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The rough road to PrideFest

I’ve covered some wild stories related to Milwaukee Pride events over the years. Pride’s growing pains are a fascinating part of our history.

Years before PrideFest, in 1987 or ’88, the first open meeting of the Gay Pride Planning Committee of the Gay People’s Union nearly degenerated into a riot. People outside the GPU were demanding input, and the GPU realized it could benefit from broader involvement to build a better event. What resulted, however, was a perfect storm of miscommunication between lesbian activists and the longtime, mostly male members of the GPU. 

The first issue that set things off was limiting the voting rights of people in attendance. Because it was a GPU committee meeting, it was announced that only GPU members could vote on planning items. This sounds reasonable, but it effectively disenfranchised the newcomers, who were mostly lesbians. Nothing is more likely to piss off lesbians than telling them they don’t have the right to vote! There was lots of yelling and chaos. 

A second furor broke out when a male presenter casually suggested that a “slave auction” would be a good fundraiser. Jaws dropped and the battle resumed, with accusations of racism added to sexism. The disagreements grew nearly physical. Half the room was spitting mad, the other half reverted to defensive mode. 

Looking back, this acrimonious meeting represented the inevitable clash between gay men and lesbian feminist organizers, who had evolved politically on largely separate tracks. Many lesbians, veterans of battered women’s and anti-rape campaigns, viewed men as the enemy, and some of what they heard at this meeting reinforced that impression. GPU members, for their part, felt they were making an honest effort to invite others into the process. They were unprepared for the level of criticism.

These divisions healed over time. The GPU reluctantly but correctly moved toward relinquishing Pride organizing to a broader, more representative community entity. A series of crises, including anti-gay measures by the Milwaukee County Board and the Jeffrey Dahmer case, along with the desire for a community center, gradually drew Milwaukee’s lesbian and gay communities together on common ground.

Another challenge to be overcome was Mayor John Norquist’s veto of Pride Parade funds in January 1992. The mayor had encouraged the Pride Committee to apply for a $5,000 grant from the city’s Festival Fund, which would have covered part of the festival that year. Committee members applied for the funds and lobbied the Common Council, which approved the request. 

But to everyone’s shock, the mayor vetoed the allocation. As offensive as the betrayal was the patronizing lecture Norquist gave to gay leaders. The veto stung even more because it came in the context of a wave of homophobic attacks at the time of the Dahmer case.

Queer Nation led spirited protests against Norquist to no avail. Anger over the veto mobilized the community to secure new sponsors and funds for the Pride festival, which was held in Juneau Park from 1991–93 and moved to Veterans Park in 1994. 

Although finances were still dicey, PrideFest made great strides in terms of logistics and attendance. Visionary leaders set their sights on Henry Maier Festival Park, the home of Summerfest and ethnic festivals, as the ultimate venue for PrideFest. When that goal was achieved in 1996, the Wisconsin Light ran a banner headline exulting: “Summerfest Grounds, Here We Come!” Our three-day PrideFest, featuring national, regional and local talent, is now a solid part of the summer festival season.

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