NEW Pride Alive celebrates role of rural LGBTQ life at fairgrounds | Green Bay Press Gazette
GREEN BAY – It might surprise some to learn that, in decades past, Green Bay’s residents were trailblazers for LGBTQ advocacy.
Residents established the first AIDS care center in Wisconsin in the 1980s and recognized same-sex marriage at one of the community’s churches in 1999, well over a decade before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the legality of same-sex marriage.
Those are among the historically significant events that captured the attention of Deb Anderson, director of archives and area research center at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Anderson has made being an “archivist evangelist” for the region’s LGBTQ community one of her chief professional missions.
“As an archivist, it is my job to build archives that reflect the community or the people,” Anderson said. “And we need to make sure the voice of people who are not usually heard in a broad context are uplifted, too. There are voices here that need to be heard.”
There was the newsletter from Northern Womyn, a lesbian organization in Green Bay established in the 1970s; drag “races” at Baird Creek that held contests to see how quickly folks could transform into their queenly attire; the Bay City Chorus, a gay singing group that distributed educational, social and cultural materials about LGBTQ matters wherever they performed; and the Argonauts of Wisconsin, a Green Bay-based LGBTQ social club that holds the distinction of being the first gay organization in the state.
All that and more will be available for the public to peruse at the 14th annual N.E.W. Pride Alive event taking place on Sept. 23 and 24 at Brown County Fairgrounds in De Pere. A history tent has always been a part of N.E.W. Pride, but the monumental work of UW-Green Bay’s archives department, professors, undergraduate students and the local LGBTQ community has provided this year’s tent a more comprehensive trajectory of the past.
The UW-Green Bay Archives Department formally released the project “Our Voices: LGBTQ+ Stories of Northeastern Wisconsin” in summer 2021 at Green Bay’s Art Garage, but with 30 oral history interviews in the books and 15 more scheduled, archival work is a living and evolving process.
That’s been part of professor Kimberley Reilly’s undertaking since 2017 when she was approached by two undergraduates who craved to learn about the history of their queer elders in the region.
Reilly, who teaches history and women, gender and sexuality studies at UW-Green Bay, first offered an independent study, and after conducting four interviews, realized this project required more mining by completing more oral history interviews, collecting memorabilia and creating the archive.
“It’s not surprising to find LGBTQ in northeast Wisconsin … but it does kind of go under the radar from a straight perspective, from the average Green Bay person’s perspective,” Reilly said. “It’s not necessarily something that’s visible, but if you’re within that community, you definitely know where to go, where to look.”
Reilly and Anderson collaborated with the two seniors to conduct four oral history interviews, with a focus on the experience of coming out as queer. That led to a course being taught in 2018 and again in 2020, with more this semester and beyond.
Learning of the obstacles, Anderson said, helped LGBTQ students gain a better sense of the environments that lent — or more appropriately, did not lend — themselves to a person’s coming out journey.
The validation, Anderson said, went two ways. Elder generations finally have an opportunity to tell their stories, and those younger generations can appreciate the strides taken by their elders.
Both generations can feel less alone in their coming out journeys, she said.
Those interviews offered a clearer look at generational differences, Reilly said. She shared a recent conversation she had with a man who’d came out in the 1970s. It was very important for him to come out to circles of people at a moment in history, after World War II and through the Cold War and AIDS epidemic, when LGBTQ people were not especially tolerated.
“Visibility really means something different when you’ve been living through this era when people are forced to be closeted versus now when it’s certainly not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but you can come out on social media (and) there are resources online that you can use,” Reilly said. “It’s just a different experience. It has a different meaning in people’s lives.”
Why LGBTQ history matters today
Josh Kilgas, president of N.E.W. Pride Alive, struggled with his queer identity while growing up in a small community in northeast Wisconsin, which turned into significant anxiety and depression as an adult.
Before he was president of N.E.W. Pride Alive, he was an attendee. His now-husband had taken him to the event to offer him a more diverse lens into the LGBTQ community.
“I could go to Joannes Park right now and point out the tree that I was sitting underneath as I was processing that Green Bay, the northeast Wisconsin area, had welcoming people,” Kilgas said. “I saw people who were proud of themselves. I realized that if they could be proud, that I could start my journey in that way too.”
Kilgas hears often from LGBTQ people in the area that they need to move to Chicago, the Twin Cities and Milwaukee to get a sense of belonging. He wants to change that narrative by bringing progress close to home. Personal experience and research tell him that belonging to community engenders a sense of mental well-being in its residents.
Rural communities, Anderson said, have LGBTQ stories that deserve to be told. Those stories may have remained in diaries and letters if not for the call from the community to show up and be part of the archival process.
At the Napalese Lounge and Grille in Green Bay, Anderson said she would hold photo ID events on Friday nights in which community members were invited to help identify people in old photos.
One time, someone asked to borrow a photo quickly so they could hold it against a regular at the bar to confirm it was the same person. Another time, someone pointed at their partner and then to the photo, excited to learn their partner was such a young stud.
Then there was the time a woman handed Anderson a box filled with her late girlfriend’s photos, letters and memorabilia, asking the archivist to make sure her story was told.
Being queer in a rural place in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s meant it was harder for people to find role models and outside guidance. Closeted folks feared checking out LGBTQ literature at their local libraries because they worried gossip could spread, Anderson said.
As an archivist, Anderson sees the importance of capturing the perspective of queer people living in more rural environments. Small-town LGBTQ living, she said, is rarely captured in the conversation, but those lives are just as important as those living in New York and San Francisco.
It’s about creating a legacy, from history, that helps young people learn acceptance, tolerance and how to celebrate the range of voices that make a region powerfully itself, Kilgas said.
“There are so many simple things we can do. It’s about being kind and making things less taboo and unknown,” Kilgas said. “We’re people’s neighbors or coworkers. We’re all part of this community. So come celebrate with us.”