What’s Up With Madison Pride?

Controversy, logistical hurdles, strained resources, and miscommunication all combined to spell the end of OutReach’s Pride Parade in 2019.

(this article was updated 4/15/2019 at 1:08 p.m.)

OutReach LGBT Community Center announced in March that the organization will not hold a Pride parade in Madison this August.

The decision comes after a tumultuous 2018 event that involved rescinding invitations to law enforcement contingents in the parade after pushback from local activists, and an intense backlash to that decision from other parts of the community.

In a press release dated March 26, the OutReach board said the decision to forgo the parade was a difficult one, but largely based on logistical hurdles in the form of city ordinance changes related to how many events are allowed to close off downtown streets, as well as overall strain on the organization’s limited resources. Confusion and incomplete information lead both OutReach and the Crazylegs race to change their plans for 2019. The final rules passed by the Common Council on March 19, however, did ultimately include exemptions for so-called “legacy” events, which included the Pride parade. By then, though it wasn’t yet public, OutReach’s board had already made its decision.

The goal instead will shift to holding the newly dubbed OutReach Magic Festival at Warner Park, on Sunday, August 18 to coincide with Woof’s King Street Pride Block Party the day before. The name is a nod to the MAGIC picnics held for years in Madison as the de facto Pride celebration. Organizing is currently underway, with plans that include live music, games, vendors, and more.

Misunderstandings and confusion

Complications around organizing for a 2019 parade arose as early as December 2018. OutReach Executive Director Steve Starkey told Our Lives that a series of changes and stipulations by the city, as he understood them at the time, posed a difficult scenario.

The new ordinance limits the number of events allowed to cause street closures on the downtown isthmus. Increasing costs to the city, traffic snarls, and missed or delayed bus rides disproportionately impacting low income people and people of color, were all cited as reasons for the changes.

Ald. Mike Verveer, who has represented a major portion of the downtown for 25 years, says that he was initially alerted to a proposed ordinance change in early November 2018. A core group of people from the Street Use Commission–a committee made up of representatives from 12 different city departments and to which the Common Council delegates decisions about permitting street closures–had been working behind the scenes for two years to come up with a proposal to address the various concerns of different departments. When it was finally sent to Verveer, along with former Mayor Paul Soglin and recently retired Ald. Ledell Zellers, it came as something of a surprise, he says.

“I was like, whoa, this is the district I represent and you haven’t included me in any of the discussions at all,” Verveer remembers. “They notified me of the one public meeting they had on the south side and then I insisted they have one in the downtown. That then lead to me saying fine, I will sponsor the ordinance and get it introduced but I cannot ever support this without some very significant changes to your approach.”

Those changes included creating the “legacy” designation to specifically carve out exemptions for longstanding downtown events, including the UW Homecoming Parade and Pride. The ordinance allows events that have held permits for 10 or more years to qualify for the special status.

“I in no way shape or form wanted Pride to be the first collateral damage to the new Street Use policy,” Verveer says. “The legacy definition, the grandfathering of events that have been around for about 10 years or more…it was all heard in public meetings that Pride would be exempt. The rationale being that, yes it’s true OutReach has not been the organizer of Pride the entire time, but Pride has been around ever since I was an undergrad in college and it was called Galvanize.”

That information either didn’t reach Starkey in time for the board to make its decision, or was unclear. In an interview shortly after OutReach released its plans to cancel the parade, Starkey expressed frustration with Verveer and with what he saw as insurmountable obstacles being placed by the city against the event.

Starkey says that Verveer warned him in December about the proposed changes, including that police were talking about needing 40 officers to patrol the event, which would represent more than double the numbers and cost of previous years.

Despite that, Starkey says that meetings with MPD Pride in January and February went well enough that OutReach was still hoping to go ahead with plans for a parade. Capt. Brian Chaney Austin and PO Jodi Nelson, the two main Madison Police Deptarment representatives with the LGBTQ employee group, indicated that they would “stand down” and not apply to march as an official contingent, in deference to the controversy the year before.

Some logistical concerns

When Starkey finally went before the Street Use Committee for a preliminary meeting in February to discuss possible plans for a parade, he says both Chaney Austin and Verveer promised to attend and advocate on behalf of OutReach. Neither showed up, he says.

“I was there on my own, talking to the committee,” Starkey says. “That probably would have really changed the situation if they had been there. I was planning to have their support, and I didn’t.”

Starkey says that, at the time, the committee was still pushing for Pride to dramatically alter its route, either to another part of town entirely or to the capitol square. Between the assumed restrictions, costs, and ongoing fallout from the previous years’ conflicts, OutReach’s board decided to issue its decision.

“I don’t want to assign any blame to OutReach or to Steve on this,” Verveer is careful to add. “As I attempted to explain in the other interviews I did on this…I see Crazylegs changing its starting line and OutReach canceling the parade as being very similar situations. They were being told by city staff for the last couple of years that their events were really problematic, and that it really would be helpful if they changed their route.”

Now that both have dramatically changed their plans for the year, that could impact the ability of either to return to their original routes in the future, thanks to the language of the current ordinance. Verveer says he plans to push for further amendments in the future, so that if a Pride parade were to be resurrected, it could still have a shot at using the downtown route.

Verveer seems optimistic about his chances, and is clear about support for Pride on the committee and the Common Council generally.

“There was no complaint, at least in my presence–and they all know I’m gay, it’s no secret, and they know for me it’s perhaps a little personal. There was no dissention among any of the Street Use staff commission members in our private meetings or public meetings. Pride would be exempt.”

Policing realities

Also at the Street Use Committee meeting earlier in the year was Madison Police Department representative Lt. Dave McCaw, who recently moved back into the role after Chaney Austin was promoted. McCaw had also been the rep in 2014, the first year OutReach took over holding a Pride parade.

In addition to what Starkey says Verveer told him about the dramatically increased police staffing needs proposed for this year, he also claims that McCaw “never even looked at me” over the course of the meeting. Instead, Starkey says, McCaw directed his answers to Kelli Lamberty, the community events coordinator and meeting facilitator. That lack of engagement, plus the difficulty of holding the parade the first year, are reasons Starkey gives for believing McCaw “is not particularly LGBT friendly.”

McCaw and Chaney Austin both find that accusation unfair and hurtful. In a conversation with the two of them following Our Livesinitial online reporting of OutReach’s decision, the two pushed back strongly on many of Starkey’s claims.

“He won’t say this himself so I will,” Chaney Austin says. “Dave is one of our strongest allies on MPD Pride. I take offense at the assertion that he’s not LGBT friendly.”

Verveer also spoke with McCaw shortly after the first Our Lives article published that included Starkey’s accusations. He says McCaw was “pained” by the implication that he was in any way homophobic.

Further, McCaw adds, nothing was said at the meeting about the number of officers needed for a parade, as Starkey first claimed. “He came with what-ifs, but no solid plan,” McCaw says. Police and other departments can’t issue numbers or needs until a plan is officially presented, they add. They’re also largely beholden to whatever the city’s Traffic Engineer, Tom Mohr, decides are the logistical needs for a particular event.

“Tom gives us a detailed map of the route and where intersections would need to be policed for traffic safety, and then we assign officers based on that,” McCaw says. “I’m very middle-management. I don’t make these decisions.”

Starkey also claims that a change from designating the parade as special duty to a district event added cost and unneeded extra officers. McCaw and Chaney Austin counter that as well. The issue is a bit complex, but breaks down to this: Special duty events were meant to cover instances like a downtown church requesting an officer or two to direct traffic after services. District events cover most parades and festivals, like Pride, which involve greater logistical and security needs.

In the past, uniformed officers who marched as part of the parade also counted toward the total number of security staff required for the event. They cost less because participating in an event fell under the special duty designation, which is covered under MPPO time instead of regular pay. But because police were being asked not to participate in the parade at all, those numbers would then have to be made up for with officers working regular duty hours.

Starkey says he was told by Verveer that McCaw stated he wouldn’t be able to find enough officers to volunteer to cover the parade with the increased needs. That, too, McCaw and Chaney Austin both say is incorrect. It also gives the wrong impression of police attitudes toward the event.

“Other than Mifflin Street Block Party, cops really like working these things,” says Chaney Austin. It’s an all-too rare opportunity to find work that’s a reprieve from the much harder, often darker things cops encounter day-to-day. “We get high-fives and thank-yous. People smile at us. What’s not to like?”

Cross-purposes

There were other hurdles presented prior to the new ordinance being adopted that made a downtown parade appear unfeasible, Starkey says. Traffic and Madison Metro both required that, if a parade were to happen there, it would need to stop and pause at all three lighted intersections. Participation in the parade would also need to be downsized to just 60 entries, and the date would have to be moved two weeks off its usual spot, breaking it away from other Pride activities.

The city also floated the idea of holding the parade on Williamson Street, as it was the first two years OutReach ran it. Starkey says that was less than ideal, given the lack of open businesses or people on the sidewalks in that part of town on a Sunday.

OutReach initially proposed the Williamson Street route in 2014 as a way to both work around city concerns and to tie it in with two sponsors of the parade–Plan B and Woof’s. Even still, the process was a rocky one that Starkey says he doesn’t look back at with any fondness.

“We had pretty lousy experiences with the Street Use Committee in 2014,” Starkey says. “Partly because of the number of officers they required [40], partly because they did not want us to use State Street. They wanted us to be on the capitol square only, and then they didn’t want us to go any way.”

Starkey says that the representative for Metro was so opposed to the parade that she “stood up, wringing her hands, and said ‘I’m so worried, I’m so scared, this is going to be a fiasco, we’re going to have a riot, I don’t know what’s going to happen, we should not do this.’ She was begging the committee to not let us have the parade.”

Finally, after its Williamson Street proposal met resistance for it requiring the closure of the Highway 151/Blair Street intersection, OutReach went directly to former Mayor Paul Soglin and asked him to intervene on their behalf. “Then they were really mad at us for going over their head,” he admits.

The tactic worked. The parade was given the go-ahead for Williamson Street, and much of the organizing at the time fell to former OutReach volunteer Derwin Leigh. McCaw says he had his own lousy experiences with Leigh, who he says was demanding and difficult to work with from the start.

“He wanted us to remove all parking along this very residential street,” McCaw says. “But then [Leigh] said he and his people would take care of putting up the signs for it, to save money. We said OK, but it has to be done at least 48 hours in advance of the parade to be legally enforceable. I tried contacting him several times when it wasn’t getting done and heard nothing back.”

The signs were finally put up, but with about 24 hours to go. When the city said they couldn’t enforce it, and didn’t tow cars the morning of the parade, Leigh blamed the city. McCaw says that Starkey was aware of what happened and even reached out to arrange a meeting to apologize. “I thought we left things on good terms.”

The silver lining

Ultimately, Starkey seems relieved to be focused on a festival instead of a parade. There are fewer permits required, for one. Security can also be hired from a private firm instead of police. OutReach operates with a very small budget and just two full-time staff members. It relies heavily on community donations and volunteer help to do its work, which is largely focused on providing services and support to the LGBTQ+ community.

Starkey says that, in discussions with the Community Pride Coalition (CPC), the group didn’t want any police involvement in a parade whatsoever. Between that and the city’s legal requirements, “It really backed us into a corner.”

The CPC is fully on board for the festival, though the issue seems to have once again split community opinions.

“Is OutReach truly bound to provide the community with this? Is it part of their mission?” Burt Tower commented on Facebook. “If Madison wants a pride event badly enough, a group of dedicated volunteers should step up. And if nobody steps up, well I guess it’s just not important to our community to have it.”

“I”m truly sad to see no pride parade in 2019,” commented Allison Madison. “While I’m sure logistics must require the parade to be retired for now, and while I’m sure that there are those who will appreciate the picnic, it definitely won’t be the same as letting our colors fly up State Street. Heck, it’ll feel as if we’ll be penned in, a condition our proud LGBT+ community should not be subjected to.”

Starkey is doing his best to look on the bright side, though he understands the decision is disappointing for many. A festival, he hopes, will cost significantly less and provide more of an opportunity for the different parts of the LGBTQ+ community to really come together and get to know one another.

“A parade doesn’t really foster an atmosphere where people are going to do a lot of meeting new people or have conversations,” Starkey says. “There’s a lot of division in the LGBT community because there’s so many different groups…we need to have a lot more interaction between those groups so that people aren’t just in their own little faction but reaching out and meeting more people, being more inclusive.”

Starkey says OutReach is focused on making a festival more diverse and inclusive of the various communities, with specific focus on young people, people of color, and the trans community.

He adds, “[I hope] this will be kind of a healing situation where the community can come together and start to build new relationships, build trust, and unity.”

He also hopes that, depending on potential changes in city leadership over time and the potential for other groups to step in to help fund and organize them, this won’t be the end of Pride parades in Madison.

OutReach will be looking for volunteers to help with the festival itself. Keep an eye on their website and newsletter (lgbtoutreach.org) as more information becomes available. Individuals who want to help specifically with planning and organization can reach out directly to Angie Rehling at angier@lgbtoutreach.org.

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