View the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center web site at this link (will open in a separate browser window).
The Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, as it exists today, was founded in about 1996. Milwaukee's gays and lesbians had tried twice before to put a community center on the city map. In the 1970s the Gay People's Union started a center on Farwell Avenue. In the early 1990s the Cream City Foundation opened the Foundation Community Center in Walker's Point. Both were short-lived. The initial spark for the new LGBT Center was a hefty incentive pledge from a local couple, Erwin Uecker and Ross Walker. Once they got things going, the Center's support base grew to include about 250 members at the time of its grand opening.
Once community support began to increase, several efforts were undertaken to determine what a "community center" should include: what types of facilities, how much space, where the geographical location should be, how to provide on-going funding. It was quickly determined that a physical presence with shared office space, meeting spaces, and resources such as library, were all needed.The first location, chosen after a long search, was selected on North Martin Luther King Drive. The building chosen was under renovation for that use when fire ripped through the building-- this was a real shock to the community, and the search resumed again. Finally another site was found: the first floor of a walk-in warehouse building at 170 S. 2nd St. The grand opening there was held on Tuesday, November 10, 1998.
According to an article at the time in the Shepherd Express, two of the Board Members of the new organization, Denise Cawley and Margot Manassa, had some comments on the initiative:
Cawley stated "A community center makes a big difference in what it's like to live in a city. A lot of good can come from it, not just for our own community but for the larger community to see us as an established group of people who are working on good projects. It can help give us credibility."
"Something I hear over and over from people who are getting involved in the Center is, `When I came out, the only places I learned about were the bars,'" Cawley said. "I ended up going to The Station a lot. It wasn't a bad experience--I met lots of wonderful ladies who wanted to take me under their wing--but I didn't want that to be all there was. And I didn't know how to find anything else.
To Margot Manassa, Denise's partner, making connections in a new place is an important role for the new LGBT Center. "Maybe we should put together a `Welcome to Our Community' packet and do a gay Welcome Wagon," she said.
Manassa is pleased that the first group launched by the Center is the Rainbow Families group, for lesbian and gay parents and those interested in becoming parents. She also wants to see the Center do outreach to minorities within the LGBT community: Hispanics, blacks, Asians, gay and lesbian parents. "I hope the Center will be used by all the smaller communities within the gay community," Cawley said. "We really want the LGBT community to come in and take ownership and say, `Here's what we want the Center to be.' The board of directors isn't going to mandate what will be offered. We want all the groups throughout the community to come in and make this their home. That's how this Center will grow and be strong and last for years and years."
What kind of message will the Center's presence send to Milwaukee at large? "Some people will see it as promoting the `gay and lesbian agenda' to convert straight people," Manassa said. "And some will see it as the continued subversion of `Christian American values.' And some will probably see it as a positive, liberalizing force for acceptance."
Over the next several years, the Center struggled at this location. They were partially hemmed in by the limiations of the building layout, and the failure of the landlord to follow-through with promises to make the entrance handicap-friendly. Parking was also a problem at times, with only limited street parking available. In 2002, the decision was made to search for a new location.
The new location was to be the old home of the ARCW: the building at 600 Court Street. Initially taking over just the main floor, the Center consisted of a reception area, more office space for an expanding staff, library, an internet access room with computers, and various meeting rooms, plus rooms in the rear of the space to sublet private offices to other organizations. As demand for these space grew, plus receipt of a grant to create additional "Project Q" space for youth programs, the Center also began leasing the upper floor, which it sublet to other groups (such as Cream City Foundation and GALANO). The Center provides incubator space for 13 other organizations, hosting about 5,000 visitors annually.
Mid-2004 saw a change in leadership: after some 5 years at the helm of the Community Center, Executive Director Neil Albrecht handed over the reins, going on to new ventures. During those first 5 years, the Center experienced tremendous growth and success, going from no staff and budget of $40,000, to 12 staff and an annual budget of $700,000.
The new Executive Director, James Pennington, picked up where Neil left off, and continued a new chapter of the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center.
Last updated: June-2006.