The living archive of LGBTQ+ life in the UK and Ireland

We speak with Gareth Pugh about his and Carson McColl’s new film and virtual community hub, Soul of a Movement, launched 50 years on from the first-ever Pride.

by Mahoro Seward
26 June 2020, 10:00am

The fact that June 28 2020 marks 50 years since Christopher Street Liberation Day -- the first-ever Pride march, held in New York to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising -- only makes the absence of Pride celebrations on our cities’ streets all the more poignant. Still, while the circumstances brought about by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic may not allow for the physical community gatherings, the spirit of queer kinship that fuelled the queer liberation movement half a century ago remains as powerful as ever. With corporate-sponsored floats and police presences omitted from this year’s celebrations by default, this is an opportunity for us to reflect on and reconnect with the values at Pride’s heart; to ask: “fifty years on from Stonewall, who the fuck are we, and what are we fighting for?”

That’s the mission statement that Gareth Pugh and Carson McColl set out with a year ago, when they embarked on Soul of a Movement, a “multi-disciplinary non-profit art project created to celebrate Queer Resistance in the UK”. Across four days in June 2019, the co-creative directors of Hard & Shiny filmed Soul of a Movement: Four Days in June in Belfast, Glasgow, Sunderland and London. In each city, they met with LGBTQIA+ activists, artists and allies that are carrying the torch first sparked at Stonewall into the future, including members of The Outside Project, LGSMigrants, the Time for Inclusive Education Campaign, the 343 Belfast, Voices4LDN and representatives of London’s thriving Voguing/Ballroom scene.

The plan was initially to turn the film into a festival -- a plan which, for obvious reasons, have since been shelved. Today, they’re releasing the film online, available for all to view.

Still from Soul of a Nation by Gareth Pugh and Carson McColl

Today also sees the launch of part of two of their project, ‘Soul of a Movement: Queer Nation’, a digital platform hosting user-generated content from individuals around the UK and Ireland, responding to the question: “What does Pride mean to you?” The idea is to maintain a sense of community in the face of widespread isolation, with individual video submissions geotagged to a location on a stylised map of the British Isles. Early submissions include Graham Norton, Munroe Bergdorf, Ib Kamara and Ms Carrie Stacks, as well as legendary activist Peter Tatchell.

While the initiative may be going live in time for Pride 2020, its intention is to accept submissions indefinitely, operating as a living, breathing chronicle of what queer life on these islands looks like at its brightest and best.

To mark the project’s official launch, we spoke with Gareth about how the project got started, how you can get involved, and the road that lies ahead of us in the fight for real change.

Still from Soul of a Nation by Gareth Pugh and Carson McColl

Soul of a Movement: Four Days in June saw you travel to Belfast, Glasgow, Sunderland and London. What were the reasons for choosing to focus on these particular places?
The locations we chose were partly of personal significance: Glasgow is Carson’s hometown, Sunderland is mine, and London is where we live today. In the end, we also decided to go to Belfast, as we knew that although Northern Ireland has historically been an extremely hostile environment in which to grow up queer. Over the past few years the LGBTQIA+ community there have really been fighting back. That offered us quite a decent spread location-wise -- particularly as each city was loosely tied up with a theme or question of sorts.

In Belfast, we wanted to look at how the battle for Equal Marriage had drowned out the mental health crisis taking place in the LGBTQIA+ community there, and in Glasgow, we wanted to look at the success of the Time for Inclusive Education campaign and speak with Nicola Sturgeon about the importance of reimagining the school experience for queer youth. In Sunderland, it was more about the idea of allyship between the LGBTQIA+ community and the migrant community in the face of the nationalism and xenophobia stirred up by Brexit. Finally, in London, we wanted to investigate the effects of capitalism and gentrification on more vulnerable groups within the LGBTQIA+ community, and try to figure out how to address that.

June 2020 marks 50 years since the first Christopher Street Liberation Day. Progress has certainly been made since then in the fight for queer liberation, but what do we still need to be fighting for today?
The first thing we need to talk about is white supremacy. We need to talk about racism within the LGBTQIA+ community and the routine silencing of queer and trans people of colour, largely at the hands of white middle-class gay men. We also need to talk about transphobia and the epidemic of murder the trans community is facing, particularly trans women of colour. We need to find new ways to illustrate the fact that the gender binary is a colonial concept and another expression of white supremacy that needs to be toppled. We also have to become more proactive rather than reactive in supporting all of our trans siblings. It’s not about bathrooms, it’s about adequate healthcare. It’s about basic human decency.

Setting out on the process of making this film, we continually had to ask ourselves: how do we do something credible, something that moves an audience, but that is also tactical and effective and addresses these issues head on? We did our best, but there’s so much more for us still to do.

Still from Soul of a Nation by Gareth Pugh and Carson McColl

You’re also launching Soul of a Movement: Queer Nation. How did the initial idea for this come about?
Before Covid-19, we had actually had plans in place to turn the film into a festival, working in collaboration with Kartel Brown, who appears in the film and has become a good friend. It was such a major plan, and we were sad to have to put it on ice for this year, but we still wanted to do something meaningful and celebrate the community that we’ve built around the making of the film.

In a sense, Pride 2020 provided us with a unique challenge. We were basically like: how can we help to create a sense of community and togetherness at a time where being together isn't possible? That question was at the heart of it, and in the end we decided to work with our friend Jon Emmony to create what will hopefully become a living record of queer culture in the UK and Ireland in this era. What Jon does is just so beautiful, and it felt like it could be a new way of approaching this kind of record or living archive. At its heart, it's about reaffirming that while we may all be on our own right now, as part of the LGBTQIA+ community, you are never alone.

Still from Soul of a Nation by Gareth Pugh and Carson McColl

How will people around the UK be able to participate?
It’s so easy -- you just have to head to -- where you can explore submissions from people from across the UK and Ireland, and add your own, answering the question “What is Pride in 2020?” And it's not just a temporary thing either. The site will continue to accept and feature new submissions indefinitely, and will exist in perpetuity as a way of offering people in our community a platform to tell their own stories in their own words, without gatekeepers or censorship and free from corporate influence. From some of the submissions we’ve had so far, it also feels as though it’s going to be a place where people share their dreams for the future -- which, in a moment like this, feels like a necessity.

What do you hope people will take away from the project -- both during this period of isolation and looking back on it once it has passed?
I hope the project as a whole will offer our community a chance to celebrate our shared history and political roots. I also hope it will stand as a testament to what can happen when you find a reason to reach out to people you don’t know and engage in real life. This project has changed so much for us and we’ve made so many deep friendships and learned so much, and none of that would have happened if we hadn’t taken that leap of faith. It feels like being part of this is about being part of something bigger than us, which in the end is the only way any of us are ever really going to make change.


All images stills from Soul of a Movement: Four Days in June

Written by Carson McColl
Directed by Gareth Pugh and Carson McColl
Executive Creative Producer Juliette Larthe
Producer Ohna Falby

Gareth Pugh
carson mccoll
Soul of a Movement