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Pride at 50: ‘What has been kept alive is the spirit of fun that marked out that first march’

Pride in London celebrates half a century of protest, politics and partying, in which the struggle for LGBTQ+ equality has come a long way – but the fight is far from won.

It has been three years since the last Pride in London. Three years since the streets of the capital city were ablaze with a carnival of protest. Three years since LGBTQ+ people and their allies took up space in the centre of London in a highly visible, highly political celebration. This year’s Pride in London on July 2 comes 50 years and one day after the first ever Pride march in the UK – and promises to be a show of solidarity with LGBTQ+ people across the world, as three years’ worth of newcomers join hands with veterans of the struggle, wearing their hearts on their sleeves, standing up for equality.

London’s Oxford Street during the first Pride Photo: JAMIE GARDINER

This year’s Pride in London Parade will pay respects to the original marchers of 1972. The route will pass many of the same sites, starting from Hyde Park Corner where 700 brave protesters took to the heavily policed streets 50 years ago, inspired by the fightback against police brutality at the Stonewall Inn in New York three years earlier. Chants of “2-4-6-8, is that copper really straight?” rang out from the marchers. And Pride has grown and evolved, politicking and partying ever since. 

Activist Peter Tatchell was 20 at the time. He worked in a women’s fashion store and studied for A-levels at evening class as he helped organise a protest that would help bring about a period of huge change.

“It was a thrilling, joyful and liberating experience to march as out and proud LGBT+ people,” says Tatchell. 

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“It had never been done before. This was in an intensely homophobic era, when police, press, priests and politicians were at war with the LGBT+ community. We were defying the bigoted consensus of centuries: that gay was bad, mad and sad.

“Our three-word slogan, ‘Gay is Good’, turned that consensus on its head. I was one of about 30 Gay Liberation Front [GLF] activists who organised the first UK Pride in 1972. We had no idea how many people would turn up. In those days, most LGBT+ people were deeply closeted. They feared arrest, gay bashing, rejection by their families and being sacked from their jobs.”

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It was, he says, important to occupy the space and be visible – facing down an unprepared and often unsupportive public.

“Society told us we should be ashamed of our homosexuality, so we were determined to show that we were proud to be LGBT+,” continues Tatchell. “The media was so homophobic that they never reported the first Pride. The police presence was excessive for a peaceful protest. Some officers shoved and abused us. Many of the public gawped in disbelief that LGBT+ people would dare show their faces. Others insulted us. Some were supportive.”

Martin Kaufman was also on the original march. A founder of Reading Gay Alliance, he would also attend GLF meetings in All Saint’s Church in Notting Hill when in London.

Martin Kaufman (centre) on the first Pride march in 1972 PHOTO: supplied

“Marching down Oxford Street, with us shouting gay lib slogans, it looked like people were more bemused than anything else,” he says. “In the Gay Day that followed in Hyde Park, there was a sense of liberation, that we had DONE IT! We had marched hundreds strong through the streets of central London as openly gay men and gay women. That was exhilarating.

“We had to overcome so many issues even to admit to ourselves we were gay, let alone come out to family and friends, and certainly let alone walking arm in arm up the streets of our capital city and rejoicing in the fact. In the GLF, we were GLAD TO BE GAY!”

Tatchell recalls the political objectives of GLF ahead of that first march.

“We saw ourselves as part of a global movement for queer liberation,” he says. “GLF did not demand equal rights. We did not want to be equal in a society we regarded as fundamentally unjust. Our goal was to transform society to liberate all oppressed people. We had interim demands like ending the discriminatory age of consent law and securing LGBT+ education in schools. But our end goal was much more radical.”

In the last half century, so much progress was made. Around 180 Prides will take place across the UK this year. But there were backwards steps too. Section 28, prohibiting the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality as an equal lifestyle by local authorities and schools, introduced under Margaret Thatcher in 1988, was an egregious example of progress never being linear.

Haven Thorn is one of the organisers of this year’s Pride in London. Speaking to The Big Issue, he stresses that LGBTQ+ people today are standing on the shoulders of giants.

1983: A women-only Lesbian Strength march in the week before Gay Pride
Photo: Carl Bruin/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

“All the rights we enjoy as young people is built on the backs of those veterans who came first. The spirit of that first march lives on in today’s generation,” he says. “Pride at its core is still a protest. There will always be a Pride until the LGBTQ+ community enjoys every right the heteronormative majority enjoy. Pride has the reputation for being a party. But it’s not a party. It’s a protest. 

“Pride is about the community’s fight for respect and the decriminalisation of love. There were challenging but ultimately victorious battles around Section 28 and the ban on gay men donating blood. We’ve had so much progress in 50 years but there’s more to be done. There’s still so much adversity, particularly for the trans community. Pride is a way to celebrate and fight for equal rights.”

1993: A year after this march, the male homosexual age of consent in the UK is lowered from 21 to 18, then to 16 in 2000
Photo: Steve Eason/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Tatchell is less convinced that modern Pride is political and bemoans Westminster Council’s refusal to allow a larger march.

“Pride today is totally different from 1972. It is too corporate; more of a party than a protest. Every year, thousands are turned away. That goes against the original ethos of Pride, which was open to all,” he says. 

Kaufman, who has sung with London Gay Men’s Chorus at Pride for 25 years, but this year will be with the 1972 veterans leading the march, adds: “1972 was that single spark that lit a prairie fire. Within a year, the GLF had ended, and the movement fractured, but there was an explosion of the ‘gay scene’ (especially for men) and of gay and lesbian culture, art and public expression.

“What has been kept alive is the spirit of fun that marked out that first Gay Pride March. Much of the political and cause-related anger has dissipated, but that also depends on which years you look at. Pride under Thatcher was roaring. Pride in the early years of Blair was celebratory.”

This year’s parade plus 100 related events will be attended by a million people. This makes it the largest Pride in the world according to research from AirBnB, which suggests travel to London for Pride will match 2019 levels.

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“I like to think of London as the heart of the world,” says Thorn. “We’re so centrally located! And it’s such an international city, a blending pot of different ethnicities and people from all over the world. Pride reflects that too. And not just on the day, but also the volunteers who make up Pride in London. We are queer, black, brown, lesbian, transgender – we run the gamut and the spectrum.”

Original members of the GLF, will retrace their original route the day before the main Pride march.

For Tatchell, the 50th anniversary offers a moment to reflect on progress made. What does he see as the enduring legacy of the band of brothers and sisters marching through London in July 1972?

Mumbai’s first-ever Queer Pride march in 2019
Photo: Azhar Khan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

“What we began as one Pride march in London with 700 people in 1972 has exploded today into 150 Pride events across the UK involving a million people,” he says. “This coincides with the repeal, since 2000, of all the major anti-LGBT+ laws, some of which had been on the statute books for centuries.

“Pride is now celebrated in almost every country on Earth, sometimes covertly in homophobic nations where being LGBT+ is still illegal. It is probably the most ubiquitous event in the world today. That’s an extraordinary achievement in the space of a mere five decades.”

And it is, he concludes, a reminder that “none of the rights we now enjoy have been given to us. We had to protest and lobby to win them”.

Follow Adrian Lobb on Twitter

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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