As a bouncer, bartender, bar owner/ businesswoman and community advocate since 1971, Sharon Dixon has made significant contributions to Milwaukee's LGBTQ history. At one point or another, she has been involved with almost every women's bar in town. She laid the foundation for three of the city's most beloved and longest-running lesbian bars (Sugar Shack, Fannies and Kathy's Nut Hut), nearly bought a fourth one, almost sold her building for a fifth and still serves the community today at Studio 200, yet another LGBT bar in the 'Fannies' building.
In 2017, Sharon gave a rare interview to LGBT historian Michail Takach. According to Michail, "Sharon doesn't usually do interviews, so I was very honored to speak with her this week about the upcoming Remember When party, her life experiences and the future of LGBTQ Milwaukee." This page is largely based on that interview. His article for "OnMilwaukee.com" is available to view in its entirety here.
In the first part of the article based on that interview, Sharon discusses her early life:
Sharon's story began in a border town on the Wisconsin-Michigan border, where she played in the tunnel system between its sordid saloons as a child and baked Cornish pasties before school as a teenager. After losing her father and her uncle, Sharon decided at age 14 to run away.
Sharon bought a bus ticket to Duluth, got off in Ashland and then hitchhiked all the way down to Milwaukee. When she arrived, she found it nearly impossible to secure a steady job or apartment as a 14-year-old runaway. Like most homeless LGBTQ youth, she took safe shelter wherever she could find it.
Eventually, Sharon found a live-in nanny job through the Milwaukee Sentinel. She was hired and moved to Lake Drive for the next two years. At age 16, she moved into the Abbott Crest Hotel (1226 W. Wisconsin Ave.) and worked third shift at Della's Drive-In restaurant on the hotel's ground floor. After a run-in with the police on a bogus marijuana charge, Sharon saw an ad to "Travel the USA – No Money Needed!" She was hired, and for the next several years, she traveled the country in a Volkswagen van, eventually seeing all 48 continental United States.
While traveling, Sharon became increasingly aware of her sexual identity. As a self-described "good little small-town Catholic girl," she half-expected she'd grow up to become a mom like everyone else. At the same time, she half-expected that she was a lesbian. She just wasn't sure.
One fateful night in New Orleans, her boss's wife dragged her out on the town. Sharon was surprised when the night ended at a gay bar. "I was still in my old fuddy-duddy mindset at the time," said Sharon, "and it took me awhile to realize what was going on. It was very clearly what would be called a 'dyke bar.' I couldn't tell the difference between the men and women. I kept looking at the bartender, and only when they took their coat off, did I realize she was a woman. She was that masculine. Then, I looked around and realized that all of the kissing couples were women. I went and found my boss's wife, who said 'It's about time you come out of your closet. You're gay. You're a lesbian. You're a dyke. You can't tell me you haven't thought of women."
Sharon finally came out six months later in Seattle – thanks to a drag queen's advice.
"I was a petite little thing with long hair and 'girly girl' clothing, and I couldn't understand why none of the women would talk to me," said Sharon. "I was talking to a drag queen and she said, 'Girl, if you want to be a lesbian, you have to decide first of all if you're going to be a she or a he, and then you have to figure out what you like.' I said, 'what do you mean? I'm a woman.' I just didn't get it." That night, I proceeded to get very drunk, and went back to the hotel, where I attacked my head with a pair of scissors. I woke up the next morning yelling at the mirror, and the whole hotel heard me screaming. I refused to leave the room until a woman from the hair salon came up to fix my haircut.
"The first time I went back to a gay bar, all the girls were suddenly interested in me. I learned that I had to look butch to get a femme girl. I wasn't crazy about it, but it worked!"
In the next part of the article based on that interview, Sharon discusses her career in the LGBT bar business:
Sharon returned to Milwaukee in the early 1970s and worked as a third-shift switchboard operator at the Belmont Hotel. "It was an interesting place to work, for many reasons," said Sharon. "I can't even talk about some of the things that went on at that hotel."
Sharon started hanging out at the River Queen (402 N. Water St.,) a gay bar opened by Al Barry in 1971. As a self-described "brick shithouse," she took a job as a bouncer and started connecting with local nightlife leaders.
"Gay bars in the 1970s didn't have huge windows or well-lit signs," Sharon explained. "But they sure did have great drink specials. You could get 10-cent beer taps on Sundays, and the bar would just be packed. I met so many, many people. It was like my life really began over again. I knew all the owners and managers very well, as well as all of the regular customers. I saw Liberace, Milton Berle and other visiting celebrities in that bar.
The River Queen had some built-in protection from the police. I can still remember the time a police officer was in the bar drinking, when the message 'afterhours party at 402 N. Water' came over his radio. All of the cops who just got off shift were heading down to meet him. Those parties were absolutely wild."
When she wasn't working, Sharon was partying at The Factory disco (158 N. Broadway). Sharon was friends with the bar's owner, Chuck Ciccirello, as well as Tiny, its famous bouncer.
"The Factory was mostly a guy's bar, but I didn't care. I hung out mostly with the guys. They always teased me, 'if you ever need any help at The River Queen, just call or send a runner down here.' I was probably the only female who ever got into the so-called 'Club Health Spa' (225 E. St. Paul Ave.) bathhouse before the police closed it down. For a while, they were more interested in shutting down that place than any of the gay bars."
Women's 'lesbian bars had existed in Milwaukee since the days of the Wildwood (1430 W. Walnut St.), the original Castaways (424 W. McKinley Ave.) and the Nite Beat (901 W. National Ave.). Opened in 1971, the Beer Garden (3743 W. Vliet St.) quickly became Milwaukee's premier women's bar. In 1974, it was joined by The Leaded Shade (157 S. 1st St.), which promised a more upscale experience than earlier venues. The Lost & Found (618 N. 27th St.) opened in 1978 as Milwaukee's first women's disco.
Although there were many women's spaces, none of these were owned or operated exclusively by women for women. They were all owned and operated by straight men and women. Sharon saw more than a business opportunity. She saw a historic chance to create a space for women to go and feel entirely comfortable and understood.
"People thought we were crazy to open a bar for women. But it was a lot harder to open a man's bar, because gay men got more of the heat. Lesbians were just something the cops joked about. We didn't get harassed, raided or beat up the way gay men did.
"I was a bartender at the Leaded Shade for a while, and also worked in the kitchen as a cook," said Sharon. "Because of the kitchen, we could stay open all night as long as the liquor was locked up. That place was a trip. The owners were a straight married couple that later went on to open the Lost & Found. I was actually in the process of buying the Lost & Found property before they were, but we got into a huge fight and I left the discussion."
Instead, Sharon and her partner Joann Kilsdonk opened the Sugar Shack (135 E. National Ave.) in 1975 with the full support of Alderwoman Mary Ann McNulty. The Sugar Shack was the first bar in Milwaukee history owned by lesbians for lesbians. And it was an immediate success.
(The Sugar Shack years (1975-1981) followed, and more information on that bar is available on that page.)
In 1979, Sharon and Joann separated, and Joann kept the Sugar Shack running another two years. Sharon opened a new neighborhood bar, Shorty's Party Room, on 15th and Scott. She wasn't sure what kind of place it would become, but she knew it would become something, because it immediately attracted a loyal following.
After a year, Sharon subleased the business to someone else. Soon after, it became Kathy's Nut Hut (1500 W. Scott,) a popular woman's bar with a 34-year run that ended in 2014.
When Joann sold the Sugar Shack in 1981, Sharon decided it was time to open a new business.
"I told myself, I'm not opening another gay bar until Joann doesn't own one," said Sharon. "I wasn't going to interfere with her business. And I didn't even know if I was opening a gay bar or a straight bar at first. But the girls came in and they decided it for me. They said, we want this to be a woman's bar. We want this to be our bar. They vowed to keep both this bar and the old Sugar Shack (renamed D.K.'s) busy. I said, show me what you want, and they did."
(The Fannies years (1983-2000) followed, and more information on that bar is available on that page.)
Over the years, Sharon has assisted numerous LGBTQ youth in urgent need of care.
"We'd have these underage guys and girls try to get into the bar, and I'd have this motherly instinct to talk to them and try to get them help. There just weren't many places to get help back then. I became like Old Mother Hubbard, even though I wasn't even that old. I'd help them find a safe place to stay, a good place to work and help them find likeminded people their age to hang out with. I knew what that help would mean to them.
"One of these kids was a transgender man who was just starting his transition. He was so smart and so kind, but so worried about what his parents would think. He was even afraid to talk to me about it, but I told him, 'it's not a problem or an illness, you have a right to choose your life and your lifestyle, and nobody can say why you have the feelings you have, but if you're going to be happier as a man, then be happy.' "Today he is a very successful businessman who owns multiple properties. He gets along very well with his parents, and we still talk regularly.
"For years, I also did something fun for women I knew needed a little extra help during the holidays. I would sneak a great big basket of stuff onto their porch, with food, candy and necessities, ring the doorbell and run. They never knew it was me, but I know people really appreciated it."
Longtime employee Mary Connell remembers Sharon keeping a protective, watchful eye over the younger patrons. "Sharon ran a tight ship, but it was also a fair and caring place for any woman to come into," Connell said. "No matter how rough someone's life had been in the past, Sharon would help them get on their feet with a fresh start. I can't even count how many women she's helped over the years."
Fannies continued until 2000. Sharon subleased the bar for a while, then began testing a number of different concepts. Before Out-n-About (1407 S. 1st St.) opened in 2003, the owners considered purchasing Fannies, but declined because it didn't have a full kitchen. Eventually, Sharon opened Studio 200 – and the rest is history.
Finally, Sharon made her observations on the LGBT bar scene and the future:
"Electronic dance music really inspired me," said Sharon. "I discovered how enjoyable it was and I really liked dancing to it. We bring in top DJs from all over the world. Suddenly, we had all these excited and energetic people coming in here, just happy to have another place to go. It just works!
"Everyone has been so respectful, and it just surprises me when they come up to me and say, 'Sharon, thank you for allowing our kind of music to be played here.' I have met some really nice people.
"Every once in a while, my lesbian friends come in and ask how I can play this music, or even call it music. I say they're missing the point, because I want people to have fun, and they're definitely having fun at Studio 200. Like myself, many of these women don't drink anymore. They only go out every six months.
"Women have a habit of finding a significant other that wants to lock them up in the house. They stop going out to the bars alone, and, eventually, they stop going out together. In the end, there just isn't that big of a market for older women once they settle down. I appreciate everyone who supports me, but if I can't pay the bills every month, I can't stay in business."
After 45 years in the bar business, Sharon has seen tremendous change in local LGBTQ community and culture. Living above the bar since 1983, she's also seen the Walker's Point landscape change dramatically, as dozens of historic gay and lesbian landmarks have closed their doors.
What does that feel like for someone who's spent nearly five decades in this business? "Every now and then, I sit around here and visualize Fannies as it used to be. I remember all of the people who used to come here, and how their lives changed over the years. We changed, the bar changed, the city changed and the world changed.
"Do we still need lesbian bars? Yes, but not as much as we used to. We can go anywhere we want nowadays, and we won't get treated like garbage. You don't hear the words 'dyke' or 'faggot' when you walk down the street. Straight bars don't kick people out for looking queer anymore. They don't even mind if same-sex couples hold hands, kiss each other or cuddle in their tavern.
"We've all put in so much time to persuade society that we're just like everyone else. Bars have always been a place to socialize, have a good time, meet new friends and catch up with old friends. A bar is supposed to be a place to feel safe. Nowadays, most of the gay community feels perfectly accepted and safe in any bar. You'd really have to look for trouble to find it. It's almost too safe.
"But are we really safe? I think about that a lot, especially after the elections and recent national conversations. All you need is a president to start a witch hunt and suddenly the clock turns back 50 years.
"As a person who grew up in the gay world the way I did, I would hate to see it go back to the way it was in the 1960s and 1970s. I would hate for people to be put back in the position of being afraid to be themselves. Gay people were considered degenerates, pedophiles, criminals, psychopaths. People used to drive around Walker's Point looking for gay men to beat up. You didn't walk from Pittsburgh Street to National Avenue unless you wanted to get beat up. This was the real world.
"LGBTQ youth doesn't have the slightest clue what that was like. They're not taught their history, and so many don't have an interest in learning it. The focus is on what's happening now, without paying attention to what could happen in the future.
"There's a small percent of me that fears for the gay community. We've been granted great liberties and freedoms, but those things can always be taken away. We shouldn't totally let go of our institutions: bars, community centers, sports leagues, neighborhood associations. "We shouldn't be so quick to give up the things that make us 'us.' Gay and lesbian people have always had such an exciting, colorful and adventurous life. Let's not trade that in just to be like everyone else."
Michail Takach's article about Sharon for "OnMilwaukee.com" is available to view in its entirety here.
Credits: major content from an interview by Michail Takach;
Web site concept, design and layout by Don Schwamb;
Last updated: May-2017.