London Pride: an essential beacon to the populace, queer, straight, closeted and curious that GAY IS OK, that we are proud to be who we are, to love who we love and shag who we shag. Pride is also a powerful statement that SEX is ok, worth celebrating and enjoying, free of shame and guilt that hung around it for so long. The original Gay Liberation Front vision in the 1970s sought sexual liberation for all.
Pride has been through a roller coaster journey in its 43 years. At first it had a strong political agenda, seeking to change deep seated prejudices in society. Numbers swelled in the 1980s as our young gay culture came under attack from the Tories and from HIV. We took to the streets and our after parties grew in size. I first got to Pride in 1986 when the festivities took place on the South Bank, in Jubilee Gardens. It soon moved to Kennington Park, Clapham Common, Brockwell Park, out east to Victoria and up north to Finsbury Park by which time the commercial drive behind Pride seemed to be ravenously taking over from the community feeling. I remember Pride in Finsbury Park was a flat affair, swamped by advertising, leaflets and sponsors. Outside the walls of the Pride encampment, an unofficial queer free party, attracted many who were just sickened by the whole thing and made the point that we don’t need corporations and security to have a good time.
Gradually the lesson was learnt, big park parties stopped and the call for a community spirit grew, with Trafalgar Square becoming the new focus of post parade activity, plus stages and street parties throughout Soho. 2012 saw the World Pride fiasco, where the limited thinking and ambition of the long serving organising committee was revealed. The community rallied however, and turned out in huge numbers, fired up and feeling some passion. It felt like we were doing more than showing off how hot and happy we are, there were deep emotions going on. We showed we cared about Pride! The floats were cancelled because the funds were not there to pay for barriers and police – hooray! The result was the parade was not contained within barricades, there was freeflow between marchers and spectators, and a great atmosphere. There have been attempts to inject politics and spirituality into the Trafalgar Square proceedings, but pop music and entertainment dominate, and Pride indeed must be a celebration as well as a powerful statement. The rainbow spirit fills the west end, smiling people of all races, faiths and ages share a day of positive vibrations ……Soho itself gets seized by masses of inebriated queers… intense and messy, not necessarily the best poster to the world of our happy gay liberty, it can feel a bit like entering a war zone….
Nor are the numbers of drug casualties and mental health crises doing much for our image. But at Pride we present our shiny, happy face to the world – the only thing is – that face seems now to be have been taken over by the acne of corporate capitalism once again. The sponsorship may not be so blatant any more, but now the corps are marching with us. I can not get why people would choose to spend their Gay Christmas marching under a Barclays Bank banner … unless they want to be sure to be seen by everyone, for .. guess what.. Barclays are marching at the front of the parade, right behind the flagbearers and the London Gay Symphonic Winds. Peter Tatchell has to follow on a few paces back, and behind him come Switchboard, Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group, THT…. surely these important community organisations deserve to walk in front of any banks that wish to be there. Tax avoidlng Starbucks get to lead the next section of the parade, then further back in the lineup there will be a section where banks and businesses aplenty will be represented. Presumably Barclays and Starbucks are paying sponsorship money to get such positions in the lineup, and yes we know Pride needs money. But frankly, this situation is dark and rather creepy. These corporations have no relevance to gay life, to our struggle and our liberty.
Meanwhile, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, celebrating their 30th anniversary and the success of the recent movie telling their story, had been billed as leading the parade, but are now placed much further back with other political groups. Money to the fore, social causes and caring for people – take the rear.
For a moment it seemed that UKIP were going to take a place on the parade (they have now been turned away by the committee), leading Dan Glass and the London ACT-UP crew to announce the death of Pride: “We will remember Pride as a beautiful, cheeky and daring soul who stood up for firmly held principles and beliefs. Pride was never scared to be fabulously rebellious and because of this inspired millions of people across the world to act up for justice. Like many truthful spirits in the modern age, Pride was attacked by the epidemic of soulless commercialisation and suffered deep amnesia and rapidly deteriorating social and emotional awareness. Signs of ill-health were first detected in approximately 1990 with signs of a nasty rash creeping over the entire body – covering it with glossy stamps and advertisements which destroyed Pride’s beautifully diverse features.”
The proud horse is not totally dead yet though: the mix up of different groups on the Parade is actually pretty awesome. Alien Sex Club and Anal Angels will be walking in the same section as Fujtsu, MIcrosoft, Virgin Media and Houses of Parliament. With all kinds of care professions, faith groups, gay clubs and of course the armed forces, Gay Pride parade is incredibly ground breaking in its rainbow diversity, showing the whole of society united in a positive cause. Unfortunately it is also a bit fixated with the idea of pre-registered groups being the only ones allowed to march in the parade. The Pride website bizarrely says that “Individuals and spectators cannot join the Parade. Only registered groups are allowed to join the Parade, and registrations closed on Friday 15 May.” Is an individual who wishes to join the march going to be turned away if they don’t have a group to join? The site says that ‘spectators’ may join at the end of the organised sections, but those ‘individuals’ don’t get another mention.
PRIDE COMES BEFORE A FALL, says the old adage. AIDS was one such fall – teaching us the hard way that unbridled libido has unwanted consequences. Reading the lengthy list of diverse groups registered to march (the Faeries are not on the list, this structured bureaucratic approach to a love parade doesn’t really work for us) it feels like Pride may be getting bloated. All this bright and cheery bravado stands in stark contrast to the reality that thousands of gay men young and old in this city are hooked on chemicals, chasing sex, taking health risks, perhaps because they do not feel part of any COMMUNITY, they do not want or are not able to fit into any GROUP. There is such a wild brew of drug cocktails and sexual promiscuity going on in our city that who knows if a crisis bigger even than AIDS isn’t building.
Being gay is absolutely NOT about fitting into the heteronormative model of life – look what a mess they have made of the world! Coming Out is a step on the path of self-discovery. That is a spiritual search. It has nothing to do with banks, coffee shops, computer companies, oil companies. It MAY have something to do with the military (in ancient Thebes the soldiers were lovers, in India the effeminate, peacock god Lord Murugan is also the god of war, and throughout history from Alexander the Great onwards many great military men have been queer). As we approach the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of gay sex in the UK in two years time there is sure to be plenty of questioning and heart searching about gay life. Yes we are proud to be gay… but we need a healthy debate about the kind of gay culture we wish to create in the 21st century. Do we want a culture that plays along with the patriarchal, military-industrial complex, which has given us marriage and adoption rights to encourage us to stay in the game, and keeps us medicated on dangerous libido enhancing chemicals and separated in our lonely bedsit drug dens (it makes sure that responsible, conscious and spiritual use of drugs can not be promoted by keeping harsh, archaic laws in place). Or might we aim towards a CONSCIOUS QUEER CULTURE THAT CELEBRATES THE MYSTERY OF BEING ALIVE AND THE MANY WAYS WE CAN EXPLORE THAT MYSTERY, FIND OUT WHO WE ARE, WHAT OUR GIFTS AND TALENTS ARE AND HOW WE CAN BRING THEM TO THE WORLD IN ORDER TO CREATE A WORLD BUILT ON LOVE AND COMPASSION, ON PEACE AND DIVERSITY.
Or are we just like the macho patriarchs after all? We got our freedom, are we now just going to party til it kills us, are we going to become good model citizens with kids and debts… or are we going to critique and change this world and its corrupt and unfair ways… and so bring the light of the rainbow that is our symbol divine to a world desperate for peace. As anyone who has entered the spiritual journey learns, to change the world you have to change yourself. I think we should thrust a gay agenda on the world – and that it should be self-knowledge, self-discovery and self-expression for all. Gay culture celebrates good times, but misses the point that those good times come when we find out, claim and express who we are – and this operates on every level of our being, from the sexual to the social to the spiritual. Pride in who we are starts on the inside, but gay culture is fixated on the external, the material and the superficial. I cannot march at Pride this year.