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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Twenty-Five Years of Pride

Milwaukee PrideFest celebrates June 8-10

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PrideFest is 25 years old. To honor that, Milwaukee's LGBTQ celebration June 8-10 will welcome back to the Summerfest grounds "some of those who got us here," board President Scott Gunkel says. Pop singer/songwriter Taylor Dayne will return as the Saturday night headliner, and the new wave band Berlin with singer Terri Nunn will close the festival on Sunday.

Other major acts are newcomers. Belinda Carlisle, who gained fame as the lead singer of the all-women band The Go-Go's, will head the Friday night lineup. Sunday's show will also feature the hip-hop/soul duo God-Des and She, originally from Madison, now a big hit on the web and MTV-Logo. Sharon Needles, the latest winner of "RuPaul's Drag Race," will host the Sunday night festivities in the Dance Arena. The glamorously ghoulish diva is expected to make her entrance in a coffin.

PrideFest incorporated in 1994 but dates itself from 1987, when the Milwaukee Lesbian/Gay Pride Committee organized to plan a celebration of Milwaukee's LGBTQ communities, re-energizing the effort begun by the Gay Peoples Union in the '70s to banish shame and secrecy. Several hundred people participated in a week of activities in 1988. The following year, 500 marched from Walker's Point to Cathedral Square, where another 500 joined for a civil rights rally.

That march was the start of PrideFest for me. In 1990, I signed on to manage the stage in Cathedral Square, and I kept that job for six years as the festival grew by leaps and bounds through three years in Juneau Park and two more in Veterans Park. PrideFest changes lives. Running the stage in 1991, I met my partner, Jay, a musician performing that year. PrideFest's 25th anniversary is our 21st.

Every move in those early years was worried over by the volunteers who made the event possible, but none caused more concern than the 1996 move to the Summerfest grounds. Some feared that, to survive there, the event would have to dull its activist edge. But something better happened, something all the hard work had helped to produce: Much of the city opened its hearts and minds to the notion of equality. Everyone can be an activist in that good cause. What better image of the future than an all-people's LGBTQ-hosted celebration at the best festival facility in the nation.

Gunkle sums it up: "Being on these grounds makes us a respected part of the city." He also notes that Milwaukee presents the largest entertainment lineup of any pride event in the nation and possibly the world.

New this year will be the Wom!nz Spot Lounge and Café above the food court at the Harley Stage. It will host a packed lineup of women's music and entertainment in one area and workshops on women's issues in another. Gunkle also recommends it as a place for men to learn what women's music really is.

The Harley-Davidson Motor Co. is a new PrideFest sponsor. A preview of the Harley-Davidson Museum's new exhibit, "Worn to be Wild: The Black Leather Jacket," which opens June 16 and features a large collection of leather jackets from the early 1900s through the present, will be on display. A woman's leather jacket will be raffled.

A "Twenty-Five Years of Pride Exhibit" will fill much of the Art and History Building. Many community members have contributed photographs and documents to this important collection, which PrideFest manages. The Milwaukee Gay Arts Center Stage will present international dances by "A Pride of Dancers," as well as musicians, comedians and a talent showcase. Elsewhere, the Children's Stage will offer magicians, circus acts and other family entertainment during daytime hours.

The Health and Wellness Area is Gunkle's pride and joy because, he says, it introduces people to the many service organizations relevant to the LGBT community in ways "that don't drag you down." In fact, you'll leave these positive presentations with a free apple and ice-cold bottle of mineral water, any number of other rewards, and a raffle ticket for a motorbike.

The popular PumpWorks Dance Arena will be hosted by a series of fine DJs including, on Saturday, special guest DJ Dave Audé. The all-day main stage acts include award-winning area musicians and astonishing drag artists of all genders. The LGBTQ fireworks—the first of the summer—start at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday.

Writer and musician John Schneider is a proud member of the
Shepherd Express staff and the Marquette University performing arts faculty.