Gay Pride Revisited

Michael Arditti revisits Gay Pride

Attitude      August 2009

When she was asked to comment on the growing trend for naked flesh in the theatre, Shelley Winters, replied:  ‘I think on-stage nudity is disgusting, shameful and damaging to all things American.  But, if I were twenty-two with a great body, it would be artistic, tasteful, patriotic and a progressive religious experience.’  In recent years, that is much how I have felt about Gay Pride.  For a decade after my move to London in 1986, I marched, chanted, partied and danced with the best of them on what a friend described as the ‘Queens’ official birthday’.  Since then, I have been content to leave it to younger, more spirited and more sprightly men and women.

For me, Gay Pride is irrevocably associated with South London.  My first Pride was in Jubilee Gardens, where every gay man I wanted to meet (and many I preferred to avoid) seemed to be crammed into the small stretch of land that now houses the London Eye.  Peter Stringfellow who was, notoriously, ‘Glad to be Gay on Mondays’, introduced the remodelled Beverley Sisters, while all eyes were fixed on the Thames, waiting for the American drag star, Divine, to float past on a barge singing her latest disco hit.  In the event, the current dragged her upstream and she found herself belting out Shoot Your Shot to the Houses of Parliament.

Then there was Kennington Park which, after trudging through drably uniform streets, we had to queue for hours to enter.  Once inside, the queues were equally long, whether at one of the many organic food stalls whose owners seemed to have decamped from Glastonbury or the rickety, insanitary Port-a-loos we used at our peril.  Nothing, however, could dampen my spirits, not even bumping into a recent ‘ex’, dressed only in a pair of skimpy underpants, his heart and libido blatantly unbroken.   The experience of the 1989 Pride march, with its aftermath in Kennington Park, was a milestone on the road to self-acceptance for the protagonist of my first novel, The Celibate.

After the move first to Brockwell Park and then to Clapham Common, where the preponderance of local families made many of us feel as if our private party had been gatecrashed, I gave up on Pride.  My own circumstances had changed.  I no longer sought the validation of being among 100,000 gay people and I grew increasingly intolerant of the emphasis on publicity-seeking pop acts.  Moreover, while national politics were becoming more respectful of gay rights (the Major administration having distanced itself from the egregious discrimination of the Thatcher years), internal gay politics were riven with dissent, culminating in the gay equivalent of the Western Schism, between the Party in the Park and Summer Rites.

Since then, both Pride and I have been through various incarnations:  its changing from Gay Pride to Lesbian and Gay Pride to LGBT Pride to Mardi Gras and, now, to London Pride;  my losing two discs at the base of my spine which makes it impossible for me to march and difficult to negotiate a crowd.  So I was both interested and apprehensive to see how we would take to each other after all these years.  Moreover, I was keen to discover what, if any, purpose Pride continues to serve in these days of civil partnerships, openly gay cabinet ministers, a lesbian poet laureate and near-equal civil rights.

There is clearly some merit in being able to bring the centre of London to a halt for an afternoon, especially as both bemused foreigners and incommoded locals took it in such good heart.  I was immediately struck by the warmth of the public response compared to a mere fifteen years ago when we were regularly met by a storm of boos, catcalls and car horns.   This time, there were only two small protests:  the first by six young National Front supporters dressed in the sort of skinhead gear also favoured by the denizens of our dingier gay clubs (which, in an age when image is all, must detract from their message);  the second by twenty middle-aged men from the Zion Chapel.

As someone with a deep Christian faith, I was saddened that, with the honourable exception of the Metropolitan Community Church, the only religious presence I saw all day was that of these sad Fundamentalists.  As if their selective reading of the Bible were not enough, they blasted out their crackpot creationism to the open derision of the crowd.  Surely now that the country’s defence chiefs have acknowledged that Britain’s military is immeasurably strengthened by the gay men and women in its midst, it is time for the mainstream churches to do the same?  How inspiring it would be if in years to come there were a contingent of out gay Anglican and Catholic vicars, priests and even bishops filing past!

That might sound fanciful but, fifteen years ago, I never expected to see several hundred openly gay service men and women proudly marching, their courage in serving their country now matched by their courage in asserting themselves.  There has been A Sea Change too in the police presence.  In The Celibate, my protagonist is ‘surprised to see so many policemen and angry that not one of them would deign to smile.  They came to protect and stayed to intimidate.’  Now a substantial minority of them take part in the parade, while their colleagues along the route are relaxed and helpful.  For some people, policemen look younger than they did in their youth;  for me, they are definitively gayer.

The march was both less colourful and less confrontational than those I remember.  There was a healthy contingent of drag queens and one extraordinary carnival creation, the Bisexual Butterfly, but none of the radical drag that I used to encounter in the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a mutant order of male nuns, or The Celibate protagonist encountered when he felt that he had come across ‘the entire cast of Gone With The Wind, and their inventiveness seemed to have surpassed even Scarlett O’Hara’s.  She’d made a dress out of the drawing-room curtains;  but they’d made theirs out of tinfoil and dustbin liners and something very like army camouflage.’

Moreover, whereas once the march was headed by the ‘dykes on bikes’, it was this year led by lesbians in wheelchairs and other disabled gay men and women, a prominence that one trusts is more than tokenism in a community dangerously prone to idolize the body beautiful.   Likewise, apart from the odd master with his masked and chained slave, there were none of the leathermen in studded jockstraps who used to be so conspicuous.   While some may lament the ‘cleaning up’ of the march and, indeed, of the whole gay movement, they must also acknowledge that they did little to further the cause by striding down Oxford Street shouting:  ‘Give us your kids and those we can’t fuck, we’ll eat!’

The body beautiful or, at any rate, the body gym-toned was still in evidence, most visibly in a dozen or so Selfridges models in leopard-skin shorts, with not a hair out of place on their heads or unwaxed on their chests.  Elsewhere, the emphasis lay firmly on clean-cut uniformity, with groups from GMFA, the Terrence Higgins Trust and the Food Chain dressed in matching monochrome T-shirts, and on clean-limbed athleticism, with softball, football and tennis players offering glimpses of their sporting skills.

While I didn’t miss the outrage, I did miss Outrage or at least some acknowledgement that, for all the huge changes of recent years, gay people are part of a wider (and worldwide) struggle.   A few men from Homintern carried placard reminders of the gay victims of both GBH and GHB, but they were a drop in a hedonistic ocean.   While grateful for the advances that have blunted the need for political protest, I lament the loss of the defiance that inspired us even in the dark days of Section 28, when, as we marched through Parliament Square, a frighteningly convincing Margaret Thatcher impersonator stood beside the statue of Field Marshal Smutts, conducting a vigorous chorus of ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie… Out, Out, Out!’   Then, as we passed Parliament itself, the whole march erupted in a chant of ‘2-4-6-8:  is your MP really straight?’

We knew very well that many of them weren’t, and one, Chris Smith, had had the courage to admit it.  This year we were addressed from the main stage by an openly gay minister, Chris Bryant, and a bisexual Liberal Democrat, Simon Hughes.  Gordon Brown sent a message of support and his wife, Sarah, marched in the parade.  It was a far cry from the days when the only prominent politician to stand beside us was Ken Livingstone.  Nowadays, even the Tories are making sympathetic noises, proving that if the pink pound brought us a measure of acceptance;  the pink vote will consolidate it.   Yet Gay Pride turned into Gay Shame when Harriet Harman, who has long been one of the most consistent advocates of equal rights in the Commons, was jeered by the Trafalgar Square audience.   The government may be unpopular;  it may have misled us on Iraq and failed us on MP’s expenses;   but its record on gay issues has been exemplary.

Homintern should add another slogan to its placards:  ‘Short memories threaten gay lives.’

As the partying began and the B-list pop stars took to the stage to flog their wares, it was time for me to depart.   Leaving the rainbow-coloured square for the more monochrome world of Northwest London, I returned to the question that had been haunting me all day.  If, as many pundits suggest, we are living in a post-gay world, and if many young people regard their sexuality as fluid, attracted to a singular personality rather than a single gender, is there still a place for Pride?

My answer would be an emphatic yes.  It is true that each of us has many different identities… in my own case, I may have more in common with a straight male novelist or a female Anglican cleric than a Selfridges underwear model.   On the other hand, our sexuality remains at the heart of who we are and it is uniquely open to attack.  The Baptist bigots who informed me that I was heading for Hell via Trafalgar Square may be laughable extremists, but, in this country, gay teenagers are still torturing themselves on account of their sexuality and, around the world, gay adults are still being tortured on the same grounds.   Even in Britain, many people remain frightened to come out, as we discovered when a teacher from the London Raiders Softball club asked us not to take her photograph.

It is easy for a metropolitan gay man working in the arts to forget how much Pride can mean to a young gay man living in an isolated community who feels unable to come out to his family or, indeed, to an older lesbian who may have been cut off by her family.  Moreover, through their worldwide dissemination on the Web, images of Adventure Dykes or the London Titans Football Club, of Rugby Girls or the London Gay Men’s Chorus, not to mention the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group, may give heart to persecuted people across the globe.

I only have to look back to The Celibate and to my young protagonist’s elation when, for the first time, he finds himself among a large crowd of gay men to realise that, however much any of us may have to celebrate as individuals, it remains crucial to celebrate our sexuality as a group:   ‘Have you any idea how I felt after struggling for so long to keep my chin up but my head down no easy combination to be amongst thousands of like-minded people whose heads were as high as their spirits?   We’ve been told that there’s no such thing as society, but there is a community;  and this was the proof.’