This story was produced in partnership with Tone Madison, an independent, reader-supported publication covering culture and politics in Madison. You can also read it on the Tone Madison website and in the July/August 2023 issue of Our Lives print magazine, available for free at locations all around Madison.
Jojo Jubilee, a Wisconsin drag performer, picked out two songs for her performance at Sturgeon Bay’s seventh annual pride fest. Jubilee’s performance at Open Door Pride would be inspirational and theatrical, featuring P!nk’s “Trustfall” and “This Is Me,” an anthem of resilience and authenticity from the musical The Greatest Showman.
“Each one of us had a very inspirational number to lift up the community as well as a fun number, because we’re entertainers at the end of the day,” she says. “We love to make people smile, we love to make people feel welcome and loved.”
The June 24 event received local backlash, though, raising questions about the safety of hosting the drag event.
With anti-LGBTQ legislation and open bigotry taking hold in statehouses across the U.S., Pride month has taken on a new valence in communities across Wisconsin. Activists in Wisconsin’s cities and towns say they are responding to the political moment by deepening ties with their communities, rethinking event security, and creating safe spaces for LGBTQ+ kids—a vulnerable group that has been uniquely affected by the rise of transphobic and homophobic policies in schools. The pandemic spurred organizers in smaller communities around Wisconsin to form or expand their own Pride celebrations, as larger events in Milwaukee and Madison canceled or went virtual. Now, nationwide attacks on public LGBTQ+ expression are putting those smaller events in a precarious position.
Cathy Grier, a blues musician who organized the first Open Door Pride in 2017 after moving to Sturgeon Bay from New York, says she viewed the festival as an opportunity to celebrate diversity in the sleepy Door County community. In 2022, the event hosted about 40 vendors and brought hundreds of people from the peninsula. “It’s mostly local kids from the high schools, and that’s where all of our hearts are,” Grier says. “That was us back then.”
The event has grown since its first year, when Grier recalls that around 100 people gathered in the park for a picnic. LGBTQ+ organizers in Sturgeon Bay work closely with the city government to put on the events, and every year during Pride month, Sturgeon Bay’s Common Council issues a proclamation of inclusion and respect for gender and sexual diversity. Grier suspected not everyone in town was excited about the event, but pushback, if there was any, was minimal in past years.
“Even the mayor said that there are people in our lives that are part of the LGBTQ community, and we have to respect them and love them,” says Greir. This year was different: Council members received a deluge of misinformed complaints about Open Door Pride, and, in particular, the drag show.
The heightened focus on Pride events, coupled with the proliferation of guns and mass shootings in the U.S., has pushed Pride organizers to consider increased security measures. Luke Olson, Vice President of the Midwest district of the U.S. Association of Prides, says organizers in small communities, who don’t have the resources to handle potential security threats, have been particularly affected. “Especially if they’re in a public park or blocking off a city street and they’re just kind of exposed like that,” says Olson. “I know [security] is a concern that’s going on with Prides that are smaller because of the national climate.”
A climate of widespread anti-LGBTQ+ legislation
According to Trans Legislation Tracker, an organization monitoring anti-trans bills at the state and federal level, 558 bills seeking “to block trans people from receiving basic health care, education, legal recognition, and the right to publicly exist” have been introduced across the country in 2023; 86 have passed. Many bills target young people in particular by criminalizing gender-affirming (and often life-saving) health care, forcing teachers to “out” students to potentially hostile parents, and banning educational material that includes and affirms trans students. Bills policing gender expression via drag bans have been introduced in more than 30 states. The sharp rise of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation prompted the LGBTQ+ civil rights group Human Rights Campaign to declare a national state of emergency on June 6.
No such legislation has passed in the state of Wisconsin—Democratic Governor Tony Evers would almost certainly veto any anti-LGBTQ bills that made it through the Republican-controlled Legislature. (One of the most high-profile legislative efforts in Wisconsin, a pair of bills banning transgender children from school sports, passed the Assembly in June 2021 but later died in the state Senate.) But the right-wing attacks on LGBTQ+ civil rights have also intensified on the local level, with school board fights over gender-inclusive policies like respecting students’ preferred pronouns and displaying Pride flags in classrooms. Meanwhile, Moms For Liberty, a Florida-based anti-LGBTQ group that fights inclusion in classrooms under the banner of “parental rights,” has established at least 11 chapters in Wisconsin.
In May, just days before the beginning of Pride month, Kenosha County executive Samantha Kerkman banned all flags from county buildings except the American flag—a departure from the county’s practice, in past years, of flying the rainbow flag during Pride month. The rise in officially sanctioned hostility toward the LGBTQ+ community has corresponded with a rise in violent threats to Pride events in Kenosha.
Painful decisions in the name of safety
Dan Seaver, the president of Kenosha Pride, says the organization received threats in 2022 that “were deemed credible.” Due to security concerns at the event, organizers say they have been forced to coordinate with local law enforcement and even the FBI—an uncomfortable alliance, given the violence trans women of color in particular have faced at the hands of the police. “We have fought extensively as an organization on this topic,” says Seaver. “It’s not an easy topic to go through as a Pride organizer…and unfortunately, safety trumps comfort in this situation.”
In Greenfield, a community south of Milwaukee, a Pride event planned for June 25 at the town’s farmers’ market was canceled by the mayor—a decision that he said arose due to safety concerns after Milwaukee County’s first openly LGBTQ+ supervisor was attacked at a mall. The decision to cancel the event drew sharp criticism from LGBTQ+ advocates, including from Peter Burgelis, the county supervisor.
For organizers in McFarland, a village of 14,000 just south of Madison, Pride month this year was an opportunity to build out solidarity for the LGBTQ+ community and preempt the disinformation and hostility that have crept into other communities. Kristin Ellis, who founded the community’s first official Pride event, says she thought establishing a safe event for young people, with the support of the city, was especially important this year.
“The pendulum has swung backwards in our country, and I honestly feel that it’s gonna take the smaller communities to become more supportive of the queer community to push it back,” says Ellis. Ellis owns an art gallery where she hosts LGBTQ+ events, and said she encounters community members frequently who express concern for trans youth. “There’s a lot of queer, trans, non-binary students that attend the high school here, and their parents come into the gallery and [say] these kids need to be supported.” Ellis says the event, which was scheduled for June 25, would feature live music, yoga, food carts, and vendors. The festival gained the support of trustees on the village board, and coordinated with the fire and police departments.
Meanwhile, in Door County, Pride organizers decided in the interest of public safety to suspend drag performances this year. The volume of backlash against the Common Council had become concerning; Grier, who organized the events, didn’t feel she could justify the risk.
“The whole situation with drag shows kind of caught me off-guard because we’ve really had an easygoing time, and a beautiful time up here—and [before], Door County was supporting the idea of Pride Month,” says Spencer Gustafson, an alder on Sturgeon Bay’s Common Council. Gustafson had personally received 20 emails opposing the drag event at the time of our conversation.
“It does suck that we aren’t able to show off our craft,” said Jubilee, who had planned to perform at the event. “We’re not something to be scared of. We’re human beings who love entertaining…By definition, we are performers who do theater, and we love the art form.”