PrideFest's 30th Anniversary
This coming weekend Milwaukee’s LGBTQ community celebrates its 30th PrideFest. For many, the weekend party has always been part of their experience as LGBTQs. In fact, one can venture to say the majority of the event’s 33,000+ attendees probably are unfamiliar with a time when there was no PrideFest. But, three decades ago, the original members of Milwaukee Lesbian/Gay Pride Committee (MLGPC) dedicated themselves to creating a demonstration of LGBTQ presence and power that would endure until today.
Milwaukee did have several community celebrations before PrideFest. Beginning in 1971, there were a number of small parades, balls and picnics. Then, inspired by the 1987 March on Washington, the nascent MLGPC staged the original PrideFest the following September. Christened “Rightfully Proud. Milwaukee ’88 Lesbian/Gay Celebration,” it ran for two weeks and consisted of concerts, cabarets, religious services, sports events, balls and picnics held throughout the city. Attendance was estimated at 750.
But it wasn’t simply an act of putting on a show. Bill Meunier, recognized as the event’s founder, reflected on those times. “People don’t understand how difficult it was to pursue the fight for LGBT rights. Activists were courageous. They lost jobs and they lost family,” Meunier said.
The committee’s next event, the First Annual Pride Parade and Rally, took place the next year in June. It coordinated Milwaukee with the national celebration of the 20th anniversary of Stonewall under the banner “Stonewall 20: A Generation of Pride.” The parade stepped off at First and Washington and made its way up Second Street to City Hall and from there to Cathedral Square. Mayor John Norquist presented the organizers with an official proclamation. The document concluded with the words “We are proud of who you are.” In response, religious conservatives threatened a recall of both the mayor and the county executive.
The Pride Parade and Rally counted 1,000 participants. From there it would continue to expand exponentially, changing venues to accommodate the swelling numbers and range of attractions. Soon it included multiple stages, the History Tent and even a car show. In 1995, a fireworks display, appropriately called “Light Up the Sky with Pride,” became part of the program, the first of its kind in the nation. Attendance had now grown to nearly 10,000.
The following year, PrideFest made a historical move to Henry W. Maier Festival Park. Again, that change of venue was not without its opposition. Some felt the integration into the lakefront festival lineup meant losing identity. Others believed it would establish the acceptance and recognition of the LGBTQ community in Milwaukee’s fabric of cultural diversity.
Over the past three decades of PrideFest, there have been dozens of board members and thousands of production volunteers who made it all possible. Some names, like Miriam Ben Shalom, Scott Gunkel, Tim Talsky and Sue Cook are familiar. Meunier would serve for 10 years and was instrumental in bringing PrideFest to its current location. Others, like partners Sheldon Schur and Rick Finger, organized the Pride Parade. Schur, Finger, Talsky and others are gone now but have made their mark on the advance of LGBTQ equality in Milwaukee.
They all should continue to be thanked and never forgotten.