How has Jeffrey Dahmer harmed Milwaukee’s gay community? | WUWM 89.7 FM

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Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer has become infamous after human remains were found dismembered and kept in his Milwaukee apartment. He murdered at least 16 people in Milwaukee. Fourteen were people of color and many of them had been part of the city’s gay community.

A Bubbler Talk listener wanted to know how much damage Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes have done to Milwaukee’s gay community. But to understand Dahmer’s impact, we first need to look at what life was like for LGBTQ Milwaukeeans in the 1980s.

“You basically have a community that grew up being told that it really didn’t have the right to exist. You had a community that only really knew each other out of shame, out of feelings of exclusion, out of feeling rejected, ”said Michail Takach, curator of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project.

He describes it as an underground community, where people used nicknames to hide their identities. They met in bars in a dark industrial district surrounded by partially empty factories and warehouses. He says people were quite transient as well.

“You would see someone and they would be there all the time, and then they would just be gone and you really wouldn’t think about it or wonder where they had been,” says Takach.

Credit D Schwamb / Courtesy of Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project

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Courtesy of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project

The entrance to Club 219, where Jeffery Dahmer met some of his possible victims.

In 1987, when Dahmer began preying on the people of Milwaukee, it was the height of the AIDS epidemic. According to the CDC, more than half a million people were living with HIV in 1987 in the United States. Scott Gunkle was a bartender at 219 Club, where Dahmer was a regular customer. Although he had met Dahmer a few times, Gunkle found him unremarkable.

What Gunkle remembers vividly is how AIDS ravaged the community.

“One year, I attended 19 funerals, and it was just devastating. Every two weeks you found someone who died. I was talking to other people who knew certain people and I would say to them, “Where is so and so”, and they would say to me: “Oh, he is deceased” or “Oh, he is sick and he is in a hospice” “, Gunkle remembers.

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Credit Milwaukee Police Department / Wikimedia

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Wikimedia

A passport photo of Jeffrey Dahmer, taken after his capture in 1991.

In 1991, Dahmer was finally arrested after one of his victims managed to escape. As the gruesome reality of his crimes became known, it was truly shocking to the community.

“No one had any suspicion at the time. I mean, it wasn’t like there’s been, you know, this long string of disappearances and people put it back together. There was no suspicion that something like this was happening while this was happening, ”Takach said.

He and Gunkle say that soon after Dahmer’s crimes were exposed, people were nervous about going out.

“There was a buildup of paranoia for a while, but it really didn’t last. I don’t think it lasted more than a few months, to be honest, ”says Gunkle.

And in a strange way, Dahmer’s crimes actually led to systemic changes that aided the LGBTQ community in Milwaukee. Although Takach is careful not to give any credit to Dahmer’s crimes, the nicknames faded in the early 1990s. People were encouraged to openly say who they were, which made them safer.

“Being able to be yourself every day kind of eradicates some of those dangerous situations where people just put themselves in order to be accepted, just to find community and just to find a sense of care and love.” , explains Takach.

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A lengthy interview with Joy Powers of Lake Effect and Michail Takach, Curator of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project, which aired on Lake Effect.

Others, like Gunkle, were drawn to activism. He began to lead awareness training for the Milwaukee Police Department.

“The activists engaged more with the police department, the activists engaged more with the African American community, the communities were willing to reach out,” he says.

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Credit courtesy of Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project

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Milwaukee Pridefest Parade in 1996.

There is no doubt that for some outsiders, Dahmer’s horrific crimes have become the defining symbol of Milwaukee’s gay community. But for the people who created this community, it was just another part of a long history of abuse – and they weren’t going to let these monstrous acts define them.

“The resilience of Milwaukee’s gay and lesbian community cannot be overstated, and Jeffrey Dahmer was just a fly on the windshield,” Takach said.

Milwaukee’s LGBTQ community has come a long way since the 1980s. But that resilience is what brought them here. Not Dahmer.

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