February 20, 2024 | Diane Gregory

Bill Wardlow: celebrating the power of community

It's not easy growing up gay in a small town. Here's the story of how Bill became the role model he needed when he was younger.

Bill Wardlow was born September 12, 1963, in Waterloo. Iowa.  As a child, he always thought the ABBA song Waterloo was about his town!

He was the youngest of eight children and grew up in a small home at the end of a country road. Bill was quiet as a child and kept to himself a lot of the time. His mother was his first best friend. He attended Columbus Catholic High School and briefly attended the University of Northern Iowa.

Bill always knew he was different. During freshman year in high school, he caught himself staring at a handsome older student in study hall. That is when he fearfully mouthed the words "I'm gay." That was the beginning of a long realization.

Back in the early eighties, there were no positive gay role models to aspire to. At the time, the only known gay television character was Billy Crystal on SOAP. The character later transitioned to transgender -- and Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority had the show removed from television for good. Bill did not like Three's Company. where Jack would have to pretend he's gay because he lives with two women. He did not like the way the character switched to a complete stereotype.

In 1977, Bill remembers Anita Bryant getting "pied" while visiting his home state of Iowa. He was aware of names like Harvey Milk and Jerry Falwell. Being in Catholic school made being gay even harder to deal with.

One year later, he ventured out to The Dutch Mill. This was the very place Bill's father would take him as a child and treat him to pinball and Orange Crush while his father caught up with his buddies. Now, it had become more of a gay bar. The Dutch Mill had such a variety of people. That's where the white gays went. That is where the black gays went. Black lesbians, white lesbians, trans, bi, farmers, police officers, drag queens, nurses, doctors, janitors, retail...it was all over the board, but it was a joyous time.

Bill played on Waterloo’s first gay softball team called the Waterloo Rough Riders. The Rough Riders only played one official game, but that too was an amazing experience. Bill remembers the pride parade in Dubuque Iowa in the mid-eighties where the marchers wore hoods over their heads for fear of being recognized by neighbors or co-workers. He also remembers that people lined the streets and threw eggs at the marchers while police stood and did nothing.

In 1983, Bill's boyfriend dragged him to the 1983 Chicago Pride Parade. That weekend changed his life. He finally knew how it felt to not fear being himself. They walked in the parade that day -- and that is when Bill realized he could not stay in Waterloo.

Making an entrance

Bill moved to Milwaukee in October 1984. He modeled and served at various restaurants across the city. His favorite was at Scenic Rail Dining, a dinner train service to Horicon.

"It was the first job I had where the gay people were the majority,” said Bill. “The freedom at that early age was an amazing thing. Back then, most people did not have that opportunity.”

While downtown on his own for the first time, he walked into the old Mint Bar (422 W. State St.) by accident. He found a gay guide on the cigarette machine which better helped him to understand the Milwaukee gay scene.

Ironically, the Mint Bar was evicted by the Bradley Center project after 37 years in business and moved to 819 S 2nd st property as the "Mint Bar II.” Today, Fluid operates out at that address. "The first gay bar that I walked into in Milwaukee shared the same space as the bar I own.”

Bill learned about "GRID" (AIDS) in 1983. His friend Carl had been ill after moving back from Los Angeles, and in 1987, Bill returned to the hospital where Carl was to pay a visit. This was the same hospital Bill worked at while in high school.

“When the nurse walked into the room, and saw me there with no protective gear, she gave me a look of disgust,” said Bill. “I’ll never forget that look for the rest of my life. That was a terrible time in history.”

Bill started working part-time at the Triangle for owner Al Thomas in March 1990. "To this day, he is the best boss I've ever had,” said Bill. As he proved himself, and quickly built a following, he was scheduled on busier nights. He remembers all the great times there.

"I had the most wonderful time at the Triangle. It was before cell phones...you met strangers and struck up conversations. I'm glad I was able to experience that."

Bill played on the bar's softball team, but his real passion was tennis. One of his childhood role models was Martina Navratilova. She was an openly lesbian left-handed tennis champion. Self-taught, he found his first tennis partner Tim Carpenter and later Gary Ozuna. Gary and Bill organized and founded Milwaukee's gay tennis league in 1991. It started with nine players, some of whom didn't know how to keep score. year after year it grew and grew. It is still going strong and that is one of the things Bill is most proud of.

Bill's drag persona "Wilma Fingerdoo" was born around Halloween 1991. Wilma performed at a lot of fundraisers for the Holiday Invitational Tournament et al. Wilma even has one title. "American Drag Idol" 2003. Club 219, the premier place to watch a drag show, hosted a fundraiser.

"I have performed on the same stage as some marvelously talented performers -- and I had fun every minute of it."

In 1998, Bill opened Fluid with a business partner. The bar had been many gay and gay-friendly landmarks over 75 years, including Friendly Bar, the Decision, Hideaway, The Hustler, Mint Bar II, and Zippers but none have lasted as long as Fluid. After five years, the business partners parted ways and Bill has been the sole owner since 2003.

His growing friendship with Bet-Z Boenning, the owner of Walker’s Pint, made him decide to rebrand his bar from an exclusive men's bar to an all-inclusive one.

"Why would I deny decent people entry just because they aren't a gay man?"

Bill would like to remind the younger generation that "there are still Anita Bryants out there, so we need to embrace each other and our allies. Set an example, be a mentor, and don't take anything for granted."

We are honored to have Bill Wardlow as one of our Community Advisors for the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project.

Bill Wardlow

The concept for this web site was envisioned by Don Schwamb in 2003. Over the next 15 years, he was the sole researcher, programmer and primary contributor.

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The concept for this web site was envisioned by Don Schwamb in 2003, and over the next 15 years, he was the sole researcher, programmer and primary contributor, bearing all costs for hosting the web site personally.