By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Oct 08, 2021 at 10:31 AM

For a moment, it appeared like 2021 would be another year without PrideFest in Milwaukee. But Pride could not be defeated, as a rescheduled fall version of the state's largest LGBTQ+ celebration – Pridetoberfest – will bring the party, love and visibility back to Henry Maier Festival Park on Friday, Oct. 8 and Saturday, Oct. 9. 

While this special October-based Pride festival may be slightly smaller than past recent editions, it's no less jam-packed with incredible performers – this year's key headliners include Big Freedia, Gottmik and "RuPaul's Drag Race" season 12 winner Jaida Essence Hall – and even more incredible community coming together after more than a year apart. There's even a film premiere: "Visibility for Existence," a locally-made documentary short telling the story of Milwaukee Black trans rapper Flowers Forever – the first in hopefully a series of short docs focusing on Milwaukee's LGBTQ+ community, their triumphs and their struggles. The film will debut at 3:30 p.m. at the opening ceremony on Friday before hitting the main stage on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., complete with the director and subject in person.

Between performances, premieres and the people gathering once again, Pridetoberfest promises to be the loving celebration you remember in a PrideFest unlike any other – an impressive feat considering just a half a year ago, it seemed like Milwaukee would once again go without a PrideFest this year. To learn more about PrideFest's fall resurrection, the tricky process to get this point, planning around the COVID-19 pandemic and why this festival is still so important, we chatted with Milwaukee Pride President Wes Shaver. 

OnMilwaukee: When was the moment when you realized you could still have a PrideFest this year? How did that decision-making process happen?

Wes Shaver: It was early June. The city officials and city leadership lifted all of the bans, restrictions and capacity regulations I believe a few days before the originally scheduled dates for June PrideFest. We immediately saw other people moving forward still, and it was a few conversations between myself and our festival producer where we thought, “Could we do this? Could we pull this off?” 

At the June board meeting, we met and everyone unanimously said, “Yeah, let’s try to do something. People are ready to get together, and our community really needs that space.” Because two years of isolation and two years of a lack of any visibility, the community felt that they were really needing that. It was early July that we announced that we were doing an October festival, so that moved pretty quickly.

Why was it important to still have a PrideFest?

The first thing is, with any minority group or underrepresented group, they’re fighting for space, and they’re fighting for visibility. Every day, a person in a minority group has to educate somebody else on what they are, who they are and why they belong. So visibility is a huge piece. I always talk about changing hearts and changing minds when it comes to breaking down barriers, stereotypes, injustices and discrimination, and visibility is huge. It’s the key component of adding color to the social fabric because out of visibility come conversations, come ideas, come collaborations. 

So having a PrideFest, even in October, is important because, for two years, tens of thousands of Milwaukeeans and Wisconsinites weren’t able to be in a safe space to be visible. Because so many people live in the shadows and live isolated in their homes, afraid to be their genuine selves out of potentially physical or mental abuse, and it’s just painful for people. So PrideFest creates the largest safe, affirming and welcoming place for folks – and that’s why we did it.

How did you decide how you wanted to handle the COVID protocols aspect of all of this? Because you’re doing the “you need evidence of a vaccination or a negative test” for entry.

When we canceled the festival for June, one of the sticking points that I shared publicly was I didn’t want to produce a festival that would put restrictions at the gate, because I felt they would further segregate members of our community when it comes to accessibility. We have to remember that not everyone can get in their car and get tested, or has medical insurance, or has the resources to be educated on where to get tested, how to get tested, where to get a vaccine, how to get a vaccine. We, the majority of us, take for granted the influx of information and the access we have to things. I feared that putting a vaccination requirement or test requirement at the gate would ultimately do exactly what our festival never intends to do: let some people in and leave some people out.

With that being said, when Summerfest rolled out their requirements and other organizations rolled them out, I had to look at my intentionality. And I’m disappointed that I have to have something to segregate people at the gates, because I know that’s unfair. But it is for the betterment of everyone and the overall health of our city. And luckily, the LGBT community is very inclined to get tested and be vaccinated. 

Do you expect the vibe to be a little different this year with it being a fall festival instead of its usual summer spot? Or do you think it’s going to be a similar energy?

I honestly think it’s going to be the same. We thought that this was just going to be a small get-together. Well, nothing we do is small. (laughs) It basically turned into the original footprint of the festival – which, by the way, PrideFest moved to the Henry Maier Festival Park 25 years ago this year. 

It’s 21 hours of straight entertainment and DJs and dance parties and engagement. The only thing that’s going to be different – well, actually, according to the weather now, I think it’s going to be more like June than we ever thought. So our attendees should be expecting the same exact June festival vibe and experience and opportunities to make memories.

It’s a great lineup this year. Are there any acts this year that you’re particularly excited about for this edition?

Jaida Essence Hall, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” season 12 winner and Milwaukee drag queen royalty. She won the series and then couldn’t celebrate because of the pandemic. She got robbed of all of the glitz and glam and tours and appearances that every other queen got to experience. Doing this event was really inspired by giving Jaida the homecoming party and big blow-out in her hometown that she deserves. So she’s the dance pavilion host and, in my eyes, the main act of the whole weekend.

Our lineup is about 90 percent local. There’s a few out-of-towners – Big Freedia and Gottmik, a runner-up from season 13 of “Drag Race” – but 90 percent of our lineup is all local.

I’d love to know more about this film project – “Visibility for Existence” – that’s debuting this weekend.

This came together very quickly. I met with the filmmaker yesterday, and he said, “In the history of my career, nothing’s every come together this quick. It’s kismet; it’s meant to be.” 

Back in April, I announced that I was doing this digital health and wellness website that takes about a third of our festival footprint and puts it on the website, creating 365 days of access to healthcare providers and service providers for the LGBT community. I met with my friend and colleague Colin (Sytsma), who’s a filmmaker, and said that we should do a film series that documents and tells the stories of LGBTQ people in Milwaukee and why mental health, health, self-worth and self-love are important. 

He took that and ran with it. And at the same time, a mentor of his – one of the founding people at Dreamworks – she reached out to him and said, “Hey, I have this bright young film student at UWM who would love to work on a project with you; what do you have?” And he pitched this idea. So I met the director, Nick Leffel, and he loved this idea – and he’s actually friends with Flowers Forever, so he asked her to be the subject of this first film. And that’s how it all happened. 

We’re hoping to have a series of four films done before next June’s PrideFest, and the project is being pitched now to get funded, to put together a comprehensive full docu-series around LGBTQ people in Milwaukee on the themes of visibility, accessibility and responsibility. 

So it’s this great story of people coming together and wanting to amplify others and raise others up. And Flowers is the epitome of why stories need to be told. 

Pridetoberfest will take place at Henry Maier Festival Park on Friday, Oct. 8 (3 p.m. until midnight) and Saturday, Oct. 9 (noon to midnight). For more information on tickets, performers and more, visit PrideFest's website. And for other LGBTQ+ resources an easy click away, visit Milwaukee Pride's virtual health and wellness platform.

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.