History of Gay and Lesbian Life in Wisconsin - People - Bios

Joe Brehm


September 22, 1942
April 3, 2016
Primary Involvements:

Bar manager/ owner, Milwaukee
Community Activist





Joseph Thomas Brehm ("Joe" to everyone) was the owner and manager of This Is It bar for almost his entire life. The bar was opened by his mother June Brehm in 1968, who owned it and maintained a presence for most of her life. While not opened as a "gay bar", the bar was friendly to all customers, and became a mecca for gay men when another nearby gay bar closed.

Over the years, Joe kept the bar exciting, and maintained a loyal following of old-timers as well as always attracting new blood. For most of the bar's life known as an LGBT bar, the bar continued to be busy on evenings when other bars' business lagged, in part because it was the only gay bar in the immediate downtown area (and thus easy for visitors staying in downtown hotels to get to) but also because of Joe's presence and warmth with all his customers. Joe recognized the the LGBT community was his main source of business, but he always kept an open door and welcomed the community at large, which made his bar popular to the general business community in the surrounding area as well.

Joe was also very community aware and a true activist. He was close friends with Terry Boughner and Jerry Johnson when they produced the Wisconsin Light newspaper, helping them computerize and use new technnology for typesetting, layout, email, etc. Joe was also often the first in line to support community causes, hosting fundraising events for the Cream City Foundation, AIDS, and other worthy causes.

Joe's mother, June, passed away early in 2010, after which Joe controlled ownership of the bar. He continued to maintain a daily presence in managing the bar, and could be found in the bar early each day- until a diagnosis of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease, began to restrict his mobility.

Late in 2015, Joe's health went into decline. In mid-March 2016, Joe received a letter from U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin recognizing his and his mother's vision and dedication. Then, March 31, 2016 was proclaimed "Joe Brehm Day" by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Joe passed away peacefully late in the afternoon on Sunday, April 3, 2016. He was survived by his wife of 47 years, Karen, daughters Jessica and Sarah, two grandchildren, one sister, and other family. A Celebration of Life was held at 'This Is It' bar on Sunday, April 10, and hundreds of customers, plus friends and family, attended to share memories of Joe.

LGBT historian Michail Takach wrote a summary of Joe's life for the Facebook group in 2022, on what would have been Joe's 80th birthday. That summary follows...

    September 22, 1942: Joe Brehm (1942-2016) is born in Battle Creek, Michigan. Later, his parents Joseph Sr. and June (1917-2010) relocated the family to Milwaukee.

    In the 1960s, Joe entered military service while his mother June entered the bar/restaurant business. By 1968, she owned a successful place in Butler, Wisconsin, but she wanted something a little more edgy.

    In summer 1968, June and business partner Michael Latona decide to open a new kind of bar in downtown Milwaukee. June had acquired a large group of gay friends, and after seeing what they considered "choice" nightspots, she decided she had to do something. "These places, they would take me, I just couldn't even believe them," June said in an October 2008 interview. ""I decided I was going to find these guys somewhere better to go, even if I had to open the place myself. And that's exactly how it happened. We looked at a bunch of places, and at the end of the day, we got here. I said, This Is It, we're not going anywhere else."

    Latona was not quite so sure that welcoming gay men was a good idea -- which led to a long-running battle with June, who firmly believed all customers should be treated the same, but her "boys" deserved even better because of how the outside world treated them. "I do remember one person, a gay friend, saying 'June, are you sure you want to do this? You're going to get yourself in trouble, and for what?' And I said, because I know it needs to be done, and if that gets me in trouble, then so be it," said June. "Let them come for me." As far as we know, nobody ever came for June.

    'This Is It' was already open and serving customers when the Stonewall Uprising began -- yet another example of how gay liberation came to Milwaukee much earlier than most nearby cities. June and co-owner Latona parted ways in 1970 -- and June kept the bar.

    Joe worked at the bar here and there, but he never intended to be part of the tavern business. He and his wife Karen were living out of state in 1981, when June called asking for help. Her bar manager was leaving and she couldn't do it on her own. He returned as part-time manager, but eventually became full-time manager and part-owner when June suffered a stroke later that year.

    Joe kept 'This is It' open during some of the community's most challenging times. Even when money was extremely tight, he was both a community activist and a charitable supporter of local causes. He made sure to always give back to the city that had given so much to his family. Along the way, he built out an incredible reputation for hospitality, an extremely loyal customer base, and bar traditions that spanned decades.

    "My father worked very hard to keep the bar open," said daughter Jessica Brehm in a 2021 interview. "There were a few times money was tight, and he almost didn't make it. I'm proud of how hard my dad worked to keep it going."

    For the next 29 years, he managed most of the day-to-day operations, while June managed the back-office duties. Sadly, June passed away in January 2010 at age 92. Joe continued to manage the bar, with increasing support from George Schneider as his ALS condition worsened.

    To recognize Joe's lifetime achievements, Mayor Tom Barrett announced March 31, 2016 to be "Joe Brehm Day" throughout the city of Milwaukee.

    Joe passed away on April 3, 2016. A celebration of life was hosted by This is It a week later, but truth be told, the celebration of Joe Brehm's rich, colorful and generous life has never really ended.

    Today, 'This is It' is the oldest gay bar in Wisconsin -- and, at age 54, one of the top 10 oldest gay bars in the entire country. It is a testament to Milwaukee's pivotal role in the advancement of LGBTQ culture and community.

    And it's not just a historic space frozen in time: it's a thriving, dynamic, energetic, diverse venue open to all.

    None of this would have been possible without the lifetime commitment of Joe Brehm. If he hadn't accepted this family obligation in 1981, This is It would be just a faded memory.


Recollections: The following are recollections of others who have been kind enough to submit their personal memories to the webmaster. You are welcome to do the same!

      I go wayyyyyyyyyyy back.......and Joe gave me more musical advice and help than anyone I know. Every CD I ever recorded was on that jukebox. Music knowledge supreme, and a contribution to the community way beyond just owning a bar. No modern internet machine could ever replace the music that he had on that "box," and June would have had our Easter eggs today. Thanks, Joe.
                                      -- Jerry G.

      I went in for a drink once and he took my picture and put it on this endless loop on a TV in the corner. I wasnt a regular...wasnt a cute young guy to draw people in. He is just a gracious Owner who appreciates every customer. Practically unheard of today. Well deserved honors.
                                      -- Steven S.

      Though he would never have thought he deserved this kind of recognition, his mother of course not him though cause he is just being himself. There lies the absolute reason Joe Brehm deserves this and so much more because it was always about others. I'm proud to consider you a friend and wonderful human being. Love ya Joe Brehm.
                                      -- Steph H.

Mayor's Proclamation of Joe Brehm Day
March 31, 2016
Joe's wife accepts Mayor's Proclamation
U.S. Senator Baldwin Letter
March 2016
MKE OnLine article, 2006


Joe Brehm, May 2004
(photo by Don Schwamb)

Joe cutting a surprise birthday cake
(Wis Light vol 9-20, Sept. 1996)

Farewell article
(Quest vol 23-05, May 2016)

Photos from Joe Brehm Memorial
(Quest vol 23-05/aka/Out Bound vol. 15-05,
May 2016)

Biographical panel (PDF) created for
PrideFest 2016 History Exhibit

Credits: Web site concept, design, and contents by Don Schwamb;
Original content and photos of Joe by Don Schwamb;
Longer biography by Michail Takach;
Last updated: March-2024.

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