media is up in the air.

Many of the media clips referenced here are available to researchers in the UWM Archives Dept., Milwaukee LGBT History Collection. Reference that web site for more information, hours of access, etc.

Credits: web site concept, design and format by Don Schwamb.
Last updated: June-2022.

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