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Knowing Our History

Oct. 25, 2016
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As LGBT History Month draws to an end, we should reflect on Milwaukee’s LGBT historical record. It’s a rich history but it may be difficult to pinpoint just where and when it began. This year’s release of LGBT Milwaukee, an illustrated chronicle of the city’s gay bars and other gathering places, was a start. But, limited by the parameters of the publisher—less than 100 pages, 10 of which were dedicated to PrideFest—it could only present a basic narrative. Given the spectrum of Milwaukee’s LGBT experience, it could easily be volume one of a 20-volume set. 

This year, for example, the newly formed Milwaukee Pride, Inc. announced an important landmark—its 20th PrideFest held at Henry Maier Festival Park. Actually, the first PrideFest there took place in 1996, so this past PrideFest would have been the 21st, if my math is right. Either way, the coming of age anniversary is significant not only for its longevity but also for the historical significance of that initial move to the grounds. It catapulted the LGBT community to a level of visibility and credibility it had not previous enjoyed. 

The backstory of that momentous occasion could and should be the subject of a book unto itself. The path to Henry Maier Park was a nomadic trek that took years. From its humble beginnings in the 1970s with a few hundred attendees at the Gay Peoples Union Ball, the concept of a Pride celebration gradually grew into today’s PrideFest. Eventually, after a nomadic trek from Juneau Park to Veterans Park, it made the move to Henry Maier. But getting there wasn’t merely a matter of booking a free weekend with the lakefront festivals’ governing body, Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. In fact, it was a social, financial and political struggle, a process involving a myriad of players, political persuasion and strategic tactics. For the PrideFest leadership, it meant a sturdy constitution and resolute perseverance. There were hoops and hurdles to jump through and over, and obstacles to overcome. And there was opposition. In fact, according to Bill Meunier, a PrideFest co-chairman at the time, there was opposition not only by some of the ethnic festivals but also by a segment of the LGBT population itself. The latter feared the event’s commercialization, while certain festivals just weren’t open to the idea of sharing their hallowed grounds with a gay festival. But PrideFest prevailed and the World Festival board voted to approve its application. Still, in protest, despite the tradition of flying the flags of all the other partner festivals, one refused to hoist the rainbow flag. It still doesn’t today.

The move to Henry Maier Park in 1996 holds particular historical significance in our liberation narrative. It empowered the city’s community, giving its cause legitimacy. That cause was the recognition of LGBT equality. We were now an officially defined group celebrating our specific cultural identity and contribution among other groups celebrating theirs. It also showed the people of Milwaukee the evolution and progress of a national movement since Stonewall nearly 30 years before, as well as that of the local LGBT community since its first Pride celebration. 

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