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 […]

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.”

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PrideFest isn’t alone.

Other LGBT organizations are enduring financial hardship, Gunkel says, mentioning  SAGE Milwaukee, a nonprofit serving elder LGBTs; the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center; and the LGBT Community Center, which was raised from its deathbed in March under new leadership, a “terrifying and hopeful time in the very same instant,” says board co-chair Jennifer Morales.

Founded in 1998, the community center first occupied a tiny office in a South Second Street warehouse before moving to West Court Street. Recently, it expanded into its current facility, the historic Blatz Boiler House on East Highland Avenue near MSOE. The new location also houses PrideFest and Project Q, the acclaimed LGBT youth group.

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In its first decade, the center was viewed as a positive entity for the LGBT community. But recent years of center overreach and discord have resulted in financial donations drying up, say current leaders, and they hope to change that. The mission now is to “put the community back in community center,” says former executive director Neil Albrecht, 49, who led the center from 1999-2004 and now acts as a consultant.

Several people involved in the past, like Albrecht, assistant director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, have re-engaged. Morales, an editorial and grant-writing consultant, and Paul Williams, who manages communications for the city’s Housing Authority and serves as board director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, are board co-chairs. Karen Gotzler, one of the founders of the community center and Lesbian Alliance of Metro Milwaukee, was hired as executive director in March, following 15 years in business and nonprofit work. They’re all here to, as Morales says, “put out the fires” and “come back home.”

“In the short term, definitely, we need to go back and rebuild our relationships with donors and volunteers,” Albrecht says. “And I think the capacity is definitely in the community. During my tenure, we brought in over $100,000 in donor revenue. People like Jack Smith and Joe Pabst were very generous.”

But they’ve got to rebuild, and that starts with proving the center’s purpose. “We have to continue to push that envelope of relevance – that even if you never walk through the doors of this center, even if you never need a service or are involved in an organization, we’re still relevant to you because we’re serving people in the community who may be less fortunate or who have real needs,” Albrecht says.

Another group, Diverse and Resilient, aims to serve the LGBT community as a health services provider, but Executive Director Gary Hollander says part of the mission is also helping people raise their expectations of what life can be. “My personal job is to locate the knife that’s already in your back and jiggle it to remind you,” says Hollander, who still endures homophobic slurs in his neighborhood. (“I’m just walking my dog,” he says, “I’m not sashaying down the street in a pinafore.”)

To do this, Diverse and Resilient has the biggest budget of any LGBT organization in the state, around $1.5 million, “which is tiny,” Hollander notes. There are about 60,000 LGBT people in the greater Milwaukee area, and, he says, in a given week, there are “maybe 300 involved in something.” Why? According to Hollander, it’s money.

“If we thought of the LGBT population even getting, say, $100 per person as a reasonable expense to address recreational, social, spiritual, emotional and employment needs, well, we’re looking at a $6 million budget,” Hollander says. “All the LGBT groups in the state combined don’t have a $6 million budget. So where are the resources to actually provide these services?”

Hollander mentions the Jewish, Catholic, Italian and Latino communities as examples, all of which are supported by members, and a history of foundation and government support, which “hasn’t existed, ever, in the LGBT community.”

The Cream City Foundation has been an LGBT-funding institution since 1982. Paul Fairchild, who moved from Chicago in early March to take over as Cream City’s executive director, echoes Hollander’s sentiments. “In order to have large-scale, sustainable programming, there has to be a government contract to support that,” he says. “I don’t quite understand where all the governmental money for LGBTs is going in Wisconsin.”

It’s possible that it simply isn’t there. Or at least not in the amount Fairchild is used to seeing in Chicago, which boasts a larger LGBT community than Milwaukee. Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature are “not friendly” to LGBT issues, says Jason Burns, the new executive director of Equality Wisconsin. So political activism organizations like his are concentrating their efforts less on trying to advance new causes and more on ensuring “there’s no new anti-LGBT legislation introduced.”

At the forefront is the challenge to the state’s domestic partnership registry, a law signed by former Gov. Jim Doyle in August 2009 to provide 43 rights and protections to same-sex couples (whereas married couples receive 1,138). As of August 2010, about 1,500 same-sex couples had registered.

But just months after replacing Doyle in 2011, Walker withdrew the state’s defense of the domestic partnership registry against a lawsuit attacking it. “And that’s kind of weird because this is state law,” Burns says. “It was voted on by the legislature and signed into state law, even though not by Walker.”

So the burden of defending the law has shifted to private attorneys and organizations, like Lambda Legal, which bills itself as “the nation’s oldest and largest legal organization working for LGBT civil rights.”

In the meantime, political efforts are focused on goals at the local level. Particularly, Burns says, pushing domestic partnership benefits in more municipalities. Milwaukee, Madison, Monona, Racine, Appleton and Manitowoc currently provide benefits. At the county level, Dane, La Crosse and Milwaukee offer them as well. And Milwaukee Public Schools has a progressive benefits policy in place, as do several other districts.

But there is strong opposition. Wisconsin Family Action, the religious-right organization that sued in Dane County Circuit Court in 2010 against the registries, has steadfastly battled domestic partnership benefits across the state. These “benefit structures are another attempt to make people who are not married appear as if they are married,” says Julaine Appling, WFA president. “The push is being done by those attempting to advance the homosexual agenda to get more people into the domestic registry.”

Still, Burns remains optimistic. There’s progressive LGBT potential here, rooted in history. In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to enact a law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. State Rep. Mark Pocan has been an openly gay member of the Legislature since 1998, having filled the seat vacated by U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who is openly lesbian. Milwaukee, too, was ahead of the curve when it added domestic partnership benefits in 2001, and the city boasts strong political allies of the LGBT community in Mayor Tom Barrett and County Executive Chris Abele.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Barrett says of his support. “The more you interact with people – and not just in the LGBT community, but racially, religiously, economically – the more you have an understanding and you can say let’s knock down this stereotype, let’s put the old thoughts behind us, and let’s treat people like people.”

It’s a weekday early evening, and Lake Park Bistro is still serene. The prime pavilion is hosting one of the city’s most eminent benefactors – and, as the waitstaff will soon learn, a most exacting bon gourmand. Between spoonfuls of mushroom soup, Joe Pabst is imploring Milwaukee’s LGBT community to “stop being so tragic and start being more interesting.”

His relationship with the city is the inverse of the brewing company his great-great-grandfather founded in the 19th century. Although the brewery started here and then moved away, Pabst, who was born in Arizona and lived on the East Coast and in Chicago, moved to Milwaukee some 15 years ago. His connection to the LGBT community is a paradox as well – he’s its greatest advocate but also its greatest critic. “I don’t sit on any of the boards,” he says, “which allows me to be critical of all of them.”

On this night, he’s taking issue with resident Milwaukee-bashers (“If you don’t like it, get out.”) as well as what he views as an insular community that resorts to self-pitying and resists making alliances with straight supporters.

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“We have to start looking at the bigger picture,” Pabst says. “Yes, there’s lots of work to do still, but we’ve accomplished great things in the last 25 years, and it’s time to stop being isolated victims. It’s time to start participating in a bigger, more exciting world, where there are often allies ready, willing and able to help us.”

In that vein, Pabst strives to not be pinned solely as a gay male funder. He’s donated to lesbian and transgender groups, organizations that assist minorities, non-LGBT institutions (especially in the arts), and the UW-Milwaukee LGBT Resource Center, which is run by Jen Murray. “It’s essential,” she says. “Without that intentionality and working to build bridges and forge new potential partnerships, I don’t think we can be as successful as we need to be.”

Thanks in part to Pabst’s pushing, the Milwaukee Art Museum has emerged as one such ally, unveiling gay-associated artwork both provocative (a stimulating Gilbert and George exhibit in 2008) and poignant (the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt display in 2010). “I think [MAM] is doing more effective LGBT work than some of the LGBT organizations,” Pabst says.

Other orgs are putting out ally vibes as well, like the Museum of Wisconsin Art located in conservative West Bend. Last year, museum directors approached Pabst about exhibiting the work of photographer Paul Baker Prindle, who’d done a series of large-scale photographs showing locations where gay and transgender men and boys had been murdered. The museum figured it’d have a tough time receiving the funding and wondered if Pabst would back the project. “I said, ‘Am I interested? I can’t wait. How much and when do you need it?’”

Come opening night, with the artist speaking, only 10 LGBT-identified people were in attendance. “This institution and potential ally had really gone out of its way to be inclusive, and where was the gay community?” Pabst says. “Maybe they were feeling victimized or isolated or hanging out at bars bashing Milwaukee. It’s like, get out and do something. Participate in your city.”

That call to embrace mainstream allies is also pushed by Louis Weisberg, the editor of the Wisconsin Gazette, which launched in 2009 with the financial backing of CEO and principal Leonard Sobczak. When Weisberg moved from Chicago to Milwaukee a few years ago, he was surprised by “just how embracing and supportive the straight ally community was,” even of the newspaper. “Their importance cannot be underestimated or dismissed because, let’s face it, there are way more of them than there are of us.”

Put simply, Weisberg says, “Milwaukee people are progressive people.” And that benefits the community.
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Milwaukee contends with a conundrum.

It’s small enough to maintain a vibrant, close-knit community, yet it might be too small for true freedom. People who live here are often from here, so their families are still here as well. This can make it tough to be open about your sexuality. Sobczak, who’s been out since his 20s, terms it “internalized homophobia,” and it contributes to an already fragmented, disunited community. “The best thing that could happen is for all the gay people to come out of the closet,” he says.

Milwaukee County Parks Director Sue Black, who’s been out for decades, agrees. “People who are still in the closet, I don’t understand it,” she says. “My cause is not being gay, my cause is the environment. Being gay just comes with the territory.”

But people like Tina Owen, who opened the Alliance School on West Walnut Street in 2005, recognize that being different presents a unique set of social challenges, especially at school. As a small, teacher-led charter for 175 students in grades 6-12, Alliance is the nation’s first school with a specific mission of eliminating bullying. “Bullying damages people,” says Owen, who has worked at other MPS schools. “There are people who say you’re stronger for it. But there’s not a research study in the world that shows that somebody who is repeatedly bullied is a better person for it.”

Owen took the traditional educational model and transformed it to emphasize peacemaking, conflict-resolution and striving to foster an accepting community. Her approach for the culturally diverse Alliance School, which is not LGBT-specific but definitely LGBT-friendly, seems to be working. Over the past two years, the school has been featured in Time magazine and on ABC’s “20/20.” More importantly, Owen can back it up with hard facts.

“When we started this school, our valedictorian’s GPA was 1.9. Now, they’re at a 3.7,” Owen says from behind her cluttered desk. “Our first year, the attendance rate was 66 percent. Now, it’s 91 percent. You see kids graduating from high school, talking about college, being emotionally healthy and able to have strong relationships because they weren’t battered throughout high school.” She’s especially proud of how her students take the principles and lessons learned at Alliance into their communities after graduating, where she hopes they’ll become beacons to others.

“I’ve been disappointed by Milwaukee more often than I’ve been pleasantly surprised when it comes to LGBT matters,” says Cary Gabriel Costello, a UW-Milwaukee associate professor and LGBT studies coordinator. “But one shining example of a positive factor has been the Alliance School. … It provides an oasis of respect for sexual and gender minorities, and the students there flourish. I’d consider it the gem of Milwaukee’s LGBT institutions.”

In mid-March, Diverse and Resilient partnered with the LGBT Film/Video Festival to screen Brother Outsider, a documentary about African-American LGBT civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin. Maybe 70 people turned out, a strong showing or a light one, depending on whom you ask, and the experience harkened back to the exhibit at the Museum of Wisconsin Art. What does it take to engage the masses?

Some sing the praises of separateness (“Insularity that is chosen, not coerced, can build strength and self-identity,” Jamakaya says.). Others insist togetherness is key. “We need to come together as a community instead of these small, segregated social networks,” says Brenda Coley, director of special programming at Diverse and Resilient. “We have the opportunity to really move our society beyond just tolerance and toward full acceptance, but we have to become more united.”

Poet Carmen Murguia notes that the community was more unified in the ’90s when it stood behind various political and social issues. Now, she sees fissures along the lines of race and class, stressing the need for people to travel into other parts of the LGBT community. “That’s what’s going to unite us and keep us strong,” she says, “so we don’t have to wait for PrideFest once a year. I’d like to see pride 365.”

For now, there’s a weekend of Pride (though Gunkel has hinted at other orgs starting to pitch in on Pride-related activities, like bringing back the parade and hosting afterparties for the festival), and excitement is brewing. April brought the announcement of Belinda Carlisle as the opening-night headliner for 2012, and Gunkel seemed confident that other strong acts would follow.

To survive till 2013, however, PrideFest needs people on the grounds. The gates have turnstiled nearly 315,000 attendees since 1996, and now there’s Gunkel’s 28,000 target. He could have asked for donations but resisted. He felt the community was tapped out given the struggles of other organizations. “We didn’t want to say, ‘Hey, come on, you’ve got to give us more,’” he says. “PrideFest is where people want to get a release from everything else. This is where we want them to just have a fun time.”

PrideFest also does what other organizations can’t seem to achieve just yet. It brings the community together, without fear or prejudice, completing the puzzle for three days of the year. Imagine if it didn’t exist.  

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