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Rainbow crosswalks installed downtown to honor Milwaukee’s LGBT community

The city’s first rainbow crosswalks were installed at the intersection of Jefferson and Wells streets at the southwest corner of Cathedral Square on November 3, recognizing the LGBT heritage of the location.

Milwaukee joins dozens of communities worldwide who have established permanent and visible tribute to their local LGBT communities. Milwaukee Pride, in partnership with the East Town Association and with the support of 13 LGBT organizations, began negotiations with the City of Milwaukee in August 2018.

“We are a community that accepts people, and embraces people that we want to be together,” said Mayor Tom Barrett. “I think this is an important message for all of us.”

The Decorative Crosswalk Permit Application was approved by the City of Milwaukee on October 29, 2018. The rainbow crosswalks were implemented at the east-west crossings of Jefferson Street north and south of Wells Street. Inspired by this ongoing dialogue, the Department of Public Works has established new design guidelines and a formal application process to govern future requests.

“Crosswalks are designed to protect people and let them pass across the street unharmed. While rainbow crosswalks do that too, they also let members of a particularly vulnerable population know that their greater community supports them as they move forward in their paths,” said Tony Snell Rodriguez, Commissioner of the City of Milwaukee’s Equal Rights Commission. “They affirmed that we, as LGBT people, are a valuable part of the city. LGBT people are invested in Milwaukee, and Milwaukee is invested in us. We’re all in this together, a rainbow of colors and people, woven into the very fabric of the city.”

Alderman Robert Bauman explained that because Wells Street is designated as Wisconsin State Highway 32, legislators in Madison were required to approve the installation. As a result, the process encountered an unwillingness to recognize Milwaukee’s request for inclusiveness. Federal law prevents colored crosswalks from being painted on state highways, and that was used to stall the efforts. In response, the city altered the direction of the crosswalks, placing them on Jefferson Street which was under municipal jurisdiction and within the city’s authority to paint.

“As winter approaches, we are excited and honored to bring color to the streets of Milwaukee,” said Wes Shaver, president of Milwaukee Pride. “Milwaukee has long outgrown the notion of pride as a once-a-year weekend event. We strongly believe that pride, and every member of our community, must be visible and vocal year-round — especially during these concerning political times.”

As the applicant and petitioner for the project, Milwaukee Pride became the non-profit steward of the rainbow crosswalks. No tax dollars will be spent on the design, installation or maintenance of the crosswalks, which will be entirely community self-funded. Sponsor engagement, through crowdfunding and other donations, will be managed by Milwaukee Pride’s executive board. Organizations raised funds for the initial installation of $2,000. Crowley Construction Inc. of Wauwatosa completed design and installation.

“By activating projects like the rainbow crosswalks, underwriting community resources like the Wisconsin LGBT History Project, and hosting events like BeOUT Day and the Stonewall Stage Series, Milwaukee Pride is amplifying the vibrant and diverse colors of our local LGBT community,” added Shaver.

The dedication ceremony was hosted by Mayor Tom Barrett, Alderman Bob Bauman, community organizers, and business owners, which coincided with the opening of The Hop, Milwaukee’s new downtown streetcar. One of the M-Line’s main stations is located at the northern side of Cathedral Square. Milwaukee was recently recognized by the Human Rights Campaign with a 100% perfect score on the Municipal Equality Index.

The crosswalks were dedicated to June Brehm, who founded This Is It in 1968. Disheartened by the discrimination her gay friends experienced, June set forth to create a space for them that was “just as good, if not better than anywhere else.” Today, her 50-year legacy stands at 418 W. Wells as the only pre-Stonewall bar in Milwaukee, the longest continuously operating LGBT space in Wisconsin, and one of the top 10 oldest gay bars in the nation.

Participants of the 1st Annual Milwaukee Pride March & Rally, which extended from Walker’s Point to Cathedral Square on June 17, 1989 to protest inequalities, discrimination, homophobia and neglect of the AIDS crisis.

“We are proud of who you are,” said Mayor John Norquist, broadcasting live on all three local TV news channels.

With over 1,500 attendees, the Pride March & Rally was the first LGBT pride event in the city to be recognized and attended by a Milwaukee mayor. The historic moment ignited a continuous series of annual pride events that became today’s PrideFest Milwaukee.

“At a time when our government seeks to legally erase identities, visibility is needed more than ever. Earlier generations experienced significant emotional, psychological and social issues because they did not see themselves reflected anywhere in the world,” said Michail Takach, vice president of Milwaukee Pride. “We won’t let future generations experience that disconnection. We hope the crosswalks will not only be a connective source of pride for our community, but a spark for ongoing conversations around local LGBT history, heritage and diversity. They’re an everyday reminder that we’re here and always have been.”

About The Author

Lee Matz

Former Creative Director and Photojournalist for the Milwaukee Business Journal, Lee brings his years of international experience as an award-winning foreign correspondent in Asia and Europe. Lee proudly uses MCTS as the exclusive mode of transportation for covering all his news reports.

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