History of Gay and Lesbian Life in Milwaukee, Wisconsin - Events

Pride Celebrations

Earliest Known:
Last Known:

(every year throughout Wisconsin)

Celebration of Pride
Political activism


Jump to:   Madison    Northeast Wis/ Fox Valley/ Green Bay    Elsewhere in Wis.

Milwaukee (parts courtesy of InStep magazine, remainder by Don Schwamb)

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. In Milwaukee, both the Gay Liberation Organization and the Gay Liberation Front came into being in November 1970. The Gay Liberation Organization, fearing it would be confused with the more radical GLF, renamed itself the Gay People’s Union (GPU) in 1971.

The 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, and by 1981, a subgroup of the GPU, the Milwaukee Pride Week Committee, was coordinating activities of various organizations and also organized marches/ parades, rallies, and street festivals.

It wasn’t until the March on Washington in 1987 that 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.

In 1989, a march was organized in June. Approximately 500 people marched the two miles from the bar district, around City Hall and to Cathedral Square for a rally where another 500 people had gathered. This particular event generated a great deal of controversy in the City of Milwaukee, especially when the proclamation from Mayor John Norquist ended with the words, “We are proud of who you are.” Both the mayor and county executive were threatened with recall campaigns initiated by religious-based conservative groups. By the end of the day, the MLGPC march and rally was the opening story on all three major news telecasts and featured on the front page of the Sunday Milwaukee Journal. However, the experience did not deter planners for the following year. In fact, the experience turned out to be a rallying point for many people in the LGBT community, spurring more people to get involved with the community.

The march and rally were held at Cathedral Square again in 1990. In 1991, 1992 and 1993 the rally was moved to Juneau Park along the lake front, an area that could accommodate the growing crowds. Entertainment and food were added, creating a festival atmosphere.

As with many Pride organizations, a transition occurred leading up to the next year. 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.

The biggest accomplishment made for Milwaukee's celebration of LGBT Pride was PrideFest's move to the Henry W. Maier Festival Park, the best festival facility in the U.S. With permanent stages complete with professional lighting, 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 has had the distinctive honor of kicking off the Festival season for Milwaukee almost every year since 1996, which has become known as the City of Festivals.

The story of Milwaukee's celebration of Pride has not been one of all successes however. After Pridefest 2003, the PrideFest organization nearly went bankrupt. Pridefest 2004 was cut back to 2 days and eliminated the parade and other components, all in efforts to save money for the struggling organization. The Parade returned in 2005 (organized separately by OutBound Magazine and the Milwaukee bars), and in 2006 PrideFest returned to 3 days and the Parade route was decorated with Pride banners for the month prior to the event. By 2008, PrideFest was back on solid financial footing: despite record downpours of rain all 3 days, the 2008 fetival still came out ahead financially (largely because of headliner acts drawing people); and the 2009 festival, with great weather all 3 days, was another solid event.


Pride has been a long tradition in Wisconsin, which is, after all, the first gay rights state. Suitably, while Wisconsin pride celebrations began in Milwaukee, it didn't take long for them to spread to other areas of the state as well.

Since the mid-1970s, Madison has hosted an annual Pride celebration around the 3rd weekend in July, usually comprised of the MAGIC Picnic on Saturday afternoon, and a parade from the State Capitol and up State Street on Sunday. Since the early 1980's the MAGIC picnic has been one of the state's leading summer events for gays and lesbians, usually sited in Brittingham Park.

The MAGIC Picnic was born of the initiatives and continued support of Madison bar-owner and activist Rodney Scheel, among others. Throughout the 1980's and much of the 1990's, the patio behind Rod's bar also became "the place to be" the Saturday evening and night of the annual Pride celebration in Madison. After a day of fun at the MAGIC picnic in Brittaney Park, Rod's would be hopping later, with people relaxing with drinks around the patio. Toward evening revelers would begin dancing, and at nightfall a spectacular laser light show would excite dancers and onlookers alike. Early in 1996 the Hotel Washington was destroyed by fire, and with it Rod's bar- and the Saturday night party moved to Club 5 on Madison's south side.

Financial discrepancies after Madison Pride in 2007 caused the 2008 celebration there to be severely scaled back; but as with Milwaukee's PrideFest a few years earlier, optimism is high that Madison's celebration too will come back strong.

Northeast Wisconsin (Fox Valley, Green Bay) (courtesy of Quest magazine, April 2008)

Since their beginnings in the late 1970’s as an “appreciation beer bust” for local gay bar patrons at a rural county park, pride events in northeast Wisconsin - an area loosely defined by Green Bay, the Fox Cities and Sheboygan - have had their ups and downs. The “Alive With Pride” picnic in 1995 marked the first event that officially called itself a pride festival. In 1996 “Alive With Pride” beget Rainbow Over Wisconsin, which developed from a pride picnic and bar show fundraising committee into a community foundation over the next decade. ROW coordinated annual pride picnics held in Appleton, Hilbert and DePere over the next eight years. Following its 2003 event at the Brown County Fairgrounds that featured comedian Vicki Shaw, ROW realized it had a difficult choice. To respond to the increased financial development demands from northeast LGBT community organizations, it had to decide to either stay in the “pride business” or follow more closely its stated mission as a community foundation with more diversified fundraising programming. Since it also in the interim had been asked to take over the Guernsey Gala fundraising pageant that annually raised thousands of dollars for HIV/AIDS care, ROW chose the latter. Pride event planning over the next four years went to the Argonauts of Wisconsin, who put together a loose knit coalition of community members to run the pride picnics. A licensing snafu cancelled the 2006 picnic, and the 2007 event drew fewer than 50 attendees.

In 2008, Rainbow Over Wisconsin was back in the pride business - sort of. ROW agreed to provide a new generation of community leaders- the NEWPride Committee of the LGBT Green Bay Area Action Network- its fiscal agency umbrella plus $5000 in seed money and credit, to develop and run "NEWPRide", or Pride Alive. The Pride Alive events in mid-July of 2008 and 2009 were both incredibly successful, with perfect weather and extensive and favorable coverage by all the local media.

Elsewhere in Wisconsin

Other Pride celebrations in the state include Central Wisconsin Pride in the Stevens Point area; and at least one in the western area of the state.

Jump to:   Milwaukee    Madison    Northeast Wis/ Fox Valley/ Green Bay    Elsewhere in Wis.


Pride Celebration 1981 flyer

Panels to commemorate 40 years of
Pride celebrations and the 25th PrideFest
(displayed at PrideFest 2012)

Panels to commemorate 40 years of
Pride celebrations and the 25th PrideFest
(displayed at PrideFest 2012)

Credits: design and arrangement by Don Schwamb.
Milwaukee Pride history courtesy of InStep Magazine and Don Schwamb;
Northeast Wisconsin Pride history courtesy of Quest Magazine (April 2008 issue);
Madison Pride history by Don Schwamb.
Last updated: July-2009.