Josie Carter was an early Milwaukee LGBTQ drag performer and unsung hero for over five decades.
Born as male, Josie always said she was "more of a personality than a performer." She didn't identify with the word transgender, although she (by today's standards) would seem to have lived an almost complete transgender life as a female.
An interview with Josie in the UWM Archives conducted for the Milwaukee Transgender Oral History Project in 2011 starts out with Josie saying: "...I was just starting to go in drag when I was about eighteen, but actually earlier than that, outside bars, you know, at home, and on the street with my friends. Yeah we went out and we just loved fooling people. That's what it was, you know; I'm a girl, playing the game, and the first gay bar I went into, actually, was, at that age, was the White Horse bar; it's called the White Horse. And it was, oh gosh, that time, gay life was like, taboo, period. All the bars was kind of like dark. They didn't put no lights up or nothing like that...".
The interview also reveals just one of Josie's most colorful 'adventures', which was to become a landmark event in Milwaukee LGBT history. (While the transcript of the above interview spells the location as the 'Black Knight', the bar where the incident occurred was actually spelled the 'Black Nite'.) That adventure is detailed by LGBT historian Michail Takach in his article in OnMilwaukee. Highlights from that article:
Contributor Jamie Taylor wrote the following biography of Josie's life experience:
It's Saturday evening in a basement on Milwaukee's north side. It's a small space, but it worked well for those who brought a few bucks, looking for some conversation and nip or two.... or eight. The prices of booze and a few food items are posted on the wall behind a makeshift bar. The sale of the booze is illegal, it's not sanctioned by the State. That doesn't hinder the patrons making the most of what would otherwise be an out-of-reach, expensive "night on the town". It was a place where you felt safe and most important, welcome. (Don't mind the foul-mouthed parrot, that's just it's personality, it's nothing personal. Yes, Josie had a parrot) The flow of cocktails lasted until either the booze ran out, or the morning light seeped through the basement windows and the patrons were petered out. If you needed a place to sleep it off, there was a bedroom down there with a waterbed you could plop your drunk ass into. Fun for a night without breaking the bank. It didn't make the owner of the speakeasy rich by any means. It just kept the place open for business. The time wasn't the 1920's. Oh no. This was the roaring decades of the 1960s, right into the 21st Century. The Matriarch was Josie Carter.
Josie (Joseph) Carter was born with all of the equipment you would expect on a male baby. From all outward appearances, everything was in it's place. Ten toes, ten fingers and of course... well you know the rest. Around the tender age of 5 years old, "Joseph" felt different. Something just wasn't right. The typical trappings of a boy that age, just didn't interest Joseph. No... there was definitely something 'off'.
Just as Joseph started navigating the minefield known as puberty, it happened. He was raped by an older white male. This set the stage for mistrust of men. White men in particular. "Skittish" I suppose would be an accurate emotion for young Joseph. It was around that time though, that Joseph began exploring who he really was. Was I born in the wrong body? Was it the rape? No, it couldn't be the rape, I felt different since the age of 5. Those must have been the thoughts flooding Joseph's mind. Joseph started allowing his mannerisms to reflect who he felt he was inside. His mother 'made no mind of it', perhaps it was just a phase. It didn't matter, she loved her child. In any case, "Josie" was born, right around the age of 15.
"Josie" wouldn't be pushed around. Not if she could help it. If you were aggressive toward her, she put you in your place. She would be the aggressor if she wanted to get close to you. Still, high school couldn't have been easy for a young, black transgender in 1950's Milwaukee. More "forced sex" would be scattered throughout those years. Josie would learn to overcome those experiences and make a life for herself. And she did.
Joseph/Josie did a stint in the Navy as a "Stewards Maid". She saw the world while serving her country. New Zealand, Fiji, Japan, Hawaii... you name it. Being in the Navy made her "feel like a piece of meat". All of those men. "They gonna jump your bones" [laughter]. After an honorable discharge, Josie entered the labor force. She did it on her own terms. Employment was difficult at first. Especially for an effeminate "I will be me" black 'man' in the '60's. She took on whatever jobs would pay the bills. Those menial jobs led to a job as a stamp operator at Capitol Stamping, where eventually, Josie became the foreman. She had that job until she retired.
Her "family" started when Josie slept with a lady friend of German decent. It wasn't planned. It wasn't even a date. It was "just the once to see what it was like". What do mothers & fathers tell their young daughters? "All it takes is just once". So, it is true. Just the once, and Josie became a father. Or mother, depending on how you look at it. Nine months after the encounter, Larry was born. Larry spent the first few years with his biological mother. She wasn't the most responsible gal in the world and certainly wouldn't win any "Mother of the Year" awards. She was into drugs and lived on welfare. Josie had seen enough. When Larry was just over 3 years old, Josie went to court to gain custody of Larry. The judge agreed and awarded full custody to Josie (and Wayne)
Josie met Wayne when she was in her early 20's. Wayne was a bit older and white. Through thick and thin, they stayed together until Wayne became ill. Josie nursed Wayne until his death. During Wayne's illness, Josie had a man "courting" her. Josie never strayed from Wayne. She waited until his death to venture into the dating world again. She remained with 'Joe' (unsure of his name) until Josie died.
We believe Josie stopped doing drag "for shows" in the early 1970s. There's some mention in the Oral History at UWM about how her husband wanted her to stop performing. After that, she continued to appear socially in female identity, but didn't do shows.
Josie has contributed a wealth of recollections and information to fill in gaps and reveal unknown incidents such as the above that we can document on this web site. She has contributed a large number of photos from the early bars which are scattered around on this web site.
Josie was very shy and modest about her contributions. She shunned the spotlight, and resisted the thought of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Black Nite incident in 2011. After her death, she was recognized at PrideFest 2018 for her contributions to the community.
Credits: Web site concept, design and content by Don Schwamb.
Information and photos from UWM Interview, and historian Michail Takach
Last updated: May-2021.
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