The Pride movement was never really that important to me. I realise that I’m incredibly lucky – I was born in London in the late 70s, and my parents ran pubs in Soho, before Tesco, Starbucks and Wagamama moved in. I grew up surrounded by colourful characters – actors, musicians, rent boys, flamboyant hairdressers, policemen and dodgy gangster types.
Growing up I was vaguely aware of HIV and I vaguely remember the grim government film with the John Hurt voiceover warning about the danger of AIDS. But by the mid-1990s Absolutely Fabulous was on television, and I was going to work in PR (dahling!). Being gay had never been an obstacle at home, school or work.
I knew the political, social and emotional struggles facing gay communities around the world – and apart from the occasional visit to some of the parties, I’m ashamed to say that I never really paid much attention to the Pride movement.
About 10 years ago I worked at a gay magazine – and my perception of Pride changed, sadly not for the better. Based in London, I was involved in several year’s worth of Prides, and watched its sad journey from a plucky, spirited, fun event in Clapham Common, to over-commercialised monster music festival in Finsbury Park.
Now it’s a rather sorry affair in central London, with a lacklustre parade and distinct lack of identity. In other cities around the world, Pride marches were fighting for human rights, sometimes risking personal safety and punishment from government forces. In London, supposedly one of the greatest cities in the world, we stand around in Old Compton Street drinking beer out of plastic cups.
And then something happened. A couple of years ago I went to Manchester Pride, and it was without exception, one of the best Pride events I had ever been to. The location obviously helps. A clearly defined ‘gay village’ that’s fenced off and turned into a kind of gay theme park.
They have a Main Stage programme, with a list of acts that range from vaguely familiar to downright obscure. There’s an arts festival, a lifestyle expo, and the usual gay-tat market peddling rainbow tea towels. But it wasn’t the logistics, or the impressive production that won me over.
This was a Pride with a purpose. Each year Manchester Pride adopts a theme. Last year was about celebrating the work of Alan Turing – and while this might seem a bit dry, it provided an interesting angle on the role of gay technology pioneers who faced discrimination and social injustice from the same society that reaped the rewards from their discoveries.
Over recent years, I’ve been to loads of regional Prides – some like Cardiff, Brighton and Birmingham have become legendary in their own right, and north of the border those hot Scots boys have the super sexy Glasgow Pride (and an accent that makes me weak at the knees). But I’ve also learned to appreciate the value of the smaller events in Oxford, Reading and Exeter (well done with your 50 metre flag guys!).
Large or small, Pride events in the UK are less about fighting for change, and more about demonstrating diversity, and inclusivity. It’s a place where gay boys and girls can bring their straight (and straight-ish) friends for a laugh, and a little bit of a look-see at what it means to be gay in a modern, fairly equal, UK.
But for every charming small-town street party and four-day extravaganza over here, there are places in the world where they aren’t so lucky. Going to a Pride march in Moscow or St Petersburg can get you arrested, but people still organise them and turn up to support them, despite the potential repercussions.
Pictures from Pride parties in the UK can end up circulating all over the world, giving hope to those in darker places – demonstrating that fairer societies are possible, and they’re not all that far away.
So if you haven’t been for a while, find one, and go. Hell, if you’re from London and you want a lift to Manchester, I’ve got some space in the car! Forget about being “non-scene” (nobody believes that on your profile anyway). Just show up. It’s more important than you realise.