Gay Firsts

Scott Seyforth provides highlights from the first year of the Madison Alliance for Homosexual Equality as the organization celebrates the 40th anniversary of the birth of gay liberation in Wisconsin.

During the fall of 1969, several men gathered at the St. Francis House (the Episcopal student center on University Avenue) to form what would become the first gay liberation organization in Wisconsin: the Madison Alliance for Homosexual Equality (MAHE). Like so many of the gay liberation groups formed around the country in the wake of the Stonewall Rebellion that summer, the creation of MAHE (alternatively pronounced “May” or “May-he”) marked a major change, as gay men and lesbians would begin to demand their rights more vocally and assertively than ever before.

A Shift Toward Integration
During the 1960s, most gays and lesbians in Madison lived two lives—one private, gay life, and one public life, “passing” as straight because of the severe hostility and stigma that was then associated with homosexuality. The Madison gay and lesbian community was largely a series of private social networks, with mixing between homosexual undergraduate and graduate students, Madison professionals and working-class people, with little town/gown split. But by the late 1960s, perhaps related to the larger youth culture’s quest for authenticity, younger gays and lesbians in Madison began a shift toward integrating their private and public lives and became more open about their homosexuality.

The First Meeting
When a card announcing the first open meeting of homosexuals in Wisconsin was posted on a bulletin board in the Memorial Union in late October 1969, a small group of students (and a few community members) answered the invitation. The experience of Jim Yeadon, an early member of the group, is typical of many going to their first meeting at St. Francis House. “The first time I went there, I had to circle around the building three times before I could get up the nerve to go in,” says Yeadon. “I looked in the basement window, and I saw some people down there, and they didn’t really look that scary to me, so I figured it was okay to go in.”

Jess Anderson, who attended the first meeting, remembers there being a group of about 12 at the first gathering, which appears to have occurred on November 5, 1969. “People went around and gave their names (and most did feel like saying their name) and what their connection to the community was,” remembers Anderson. “Most were from the University, but some people from town were there. As we went around and did that, people seemed to loosen up a little bit with each other. People seemed to think, ‘Well, this is going to be okay.’” Over the next few months, the group continued to meet weekly on Wednesday nights in the basement of St. Francis House, providing an opportunity to socialize, receive support, and “raise consciousness.”

Attendance at the group was almost exclusively male during the first year, with only a few women attending the meetings. “I don’t think they really felt comfortable,” Jim Yeadon says of women attending the group. Yeadon adds, “I think they felt it was more of a men’s group than a women’s group.” One of the regular women attendees was Pam Green, who would become one of the spokespersons for the group. “I stayed because a lot of the people involved were enjoyable to be around. I tended to see myself as unique, and therefore valuable, rather than alone and unsupported.” Green says of the first meetings, “These were more social life than actual meetings. We still had a number of people who weren’t real keen on going public.”

Greater Organization and Visibility
Originally calling itself the Student Homophyle League, by January 1970 the group changed its name to the Madison Alliance for Homosexual Equality. As they continued, members began to be more “out” in the Madison community, creating a statement of goals, and taking on a more educational and political agenda. MAHE would go on to achieve many firsts in Wisconsin, including the first appearance of openly gay individuals on television and radio, the first gay dance, and the first public gay protest.

MAHE on TV
MAHE appeared on WHA-TV on February 12, 1970, in the first television appearance by openly gay people in Wisconsin. MAHE was to be the focus of the half-hour WHA-TV nightly news program SIX-30 News that night. Three days before the MAHE program was to air, SIX-30 News caused a sensation when Alderman Paul Soglin announced on the program that he was considering a campaign to recall William Dyke from the office of Madison Mayor. Because of the amount of media coverage following Soglin’s announcement, WHA-TV cut the MAHE program from thirty minutes to three. “The TV station figured the episode with Mayor William Dyke stirred enough controversy without having us on the air,” a MAHE member is quoted as saying in The Daily Cardinal.

Call-in Radio Appearance
The first appearance of openly gay individuals on the radio was scheduled to occur on March 3, 1970, when members of MAHE were asked to appear on WKOW’s popular Night-Line program with Ira Fistel, between 10 p.m. and midnight. But WKOW management canceled the appearance on the day of the event because of what it termed “the group’s highly controversial nature.” After some lobbying from MAHE, WKOW rescheduled the show for March 25, but requested that it not be publicized anywhere except The Daily Cardinal, and that MAHE representatives go on at midnight instead of the regular time of 10 p.m. to “avoid the possibility of children hearing the discussion.” Four MAHE members did go on the program that night, discussing homosexuality and then taking questions from callers. Pam Green, one of the guests that night, says, “It was a fairly cordial affair.” Green remembers getting the closing word on the program, encouraging others to “Come out, ye gifted kings and queens,” quoting a line from the Bob Dylan song I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.

Coming Out Dance
The first gay dance in the state was organized by MAHE on March 13, 1970 in the Top Flight Room of Memorial Union (a small meeting room located on the fourth floor). MAHE member Michael Lutz says that as a gay person at the time, “The only place you could dance, that you could touch and hold somebody else, would be in a private home.” In response to this, recalls Lutz, “MAHE said, ‘This has got to stop.’” MAHE planned what The Daily Cardinal at the time called a “precedent-setting” Coming Out dance. A MAHE member is quoted in the Cardinal as saying the dance was being held to get gay people used to expressing themselves publicly as straight people do. And, when Jess Anderson showed up at the dance, he was delighted to see “a lot of men, and some women, dancing as couples in a public place.” Lutz says there were “many curious straight people who came to gawk, but stayed to dance.” “It was very, very crowded,” remembers Anderson.

Public Protest
MAHE sponsored the first public gay protest in Wisconsin the weekend of May 15, 1970, when members leafleted the opening of the film, The Boys in the Band, playing at The Atwood Cinema (now The Barrymore). The flyer distributed at the protest explains that MAHE objected to the way characters in the film perpetuated gay stereotypes “which have little relevance to the liberated and guiltless feeling prevalent in the contemporary segment of the gay community which matured during the socially turbulent Sixties.” Jess Anderson says this “was the first time that any of us said, ‘I’m going to stand on a public street and it’s going to be obvious that I’m a gay man.’” There were about six MAHE members leafleting, and another group of MAHE members there as “bystanders.” Many moviegoers took the leaflets and looked at them, while others would look at the leaflet and throw it down. Anderson recalls, “[The protest] was a kind of nervy thing to do, because the high school boys were cruising up and down the street in their cars hollering ‘faggot’ as we were handing out our leaflets.” Anderson recalls that the protest created a feeling of solidarity among MAHE members.

The Gay Liberation Front
The group would continue to evolve into a more politically active organization called the Gay Liberation Front, achieving more queer firsts in Madison and in Wisconsin—opening the first Gay Center, offering the first gay hotline, the first class on homosexuality, the first local gay and lesbian speaker panels, the first gay conference held in the state, and more. Gay Liberation became a mass movement because people all across the country started to advocate for themselves where they lived.

Many of the members of our intrepid first local liberation organization continue to live in Madison, including Jess Anderson, Chuck Bauer, Chuck Beckwith, Marty Garment, Michael Lutz, Howard Preizler, Jim Yeadon, and others. On MAHE’s 40th anniversary, let’s give these local gay pioneers their due, recognizing them for their trailblazing, and thanking them for making a better world for all of us.