Jerry Johnson has become a well-known person in Milwaukee and Wisconsin’s GLBT community.
Jerry Johnson began his involvement with the community in the 1970s, working first in the Gay Peoples Union. He became more heavily involved with the Cream City Business Association, being a member from the early 1980’s to its demise in 1989. He served on the CCBA's board of directors for several years, including as the organization’s president for two terms in 1986 and 1987. During this period Jerry graduated from the 1985-1986 class of Future Milwaukee. Jerry was on the grass roots committee that produced the pride parade in 1989.
The Wisconsin Light and partnership with Terry Boughner
On July 3, 1986 Terry Boughner, Ph.D. moved from Pittsburgh, PA to Milwaukee to become Jerry’s significant other. They had corresponded for 18 months after Terry replied to a personal ad Jerry ran in the Advocate magazine, seeking a lifetime significant other. With Terry’s accomplished writing skills, the two men founded the GLBT newspaper, The Wisconsin Light, in November 1987. Terry was the editor and wrote a major portion of The Light. Jerry was the newspaper’s publisher and photographer. The Light survived for eleven years on a shoe-string budget until it was sold to Greg Quindel in 1998. Two years later, Quindel ceased The Light’s publication. Jerry revived The Light briefly in 2001, but with insufficient ad revenue it lasted only six months.
On May 8, 1993 Madison’s Frontiers Gay/Bi Men’s Outreach organization awarded Terry and Jerry the Professional Service Award “for their skillful and resolute efforts to provide the Gay community with a professional and reliable news source focusing on relevant issues for Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals.”
The major highlight of The Light’s years was the “A Decade of Light” tenth anniversary, three-day gala held from November 7 through 9, 1997. On November 9 one hundred attended a $100 a plate sit-down dinner in Milwaukee’s downtown Hilton hotel. Later that evening several hundred attended a celebration/dance in the hotel’s ballroom. Local and national acts from as far away as California and New York entertained. It still ranks as the greatest GLGBT party ever held in Wisconsin. Jerry donated the event’s nearly $10,000 profit to the Cream City Foundation. To commemorate the tenth anniversary The Light published a special 120 page, three section edition which reprised the previous ten years. Tenth anniversary commemorative mugs were also distributed.
In 1991 Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist phoned Jerry and asked him to become a founding member of the city’s Fair Housing and Employment Commission (later called the Equal Rights Commission). Mayor Norquist told Jerry that he wanted a Gay person to serve on the commission. Jerry agreed and served three terms of three years each from 1991-2000.
Jerry was the recipient of at least two notable GLBT community awards. The first was being selected to be a co-grand marshal (along with Ron Geiman) for PrideFest’s 1994 annual parade. The second was PrideFest awarding Jerry a lifetime achievement award on August 8, 1999, acknowledging Jerry’s hundreds of hours of volunteer work for Milwaukee’s GLBT community.
Jerry was a founding member of Milwaukee’s LGBT History Project, Inc. that was founded in 2002. Annually, the History Project has had large displays in a building at PrideFest at the Mayor Henry Maier Festival Park. (Also known as the Summerfest grounds). For six years, Jerry organized, mounted, and displayed thousands of Milwaukee/Wisconsin GLBT items from his vast GLBT collection. In 2006 alone, Jerry exhibited over 2,000 flyers, buttons, programs, posters, photos, t-shirts and other items. The display subject was “GLBT Milwaukee Entertainment” covering the mid-1970’s to 2006.
Late in 2006, Jerry donated his GLBT collection to The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Golda Meir library’s GLBT archive (first making them available to the Milwaukee LGBT History Project for scanning for this web site). This archive, which was founded by the LGBT History Project, is open to the public. Jerry also donated hundreds of Wisconsin print publications to the UWM Library’s special collection department.
From September 2003 to 2006 Jerry was a board member of the Cream City Foundation.
In January 2007, Jerry's long-time partner, Terry Boughner, passed away. But Jerry continues to give of himself. For example, he still participates in planning the annual History display at PrideFest, and continues to collect original Hollywood movie poster one-sheets from films that had GLBT themes and/or characters. The collection of over 500 posters ranks among the two or three best in the United States. Jerry intends to donate this collection to the UWM Special Collections archive at some point.
Early Years, and non-LGBT accomplishments
Jerry moved to Milwaukee from Pewaukee in 1973 in order to live with his significant other, Steven Walther. Jerry and Steve were together for four years until Steve passed away on September 14, 1977 from a brain tumor.
Prior to moving to Milwaukee, Jerry attended Milton College in Milton, WI; served in the Peace Corps in Owo, Nigeria from 1966-1968 and operated/owned the Lake Movie Theatre in Pewaukee from 1969-1974. While there, he won the 1969 “Showmanship” Award from the trade magazine, Box-Office and the “Showman of the Year” Award from the National Association of Theatre Owners of Wisconsin/upper Michigan.
From 1977 to 1983 Jerry worked at Gimbel’s in the purchasing department. In December 1982, he won the department store’s “Merchant of the Month” award.
Jerry bought his long-time residence on North Palmer Street in 1980 in a run-down neighborhood now known as Brewers’ Hill. The asking price was $1,000. Jerry paid $750. The following year on April 26 he founded the Historic Brewers’ Hill Neighborhood Association with the first two meetings held in his home. Soon, thereafter, Jerry signed the papers nominating the residential area to the National Register of Historic Places; thus Brewers’ Hill became Milwaukee’s first residential national historic district. Renovating the house on North Palmer became a long term project that never quite saw completion. The house served as the home of the Wisconsin Light newspaper during most of its run. Unfortunately, there was a devastating fire in the house in 2008, and the house had to be sold.
Johnson disappeared from public view just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. His death still came as a surprise to most in the community, and as a result the memorial service and a tribute at 'This Is It' bar was reportedly sparsley attended. But a fitting tribute was written by Paul Masterson in a Shepherd Express article. That article reads in part:
"Over the nine-year history of the Shepherd Express LGBTQ Progress Award there has been only one presented posthumously, namely to civil rights activist, Wisconsin state legislator Lloyd Barbee. Sadly, there is now a second. Jerry Johnson, one of this year's awardees, passed away just days before the announcement of the 2023 roster of winners and a month before his 80th birthday. Like other recipients, the brief biographical notes included in the Shepherd Express' announcement of its LGBTQ Progress Awards offered bare insight into Johnson's accomplishments and contribution to Milwaukee's social justice history.
"The age of LGBTQ activism in which Johnson made his mark was one in which individuals dedicated themselves to the LGBTQ community regardless of risk to life and limb. Unlike today's leadership generation of presidents and CEO's, in Johnson's era, community service was a way of life compensated mainly by the satisfaction in the impact one had made, however slowly and incrementally, towards the achievement of LGBTQ rights and equality...
The article goes on to relate much of the information largely compiled in this Biography in 2009, regarding Jerry's life and involvement in the LGBT community. The Shepherd Express article's author, Paul Masterson, then shares that he "was fortunate enough to attend a small and informal ceremony during which Johnson's sister Janet spread his ashes on the grounds of that famous house on Brewer's Hill." The article concludes:
"His death on May 25 prompted fellow activist Bill Meunier to write, "Jerry's dedication and integrity marked him as an exceptional human being. As someone once said, 'The best that can be said of us after we die is that we left the place in better shape than it was in when we got here.' That can certainly be said about Jerry Johnson."
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Last updated: July-2023.
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