When PrideFest in Milwaukee was cancelled for the second year in a row due to pandemic safety concerns, Cormac Kehoe and Sarah Tybring knew it was important to provide a safe way for the community to have options for showing their pride.
Kehoe and Tybring are two of the organizers behind Ride With Pride, the annual roll-out of LGBTQ motorcyclists in Milwaukee. After calling off last year’s event, and seeing vaccination rates going up this year, it seemed high time to get back in the saddle. They agree the ride, held June 5, provided a much-needed way for celebration and visibility.
“I hope that the Pride Ride continues to bring together motorcycle enthusiasts, our LGBTQ+ community, and our supportive community as well,” Tybring said. “I hope we continue to show what a positive culture we can be.”
“This year PrideFest and the parade are both canceled, so we decided this ride needs to happen,” Kehoe said. “Back when we first announced the ride, when we searched online for ‘pride events Milwaukee,’ you’d see our motorcycle ride, followed by a drag show for cats. We roared along the old Pride parade route, past all the landmarks of our community, flying pride flags. I really felt like the city needed that right now, more than ever.”
Since then, other individuals and businesses have also stepped in to help fill the gap left by large-scale Pride celebrations. George Schneider and the crew at Milwaukee’s This Is It! put together an impressive slate of drag shows and other Pride-related events at the historic downtown bar, running the entire month of June.
Across the state, smaller towns and cities got back to in-person Pride events, including Steven’s Point, Eau Claire, Aniwa, Fond du Lac, and others that held picnics and gatherings with DJs, vendors, and entertainment.
In Madison, Freedom, Inc. held a Pride Brunch at Aldo Leopold Park, bringing Pride to the city’s south side and centering Madison’s Black and Southeast Asian LGBTQ communities. Teens Like Us, the LGBTQ program of Briarpatch Youth Services, held a Pride Prom at its headquarters on June 26.
Looking ahead, OutReach LGBT Center will keep its Magic Pride Fest virtual for the second year in a row, with the online event scheduled for August 22 from 1:00 to 6:00 p.m. and featuring a wide array of entertainment, speakers, and other attractions. Local DJ and promoter Sarah Akawa (aka Saint Saunter) has brought back the Hot Summer Gays series, with upcoming outdoor dance parties on July 23 and August 13 at Robinia Courtyard.
Other local events have also moved outside Pride month, hedging on better vaccination rates and more time to plan for August and after: Kenosha Pride is scheduled for August 22 at Veterans Memorial Park, La Crosse will hold its Pride on September 11 at Riverside Park, and Viroqua Area Pride will celebrate on September 25.
Back to Pride’s roots
Between the challenges of holding in-person events during a still-churning pandemic and the heightened awareness of and focus on political and social issues that disproportionately impact minoritized communities, Pride in the era of COVID has, in many ways, returned to its political protest foundations.
In Milwaukee, the second annual March With Pride for Black Lives Matter took over downtown streets on June 13, not with floats and corporate sponsors, but through sheer people power.
Organized by a coalition of local activists and performers, including Montell Infiniti Ross, Elle Halo, Kat Klawes, and Angel Vega, the march is meant to show solidarity with the BLM movement and how Black and LGBTQ liberation have been inextricably intertwined since their beginnings.
“I feel so amazing seeing our community coming out and supporting the cause,” Ross said in an interview with the local CBS station. Ross emphasized the hope that such events will galvanize people to continue their support for marginalized communities, even as news cycles change.
“Make sure to keep the movement alive,” Ross said. “And the movement currently needs to move within systemic change, systemic change with a lot of policies and procedures that affect marginalized populations as well as our Black and brown communities.”
What of the world’s largest Pride festival?
The loss of PrideFest in Milwaukee is still keenly felt by many who wonder how Milwaukee Pride, the non-profit that runs the event, will bounce back after two years without its marquee event. Still others have openly complained at what they see as a lack of community support or engagement by the group.
Wes Shaver, president of Milwaukee Pride since 2017, has been busy making sure the Pride is still front and center in the city, even as the Summerfest grounds remain quiet for now. He also said the organization itself is on solid financial footing, despite the lack of revenue since its 2019 event. Shaver pushed back on the notion that the organization has been idle, too.
“It was really important…to remain relevant and be connected to the community for the last two seasons,” Shaver said. “The first thing that I did was take on this project to create this digital health and wellness space…that’s live 365 days a year and is fully responsive and free. I really wanted to show that the festival is more than just the festival and that this public service component still lived throughout the year. The good news was that we have something now that lives forever.”
Shaver went on to list the other events he and Milwaukee Pride have supported this year, including a collaboration with 88.9FM Milwaukee and DJ Shawna for a dance party and light show at the Hoan Bridge.
“The whole street was blocked and there were thousands of people down there, safely, dancing to the live stream of the DJ set,” said Shaver. “They’re dressed in their Pride outfits, they’re celebrating Pride. That’s what was really important for us to do, was still create affirming and safe spaces for people to celebrate however they celebrate and do it this year even without the festival.”
The group also worked with the Milwaukee County Transit Authority and Milwaukee Downtown to have a bus and streetcar wrapped in artwork celebrating Pride and the LGBTQ community. Shaver said he was invited to work behind the scenes to support the March With Pride for Black Lives Matter, acting more in his individual capacity, but noting that Milwaukee Pride is in full support of the movement and the people behind it.
“I hope that the BLM march becomes a part of the Pride weekend in Milwaukee, in some capacity, forever,” he said.