Donna Utke was a prominent figure in the local Milwaukee feminist and gay/lesbian communities. She was one of five founding members of the Gay Peoples Union (GPU) in 1970 and an active member of Grapevine, the Feminist Writer's Guild, and the Milwaukee chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW). In 1989, she helped found the Lesbian Alliance of Metro Milwaukee (LAMM) and in 1993, Senior Action in a Gay Environment (SAGE).
Professionally, Utke worked for three decades as a librarian in the Milwaukee Public Library System, frequently contributing book reviews for its newsletter. Her life and work was featured in the article 'Librarian Could Speak Volumes About Food' in the March 20, 1991 Milwaukee Journal newspaper.
Her obituary in the May 20, 2001 issue of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel read: "Utke, Donna May 19, 2001. Age 68 years. In loving memory of Donna who made a reality of joie de vivre. Life-long learner, lover of books, librarian and cook extraordinaire, and cat dedicatee. Survived by her life partner Tanya Smith, her sister Diane Thierfelder. Further survived by nieces, nephews, other relatives, and friends. Sharing of memories will be held Monday at 7 PM at Schaff Funeral Home."
(The following is from the article "Librarian Utke was a leader in Milwaukee's lesbian community", by Amy Rabideau Silvers, from the Milwaukee Journal dated Monday, May 21, 2001.)
Donna Utke grew up in Milwaukee. She began studying toward a medical degree but ended up earning master's degrees in English and library science. She began working with the Milwaukee Public Library in 1969, mainly in the science and business section at the central library. Utke also did stints at the Capitol branch, the bookmobile and the local history department.
Friends recalled Utke as soft-spoken but to the point, intellectual but never at the cost of someone else's self-esteem. Throughout her life, Donna Utke shared her quiet intelligence and strength with both Milwaukee library patrons and the local lesbian and gay movement.
Utke was considered a pioneer in the local lesbian and gay movement, including being one of five founding members of the area Gay People's Union. And in the days before the sexual orientation of lesbians and gay men could be made public safely, Utke did what she could to help people find acceptance in the world.
Barbara Lightner became a friend when the two women were graduate students in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Everyone was very, very closeted," Lightner said. "None of us were `out.' It wasn't safe to be `out.' . . . We all thought we were the only ones in the world. Donna was always trying to move us beyond that."
In addition to becoming a founding member of the Gay People's Union, Utke served with the Lesbian Alliance of Metropolitan Milwaukee (LAMM), the Silver Space group for older lesbians, and Seniors Active in a Gay Environment (SAGE).
Eldon Murray, another Gay People's Union founder, remembered how Utke would listen at meetings, then cut right to the point with a solution to whatever the problem was. He also remembered how they teamed up for discussions on local talk radio. They even infiltrated a local religious conference on the subject of homosexuality -- one in which no gays or lesbians were allowed to participate. "We looked for all the world like a couple from the suburbs," Murray said.
Utke, well-versed in theology, stood and refuted Bible references to the alleged evils of homosexuality. Because of people such as Donna Utke, things have changed, Murray said. "Most people sort of understand that gay and lesbian people are not sick or evil or criminal. It's sort of like being left-handed. There are really just different kinds of people. . . . The movement will miss her."
Utke earned a reputation as a committed and quietly effective activist, said Jamakaya, a feminist writer and historian. "You wouldn't know to meet her that she was an activist," she said. "She was very soft-spoken, but she had a very disarming way of getting things done. She was one of our pioneers. She was one who took the next step and acted on what she believed."
"She loved being a librarian. She loved books and learning," said Tanya Smith, her partner since 1980. The couple used the city's registry for same-sex partners when it became available.
"She had taken German classes in the last two or three years," Smith said. "She loved learning and had many, many interests." Those interests included gardening, cooking, baking and even roasting her own coffee beans -- and nurturing friends by sharing all of the above.
Utke died Saturday following surgery for multiple brain aneurysms. After days of severe headaches and a trip to the doctor, friends realized that she was becoming disoriented and took her to Columbia Hospital. Utke was 68. She had retired about three weeks earlier from her job at the downtown library.
Unfortunately, Utke's untimely death exposed a quirk in the City's pension system that deprived her life partner of pension benefits. The controversy was explained in the article "Death Too Soon Costs a Pension" in the Milwaukee Journal on October 23, 2001.)
The UWM Archives holds a collection of papers on Donna Utke. The collection consists mainly of works written or presented by Donna Utke during the 1970s and pertaining to literature, feminism, and the gay and lesbian rights movement. The collection includes book reviews and essays published in both the Milwaukee Public Library System's newsletter, the Milwaukee Reader, and gay and lesbian or feminist publications, such as GPU News, Amazon Quarterly, and Ms. (When writing for gay and lesbian publications, Utke often used the pseudonym "Donna Martin.") The collection also includes presentations given by Utke on local radio programs and at meetings of the Milwaukee Methodist Ministers, the Wisconsin Women's Political Caucus, the Milwaukee chapter of the American Psychiatric Association, and the Midwest Regional Homophile Conference. Utke gave at least one presentation on radio station WRIT; she may have given others on WZMF, which aired weekly gay/lesbian programming in 1971, or WUWM, which continued the program from 1971 to 1972.
Credits: information from articles in Milwaukee Journal_Sentinel, and UWM Archives;
Additional research into Milwaukee Journal articles by Michail Takach;
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Last updated: November-2023.
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