Last year, a quarter of a million people mobbed the streets of central London, ready to relish in the gaieties of Pride. A tenth of this lot were allocated a spot on the parade itself, the rest were spectators – crammed into Trafalgar Square, infiltrating every orifice of Soho, Mayfair and Marylebone.
Nipples came with tassels, backs were wrapped in bondage and legs strutted around in fishnets. Same-sex parents pushed kids in buggies, while their little pro-dyke tykes thrashed rainbow flags and clutched unicorn toys. Police-people plodded along, NOS canisters rattling underfoot, Nando’s chickens were given rainbow-coloured coats, Sadiq Khan posed for selfies.
Yes, Pride can be a positive experience. A day for sexual minoritites to be surrounded by swathes of their own is, for many, a joyous, meaningful and hedonistic retreat from the hetero norm.
So what’s the problem?Critiques of Pride have been simmering for a good few years now. According to Stonewall, the most prominent LGBT+ charity in the country, the organisers of Pride in London have failed to address concerns about the “lack of diversity and inclusion, particularly of black and minority ethnic communities.” The Community Advisory Board (CAB) – an independent organisation that annually reviews the event – raised this issue in the aftermath of last year.
Let’s take a snapshot of Pride 2017. The biggest sponsors, with the most impressive floats – think Barclay’s (the event’s primary sponsors for the fifth year), Tesco and Amazon – came armed with a squadron of 50 queer employees on float-back, all having a ball, thrusting in time to ‘It’s Raining Men’ as it blared from their state-of-the-art sound-system.
Meanwhile smaller organisations were dwarfed, left plodding along on the wagon’s flanks, a couple of dozen people representing a queer grassroots charity or micro political LGBT+ group, armed with a banner and a megaphone, creviced between corporate messages.
Now, this is not to erode the event’s significance. While the parameters of sexual and gender acceptability – and the legislation that enshrines this – have made great leaps in recent years, our society still places an emphasis and assumption on its citizens being heterosexual, monogamous and cis gender.
There’s still a lack of recognition for LGBT+ people everywhere. But an issue arises when the spotlight on those LGBT+ identities who have been given a platform by the multinational corporation they work for – the scale of said platform depending on the company’s sponsorship deal with Pride – leaves the most marginalised, less economically and socially privileged voices within our community to holler on the side-lines.
Put simply, the calls for recognition and visibility of Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic (BAME), intersex and trans people are drowned out by the hollow chants that “Mother Nature’s a single woman too.”
Ostentatious displays of pro-LGBT+ equality by companies who invest more money in designing a rainbow onto their logo than in supporting the complex realities of intersectional queer existence have led to an increasing disillusionment with the concept of Pride.
Pride then, Pride now?“I don’t understand why we have to be so corporate dependent,” says Andrew Lumsden, an original member of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), and attendee at the first ever Pride.
“The big parade in San Francisco turns the corporations down if anything about their policies is not what Pride wish to be associated with; they depend on donations,” he says. Granted, closing off chunks of the city for queer frivolities isn’t a cheap task, nor is paying all of the organisers, stage managers and police tasked with making sure 200,000 people can strut around town in safety.
Sponsorship and corporate participation are, in some ways, necessary; yet it is the seemingly unavoidable presence of corporate and national institutions rather than prime movers in the community that’s deterred many long-standing activists from the celebration.
“We’re left feeling that we are now being co-opted to congratulate the British establishment on how liberal and lovely it is,” says Andrew.
Needless to say, Pride was a very different event in its inaugural London run back in 1972. Although homosexuality had been decriminalised for five years, only men over the age of 21 could shack up in privacy. So a curtain ajar, a hand held in public or another person in the room next door meant that the law was broken and resulted in thousands of arrests.
“Pride in London was originally set up by the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) youth group,” says Andrew. “These were people who, according to the state, were ‘illegals.’ If they had any sex at all – which we can assume they did – they were breaking the law. So Pride was effectively founded by criminals.”
In this context, the parade was necessarily political, a chance to rally against the confinement of a sexual minority to a bedroom in an empty house.
“We were doing something completely new,” says Andrew, “a mere kiss on the street was regarded as an offence by the police, but when there were a lot of us they were not likely to intervene. If you happened to wander off, however, you might get locked up.”
Bringing Pride back to its rootsAndrew recalls making his own float with housemates in Clapham in 2000. “We sent a request off and got a confirmation letter back soon after. We decorated our float in flowers made of fabric, tied them to a truck with scaffolding. The end result was tremendous.”
It would be nigh impossible for a bunch of housemates to beautify a lorry and hop on the parade now. In order to partake, a group must be categorised as a non-profit, small business, union or corporate. Prices range from £50 (non-profit walking group) to £3000 for a large (10-metre long) float. People aren’t permitted to march should they not have a wristband. So, for instance, last year when Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants (LGSM) – this decade’s answer to their miner-supporting 1980s namesake – weren’t given a place, they intervened and brought it to a halt, before being escorted off the route.
On this topic, the CAB report states that wristband allocation in accordance to financial resources can ‘restrict the number and impact of community groups,’ effectively allowing small organisations to swim down the parade as minnows dwarfed by multinational whales.
A considerable step in reducing the corporate crutch, as suggested by Andrew, would be for Pride to “remove all motorised vehicles, other than those required for physical conditions, as they successfully did in Liverpool a few years back.”
“We’ve started conversations already,” says Andrew, “it would make a huge difference and be a startling thing to do now. Back in 1972, people would come in off the pavements, sometimes very shyly walking amongst us, sheepishly looking back at their mates, ushering them into parade. It was accessible.”
This point has similarly been raised by the CAB report, which questions the necessity of vehicles, when they have such a profound impact on health and safety, require the installation of barriers and entail the depletion of space for more organisations and individuals to participate.
A push for a more egalitarian parade in which all participants are placed, quite literally, on an equal footing, would allow the Vengaboys-emanating-from-a-float to sit alongside posters raising awareness about LGBT+ homelessness, mental heath and deportations.
The removable of hefty lorries and overbearing trucks would undeniably alter the atmosphere, allowing crucial steps towards inclusivity and de-corporatisation that would help to bring it back to its roots.
Stonewall’s abstention – a crushing blow?The most striking message from last year’s report accused Pride of being ‘tokenistically’ diverse, stating that the organisers have “failed to grasp the importance” of diversity and properly appreciate the intersectionalities that many queer people experience around race, gender, age, disability and sexual orientation and identity.
“Diversity is more than a buzzword,” the report states in an attempt to encourage the organisers to ensure the full “involvement and integration” of BAME LGBT+ in Pride. This is something that Stonewall feel the organisers have failed to do. Therefore they made the decision earlier this year to abstain from participating in London’s Pride. In fact, they’ve opted to support UK Black Pride instead.
If Stonewall’s critique rings true to you, check out our round-up of alternative Pride events, spaces where it’s guaranteed that the salient political messages of black, queer and trans folks won’t be drowned out by ‘Born This Way’ blaring down Regent Street.
Main image: Michael Hall