Photos by Adam Ryan Morris
It’s 1 p.m. on an unseasonably warm Saturday in March, the kind of sundress- and sandals-demanding afternoon that frost-weary Wisconsinites treat like midsummer. But rather than indulge in the gorgeous weather, Scott Gunkel has forfeited his weekend to plan for another, the most eagerly anticipated two days of the year for Milwaukee’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual community – PrideFest.
He’s standing in a cluttered, windowless Downtown office on the second floor of the LGBT Community Center, examining fairground plans, coordinating with sponsors and deciding what vendors will occupy which buildings. He’s doing it all while wondering if the perennially popular festival, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, will make it to 26. Coming off a dismal 2011 and with just months to go, Gunkel has yet to secure a prominent musical or comedic act (most years, he reaches out to A-listers in November), and he knows not having a big name will hurt attendance, especially with out-of-towners and people outside the LGBT community.
Gunkel, 52, is the president of PrideFest, a full-time (unpaid) job. His paying gig – manager of a building materials company in Burlington – has, at times, taken a backseat to community involvement. “I took the time to do organization stuff,” says Gunkel, who’s had to file for personal bankruptcy in the past. “I didn’t take the time to make my own money.”
The quarter-century saga of the festival is, in many ways, a direct reflection of the growth (and setbacks) of the city’s LGBT community: a white-knuckle roller-coaster ride of exhilarating highs and distressing lows, demonstrating that progress has been made while revealing that there remains much work to be done.
First, there’s the historical significance. “The growth of PrideFest was a big part of institution-building in the 1990s,” says Jamakaya, a 58-year-old feminist writer and historian. It was a time when LGBT organizations were emerging and had little in common besides being sexually marginalized. PrideFest provided “common ground” for the LGBT community’s separate, component-letter groups to interact somewhere besides dark bars and closed meeting rooms.
Then there’s the unity. LGBT Milwaukeeans of all colors and creeds gush about the diversity and openness, the feelings of safety and self-affirmation. It’s a treasured part of the community. “PrideFest? Oh, we go,” says homegrown actor and comedian John McGivern. “I think it’s unbelievable what it’s turned into. It’s a great cross-section of the Milwaukee community.” Jamakaya also appreciates the eclectic elements. “I’ve been around forever, but I still get off on the diversity and zaniness,” she says. “Nerds, sophisticates, divas, dykes. There’s something to amuse and offend everybody.”
But then there are the issues the festival subconsciously brings to light. Jamin Mahan, a 39-year-old engineer, calls the festival “awesome” but wishes its essence was manifested continuously. The LGBT community here is “self-segregated,” he says, a complaint repeated by many around the city. “PrideFest is one of the few times you see people coming together for something they’re interested in that flows across so many of the barriers we have,” Mahan says. “But that’s just three days out of the year where you get to see some of everybody. It would be good to have that sense of community all the time.”
It’s a fragmented community with many puzzle pieces – from struggling organizations and that aforementioned self-segregation to progressive schools, exhibits and even politicians. There’s also an undercurrent of apprehension, a worry that PrideFest could fail, endangering decades of progress. It’s a feeling not lost on Gunkel.
Armed with increased sponsorship, he’s counting on strong food and beverage sales and reduced ticket prices. He’s trying a sentimental approach, ‘25 Years of Pride,’ to attract the festival’s core constituency. And he’s booking lesser-known but more nostalgic acts. “The artists that got us here,” he says, like Taylor Dayne. “We’re really going to promote the 25th anniversary, really pull on the heartstrings of the community.”
Gunkel is hoping for 28,000 attendees and says if 80 percent of them pay for admission (as opposed to using free entry options), they’ll be in the black.
“PrideFest having another bad year would be devastating to the community,” he says. “It’s the face of the LGBT community, and we have to present a strong presence.”
It’s do or die.
It wasn’t always so dire.
Since the mid-1970s, there have been various informal celebrations of the gay community here, but the first official activities began in 1988, when a couple hundred gutsy groundbreakers gathered in Mitchell Park before moving to Cathedral Square the next year. In 1991, the festival, then organized by the Milwaukee Lesbian Gay Pride Committee (MLGPC), moved to Juneau Park, where it attracted nearly 12,000 people in 1993. MLGPC dissolved the next year, but one of its subcommittees, PrideFest, stepped into the breach. The celebration, now under the name of PrideFest, was held at Veterans Park in 1994 and, for the first time, charged admission to help offset entertainment and vendor costs.
In 1996, equipped with nearly a decade of organizational experience and the realization that the city could support a full-fledged gay event, PrideFest made an ambitious move to the forefront – specifically, to the Summerfest grounds. It was a huge breakthrough, momentous then for elevating the Milwaukee LGBT community’s local visibility and significant for, as Gunkel says, “making us feel that we are as important to Milwaukee as all the other communities that use the grounds.”
But there have also been struggles. From 1996 through 2003, the festival was profitable only one year (1998), and 2003 was an absolute shipwreck. Due to bad weather and equally bad decision-making, Gunkel says the organization almost went bankrupt, amassing more than $156,000 of debt owed to vendors. Milwaukee World Festival, Summerfest’s parent company, parlayed with the vendors and developed a five-year payment plan to help PrideFest square its debts while remaining operational. At a town hall meeting, PrideFest also asked the LGBT community for help. “We raised more than enough to meet our target,” Gunkel says, “and had more than $5,000 left over to start funds for the 2004 festival. It was a fantastic community achievement.”
Thanks to that unity and financial backing, 2004 was profitable. “But 2005 was unbelievable,” Gunkel says, as PrideFest raked in nearly $100,000 and paid off its outstanding debt three years early. “The community was in full support of the organization.” The next two years saw small, comfortable gains before the torrential rains of 2008 made for a loss. Back-to-back record attendance followed, including a crowd of 30,358 in 2010, when PrideFest made more than $86,000.
But then came the “Lemony Snicket,” as Gunkel calls the confluence of injurious factors in 2011 that decimated the organization’s finances. “It was a series of unfortunate events, and we ended up with nothing.”
Last year’s dismal spring, which succeeded that historically glacial winter, devastated ticket presales. There were internal and technical problems as well. The PrideFest website malfunctioned, the organization couldn’t communicate with its public relations team, and the normally reliable Ticketmaster alternated between providing the wrong information and no information at all. Then there were gripes and grumbles among concertgoers that musical acts Monique and Salt-n-Pepa, award-winners though they were, did not resonate with the LGBT community. Iconic gay and lesbian activist rocker Melissa Etheridge had fallen through at the last minute. It was a perfect storm of setbacks for the festival and Gunkel.
“We lost basically everything we had.”