October 2005: Naked Boys Singing triumphs over Vice Squad

Naked Boys 2Two months after being closed by the Milwaukee Police Department, “Naked Boys Singing!” returned to the stage on October 29, 2005 for an eight week run.

On August 18, 2005, the city’s vice squad had closed the production over “lack of license and public nuisance.”  The police claimed they were responding to a public complaint that the location lacked a small theater license.  The Common Council eventually determined that the non-profit venue did not need a theater license, after all, and the show was finally allowed to go on.

Rather than expressing civil disobedience, the producers decided to host a press conference.  The Milwaukee Gay Arts Center filed a $634,420 notice against the city, claiming free speech and due process had been violated.  The Center stated its civil rights were violated when city employees selectively enforced the ordinance, in violation of the constitutional rights of the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center and the staff of Naked Boys Singing, due to the organization’s focus on gay-related and AIDS-related causes.   Many, including the ACLU of Wisconsin, felt this selective enforcement was blatantly homophobic.  The show’s producer reported receiving a threatening phone call and intimidating visits from vice police.

Queer Life News followed the case closely, as did the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in which two full-page advertisements appeared, demanding a public apology.

The case was ultimately dismissed by a U.S. District Judge who did not see these violations as a “custom or policy by the municipality.”  The Center did not appeal this decision, but hosted several fundraisers to recover the costs of pursuing legal action.

Mayor Tom Barrett called for a full review of the police shutdown, as well as the city’s licensing policies and processes.  The mayor also hosted a town hall meeting at the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center to hear out public concerns.  The City of Milwaukee settled the case five years later, with a $20,000 payment of damages on July 14, 2010.

“Naked Boys Singing!” shows faced similar scrutiny in other cities, including San Juan, Provincetown and Atlanta, but productions continued throughout the decade.