March 04, 2024 | Nicole Kurth

Martha Marvel: a journey to truth

After decades of self-discovery, Martha Marvel discovered love, acceptance, and inspiration.
Martha Marvel

From her earliest memories, Martha Marvel remembers a childhood of "strange feelings" on Milwaukee's South Side. 

Martha grew up with three sisters. She had what she called a “weird obsession” of trying on her sisters’ clothing when no one was around. The clothes fit just fine, but Martha said that the “magical feelings she had - scared the shit out of me.” On TV, Martha saw comedians such as Flip Wilson or Jackie Gleason that were men who dressed as women in comedy routines that people laughed at and made fun of. 

Martha hid deep inside herself. She had no idea if other kids had the same feelings as her. She didn't have words to describe how she felt within.  

Martha described herself in high school as a “super over-achiever” who was, at first, heavily involved in sports. As a freshman, Martha was a halfback. Martha was that person that always pushed herself to be the best. She excelled at football and by her sophomore year, she made varsity. Martha was at the top of her range during her junior year when suddenly a torn muscle injury in her leg ended her football dreams. Martha tried to work through the injury because the coach was convinced she was faking it. 

Later in her junior year, just to stay in shape, Martha was also a member of the wrestling team. When senior year arrived, Martha passed on sports and decided to run for student council where young Martha would become President. Martha would receive the Milwaukee Rotary Club Award for Leadership. To top off her final year of high school she had the role of Captain von Trapp in “The Sound of Music.” 

What her classmates never knew: Martha kept herself super-involved to suppress “those feelings” -- and not have any time for (what believed at the time were) “those sick fetishistic behaviors.”

A spirit for service

From a young age, Martha had felt called to serve and help people. She'd grown up in a strong Catholic family and often thought about becoming a priest. Then she thought maybe she would become a doctor, psychologist, or counselor. She ultimately graduated with a Master Social Work (MSW) degree.

In college, she became very involved in campus ministry, where she had always felt a vocational pull. Martha felt that God gave her talents for a reason, and at the campus ministry she was “an off the charts – super Catholic.” Her thought process was that if she could get involved in the church, it might counter the feelings that she struggled with. In her sophomore year of college, she opened a volunteer operated drop-in coffeehouse which featured live music, hot cider, and homemade cookies every Friday night. Her junior year of college she received a Catholic Student Leadership scholarship and was hired as a volunteer coordinator for the campus ministry. 

Martha still had a nagging call to become a priest, but she stomped it down because she continued to struggle with her feelings. She decided instead to serve the church as a lay person. She applied for and received a Fellowship in Ministry scholarship so that she could attend graduate school in Detroit, Michigan where she added another master’s degree in Religious Studies to her resume. In Detroit, Martha was a member of the campus ministry team. She also served as a resident assistant in one of the residential halls. 

And then, Martha experienced a “lightning rod” moment. A fellow member of the campus ministry staff came out as a lesbian after graduation. The co-worker had always wanted to share with Martha who she was, but she wasn’t sure that a “kid from Wisconsin would be able to handle it.”  

Prior to leaving for Detroit, Martha met the woman who would ultimately become her wife. They became engaged and lived hundreds of miles away from one another while in graduate school before they wed. Martha hoped that a being married would bring happiness and the feelings and desire to wear women’s clothing would all go away.

Exploring the community

As the years passed, the family expanded by four children. Martha would seek out professional counseling and suffer through bouts of depression and mood swings. All the while, Martha’s wife and children never knew of her private struggle. In the mid 80’s Martha did not feel safe going out in Green Bay for fear of being “outed”. So, instead she took an excursion to the north side of Chicago.

Martha parked in a dark parking lot and by flashlight got dressed in the front seat of her car. She was going to a bar she had heard was a trans hangout space. Martha exited her car and walked up to the door of a bar called: Charlie’s Angels. While walking inside, she tripped and went flying. She caught herself – but was deeply embarrassed and darted to take a seat. Taking a glimpse around, she saw no other trans folks in sight. A kind bartender came over to Martha and said: “Honey, it’s okay” and Martha promptly ordered a Manhattan.

As the years passed, more information began to surface about transgender individuals. Usually, this information could be found in the back of adult magazines. It was here that Martha would learn of national “Crossdressers” organizations. In the late 1980s and 1990s, organizations like TRI-ESS – CHI Chapter and The Chicago Gender Society, located in Chicago, Illinois, caught her attention. They had an ad for an event called: “Be All Weekend” where annually they took over a hotel near the O’Hare airport. They also periodically sponsored “Holiday En Femme” weekends that Martha attended. 

Martha decided she wanted to attend. She had never before met or spent time with other trans persons. She was very anxious and nervous. At this time, she was successfully working locally and nationally full-time for a religious organization and her wife still had no clue about Martha’s secret. 

“I signed up for the weekend, but I was scared shitless. walked into the hotel as a man. I remember getting into my room… literally shaking. I changed, put my make-up on and then sat down for an hour and a half – all the while working up the courage to take the elevator to the gathering. I had such a fear of being laughed at. I walked into the ballroom and looked around. Easily, there were 250 trans women chatting and laughing – the energy in the room was unbelievable. Years of self-loathing and confusion melted, and I almost burst into tears. Everyone was so nice and comfortable with who they were.” 

The weekend was rounded out by workshops that covered topics such as: makeup, fashion, deportment, and the full-transition process. It was there that Martha met a woman in her late 70s who dressed all the time because she could easily pass. She was the first trans person from Northeastern Wisconsin that Martha had ever met.

Martha also met a group of Milwaukee trans women at “Be All Weekend." Several met once a month in a church basement on the West Side of Milwaukee. Martha periodically attended these informal social gatherings. These ladies eventually evolved into a more organized group. Martha was present at the initial organizational meeting of what was named the Gemini Gender Society(GGS). The group continues to this day.

Some GGS members met every other Thursday night at Hotel Metro in downtown Milwaukee. They would get a few drinks and then pick a restaurant. Aside from glances, stares, and nods, the group didn’t have any issues. The group befriended cocktail waitresses at Blu at the top of the Pfister Hotel. It became their end of the night go-to spot. 

Martha couldn’t join them all the time because she was still leading a life of secrecy with her family and friends. She only attended the group a few times each year over the years, but just knowing the group existed gave her something to look forward to. It gave her a much-needed space to be herself after stuffing her femininity down inside herself over the years.  She finally had a place to shine. 

Closer to free

Being a workaholic was Martha’s way of running from and not having time for “those feelings”. She always told herself that if Martha became known to others, that the work that was accomplished “would save me from total ridicule and rejection.” She remembers praying to God many times just hoping that “one morning I would wake up and God would take it all away.” In moments of frustration, she would question her creator: “why the hell did you make me this way?” 

Finally, after being married for about 13 years, Martha decided she would use her Halloween costume as a bearded lady to facilitate a conversation with her wife -- who rounded out the couple costume dressed as a guy. After the party was over, Martha and her wife had a heart to heart, and Martha came out as a "cross-dresser."  Martha shared the 1988 Book “Transvestites and Transsexuals – Toward a Theory of Cross Gender Behavior” by Richard F Docter and some articles that went thru all the basic questions: Are you gay? Are you transitioning? 

There were many questions that Martha just didn’t have a clear answer for as she was still figuring it out. It would take a full nine months before they talked about it again.

Finally, Martha worked up the courage to walk into the Napalese Lounge in Green Bay. She remembers sitting close to the door, so she could dash out if a friend, neighbor or co-worker walk in. She was scared but she stayed and had a liberating conversation with a local drag performer who was in male mode.  Martha was told she was safe and if anyone harassed her, there were several people in the bar who would “kick the shit” out of her offender. 

Since Martha’s conversation with her wife, she felt much freer to communicate and always told her wife where she was. Though they talked openly about Martha, her wife preferred not to meet her. Martha got a P.O. Box to correspond with the transgender community, to order clothes, make up, jewelry, etc. For 30 years, Martha kept her clothes and makeup in clever hiding spaces around the house and garage, but after her heart-to-heart conversation, she didn’t have to do that anymore. 

Little by little, Martha became herself over the years. She and her wife are now approaching 50 years of marriage. Fairly recently, Martha’s wife met and has spent time with Martha.  Martha retired from her “professional” career in 2017. She no longer had to fear that she would be fired from her job if she was “outed”.

The power of being seen

On October 7, 2017, Martha invited three other trans women from the Green Bay area to gather every month in “The Back Storage Room” at the Napalese Lounge. This meet and greet social support group became known at the CD/TG 1st Thursday Gathering. Word of the group spread quickly. It has met every first Thursday since then, with an average monthly attendance of 25-30 people.  Over 300 trans adults have joined the group.   

In 2020, Martha was working with a local arts group called United Arts who had received a modest grant to help underrepresented and marginalized artists. Martha proposed recruiting a queer artist to paint a public art mural celebrating the LGBTQ community in NE Wisconsin. Butch, co-owner of the Napalese Lounge, was very supportive of housing the mural. 

Martha became the Mural Project Coordinator. Chue Lor San was chosen as the local artist.  With considerable assistance from a young talented queer community activist, Justis Tenpenny, the duo brought together 24 organizations and over $20,000 for the project, including the installation of the “We Will Be Seen” mural, lighting, plaque, a new front door, the staging of a weekend of Pride activities, and a block party at the mural unveiling which was attended by 600 people.  On August 21, 2021, “We Will be Seen” was unveiled, including the progressive pride flag and images of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Martha MC'd the ribbon-cutting event, which welcomed Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, Mayor Eric Genreich of Green Bay, and other community leaders.  The bar's front door was ceremoniously reopened years after being sealed due to homophobic vandalism and harassment.

Martha recalls fighting back tears -- as she walked through the front door for the first time in decades.

Prior to the mural unveiling, Martha had been working with the trans community trying to not attract a lot of attention and trying to fly under the radar. However, this was a big public event for her. Martha knew that there would be people who knew her as her male self in the crowd. She wondered if they would recognize her. 

The answer came eight weeks later.   A close friend called Martha and said a colleague had reported seeing “Mike in drag” (Martha’s male name) at the Napalese mural unveiling. Initially,“Mike” panicked and denied that there was a “Martha” She felt terrible for lying because this man had been a close friend for over 25 years. 

After languishing for 24 hours, “Mike” called his friend, and over drinks, “Mike” told his friend about “Martha”. The friend listened intently, affirmed Martha and then told her three things: 1. I’m hurt you lied to me. 2. I’m sad you didn’t feel safe to share this with me sooner. 3. I’m going to kill the person who outed you. 

Martha knew the woman who outed her, and she had a conversation with her afterwards. She was apologetic and they moved on from it. The friend has now met and spent time socially with Martha. 

With Martha being outed, she knew it was only a matter of time before her four adult children would hear about it. Since word about Martha was getting out with her wife’s support, she planned to tell their children about Martha in-person. On Friday, November 26, 2022, the day after Thanksgiving, Martha met up with her three daughters, told the story and went through all the questions with them. Her son couldn’t be there, so she told them not to say anything to their brother. 

Martha sat down with her son on Saturday, November 27, 2022. Her son is a former Marine Sargeant, and she was a little nervous. Martha told her son: “I need you to shut  up and just listen. I need to get something out and I need you to listen.”

Martha was watching his face, but he was hard to read. After she finished, her son responded: “Well, fuck dad – I’ve known for 20 years.” Martha was shocked. Her son told how when he was younger, he came upon an unlocked file cabinet drawer and found Martha’s correspondence with other trans folks and other items. He never told a soul -- and he believed Martha would probably die before ever coming out.

Building a community of care

After the Mural Unveiling, ten families with transgender kids and several counselors met at a local church. Eventually, the group organized as the Bay Area Youth Trans Alliance (BATYA.) Dave & Busters was chosen as a neutral site. Trans youth from grades 7-12 began a meet and greet monthly Drop In. Dave and Busters provided a private party room for the gatherings, game cards, pizza, and soda. Sometimes parents would also gather and support one another. The group has grown tremendously, with over 150 young adults participating.  In December 2022 and 2023, the BATYA T-Youth holiday party was generously sponsored by the Green Bay Packers, Titletown District and Hinterland Brewery so that trans kids could have fun together and just be themselves. 

In May 2023, BATYA also sponsored the first area wide LGBTQ+ High School Prom at The Historic Tarlton Theater.  Eighty LGBTQ+ kids attended what will now be an annual event. 

In 2022, Kent Hutchison, local arts activist, asked Martha if she would help him organize a gathering of 40 artists called “Unhinged,” held at the UWGB Weidner Performing Arts Center in Green Bay.  It was a total out-of-the-box experience. 

Martha convened and facilitated a group of trans artists (now known as the Trans Artists Collaborative) that installed and offered The Transperience. The goal is to use immersive innovative art to help people experience what it is like to be transgender. In October 2023, The Transperience was installed at the St. Norbert Mulva Library and in summer 2024,  it will be available to the public for six weeks at the Brown Co. Neville public museum.  

With the continued growth of the CD/TG First Thursday Gatherings, the monthly Youth Drop Ins for Trans Youth coordinated by BATYA, and the growing demand for installations of The Transperience by the Trans Artists Collaborative (TAC), it was time to organize a more permanent overarching organization. On Feb. 27, 2023 Martha organized and convened the first meeting of the Board of Directors for what is now known as the Bay Area Council on Gender Diversity (BACGD). In March,  it was officially recognized as a 501c(30 non-profit corporation. Martha was elected as its first President.  BACGD soon launched its own website (https://www.BACGenderDiversity...) and a monthly newsletter. 

In August 2023, Martha did an interview with NPR’s StoryCorps when they made a stop in Green Bay.   Since Martha’s friend Maggie would be in town, she decided to ask her wife if Maggie could attend a Zoom meeting at their home following the interview. Prior to this meeting, Martha’s wife had never really spent time with Martha and had never met face-to-face with any of Martha’s trans friends. Two days later, while drinking coffee, Martha’s wife responded: “When Maggie comes here, I want to meet her.” Martha almost fell out of her chair. 

The three shared a wonderful evening together, with pizza and beer, just hanging out. Inside, Martha was doing backflips over sharing this new experience with her wife. A few days after the visit, Martha’s wife shared that she really enjoyed the visit. Maggie and Martha’s wife bonded over shared interests. Martha had always dreamed a day like this would come -- when she could spend her retirement enjoying being who she is. 

Martha considers herself to an independent Christian -- though few know of her “faith” perspective, because she just lives it and doesn’t talk much about it.  She enjoys sharing her gifts and talents by caring for the underserved and marginalized.  Currently, she is earning a certification as a Christian trans ally.

As Martha reflected on her life, the organization of the monthly CD/TG 1 st Thursdays for adults, the “We Will Be Seen” public art mural and celebration, the monthly Drop In for T-Youth, the Trans Artists Collaborative – The Transperience and the founding of the non-profit Bay Area Council on Gender Diversity are the things she is most proud of. Through her lifetime of service to others, Martha has lived by the creed of always trying to build “communities care of service”. She has accomplished much in her service to others. 

Martha plans to continue to serve and lead others in the queer community. It is what brings her the most joy -- and is what she believes she was meant to do.

CDTV Glamour & Glitz Christmas Party, 2023

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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.