GAY TIMES August 2004

Terry Sanderson’s new autobiography “The Reluctant Gay Activist” is now available on Amazon

The papers paid more attention to Pride this year than they usually do, perhaps because it now has the official designation of being “a parade” rather than just a protest march. Jason Pollock, chairman of Pride London, revealed: “Ken Livingstone wants us to build it up to compare to the Sydney Mardi Gras and we are working with Visit London to promote it as a major tourist attraction, which is a quantum leap.”

The usual confusion reigned about how many were actually there. The Sunday Times thought 30,000; The London Evening Standard thought 40,000 on one page and 100,000 on another; The Independent on Sunday said 50,000; while the following day its sister paper, The Independent, estimated 60,000.

Whatever the number, the question remains: what is Pride for these days? Jason Pollock explained to The Independent that in the early days of gay liberation it was a protest march pure and simple. “People would boo from the pavements and you could be arrested at the drop of a hat. Now it is a party by the gay community for everyone.”

Philip Hensher in The Independent on Sunday, on the other hand, thought the whole affair “a fake celebration that diminishes us all” because, although we’ve made progress in law reform, we have failed to challenge the “thinly veiled contempt” that society still reserves for us, and which is expressed in TV shows like Queer Eye. The Pride parade simply reinforces the idea that we are there to entertain heterosexuals with our campery and foolishness.

This confusion over the purpose of Pride encapsulates in many ways the wider debate within the gay community about whether it’s OK to relax now, or whether we need renewed vigilance against the creeping resurgence of our enemies on the right.

This year there was an attempt to put at least a bit of politics back into the day; after the “parade” there was a rally in Trafalgar Square at which luminaries made uplifting speeches. But as The London Evening Standard pointed out in its Londoner’s Diary, there was significantly no word from the supposedly gay friendly Tories or their fickle leader, Michael Howard: “How quickly the political landscape can change,” said ‘Londoner’. “Just a few weeks ago London politicians of every hue went flat out to attract the ‘pink vote’, even attending a special hustings event on the eve of the mayoral elections. Strange, then, that no senior member of any party [bar Mr Livingstone] could be bothered to join the 100,000 partygoers for Saturday’s Big Gay Out in Finsbury Park.”

Another sceptic is Mark Simpson, who wrote in his account of the day in the Independent on Sunday: “When it began in the early seventies, Pride was about visibility, radical politics and an antidote to shame and oppression – which involved running a gauntlet of abuse from some passers-by. Today they’re more likely to ask for styling tips”.

Simpson noted that the concert in Finsbury Park had been dedicated to the murdered Jamaican gay activist Brian Williamson. “Depending on your point of view,” he opined, “this is either a sign of international solidarity or of the desperation of some British gays to identify themselves as victims in a society that is no longer terribly interested in victimising them.”

But Pride gave the press an excuse to explore a few gay issues that they would otherwise not bother with. For instance, we discovered from The Independent that “The Metropolitan Police has established an enquiry to examine whether past prejudice among officers influenced its investigation of anti-gay murders.”

The Met intends to study six gay murders, going back to 1990, to decide whether those investigations were “compromised” by the homophobia of the officers involved, and if so, what lessons can be learned for the future.

The Sunday Times looked at the emergence of out and proud police and fire officers on the parade. “For the first time,” the paper said, “all the Scottish police forces gave leave to their officers to march in uniform.” Scotland Yard, British transport police, Devon and Cornwall constabulary and West Midlands police all had staff recruitment stalls in the park. However, Surrey police officers, who were given permission to wear their uniform on the march last year, were ‘strongly discouraged’ from doing so this year. Other forces have always refused. Naming and shaming them, Superintendent Steve Deehan, projects officer for the Gay Police Association, jibed: “We say in Hertfordshire and Hampshire homosexuals hardly ever happen”.

The Sunday Times also told us that the fire brigade was much more accommodating. “Ken Knight, fire brigade commissioner for London, gave his gay officers a champagne breakfast and organised coaches to take them to the start of the march in Hyde Park.”

According to Stuart Brown, a Glaswegian firefighter who heads a 250-strong support network for gay men and lesbians in the fire service, “The amount of people coming from the gay community to join the fire service is astronomical.” He said that half of the 38 female firefighters in the Lothian and the Borders region were openly lesbian.

The Independent told us that “for some on the parade, remembrance remained important. James Murphy, 24, marching alongside his rugby club team-mates, felt today’s generation of gays owed a debt of gratitude to their ‘forefathers’.”

The paper quoted James as saying: “Because of them, younger people like me can feel a better sense of equality than they experienced.”

To help us understand just how long and arduous the battle of our predecessors really was, Tania Branigan of The Guardian wrote about gay life in London in the 1920s and 30s and discovered that it was remarkably vibrant in some areas. She interviewed Matt Houlbrook, a lecturer in history at Liverpool University, who told her: “What’s remarkable about the 20s and 30s was how open and widespread [homosexuality] was in some places. In some circumstances it was very, very visible and strong and vibrant and rich.”

While researching for his book, Mr Holbrook had uncovered evidence of a wonderful world of weekly drag balls that were attended by between 50 and 100 men. While looking into legal cases against homosexuals – court records being just about the only places where our lives are recorded pre-1967 – he had pulled out of one old box an ‘Exhibit A’ which turned out to be a “carmine-pink sparkly kimono top” which had figured in a case against “Lady Austin’s Camp Boys”.

This case had gripped the nation in 1933, when police had raided a private ballroom in Holland Park Avenue and discovered 60 men dancing together, kissing and having sex in make-up and women’s clothes. “Despite facing a lengthy prison term and disgrace, the organiser, ‘Lady Austin’ defiantly told officers: ‘There is nothing wrong in who we are… You call us nancies and bum boys but… before long our cult will be allowed in the country.” All the same, 27 of the men arrested that night were jailed for between three and 20 months.

“Lady Austin” was one of the tens of thousands of our ‘forefathers’ who had to fight and make incredible personal sacrifices in order for society to progress. I wonder if her ghost was marching along with the other feather-bedecked and glittery drag queens at Pride?

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