Dan Fons is a former Milwaukee activist and (with Michael Lisowski) former co-producer / co-host of "The Queer Program", a live cable access LGBT program in Milwaukee. Dan Fons and his younger brother Christopher Fons were key members of ACT UP Milwaukee and Queer Nation, two groups known for their aggressive, confrontational styles of gay and AIDS advocacy. (Christopher succumbed to AIDS in 1995.)
In 2023, LGBTQ historian and author Michail Takach interviewed Fons to create this biography:
Dan Fons grew up in Cudahy, Wisconsin, across the street from St. Francis High School. In his own words, he "compartmentalized" his sexual identity until age 19, despite obvious signs that he was gay. "I didn't grow up thinking 'I'm gay and I have to navigate this somehow," said Dan. "It wasn't like that. One day, I was having lunch when it hit me: if this is how I feel about people, then I'm probably gay. If it sounds like a duck, and looks like a duck, it's probably a duck. That's how it happened for me."
Dan's brother, Christopher Fons, came out around the same time. Christopher, a 15-year-old freshman at Marquette University High School, was out bowling with friends when he shared his news.
"This was 1983. There was no internet, there were no TV shows. And I'm thinking, how do I find out what this is all about? How do I find out where gay people are? So I went to the UWM Library. I remember this nerve-wracking moment, when I was in the 'gay' section of the library, afraid someone would see me and wonder why I was hanging out there. But I did check out some books, and I learned a lot. The library was the only place we had back then."
One night, Dan's sister asked him if he wanted to go out dancing at Club 219. He jumped at the chance. "She didn't know I was trying to find out where gay people were," said Dan. "This was entirely by chance. We went out that night, and I realized where everyone was, and where everything was. The gay bars were really a whole new world. Coming out was such a big deal back then, because Milwaukee had dozens and dozens of gay bars, so many more than any other city. I just kept finding out about new ones all over the city. This was so much to navigate." Dan remembers hearing people making fun of Park Avenue being a "gay bar," so he decided to check it out on Easter Sunday. On Sunday nights, the straight club claimed to be "closed" while hosting a legendary gay night. "After all the family stuff, I was out the door!" he laughed.
He considered C'est La Vie his favorite bar. Dan has nothing but warm memories of owner John Clayton, bartender Jamie Taylor, and the whole experience. "Dive bars are fun," said Dan. "And C'est La Vie had cheap drinks and fun people. It was such a good mix of younger people, older people, cute bartenders, pinball machines, pool tables…. Just a really fun place to go hang out."
Dan remembers the first time he heard about AIDS. He was having lunch at the UWM Gasthaus and reading the Crazy Shepherd. "There was a piece by someone with AIDS," said Dan, "and the author was asking why people were laughing at AIDS jokes while his body was slowly dying every day. I'd seen AIDS mentioned in the news. When I came out in Milwaukee, AIDS was something happening on the coasts, and I was aware of it happening out there. Nobody knew about HIV at the time. AIDS was just this thing that was somehow killing everyone that seemed to be sexually transmitted. Even the concept of safer sex didn't exist yet. I don't even remember people really talking about AIDS. It was just this great unknown, hanging in the air, over all of us, but it hadn't really landed yet. And, until that day, it hadn't really hit me what AIDS really meant."
"I gave up drinking in 1989," said Dan, "and I was in a totally different state of mind afterwards. My brother co-founded ACT UP Milwaukee that year, and he inspired me to get involved. He made it so easy to get involved. I joined a protest against a doctor who claimed that AIDS had become aerosolized. As more and more protests were scheduled, I showed up for them over and over."
"I'm very proud of that part of my life," said Dan. "But I also have mixed feelings about it. It was a very busy time where I was putting all of my abilities to work and really firing on all cylinders with my activism. But everyone in our group who had HIV still died. We didn't save anybody's life in our group. So I don't feel victorious or good about that." "I think we did some important things to raise attention and change conversations," said Dan. "One of the most valuable things we did was expose discrimination in dental care. The Milwaukee AIDS Project had hundreds of clients, but only two or three dentists who would agree to see patients with HIV. Dentists were badly undereducated, irrationally afraid, and/or not using the right precautions and protocols. They didn't know they would be safe."
"So we surveyed dentists by phone, claiming to be patients with HIV who needed dental care, and about 1/3 of them immediately said no, we will not accept patients with HIV, now or ever. I made most of those calls myself. People would say ridiculous things, like we can't do that because we have plants in the office, or we see children here, or other fearful, ignorant things. They thought they could just make the question, and the people needing care, go away by saying no." "We released this survey data to the press," said Dan. "And we met with the Wisconsin Dental Association to demand change. Doug Nelson was able to get a lot of press out of that. We released a list of recommended dentists, so people had places to go where their provider would be friendly to them, or at least not hostile to them. And I think it made a real difference in dental care for people with HIV. After that, there were many, many more willing to see patients -- or at least, they realized they had to by law. This was a situation where we really changed people's worlds."
ACT UP and Queer Nation confronted homophobia wherever they saw it.
"We also passed out safer sex pamphlets and condoms for several years," said Dan. "The fact is, kids do have sex and the best thing to do is to give them safety information. So, we'd pass out condoms in front of high school proms and other events. It brought a lot of attention to the risk that youth was exposed to."
"That's sometimes how activism works. It's a lighting moment in history where everything comes together, and people are angry and organize enough to come together, and everything goes BOOM. But all such movements wane after a while. In our case, many people died – while others moved on to other things. And if new people don't rise up, step in and replace the people who have been doing it for years, the energy fades and the movement dissipates. It's the unfortunate truth about activism." "There is still a need for people to get angry and confront injustice," said Dan. "But it was especially needed then. It was just such a bad situation."
Dan launched the "Brand New Queer Program" with Michael Lisowski in 1992 on MATA Cable. "The show allowed me to raise my voice," said Dan. "It allowed us to be seen live, at prime time, every Tuesday night in people's living rooms. And it gave people a place to go to learn about issues facing the community. The show was a genius idea. MATA had this great studio, where you could go in, organize your set, push some buttons, and broadcast a whole show just by sitting there. You didn't need technical or camera training. After the first year, we changed the name to 'The Queer Program.'"
"We really pushed the limits with that show," said Dan. "We covered police entrapment in public parks, we challenged closeted politicians who were voting against the community, we took calls live on the air and used them as teaching moments. We did a lot of things that got a lot of attention. In the beginning, it was really the Wild Wild West -- you could say anything you wanted in these broadcasts – even swear words. We could broadcast film, TV and music clips that we didn't have permission to use. MATA was very supportive of our First Amendment rights, but things really tightened up over time."
As a market monopoly, Milwaukee's cable operator was impacted by a federal anti-trust ruling that required public access broadcasting. The Queer Program, an unexpected outcome of the ruling, ran 25 years until the facility closed in November 2017. Dan still has copies of the 200 episodes he hosted.
"Looking back, I was just living through it while it was happening," said Dan. "People were getting sick and disappearing quickly and frequently. That was terrible. And we were just doing what we could. When life is unjust, and your experience and skills can make a difference, you have to speak up and get active. It serves so many purposes. It might help other people. It might change the situation. It might inspire others to act themselves. But it's also good for the individual to give voice to their anger, their fear, their thoughts, and to get together with like-minded people and take action on it."
"These experiences really changed how I view life," said Dan. "I really came to understand how short life is, and how lucky I am to still be alive. I think that's something I learned earlier in life than most people do. If you don't go through something like this, you don't place such a high value on every day life. This taught me the remedy of life, the value of each moment, and to live each day that way."
"But it wasn't good. It wasn't fun. I'm not glad that it happened. I'll never be happy we all had to go through it." What advice does Dan have for the activists of today and tomorrow?
"The last year should wake up anyone who thinks our rights are secure," said Dan. "If you look at history, gay life was flourishing in the 1920s and 1930s in Germany. All it took was one unexpected government to seize power, pass some laws, and suddenly everything changed. That's what happened then, that's what can happen now."
"I'm especially struck by the similarities between 1992 and now. Back then, we were talking about Senator Jesse Helms. He proposed this amendment that would remove all federal funding from any school that talked about homosexuality, even schools that referred a suicidal gay student for support or counseling. That sounds exactly like what's going on right now. Exactly. Like nothing has changed in 30 years. We thought we beat Jesse Helms. And now the exact same things are moving towards legislation today. They've expanded their focus to target trans people, but don't think for a moment that we're not at risk too."
"The fight never ends. It's continuous. There are things about human nature that make us vulnerable, and we should never be complacent. You might not want to be an activist. But you should be active. Be loud. Be visible. Be ready for the fight."
After 27 years in San Francisco, Dan reflects on how much his hometown has changed over the years.
"It's so different from the 80s and 90s," he said. "Queer Nation used to host events at Southridge Mall where we'd walk around holding hands and being seen. Just to show that we were there, and that we could express ourselves, and that we weren't afraid. At the time, this was an extremely unusual thing to see OR do. A few years ago, I went back to Southridge and saw a huge ad in front of Kay Jewelers featuring a lesbian couple buying wedding rings together." "That's quite a change from the Milwaukee where we expected someone would beat us up for holding hands in the mall."
In October 1996, Dan Fons was interviewed by 'In Step' writer Jamakaya. That article reads as follows:
"Queer Program" Co-Host and Veteran Activist Dan Fons Moves to San Francisco
Milwaukee- Dan Fons, one of Milwaukee's most visible gay activists for the past seven years as a leader of Queer Nation and co-host of the public access cable show "The Queer Program," moved to San Francisco in late September. In Step interviewed Fons just a few days before he left town, asking him about his many activities and accomplishments here as well as his future plans.
"Let me just answer the three questions everybody's asking me right off the bat," Fons said when contacted by ln Step. "No, I don't have a job there. No, I don't really have a place to live, and no, I'm not moving because of a man."
After a few chuckles, Fans described his motivation.
"I've always lived in Milwaukee. I was born here, was raised mostly in Cudahy and have spent most of my adult years in the city. But I don't really want to spend my whole life in Milwaukee," said the 33-year-old Fons. "I stayed here the last few years and helped my brother through his illness. I'm not in a relationship right now and it seemed like a good time to start my life anew."
Fons referred to his younger brother Christopher, an outspoken AIDS activist who succumbed to the disease in 1995. The Fons brothers were key members of ACT UP Milwaukee and Queer Nation, two groups known for their aggressive, confrontational styles of gay and AIDS advocacy.
"I can't be the only 'Big Fag' in Milwaukee anymore," Fons said. "In San Francisco, I'll be just one of many people. I'm sort of curious to see how that will affect me and my attitudes and involvement."
Fons says he is most proud of his work with ACT UP and Queer Nation, "working with my brother and others in this city, demonstrating how simple it is to get our issues into the mainstream press."
FONS' RAP SHEET
During his years of activism, Fons was arrested six times: for handing out condoms to prom-goers at his alma mater, Marquette High School; in Madison for protesting the State Department of Corrections' neglect of prisoners with HIV/AIDS; in Kenosha at the opening of a Cracker Barrel restaurant; in Atlanta at an AIDS protest outside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; at a speech given by President Bush's Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan at Bruce Hall; and, perhaps most notably, when he interrupted Mayor John Norquist's 1992 "State of the City" speech just days after Norquist had vetoed city funds for the Gay Pride Festival.
Fons recalls: "Norquist was standing in front of all these people making a speech, saying how Milwaukee is such an `inclusive' community. He mentioned race and ethnicity and then sexual orientation. This was just days after he vetoed funds for the Pride celebration! I walked right in front of the podium and yelled, 'How can you talk about sexual orientation?' considering how he her abandoned our community."
Fons was arrested, along with his co-conspirator Patrick Flaherty (who was apprehended before he could heckle), and they spent several hours in a holding cell. The charges were dropped when the city attorney didn't show up in court. (All other charges were eventually dropped as well.)
"Norquist has really gotten a free ride from the gay and lesbian groups in this city," Fons says. "They've repeatedly endorsed him and worked for his campaign and gotten nothing in return. He actually stabbed us in the back."
Fons then expressed his views about the inadequacies of Milwaukee's gay organizations. "I think all the gay political groups here are way too timid and afaid to take on any one issue and really follow through. And I say this having watched their development and activities for years. I have never seen the Lambda Rights Network [now defunct], the Human Rights League or the Lesbian Alliance identify any one issue and really demand action."
"Simply judging the politicians at election time and encouraging the queer community to vote Democratic is not a useful function and doesn't justify their yearlong existence," Fons asserted. "Politicians respond to real hard pressure, to threats- not to coffee klatches."
Fons says that one thing ACT UP and Queer Nation have proved over the years is how easy it is to raise issues and get publicity. "It doesn't take a big organization, hundreds of members and a huge bank account to get attention. Anyone can do it."
"Look at the recent demo against Sen. Kohl. [Wisconsin's Democratic Senator voted in support of the Defense of Marriage Act.] Me and Patrick Flaheny spent $10 and maybe an hour sending out press releases. More than 25 people showed up at the Reuss Plaza. It was covered by all the TV stations, and the Shepherd Express followed up with a cover story about Kohl."
Fons says he sees the protest against Kohl and the subsequent media coverage about Kohl's sexual orientation as a "turning point" in the local debate about "outing" public officials. It's an issue he's been pushing for the past four years on the weekly "Queer Program" along with co-host Michael Lisowski. They have routinely mentioned the names of politicians who are perceived to be gay as a "public service" to viewers, reporting on their election victories or defeats and how they have voted on issues of concern to the gay community.
"I've always held that identifying a person as gay is not slander or 'mudslinging.' However determined some of these people are to stay in the closet, our community has a right to know whether they are representing our interests."
Over the years, Fons and Lisowski conducted dozens of interviews with movers and shakers in the gay community, courted controversy on many gay and lesbian issues and fielded hundreds of phone calls from "Queer Program" viewers.
Fons says he's most gratifled with his TV work when he receives notes, like the one he got recently, from a longtime viewer who said the program has helped him deal with his sexuality and made it easier to come out. "To know that we've been there for people and helped them out, that feels pretty good."
Although Fons is best known as a front line gay activist and TV host, he's also won kudos for his professional worklife.
"Dan Fons is an outstanding individual, one of the hardest workers I've ever seen and one of the best federal grant writers I've ever met," says Doug Nelson of the AIDS Resource Center of wisconsin. "Dan is almost singlehandedly responsible for securing millions of dollars for AIDS programs and services in Wlsconsin. His moving is a big loss to us but a huge gain for whoever is lucky enough to hire him."
While Fons has often been a thorn in the side to politicians Like Mayor Norquist and to leaders of more "establishment" oriented gay groups, several leaders agreed with Doug Nelson's assessment that "the integrity of his advocacy has never been compromised" and that his leaving is a "big loss" to Milwaukee's gay and lesbian community. "If anything, I hope my leaving will encourage others to come forward and organize," Fons said. "There is still so much to be done."
Dan Fons is living in the San Francisco area, working as a senior administrative assistant and case worker at a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that uses the tools of law and policy to advance health equity. "I decided to have a life where work is secondary to the other things I like to do," he said. "I don't know what I'll do next, but I’m very happy right now." Fons previously worked as a grant writer, legal associate in a consumer law practice, and a staff attorney at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
Credits: 2023 interview by Michail Takach.
Web site concept by Don Schwamb.
Last updated: November-2023.
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