Milwaukee’s big LGBT celebration has made a national name for itself.
The reflexive gasp for survival that combusted at the Stonewall Riots in New York 50 years ago this month still lingers in the transcendent rapture felt at gay pride celebrations all over the world, with Milwaukee’s among the most notable.
“We’ve had other festivals turn to us and ask ‘How do you do it?’” says Milwaukee PrideFest spokesman Michail Takach. “We create an experience that’s meaningful and memorable, but unique compared to other pride festivals, where someone might be playing onstage in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven.”
The path to premier status was neither clear nor linear. After Stonewall, some local gay rights activists backed the controversial tactics of the militant Gay Liberation Front, while the Gay People’s Union favored a measured approach, including launching a gay suicide hotline, LGBT STD clinic, and – in 1974 – the first organized gay pride ball, march and picnic.
The organization built on its successes throughout the decade, only to watch its leadership decimated by the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. A new group – the Milwaukee Lesbian/Gay Pride Committee – eventually emerged and launched the first officially sanctioned pride celebration in 1988.
Next year brought the city’s inaugural gay pride parade. Surging crowds necessitated subsequent moves, first to Juneau Park and later to Veterans Park. In 1996, PrideFest secured its current home at Henry W. Maier Festival Park, and with it the distinction of being the world’s largest LGBT festival with a permanent festival grounds. That enviable status has played a key role in PrideFest’s ability to land many of its top acts over the years, including RuPaul, Blondie and Patti LaBelle.
Last year drew record attendance in excess of 45,000 people. Not bad for a festival that, in Takach’s words, started “so small.”
“We have grown from being a march and rally in Cathedral Square, to a picnic in the park, to being on the same festival grounds as Milwaukee’s entire ethnic festival circuit, as well as one of the largest music festivals in the nation,” he says.
Scenes from Pridefests of the mid-1990s
Race into PrideFest weekend (or walk, if you prefer) with a run along the lake through Veterans Park. Competitive runners take note: This year’s race is sanctioned by USA Track & Field.
Year after year, the juggernaut party remains Milwaukee’s premiere gay event. Two nights of A-list headliners are joined by an out-of-this-world dance pavilion, which for four consecutive days becomes the largest nightclub in Wisconsin.
This campy yet empowering demonstration tracks a route through Walker’s Point. Organized by a separate LGBT group, the parade this year takes place before PrideFest opens, so you can attend both events.