View the PrideFest web site at this link (will open in a separate browser window).
View the 2002 or 2003 Pride Parade photos
This page summarizes the annual festival event known as "PrideFest". While other cities may use the term, Milwaukee's 'PrideFest' is both the original using this term, and also the largest. PrideFest has a parent organization that organizes and manages the event; there are separate pages for the three parent organizations that have managed PrideFest over the years: first Milwaukee Lesbian/Gay Pride Committee (MLGPC) (1988-1993), then PrideFest Inc. (1994-2017), and finally Milwaukee Pride, Inc. (2017-date).
Soon after the dust settled in Greenwich Village in 1969, gay civil rights organizations sprang up all over the country. Developments in Wisconsin were no different from what was happening elsewhere. The Gay Peoples Union/ GPU was the first organization in Milwaukee to host an event that had “Pride” appeal, with over 350 people attending the GPU Ball in 1974. Other dances and parties were hosted in the years that followed, including marches and street festivals as early as 1981.
After the March on Washington in 1987, a full-blown and formal Pride Movement took hold in Milwaukee. Having attended the march in the nation’s capital, several people thought it was time to organize a major, gay/lesbian self-affirmation event. The first official Pride event, hosted by the new Milwaukee Lesbian/Gay Pride Committee (MLGPC), was held in 1988, complete with a softball tournament, ball, town hall meeting with elected officials and film festival. Several hundred people participated in the various events. (View a more complete history of Pride celebations in Milwaukee and Wisconsin here.)
As with many Pride organizations, a transition occurred in the mid 1990's; late in 1993, the original MLGPC was dissolved, and the new PrideFest Inc. was incorporated. Having outgrown the Juneau Park area, the new PrideFest event was moved to Veterans Park, featuring exhibits, several stages for entertainment, craftspeople and vendors, multiple food outlets and a full two days of activity. This was repeated for PrideFest ‘95 with the addition of the “Light Up the Sky with Pride” fireworks show. By this time, approximately 10,000 people were attending.
In 2017, the Board of Directors of PrideFest Inc. decided to rebrand the parent organization to better reflect the goal of making LGBT Pride celebrations more of a year-round effort, in addition to just running the 3- or 4-day annual 'PrideFest' festival event. The new organization was called Milwaukee Pride Inc.. That organization however is seen by many as having become less responsive to the greater LGBT community, becoming a self-electing board, failing to make public regular financial reports or even hold independent audits, and considering its Board minutes as 'proprietary' and unavailable for other LGBT community leaders to review. Failure to hold any PrideFest events in either 2020 (due to the global COVID-19 pandemic) or 2021 (as other evnts were reopening) further raises questions in the community as to whether Milwaukee Pride Inc. has the right structure or leadership.
Despite the current concerns about the parent organization, we are of course hopeful that Milwaukee's signature Pride festival can return in 2022, and that Milwaukee Pride Inc. can work through its issues and once more beccome responsive to the community as a whole.
Annual Event Highlights
The biggest accomplishment made by the PrideFest festival was its move to the Henry W. Maier Festival Park (also known by many as "the Summerfest grounds"), the best festival facility in the U.S. With permanent stages complete with professional lighting, paved grounds, food buildings, vendor pavilion and support of the staff from Milwaukee World Festivals Inc, the managing body of the park, PrideFest joined 13 other festivals that used the park for their events. In fact, PrideFest had the distinctive honor in 1996, and several years since, of kicking off the Festival season at the "Summerfest Grounds" and for Milwaukee, which has become known as the City of Festivals.
Over the years, the organizers of PrideFest have received great community support. The input of many supporters and sponsors, and the financial backing of major corporations such as Miller Brewing Company, the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel, the Cream City Foundation and many, many more businesses-- some gay-owned, others gay-friendly. The events are supported by hundreds of other individuals who provide both donations and volunteer time. In 2002 PrideFest hit a record attendance of 18,604 persons.
Pride has been a long tradition in Wisconsin, which is, after all, the first gay rights state.
The story of Pridefest has not been one of all successes however. After Pridefest 2003, the organization nearly went bankrupt as a result of poor decisions by the board and management (although problems were often blamed on poor weather early in June). The Pridefest board was disolved, and Cream City Foundation stepped in to restore public confidence and guide the organization and event back to success. CCF reconstituted a board and tried to begin anew, although community criticism continued due to the fact many of the past organization's key individuals still held important roles in the "new" group.
Pridefest 2004 was held over 2 days and eliminated the parade and other components, all in efforts to save money for the struggling organization. Following two successful years with cooperating weather, after PrideFest 2005 the organization announced it over $100,000 in the black, and back on a successful track. PrideFest 2006 went back to a 3-day format (Friday evening through Sunday), and in a sense of cooperation with a Pride Parade separately organized and run by OutBound Magazine and the bars. Even with poor weather on Friday night, and cool temperatures throughout the weekend, PrideFest 2006 set a new record for attendance of over 23,000 people, and was able to pay off the last of the debt from past financial disasters.
PrideFests 2007 through 2010 followed the successful pattern of 2006: a 3-day festival, the Parade run separately by the bars, and headliner entertainment lineups. PrideFest 2007 was wildy successful largely because of ideal weather throughout the weekend.
PrideFest 2008 was another story: a strange weather pattern throughout southern Wisconsin caused all three days to suffer tornado warnings, and torrential rains each evening and night: an all-time record was set in Milwaukee for the most rainfall in a 48-hour period, and as a result PrideFest attendance and income were both down. Still, all major headliner acts went on as planned, with a few die-hard fans ignoring the rain to cheer them on. And thanks to sound fiscal management, the PrideFest organization assured the community they too had weathered the storm, and would be back again strong in 2009.
PrideFest 2009 had great weather, warm and sunny most days, and headlined several major acts, including Cyndi Lauper, Brandy, and Etta James. PrideFest 2010 was again challenged with weather (an early start Friday with great weather, but cool and foggy Saturday and a threatening Sunday, with downpour most of the evening and early night). Still, with headliners Kathy Griffin, Patti Labelle and Joan Rivers, 2010 set a new record in attendance: 30,358 people.
(See the individual PrideFest yearly pages, linked from the PrideFest timeline, for more specific writeups of activities, successes and failures in each individual year.)
In March 2020, the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic hit the world. Bars, restaurants, and all mass gatherings such as festivals, sports events, etc. are banned in the U.S. from March into summer. Milwaukee and most of the country cancels Pride events, and iconic LGBT landmarks such as the Stonewall Inn and Julius in New York City are threatened with bankruptcy. Local LGBT bars and businesses are also in danger of being unable to sustain themselves. Needless to say, PrideFest-2020 was cancelled and 2020 went by without a Pride festival in Milwaukee for the first time since 1987.
By February 2021, with COVID-19 vaccines now available, America began to reopen. But PrideFest-2021 was 'postponed', and many other Milwaukee festivals also were cancelled for the second year in a row. Although by July 1, most restrictions mandating mask wearing and banning crowded venues were lifted, as of late June 2021, there were no plans in place or at least announced publically to reschedule PrideFest-2021. While various other large gathering events were being scheduled, such as Summerfest for September, and sports stadiums were returning to full capacity by late June, the best Milkwaukee Pride could seemingly accomplish is to gather a list of Health and Wellness providers to post-- at least something, but almost nothing. Once again, it was left to individual bars to hold their own, uncoordinated Pride celebrations.
The entire community hopes that, failing to do anything in either 2020 or 2021, Milwaukee's signature PrideFest festival can return in 2022.
Credits: web site concept, design and arrangement by Don Schwamb,
with materials contributed prior to 2008 by PrideFest and Ted Berg.
Last updated: June-2021.
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.