is pride still doing what it set out to do?
Celebrating 45 years of LGBT culture, equality and well, pride, London’s Pride weekend has gone from a rally to inviting traditionally homophobic political parties to have an official presence. So what really is the point of it all in 2017.
= Gay Pride: a day when hundreds of thousands of LGBT people people across London and the rest of the UK will wake up, and feel like - maybe just for that day - London's streets belong to them. Gays will kiss in public, and if they're lucky, maybe even go home with someone. Many trans people will hopefully feel just a bit safer than normal in a country that still denies them basic rights, and drag queens will get the chance to flaunt a look that's usually reserved for the cover of darkness.
For these reasons and more, Pride in London is undoubtedly the UK's biggest show of rainbow solidarity - silly and vital in equal measure - and yet, a lot of people in Britain's LGBT community feel that, in some ways, it could probably do us more justice.
Over the years, the ethos of Pride has become diluted by a number of factors, but most relate in one way or another in the increased acceptance of LGBT people in Britain. With gains in equality has come the growing appeal of Pride to straight people, the corporatisation of Pride by big businesses, and its cooption by insincere political groups looking to pink wash their image. In 2014, Barclay's Bank became a major sponsor (and remain one today); in 2015, Pride was criticised for inviting UKIP - a historically homophobic party - to have an official presence in the parade; and in 2016, they invited the Red Arrows of the RAF to fly above the event, as well as allowing BAE Systems, one of the UK's largest arms manufacturers, to march.
After last year's trashy "#nofilter" marketing campaign however, this year's Pride has met a brand new level of criticism for its official advertising posters. Emblazoned with slogans like "Gay man, straight man, we're all human," and "My sister is gay. I'm straight. Together we're graight," the queer community immediately bit back with the question: Why are posters for Pride putting straight people at their centre?
The question is a pertinent one. Especially when you consider that, when the first official London Pride happened in 1972, they called it the "UK Gay Pride Rally", and the event was specifically held on the 1st of July, because that was the nearest date to the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots. A watershed moment in LGBT culture, Stonewall was an uprising led by trans women of colour in New York City who were fed up with police raids on their bars and community spaces. If not a direct tribute to these women, the UK Gay Pride Rally was at least intended to echo their sentiments: that the LGBT community will not stand to be oppressed, that we will not internalise shame, and we will take up space that's rightfully ours. It was staunchly political, in a way that it no longer is today. But is Pride all bad? Or is there a point in it yet?
Interested in this topic, director Ashley Joiner made the 2017 feature documentary Pride? (not to be mistaken with the narrative film Pride, about the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners alliance), which looks at the history of the event to figure out how it got to where it is today. He decided to make the doc when he looked around him and saw one group of his friends - grassroots activists and community groups - boycotting Pride because they felt it had lost its political agenda, and the other group of his friends keen to enjoy a day where they could party openly on the streets of London as LGBT people.
"I think it's common for people of my generation not to know about the fight that the generation before us have been on, so I wanted to make a film that educated us on that history, but really uses history to comment on where we are day," Ashley explains, on why he made the film. One of his key findings from speaking to older Pride goers, he said, was that the event has become very desexualised; it used to be the one day of the year you were guaranteed to cop off, whereas now it's more of a family day out, they said.
Ashley's journey took him down several paths, too many to list here, but another main finding was the sheer number of additional pride events that have sprung up in the UK in recent years, like Black Pride, Peckham Pride, Brighton's Trans Pride and East London's Queer Picnic. "These are alternative events set up by communities identifying a need for something else," explains Ashley. He gives the example of Peckham Pride, which bills itself as a community event. "Unlike Pride in London, Peckham Pride feels very driven by a particular cause," Ashley says, "specifically the issue of illegal deportation and the problem of detention centres, which has an LGBT element in that refugees and migrants in the UK are getting sent back to countries where they're being murdered. It's held in Peckham because there are a large number of raids in that area."
In looking at alternative events, what the Pride? doc uncovered was that the issues we face as a community are not always external - like corporatisation, pinkwashing or straightsplaining - but are internal too. Peckham Pride, for example, is organised by people who look very different to the organisers of London Pride, points out Ashley - mostly middle-aged women of colour, who don't get much of a say about what Pride in London looks like. "I think that shows we need to look inward at how communities within the wider community can be better represented or included in an event that aims to serve everyone," Ashley says, "and I think the film highlights how racial inclusivity and the inclusivity of people with disabilities is a huge problem within our community."
Another party that feel frustrated with Pride in London, but for a different reason, are the activist group No Pride In War, who boycott the militaristic presence of BAE Systems at the parade. Kat Hobbs, one of the group's members, says that, at 28, she's never seen a Pride that looks like a protest, always a piss up. "While street parties, celebration and visibility can be radical acts, seeing groups like the police, arms companies and big corporations like BP who pollute and damage the lives of queer people all over the world marching with their company logos and rainbow flags in Pride is deeply shocking," she says, on behalf of No Pride In War.
Last year, the activist took to challenge the Pride organising committee on the day of Pride, by "joining the Parade at one point along the route, to create an alternative space in the Parade where we could say that there is No Pride in War," explains Kat. Their protest seemed to be successful: this year BAE systems are conspicuously absent from the Parade. But Kat's group's work isn't done. As she explains: "So many other corporate and government organisations who cause harm to queer people around the world are still part of the London Parade - including the police and government institutions who are enforcing the UK's brutal border regime, criminalising, imprisoning and deporting LGBTQ+ migrants and putting them through humiliating processes to 'prove' that they're really queer as part of their asylum claims." This year, No Pride In War have another protest planned.
While Ashley's film and Kat's organisation have criticisms of Pride, that doesn't mean they think it shouldn't exist, however - as Ashley puts it "Pride definitely serves a purpose." In his mind, the alternative Prides popping up across the UK aren't necessarily a bad thing either - "if anything, it's what we need more of - events that address the intersections of community, developing their own agendas." He sees them as an additional choice, rather than a replacement to the main event. And while Kat finds Pride in London to be, a "pay-to-enter parade which companies and institutions are using to promote themselves", her activist network are still using the size and the audience of the event as an opportunity to put forward a more inclusive, anti-militaristic agenda.
And on a final note, even if Pride in London isn't perfect, it's worth remembering the example it sets to parts of the rest of the world, where Pride parades or protests aren't an option. As the LGBT rights organisation ILGA-Europe explain over email: "Pride is the strongest, most visible symbol of the LGBTI movement - it's a litmus test of how well democracies are functioning. Prides can be an indication of how well governments protect and promote human rights." So, even if it has its issues, we're lucky to have a London Pride that speaks for a relatively accepting country - and one that wants others to follow suit. "Just don't get too complacent," Ashley reminds us: "Just because we have gay marriage now, people think we have equal rights, but we're still nowhere near calling ourselves equal."
Text Amelia Abraham
Image via Pixabay