A few years ago, while wandering along Regent Street to catch the Pride parade, I bumped into a friend’s daughter, then Year 10 at Clapton Girl’s Academy. She was with half a dozen giddy schoolmates, all 14 or 15 years old. One had come out as lesbian during the preceding school term, another started identifying as non-binary. Each had crudely painted rainbows, love hearts, flags and gender insignia on one another’s cheeks, a touching act of physical intimacy to let them know they had one another’s backs, no matter what.
The next year another friend, a special inspector for the Met Police, had been despatched to Trafalgar Square as a community liaison officer policing Pride. He stopped two lads with hoods up lurking at the festivity’s perimeters. With the intention of cheekily disarming them, he asked, ‘So, is this your boyfriend, then?’ After some nervous, defensive, agitated dismissal, one of them took his hood down to shut him up. Yes, they were boyfriends, actually, though they hadn’t told anybody. He was 16. He explained his mum had kicked him out of the Croydon family flat when she found out he was gay, before throwing the question back at the constable.
‘Are you gay, then? Is that allowed?’
‘I am and it is.’
A seismic moment of revelation about the divisive, subjective and often deeply personal meaning of what Pride is passed between the teenager and the copper. Sometimes it really is as simple as saying it out loud, in public, for the first time; a feeling that can send a shiver up the spine of even the toughest kids. They exchanged handshakes and the policeman briefly excused himself from his duties round the corner, for a little cry.
I’d love to say my first experience of a Pride march (London 1993, party in Brockwell Park) was filled with similarly Damascene moments of personal enlightenment but, initially at least, Pride confused me. The thought of being political just by dint of who I was felt disconcerting. In gay nightclubs I’d been surrounded by a small, reflective bubble of people who looked and sounded like me; who liked similar music, clothes and drugs to me. A whole rainbow continuum, seemingly never-ending, marching down the streets was both overwhelming and disorientating.
As Prides went by, I came to understand how important it was to implicitly accept and understand every shade of gay, to accept the unusual bonds that tie disparate people together when they face the same societal struggle. Only Pride can deliver that. By 2019, my publishers at Penguin selected a quote from Good As You, a book I’d written on the pop-cultural road to British gay equality, and splashed it over a billboard at Manchester Pride. It read: ‘Normal is a false god’. Seeing those words six feet high was a moment of actual pride, a personal bellwether of how far I’d travelled in 26 years.
When Pride reconvenes in 2022, it will be three years since London’s biggest annual public assembly of LGBTQ+ people has gathered in central London. For the second year running, the Pride parade has been first postponed, then cancelled on the shaky grounds of pandemic limitations, despite numerous Covid flexibilities greeting the Euros and music festivals and no restrictions currently prohibiting open air gatherings. Why Pride isn’t happening this weekend is still mired in mystery, leaving LGBTQ+ London sitting somewhere beneath Foden and Foals fans on the shopping list of citywide priorities.
Splinter Pride events have happened. On 26 June, Trans Pride made its gentle way from Hyde Park Corner to Soho Square unhindered by any trouble. In a climate of hardening media hostility toward trans people, the agitprop flavour of the afternoon was a handy reminder of how the establishment weights itself heavily against minorities. And why a public event can help humanise the complicated fight back. Margate and Hastings Pride have mopped up the many London expats priced out to the coast. The second-only Silver Pride, a good-natured, fledgling event for LGBTQ+ people over 50, took place in June online.
On 24 July, Peter Tatchell’s Reclaim Pride, a reaction to the corporatisation of the government-endorsed event, marched through London to ignite some political fire back into the belly of Pride. Next year, event finally permitting, Pride will celebrate its 50th London anniversary. The changes from 1972-2022 make Pride look not so much now like a distant cousin of its earliest incarnation, when 1,000 people made their way up Upper Street, Islington, to pitch banners on Highbury Fields, as a Venn diagram of the intersections between the LGBTQ+ community, late-stage capitalism and a genially coercive desire to lose your collective marbles at a big, tacky party, en masse.
Yet it is often wise to consider not what Pride looks like but what it means, to pick out individual faces from the crowd and listen to their little life stories, beneath the rabble. It is the one moment of the London calendar when our minority gets a chance to feel like the majority. It isn’t to everyone’s taste. Squabbles abound. Who is and isn’t left out of the march, right across the spectrum from the staff of high street banks to leather sex daddies to signed-up members of Ukip, intermittently cause controversy. But Pride’s potency remains shakily, fleetingly intact. Getting to be the tall poppies once a year still feels nice. Watching the Muslim Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, lead the march is usefully symbolic shorthand for the best of the city’s natural taste for inclusivity.
During the missing three Pride years, numerous kids will have come out as L, G, B, T and Q. What does identifying with any of those initials mean in a social bubble, with no pubs, clubs and shops to go to designed for them? The LGBTQ+ communities form some of the few minorities that exist within families. Talking to someone online is simply not the same as becoming friends with them in real life. These are the challenges that have faced a new generation, learning to be themselves with no one else to look at for confirmation they might have been getting it at least a little bit right. Pride exists to correct all that.
For those of us wizened by years of watching floats, hearing chants, attending parties in parks, waving banners and blowing air horns, the stopgap silent years hardly matter. It’s easy to become blasé about it. But for the new contingent of excited, vibrant, youthful queer London wanting to stamp their own priorities on culture, intent on setting a new equality agenda, those missing three years will prove pivotally excluding.
Because Pride, ultimately, is as much a focal point for our own community disagreements as it is a celebration. It is a chance to show the rest of the country that we are not an idea to be wrestled with but people with pulses, faces, opinions and ideas on how our lives might best be served.
One of the strangest things that happens when you come out, first to yourself, then others, is a tacit acquiescence to the idea that in some way the person you are will make life a little more difficult than it is for those who aren’t. Having a day to wrestle that back to our own advantage each year is a little bit like having our own Christmas. You’ll be aggressively marketed to, feel sick afterwards, see loads of people you didn’t want to and wear something you wouldn’t dream of at any other time of year. But a collective agreement remains: life wouldn’t quite be the same without it. Let’s hope it returns to normal next year. Whatever normal might be.