1971 television footage of African American lesbians applying for marriage license
Last week I interviewed Donna Burkett, an African American butch lesbian who spent her lifetime working in factories because she refused to wear a skirt. We can be proud of Donna for taking a stand against sexism in the workplace but the fact is she was not a political animal. She had marched in some of Milwaukee’s 1960s protests against racial segregation in housing, but only as a participant, never an organizer.
That she and her then-partner Manonia Evans launched a public campaign to win the right to marry in 1971 shows that it was not only seasoned activists who dared to take bold steps to demand, in the words of Burkett, that lesbians have their civil rights too. Sometimes it was everyday people with minimal political experience who stood in the spotlight and declared: We demand our dignity.
In the marriage bureau license office footage above you can see standing with them Father Joseph Feldhausen ordained as Archbishop Gregory of the Ukranian Orthodox diocese in March of 1968 and leader of Milwaukee’s gay church. Of the three, he was the most directly engaged with gay liberation politics, and the most politically experienced.
Interestingly, both Feldhausen and Manonia Evans no longer identify as gay. Other than a brief moment in the mid-1990s when her 1971 marriage action was celebrated by the local gay community, Donna Burkett has since lived a quiet life in Milwaukee.