The Politics of Fun
If I remember right ‐ and maybe I don’t ‐ it was rather blustery and cold for July. Or perhaps I wasn’t dressed for it in my standard Oxford Queer get‐up; a gauzy yellow seersucker shirt and bright orange Loons. It’s always been a toss‐up at Pride between sense and style. When you’re young, style wins out every time.
It was 1972 and I was down for the day. I didn’t know anyone in London and was suspicious of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), who only a few weeks before had told me I couldn’t really be gay if I didn’t wear a frock. And me only just out of the closet. Too much too soon.
But we’d had an Oxford Pride ‐ a Pride Punt ‐ and I knew that you could never be yourself if you didn’t show yourself. And that was what Pride was about.
There were dozens showing themselves around the plinth of Nelson‐s column. Men dressed as nuns, strong women, radical drag ‐ and some surprises, because there was a good smattering of ‘straight‐looking’ supporters, probably members of the rival, reformist Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE).
A man in a blazer and a straw boater was introducing speakers. I hung back, still nervous; too many police.
We still argue about how many were on that first march, which went from Trafalgar Square, up Charing Cross Road and along Oxford Street to Hyde Park. There was no organisation; just word of mouth, turn up and do it.
2000 is the figure most quoted, backed by photographic evidence of another march entirely; the 1976 CHE March for Equality.
I remember about 400 to 500, but there were others, like me, who were following along on the pavement, inspired but inhibited by the police presence. But 500 people taking up the whole street ‐ what a sense of power!
Hyde Park was under louring skies, but the folk were radiant. A children’s picnic for adults. Games were played and we danced in circles. Drink was taken, spliffs were smoked, tabs were dropped, and couples snogged in the very spot where, at other times, they could be arrested for importuning. The police did nothing; one of them winked at me.
There are still arguments about how ‘political’ Pride should be, but the first march was advertised as a Carnival. The politics of fun.
Fast forward through the 70s, and it became more serious. There was Law Reform to demand, and CHE weren’t as good as GLF at organising a party. Still we ended in Hyde Park, but now with a makeshift stage and tiny P.A. I first heard Tom Robinson singing Glad to Be Gay here.
1979 was a step change in numbers, with a grant of £1000 for publicity. 10,000 people ‐ unheard of. Almost the same number of police, it seemed. I remember looking back along Piccadilly, awestruck, and not being able to see the back of the march.
In Hyde Park Tom Robinson again thanked the thousands of lesbians and gays in the police who had come out to support us. Red faces all round. Of course, not a whisper on the radio or telly.
One way or another, Pride got itself divorced from the ordinary homosexual in the street. In 1978 the route took us past the Coleherne, the gay leather bar in Earl’s Court, and the regulars came out and threw beer cans at us. We were the politicos; Pride was rocking the boat.
Things then dwindled. In 1984, everyone forgot to organise a march, and the Gay Youth Group threw together It’s Not Just a Phase Week at a couple of weeks’ notice. Even so, 1500 people turned up because it was the last Saturday in June. Pavlov’s Queers.
That autumn in Jubilee Garden, the great and good from all the LGBT organisations, press and switchboards, agreed it was never going to be like that again. Pride was too precious to die.
We had to get the commercial scene involved. The result that Divine serenaded the crowd in Jubilee Gardens from the roof of Richard Branson’s paddle steamer, the Beverly Sisters crooned Sisters to astonished plods and Capital Gay, our weekly freesheet, violated London airspace in a dash to get spectacular aerial shots of the 15,000 marching over Waterloo Bridge.
That was the template Pride has followed ever since. That mix of Pride, passion, politics and play, the mixture varying as the world around changes. In the late 80s we were marching for our dead and dying, and in defiance of Section 28.
The March grew and grew, and we kept switching the venue for the post‐March festival to accommodate ever‐increasing numbers. Jubilee Gardens, Kennington Park, Brockwell Park, Clapham Common.
It is hard to imagine in these more straightened times, but in 1992, when Europride came to London, there were over 100,000 on the March.
In 1998, Pride went bankrupt and it’s happened again since, which gave an excuse for the City of Westminster to curb this anarchic eruption of joy, in the name of health and safety, security, tourism and traffic flow. And who’s to say that these are not important?
Now Pride is a spectator sport, with a limit on the participants of 26,000 and numbers controlled by wrist bands. Corporate sponsors feature prominently, some say too prominently, on the floats in the parade.
The organisers have half an eye on the show they put on for the thousands who line the route, and for the telly and Twitterfeed. Pride leaves a dreadful carbon footprint; the litter is indescribable.
After the march the entire LGBT community is choked into the square mile of Soho, rather than having a proper space in whcih to go. I try to thrust through the crowd and it’s scary. There’s an accident waiting to happen here. The only solution is to go back to Hyde Park, as wsa done in 1972 to 1979.
But there is still nothing like the feeling that you own the streets of London; that you share them with your sisters and brothers in their thousands. The Pride March, Carnival or Parade - it’s yours to choose ’ is the spine of the LGBT year. It gives me a sense of who I am and where I belong, to carry through the rest of the year.
Every two years there is a new generation of young LGBT+ people, who also need that empowerment. Not to mention the many thousands in countries like Poland and Turkey and Nigeria who will see the Pride images in the ether and draw inspiration from them.
Now 47 years on, I’ll be there on 6 July, sensibly dressed on the bus of Opening Doors London, the charity for older LGBT+ people.
I’ve pulled out the megaphone and I’m practising the slogans: “We are the people who fought to make Pride possible”; “We are the people your grandparents were warned against”.
I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
2019 was the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in New York, which marks the birth of the modern LGBT Rights. To read more about those fateful five days and nights, seeThe Stonewall Riots orHistory.Com Editors ‐ Stonewall Riots
In 1970 the first US Pride March was held on the 1st anniversary of the riots, and London followed in 1972. London Pride is always held in the last week of June or 1st week of July, as near the anniversary as possible.