Saturday, 27 June 2015

Pride pride

Sometimes I feel very proud to come from Great Britain. Today was London Pride. I marched. I felt proud.

It's all changed since the last time I came to Pride, which was probably the year 2000. That was the year that Philippa and I actually won the march. I'm not sure anyone else knew that it was a race, but we did, and we slowly yet stealth-fully snaked our way from the back of the march all the way to the front. We were quite surprised that we didn't win a medal for the achievement, but I reckon I'm just about ready to let go of the sense of injustice.

My first pride was in 1996. I was a student at Mountview drama school and was working as an usher at the Royal Court Theatre. Those were the days when people turned up to watch the march simply to see what gay people looked like. I remember Holly Johnson performing, riddled with AIDS and looking like he was about to breath his last. The following year, he performed again. The combination therapy drugs for HIV positive men were finally available, and he looked amazing again. Literally brought back from the brink. Or so everyone said.

1997 was the year I went to Pride as the partner of Stephen Twigg, who, two months earlier, had been elected as the MP for Enfield Southgate, in the fabulous New Labour landslide. Stephen was invited onto the stage at Clapham Common. I stood in the wings and watched a crowd of 100,000 people cheering him. It was a genuinely astonishing moment.
This year I marched as the guest of my brother and his company, HSBC. We looked a picture in our multi-coloured T-shirts, holding rainbow umbrellas and waving our flags. For the record, Brother Edward and I independently went for purple, me, because it was my Grandmother's favourite colour, Edward, because it's the colour of his Cambridge college.

Pride is so much better organised these days, and sadly, even if you wanted to, I'm not sure you'd be allowed to simply tip up and march like you could in the old days. I'm not sure that's very much keeping with the spirit of the occasion, but then again, this march felt like celebration rather than a political statement. In the old days we used to chant. "We're here, we're queer and we're not going shopping." I don't know why this was something we said, but said it we did. We'd stop outside "homophobic" businesses and boo. In 1996, we jeered at the gates of Downing Street. In 1997, we cheered.

But then again, no one really tended to watch the march back then. A few well wishers would wave from the windows of buildings. Unsuspecting tourists would watch us passing with bemused looks on their faces. The route was lined with burly coppers who were there to protect us from demonstrators. It all felt like a protest march rather than a cavalcade or carnival.

This year the police presence was negligible and scores and scores of well-wishers lined the streets to cheer us on. Around Trafalgar Square the crowds were 20 or 30 deep. It was almost overwhelming. Brother Edward was marching for the first time and repeatedly said how moved he was feeling. There were even people on rooftops waving rainbow flags. It was extraordinary. I am also proud to say that one of the people in the crowd was holding a Welsh Dragon flag in rainbow colours, which I thought was fabulous. I spotted it, and waved at the person holding it, who nudged his mate and said, "look, a Welsh person." I felt even prouder than I was already feeling!

Just before we set of, we were all handed whistles. I'm not sure many of the people there would have had a sense of the significance of whistles in the gay community, which goes back to San Francisco in the 1970s when Harvey Milk and co handed out whistles for gay men to blow if they got into trouble with homophobic gangs. There's a scene in the film Milk where a lad is found beaten to death in the street, his blood-spattered whistle still in his hand. I blew my whistle a lot. As did everyone around me. I now have temporary tinnitus.

We were held for a few hours before the procession started in a side street off Oxford Street, which I suspect had never been so busy. Everyone was rushing into a little newsagents trying to buy ice-creams and bottles of beer. Two Asian shopkeepers were rushing about trying to serve drag queens and disco bunnies wondering what on earth had hit them.

Speaking of disco bunnies, the float in front of us was full of twinky gaybos who'd obviously been invited to take part based on their ability to customise clothing and twerk. Those priceless little Marys had tied knots in their T-shirts and folded up their shiny shorts to uncover as much flesh as possible. When the choruses of the songs they were dancing to arrived, the twerking went crazy and the whole float started bouncing rather dangerously.
For me, the Pride experience was encapsulate by a couple of fabulous elderly trannies, one who could barely walk, who were going along at the same pace as the HSBC lot. They were dressed in glorious colours and it was moving to think how things had changed in their lifetimes. I was disappointed to hear one of the younger HSBC lads being rude about them and wondering if he should ask them to march elsewhere. I genuinely wanted to shake him and tell him that Pride is all about brilliant women like that, who fought the fight when it was a great deal more dangerous than it is these days. There's enough hatred in the world for gay people without young gay kids forgetting the past. I should have dragged him to the front of the march where people were holding flags from the countries in the world where homosexuality is illegal and read him the blinkin' riot act!

I love the sheer diversity within the gay community. Blokes dressed from head to toe in leather were walking alongside young lads wearing nothing but flip flops, fake tans and diamond-encrusted swimming trunks. At one point I passed a little kennel club of men dressed in dog-shaped rubber suits. The air smelt of balloons around them!

When the march was done, I took myself to Old Compton Street to meet Nathan out of work. I realised, as I walked through China Town, that it was a bad idea. Scores of people were heading in that direction like iron filings being dragged towards a magnet. I got half way along Frith Street, where there was such a huge, dense crowd, that I started panicking.
Nathan came to my rescue and I walked him back to work before escaping central London for the relative calm and tranquility of the North, where all the straight boys were. Most of them had plainly been playing frisbee in Highgate Woods.


  1. I have seen several Gay Pride parades in San Francisco and I loved them. They were the wildest and most free gatherings I have ever seen. Just beneath the party atmosphere was the notion that this particular set of rights was a long and hard fight. And I do remember Harvey Milk's whistles.

    Cindy Harvey @ The Dignity Forum

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