Milwaukee’s oldest LGBT bar is turning 50 this week.
This is It on Wells Street is celebrating the occasion by remembering how much has changed for the LGBT community.
“Acceptance [wasn’t] where it is now,” George Schneider, co-owner of This Is It said. “[Gay bars] were the meeting place. They were a place where you could go and be yourself, express who you were.”
Schneider is part of a new ownership group but he credits the success of This is It to the original owner. June Brehm created the bar in 1968 for her gay friends to have a place to call their own.
“She set the tone by saying, this bar is not just a gay bar,” Schneider said. “It’s an all-inclusive bar. So everyone was welcome here. We’re continuing what she started today.”
Schneider ran back and forth through the bar early Friday morning. He’s preparing for the celebrations planned all weekend.
However, he frequently exited the building through a door to the alley. It was a door used more often than the front when the bar opened in 1968.
“People would come through here and walk right to the back door,” Schneider said. “That’s how they would get into the bar. It was illegal to congregate as a homosexual. The bigotry we experience today often lacks the arm of the law behind it. To be seen dancing with another man, two women together, this could not happen. I think the level of fear is something I can’t even relate to.”
Nowadays, no one is afraid of walking through the front door. This is It remains a staple in the Milwaukee LGBT community.
Schneider says it serves as a stepping stone for those struggling with coming out. It also helped him feel more comfortable with himself.
“I had the benefit of being involved at a very young age with Pride Fest,” Schneider said. “That was a major facilitator of coming into my own. But this bar was paramount for me coming into my own as well. My first time walking through the door, I remember walking in and having this strange déjà vu feeling. I remember telling my friend, I feel like I’m meant to be here. Here we are, many years later and I’m an owner of the establishment.”
Schneider says there are lots of stories like his. He says their oldest patron is a 94-year-old man who has told him about what it used to be like. He says now, he’s seen the man sit next to someone in their 50s, who is sitting next to someone who just turned 21. It’s exactly why he wants to keep the bar going.
“I think I play a role as an owner and bartender and so does the rest of the staff,” Schneider said. “We’re connecting older generations, who did have a different experience, with a younger generation. Not only the history of our bar but the history of LGBT culture is preserved.”
This weekend, there are a host of events celebrating the anniversary.
Friday night starting at 6:30, they’ll hold an opening ceremony of sorts with a number of local dignitaries coming to speak, including, Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Mayor Tom Barrett among others.
For more information on events going on this weekend, you can visit the This is It 50th Anniversary Facebook Page.