We wish to thank the staff and volunteers of the Pride Trust for their efforts in staging Pride ’96. Organising this event is often a thankless task, which is difficult to get right, even with the best will in the world. No one who undertakes to organise Pride could possibly produce a perfect event acceptable to everyone.
While we are very appreciative of the Pride Trust’s efforts, we feel that the direction and atmosphere of this year’s March and Festival went badly astray by sidelining the struggle for human rights. In a spirit of constructive criticism, we offer the following observations. —
- There was nothing particularly gay about the Pride Festival on Clapham Common. It was not much different from any free pop festival. It could have been Glastonbury or Reading (plus a few extra queers!). There was no sense of gay solidarity or community spirit.
- The main stage was surrounded by huge business adverts. There was no banner stating that this was Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride ’96, or reiterating our community’s demand for equality and human rights.
- With one brief exception, people on the main stage made no mention of the fight against antigay discrimination, and the very serious dangers posed to gay civil rights by Michael Howard’s new proposals to crack down on sex offenders. These proposals will require gay men convicted of consenting behaviour (such as cruising and cottaging) to register with the police, making this probably the most serious assault on gay civil liberties in many years.
- Although the theme of this year’s Pride was supposed to be “Generations of Activism” the organisers allocated only two minutes on the main stage (out of eight hours stage time) for the veterans of the Gay Liberation Front, who were the original pioneers of Pride. Moreover, only five GLF veterans, hand-picked by the Pride Trust, were invited on stage. While many GLF veterans were excluded from the stage, plenty of straight performers were welcomed with open arms. What’s more, in contrast to the miserly two minutes allocated to the GLF veterans, these straight artists were given plenty of time to plug their latest single (or the one they had ten years ago).
- Our estimates suggest that the commercial turnover at the Pride Festival was in the region of £ 2.5 million — the main beneficiaries being straight-owned businesses, not gay community organisations. It seems that commercial interests are now dominant at Pride, and that gay community groups are subordinate. Making money now takes priority over the still unfinished struggle for lesbian and gay freedom. It was the fight against homophobic discrimination which motivated the creation of Pride 25 years ago. Yet this goal, and the people who originated it, were marginalised to the point of virtual invisibility at the Festival.
There is nothing wrong with the corporate sponsorship of Pride, but what is wrong is allowing business interests to depoliticise the celebrations. Let’s be frank, most commercial enterprises are only interested in getting us to buy their products, and couldn’t care less about lesbian and gay human rights.
We do not want Pride to become a dull and dour, politically-correct event. We agree that it should have a Mardi Gras-style flavour. This does not, however, preclude also giving Pride a fun and energising political dimension. Pride must not become a mindless (if fabulous) once-a-year party where we pretend that we can dance away our second-class citizenship. We can’t. On Clapham Common, we were “slaves in a gilded cage”. We may have a wild, brilliant Pride Festival, but that doesn’t count for much when straight society still fucks us over with impunity.
The practice over the last two years of having vague Pride themes like “Lesbian Visibility” and “Generations of Activism” hasn’t worked. They are too amorphous and ambiguous to inspire the Pride revellers and to attract serious news reporting. A big pop festival is rarely news: but a big pop festival focused around a specific human rights demand increases the chance of media coverage.
We suggest that to remedy these problems, future Pride events should:
- Have a different, broad-based, specific human rights theme each year, such as “Equal Rights at Work”, “Partnership Recognition” or “Equal Age of Consent”. These are concrete themes that everyone in our community can agree on. They are tangible human rights demands which would significantly increase the likelihood of news reportage of the Pride March and Festival, while also promoting a much stronger sense of gay community spirit and solidarity on the day.
- Ensure there is a huge banner depicting the year’s Pride theme above the main stage and at the head of the March; and that all performers are asked to say a few words of support for the theme-of-the-year. Stage time should also be given to representatives from activist and community groups to briefly, and in uplifting mode, reiterate our claim for queer justice.
- Provide placards bearing the Pride theme for marchers to carry, and ensure that key homophobic institutions –like Parliament, Downing Street, the Ministry of Defence and Westminster Abbey– become targets for organised, topical protests.
- Offer free Festival stalls to non-profit community organisations.
- Take a leaf out of the success of the Manchester Mardi Gras, which manages not only to pay for itself, but also raise large sums of money for community charities.
We hope the Pride Trust will again this year convene an open public meeting where all sections of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community can express their views on the future direction of Pride.
Once again, we commend you for all your hard work, and hope that in the future Pride will celebrate both the battles we’ve already won, and also the struggles we’ve yet to win.
Josh Oppenheimer, Marina Cronin and Peter Tatchell