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Michael Doylen, head of the libraries’ archives department.

Claiming the past

MILWAUKEE — Until recently, most of LGBT life was lived in the closets and the shadows — unobserved and undocumented. But the UWM Libraries is on a mission to reclaim the lost decades of Milwaukee’s LGBT history and make them accessible to researchers, as well as the public.

The libraries’ LGBT Collection is a trove of pre- and post-Stonewall publications, documents and memorabilia. It includes autobiographies, novels, personal correspondence, scrapbooks and photo albums, oral histories, organizational records, videotapes and broadcast recordings.

From the lurid covers of 1950s-era lesbian pulp fiction and coded beefcake magazines to the diaries of activists such as former U.S. Army Sgt. Miriam Ben Shalom, the collection tells the story of a thriving subculture and its journey to empowerment.

“This addresses a significant gap in the historical record,” UWM director of libraries Ewa Barczyk told supporters of the collection at a private Nov. 4 thank-you event. “No other cultural institution was actively engaged in documenting this activity. It adds to the richness of our collection.”

Michael Doylen began pro-actively collecting LGBT materials after being named head of the libraries’ archives department in 2003. He said his efforts are an outgrowth of the libraries’ commitment to documenting historically underrepresented populations.

The collection also fits with the libraries’ goal of building bridges between the university and the people of Milwaukee, said Max Yela, who heads the libraries’ special collections. His department is a partner in the effort, which is supported by an endowment created by Joe Pabst through the Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Johnson and Pabst LGBT Humanity Fund.

Items from the LGBT Collection at the UWM Libraries.

The search for Milwaukee’s LGBT history has turned Doylen into a sort of Indiana Jones of the city’s basements and attics, where much of LGBT history lies buried in forgotten boxes. Scoring an acquisition can demand fast action. Responding to a tip from PrideFest staffers, Doylen narrowly saved the entire archives of the Cream City Business Association from the garbage bin.

Most of the collection, however, has come from individuals who recognize they have something of historical importance and are willing to share it. “We wouldn’t have this collection if people weren’t willing to hand over their personal records,” Doylen said.

The collection is gaining national attention. Its digitalized holdings of the publications and broadcasts of the Gay People’s Union, a 1970s UWM student organization, recently received a “highly recommended” rating from the American Libraries Association and the Association of College Research Libraries. The GPU materials are online at digicoll.library.wisc.edu/GPU/.

While much of the collection demonstrates how much things have changed, it’s also a reminder of how much they haven’t. At the Nov. 4 event, Doylen played audio from a 1971 broadcast of GPU’s Gay Perspective, a groundbreaking WZMF radio program. The topic was same-sex marriage, and the program’s host focused on the same arguments for full inclusion that proponents continue making today, nearly four decades later.

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