In Rural Britain, Pride Events Are Being Forced To Fold

·7-min read
(Photo: LeoPatrizi via Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Photo: LeoPatrizi via Getty Images/iStockphoto)

(Photo: LeoPatrizi via Getty Images/iStockphoto)

It was in 2017 when Leonora Wassell, now a retired minister, set up Harrogate’s Pride in Diversity along with a couple of friends, in part a response to the 2016 Orlando shooting, when 49 people were murdered in gay nightclub Pulse in Florida. “The young people who were murdered at Orlando was the catalyst for me,” explains Wassell over the phone.

Their first event was a success: “We were so surprised, we got about 500 people,” she says. Over the next three years, Pride in Diversity took off: its 2019 parade included a 50-metre long rainbow flag, marching band, and open top bus. “We had three very successful years, we were building up, we were becoming well known,” continues Wassell.

But then Covid-19 hit. Since 2020, Pride in Diversity has been unable to host its main summer Pride event. Most recently, organisers were forced to cancel their planned festival this June, due to a shortage of volunteers.

“We’ve gone from eight volunteers to three…the pandemic drained our resources, physically, and emotionally,” says Wassell. “This year, we thought we would be able to, but when we looked at it, we realised that we couldn’t. We realise the disappointment for others, but we’re devastated ourselves.”

Pride in Diversity isn’t alone. As big cities gear up to mark 50 years since the UK’s first Pride march, with lavish celebrations planned from London to Manchester, the knock-on impact of Covid-19 has meant some smaller Prides are struggling to host their events, hampered by volunteer shortages and financial issues.

Pride in Diversity (pictured above) is among a number of cancelled events. (Photo: PRIDE SHARP PHOTOGRAPHY)
Pride in Diversity (pictured above) is among a number of cancelled events. (Photo: PRIDE SHARP PHOTOGRAPHY)

Pride in Diversity (pictured above) is among a number of cancelled events.  (Photo: PRIDE SHARP PHOTOGRAPHY)

Many of these are in more remote or rural parts of the UK, where LGBTQ+ people often report feeling more isolated, and where public transport networks and physical spaces for the queer community are in shorter supply.

In Scotland, organisers of Highland Pride cancelled their 2022 event, with organisers saying in a statement: “Behind the scenes we’ve had issues with supplier shortages and Covid-19 continues to have an impact on funding and our volunteers.”

In Wales, Barry launched its first Pride in 2019, but the group’s website and social media hasn’t been updated since 2020, with no news of a 2022 revival. In England, the town of Whitehaven had planned to launch its inaugural Pride event in 2020, which it was forced to cancel; it also appears to have disbanded. In Northern Ireland, Trans Pride NI is hoping to hold its first physical Pride event since 2019, but is still calling out for volunteers to make it viable.

Pride in Diversity co-founder Leonora Wassell (pictured centre) is
Pride in Diversity co-founder Leonora Wassell (pictured centre) is

Pride in Diversity co-founder Leonora Wassell (pictured centre) is "devastated" by the cancellations.  (Photo: Pride in Diversity)

Lucas Mahal, 21, an ambassador for Just Like Us, who spent the first 11 years of his life in the small town of Stanford-le-Hope, Essex, stresses the importance of having Pride events in more remote parts of the UK.

“Although the huge crowds and intersectional diversities are amazing to see and experience at the bigger Prides – and their importance should definitely not be understated – it is important to remember the impact that the rural and smaller Prides can have on people,” he explains.

“Especially in terms of the visibility, support, and [the] sense of personal community that they can provide. Many LGBT+ people in these areas already feel isolated…LGBT+ people exist everywhere, so shouldn’t Pride events do the same?”

For Mahal, a transgender man, having a physical Pride event to go to would have helped him hugely growing up. “No one ever spoke about it and I didn’t know any LGBT+ people, or at least no one who was open about their identity,” he explains. “Even before knowing I was LGBT+, having the opportunity to be able to hear about and see a Pride parade would have meant so much.”

Lucas Mahal says Pride has a big impact on small towns (Photo: Lucas Mahal)
Lucas Mahal says Pride has a big impact on small towns (Photo: Lucas Mahal)

Lucas Mahal says Pride has a big impact on small towns (Photo: Lucas Mahal)

While some smaller Prides have cancelled, others have downsized.

In April, Silloth Pride in Cumbria announced the cancellation of its 2022 June festival “due to financial issues following the pandemic”. Luckily, it is now able to host its event, albeit on a smaller scale, thanks to local businesses offering financial support.

“Covid had such a huge impact on the rural communities,” explains Owen Martin, chair of Silloth Pride. “We struggled to do the fundraising and to do anything else to try and bring the money in. Obviously, businesses have been struggling as well, so they can’t support as much as what they maybe would like to support Pride events. Everything just seemed to have a knock on effect, unfortunately.”

Silloth Pride will downsize for 2022 to remain open (Photo: Owen Smith)
Silloth Pride will downsize for 2022 to remain open (Photo: Owen Smith)

Silloth Pride will downsize for 2022 to remain open  (Photo: Owen Smith)

Martin is calling on larger companies to step up and provide funding for smaller Prides, alongside the big ones. London Pride, for example, received £650,000 from corporate partners in 2019. 

“I think if the big corporations actually spread the sponsorship more readily to smaller rural communities, as well as the larger ones, and didn’t just put one bigger lump sum into larger Prides, then it would make everybody’s Prides more sustainable,” he says.

“The impact on visibility for their branding and stuff probably wouldn’t [be] as big in a tiny little Pride somewhere like Silloth compared to London or Brighton, but there’s still people using these companies in rural areas.”

Owen Martin wants companies to support more local Pride events. (Photo: Owen Martin)
Owen Martin wants companies to support more local Pride events. (Photo: Owen Martin)

Owen Martin wants companies to support more local Pride events. (Photo: Owen Martin)

The need for Pride outside cities is clear. Research has suggested that LGBTQ+ people feel more alone living in rural parts of the UK, compared with their urban counterparts.

In Scotland, a 2020 Equality Network report found that 70% of respondents felt that more needs to be done to tackle inequality experienced by LGBTQ+ people living outside of the country’s biggest cities. In the same report, more than half (51%) of LGBTQ+ respondents reported having personally experienced prejudice or discrimination in rural areas, and 40% of those living outside of cities said they feel isolated. 

It comes at a time when data indicates that the pandemic has exacerbated mental health problems for LGBTQ+ people generally. A November survey by the educational charity Just Like Us revealed that almost seven in 10 (68%) of young LGBTQ+ people reported that their mental health had worsened since the start of the pandemic, compared with nearly half (49%) of those who are not LGBTQ+. 

For Haylee Gatfield, 28, interim volunteers manager of Swindon and Wiltshire Pride, physical Pride events are needed to empower LGBTQ+ people in rural areas. “Not being able to get out and actually see people in person was really difficult,” says Gatfield of the impact of the pandemic. “You’ve actually got to get out there and do it, you’ve got to give people a space to celebrate their identity.”

Haylee Gatfield has struggled to find volunteers for Swindon and Wiltshire Pride. (Photo: Haylee Gatfield)
Haylee Gatfield has struggled to find volunteers for Swindon and Wiltshire Pride. (Photo: Haylee Gatfield)

Haylee Gatfield has struggled to find volunteers for Swindon and Wiltshire Pride.  (Photo: Haylee Gatfield)

In March, Swindon and Wiltshire Pride announced the cancellation of its main event, owing to a shortage of volunteers. However, it will instead host a smaller parade and “Pride picnic” in August. “It’s absolutely devastating,” adds Gatfield. “It had to be that, there was no possible way for us to do it, for us to cancel it. It’s hard getting volunteers to have to work on the committee, because it’s a big commitment.” 

Still, there is reason to be hopeful, with some smaller communities setting up Prides for the first time. This June, Aaran in Scotland and Donegal in Ireland both held their first Pride marches, while Shetland will host what organisers describe as the “most northerly Pride in the UK” in July.

“We all need to come out and be ourselves and to celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion, especially on a small island like Shetland,” says Shetland Pride’s chair Kerrie Meyer.

While Wassell says Pride in Diversity has no plans for an event this year, she hopes the group will gain enough volunteers to do something in 2023. Why are smaller Pride events so important to her? 

“It’s that visibility,” she says. “Pride in Diversity is showing that Harrogate is a welcoming town and a diverse town. It’s not just for LGBTQ+ people, too. It’s also so that all the marginalised communities are able to stand tall and say, ‘Hey, it’s okay to be who we are’. It’s important to have that visibility within the small communities, as well as the big towns.”

This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.

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