In Wisconsin, a state rich with LGBT history, some communities outside the major hubs of Madison and Milwaukee can fall by the wayside, and in some cases, disappear.
Stephen Weiser, chair of Juneau County Democrats, has lived openly as a gay man for decades. While he notes he never really experienced open prejudice during the five years he’s lived in Juneau County, he has also not seen any sort of organized community for people like him.
“There is a gay community here, but there isn’t an organized or sense of real community here for LGBTQ people,” Weiser said. “There was, for a time, a group called Southwest Pioneers, which was a group for LGBTQ people to come together. That has sort of petered out.”
There is no record of this group online, and that is the only concrete group mentioned in researching this story. This lack of community is something of a culture shock for Weiser, who lived in Chicago for 40 years before moving to Juneau County.
The lack of community doesn’t come from a lack of effort on Weiser’s part; he and his husband, Andrew, were the first gay couple married at the Dells Bells wedding chapel. According to Weiser, they held the ceremony as soon as possible after the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark 2015 Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage in the United States.
Weiser and his husband had a full wedding years before Obergefell, with a full ceremony and reception in front of all of their friends. They decided to keep their legal ceremony small, more of a formality than anything else.
When moving from Chicago, a city with a well-established LGBT community, to an area like Juneau County, Weiser was unfazed. He said that the key for him was to get involved with the community as a whole, and not focus on finding people who shared a similar orientation.
He and his husband host potluck dinners for their friends, gay, straight or anything in between.
“We’ve met a lot of different gay, lesbian and trans people, and we get together with them when we have a potluck, but we invite all of our friends,” Weiser said. “I haven’t had any issues with feeling like I’ve been discriminated against, if people don’t like us they don’t say anything to us.”
The one landmark of LGBT community in the area Weiser could recall is Captain Dix, a resort and restaurant that used to sit next to Chula Vista. However, Captain Dix closed more than three years ago. The closest establishments built to cater to LGBT patrons are all in Madison.
Madison and Milwaukee have long been havens for gay Wisconsinites. In 1982, Republican governor Lee Dreyfus passed Assembly Bill 70, that disallowed discrimination based on sexual orientation.
For US Representative Mark Pocan, while AB70 was a landmark, he still experienced prejudice. When he was running for office decades ago, one incident still stands out in his mind.
“When I was running, someone sent me an article, it was an interview with me and the other candidate,” Pocan said. “They put an ‘X’ through my face and put ‘dead f****t’ on it. Not that that was commonplace, but that was still, unfortunately, the sentiment of some.”
Pocan does not see himself still living in that world of 25 years ago. According to him, if he lives honestly as himself and other LGBT people do the same, others will perceive them as more open and honest in how they conduct themselves.
Growing up in Kenosha and going to school in Madison, Pocan does not have the same level of experience with LGBT life in the area that someone like Stephen Weiser does.
But Pocan looks at the larger picture of the state, hitting on AB70 and Wisconsin’s history of progressivism, and sees progress.
“When you look at Tammy Baldwin, you look at myself, you look at a number of state legislators, we still have a rich tradition that supports equality,” Pocan said.
When thinking about the issues a lack of community in rural areas could present, Pocan looks to his personal experience. In his mind, groups like that will naturally flock to urban centers like Madison and Milwaukee, and his thoughts do have historic precedence. When Pocan was still working in local government, there was a time Dane County had more openly gay legislators than the entire state of California.
“I do think as equality has moved forward across the country, you’ve seen less of the traditional representation,” Pocan said. “You know, there’s a gay bar, here’s a community center. I think you do see less of that these days.”
Pocan and Weiser hit on a similar point. To them, as acceptance and visibility for LGBT people increase across the country, these spaces tend to disappear. Weiser acknowledged that he doesn’t have a sense of community among queer people in the area, but makes up for it with an extensive social network that includes gay people.
This is a popular approach in the area. For Nico Rossetti, it’s been her approach to establishing a social network her whole life.
Rossetti grew up in suburban Phoenix in the early 2000s, an environment that was not one she felt fostered a queer teen coming to terms with her identity. However, she stuck with it and tried to build a network.
“I’m very lucky to have the friends that I’ve had,” Rossetti said. “The ones that don’t like it don’t stick around, which is kind of a relief. I have a lot of friends who haven’t had easy out stories, and I’m lucky to have what I’ve had.”
One of Rossetti’s friends came out as bisexual while still in high school, and was immediately kicked out of her home by her parents. Rossetti counts herself as lucky; both of her parents accepted her for what she is.
Rossetti works as a bartender at Sand Bar in the downtown Dells. For her, she has not experienced much of anything in the way of outright prejudice or hatred in the Dells.
What she does experience daily is people not understanding her. Working in a job that requires constant personal interaction with customers, Rossetti said she fields a range of uncomfortable questions about her identity, from requests for details about sexual encounters to unwelcome propositions.
“I’m more than happy to talk to people and open their minds if it’s possible, but it’s also like ‘have some respect,’” Rossetti said. “We just met. Are you asking me this because you honestly want to know, or do you want to know if you can get into my pants?”
According to Rossetti, these questions have turned into a common refrain in her life. However, she said the more common questions are rooted in lack of knowledge above all else. Many of the people she interacts with simply don’t know any queer people.
She’s used to living her life as a stranger in a strange land; she grew up as a Chicago sports fan in Phoenix.
Rossetti’s effusive personality made it easy to find friends and succeed at bartending in the Dells, but she also notes that there isn’t much of a concrete sense of community among LGBT people in the area.
“It’s just the world we live in now, it’s unfortunate,” Rossetti. “I try to do everything I can, I talk to people, make them more aware. Especially with trans people becoming more relevant in our culture, and people having such a negative reaction to that.”