History

For over 30 years, PrideFest Milwaukee has been proudly celebrating LGBTQ culture and community!

We’re the world’s largest LGBTQ festival with permanent festival grounds, owned and operated entirely by volunteers each and every year.

PrideFest Milwaukee does not have one paid employee, simply the dedication and devotion to bring together a festival each and every year for our community.

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Milwaukee’s LGBTQ “pride” celebrations go all the way back to 1974, when 350 people attended the Gay People’s Union Ball.  There are stories of earlier, smaller, more private annual gatherings, but unfortunately, no documentation available to honor them.

Many dances and parties followed the GPU  Ball, but it wasn’t until 1988 that the first official events were hosted by the Milwaukee Lesbian/Gay Pride Committee. Several hundred people participated in the week-long celebration, which included a softball tournament at Mitchell Park, picnic, formal ball and film festival.

In June 1989, the MLGPC organized a march from Walker’s Point to a historic rally in Cathedral Square.

pridefestMilwaukee Mayor John Norquist addressed the crowd of 1000, affirming, “We are proud of who you are.” By the end of the day, religious organizations threatened Norquist with a recall effort, and the MLGPC rally led the local news. Milwaukee’s LGBTQ community would no longer allow themselves to be ignored.

In the early ’90s, the rally moved to Juneau Park along the lakefront to accommodate the growing crowds. Entertainment stages and food stands were added, creating a festival atmosphere.

In 1994, the original MLGPC was dissolved and the new PrideFest Milwaukee, Inc. was incorporated. The festival moved to Veterans Park for two days of activities featuring exhibits, three stages, and dozens of craftspeople and vendors. “Light Up the Sky with Pride” was added to the line-up in 1995, making PrideFest the first Pride event in the nation to host its own fireworks display.

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PrideFest’s biggest and most exciting move occurred in 1996, this time to Henry W. Maier Festival Park, the home of SummerFest and Milwaukee’s ethnic festival line-up. Since then, PrideFest has enjoyed the honor of kicking off Milwaukee’s summer festival season every summer.

With permanent stages, exhibit buildings, vendor pavilions and full support from Milwaukee World Festivals, PrideFest continued its elevation to a nationally-recognized pride festival.

By 1997, PrideFest was hosting entertainment on four stages, a dance tent, presentations and lectures, the Miller Lite Volleyball Tournament, a parade, vendors, a religious ceremony, a mass wedding/commitment ceremony and the fireworks show.

In 2003, the PrideFest Task Force was formed to make the festival financially viable and guarantee future celebrations.

Over the past several years, PrideFest’s headliners have read like a who’s-who of the entertainment world.

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Cyndi Lauper playing PrideFest 2009

Cyndi Lauper, Kathy Griffin, Amanda Palmer, Pat Benatar, Chaka Kahn, Wanda Sykes, Patti LaBelle, Joan Rivers, Indigo Girls, t.A.T.u.’s Lena Katina, Margaret Cho, Joan Jett, En Vogue, Taylor Dayne, Lisa Lampanelli, Sandra Bernhard, Ty Herndon, Sarah Silverman, Blondie, the B-52s, Big Freedia, Jussie Smollett, Crystal Waters, Kristine W, Natasha Bedingfield, Todrick Hall, Jojo, Pam Ann, Lady Bunny, Mary Lambert, Steve Grand, Macy Gray, En Vogue, Ani DiFranco, Betty Who and RuPaul have all graced the main stage.

The Dance Pavilion has become a destination in its own right. National and local DJs spin for rapt audiences while roving performance artists hype up the crowd.  International superstar DJs, including Hector Fonseca, Chris Cox, Cazwell, Joe Gauthreaux, Ralphi Rosario, Antics and many many more, have served Milwaukee with the finest mixes ever heard in the city.  Guest appearances, ranging from RuPaul’s Drag Race stars to Amanda Lepore to Trixie Mattel, have made the Dance Pavilion an unpredictable and exciting experience.

In 2007, the Health & Wellness Area debuted, increasing PrideFest’s commitment to the community. Currently, over 30 organizations take part in the area, which includes HIV & AIDS testing, interactive performances on a dedicated stage, and prize opportunities for those who visit.

In 2013, we introduced the Wom!nz Spot and Cafe, a showcase for Milwaukee’s many talented female performers — and those who love them. The Loft Lounge, sponsored by the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center and featuring Milwaukee’s local artists, joined the festival footprint in 2014.

On Friday, June 6, 2014, PrideFest Milwaukee was thrilled to announce the first arrival of marriage equality in Wisconsin.  Moments after our gates opened, Judge Barbara Crabb made Wisconsin history by declaring the state ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. During our opening ceremonies, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele announced that the courthouse would remain open that weekend, until all seeking marriage licenses could be served.

In 2015, PrideFest Inc. reorganized as Milwaukee Pride, Inc., a new, year-round 501(c)3 community service organization.  With the benefits of full non-profit status, Milwaukee Pride is positioned to take PrideFest to even greater heights.

PrideFest Milwaukee expanded to four days in 2018 with the addition of a Thursday launch party. Despite unseasonable weather, PrideFest Milwaukee shattered all attendance records in 2018 with 45,400 visitors over the four-day weekend.

Year after year, the festival surprises and delights proud attendees of all kinds. The only constant is change — and continuous growth!