Making Pride seriously fun

This weekend’s “Pride and (No) Prejudice” Brighton Pride parade was a melee of colour, glitter, Regency-era drag, big muscles, even bigger hair and irritatingly infectious high-scene pop and dance tracks.

Such was the din created by the whistles and the vuvuzelas sold along the procession route that it was sometimes difficult to hear the chants of “Pride is a protest” made by an intrepid minority of people carrying placards bearing the same slogans. But in the face of increasing apathy towards Pride in some quarters of the gay community, does this ideological call-to-arms still hold true?

When gay pride marches began following the Stonewall riots in 1969, there was virtually no language in the UK for protesting against homophobia and inequality. Discrimination was enshrined in the legal system and there were no gay and lesbian politicians able (or willing) to pursue the rights of the LGBT community. Gay pride marches were a direct protest against this enforced social invisibility. Riotous (usually literally) and colourful, they clogged up streets, brought traffic to a standstill and made it impossible for polite society to avert its eyes and carry on as before.

A testament to its success, perhaps, Pride is no longer at the forefront of political change. The demand for equal rights has been embraced by the mainstream and many victories have been won by various groups and individuals. These successes range from the equalisation of the age of consent to the establishment of civil partnerships and the end of theprohibition on gays joining the military.

So does that leave Pride on the scrapheap of history? Certainly, there are those who feel that it is outdated – that the achievement of equal rights is not well served by an event that emphasises difference and apartness. But whoever said that equality had to mean sameness? And it is sometimes difficult not to see in such criticism a distaste for the flamboyance and theatricality that is one of the hallmarks of a Pride parade.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the argument that Pride is no longer necessary is based on the belief that the battle for LGBT rights has been fought, and won. This is nonsense.

In 2009, Peter Tatchell lambasted the organisers of Pride London for its “totally anodyne” slogan “Come and play”. He was also “shocked” at the lack of mention of the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots on the charity’s website or in its magazine. After citing police statistics that showed a sharp rise in homophobic hate crimes in Manchester, he went on to criticise the “huge apathy and complacency” that defined the LGBT community in his eyes.

The problem arises when (because of the need to appease corporate sponsors) Pride as “party” takes precedence over Pride as “celebration” – it should be both. If it doesn’t convey an adequate awareness of history, knowledge of what has been gained and what has been lost in the process – of a sense of community – it becomes just another carnival. Complacency is a result of ignorance and apathy and lack of personal investment are the inevitable consequence. People need to understand the ties that bind them if they are truly to feel them.

It is doubtful that Pride will ever again entirely satisfy those at the more militant end of gay rights campaigning. It has become too slick, too mainstream. In any case, actual progress on the big issues – such as the grossly offensive ban on gay and bisexual men giving blood – is much more likely to be made in court these days. It has been many years since the street was the only or best route.

Pride may have become a “parade” rather than a “march”, but this does not mean it has to be depoliticised. As Anisa de Jong, the director of the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group, said during an interview in 2009:

“Pride should be providing more of a political space in line with its history, which is about visibility being a political statement in itself. The whole Pride issue is not just about celebrating our identity but about making a political statement about our identity and addressing injustices.”

Until the male couple I recently shared a tube carriage with can hold hands in public without attracting attention, there will be a need for Pride, the sense of freedom it instils and the light it can shine on inequalities both subtle and significant. Particularly when school children (and a depressing number of adults) continue to use “gay” as a term of abuse and overpaid columnists demonstrate the extent of their wit by rhyming “dyke” with “bike”.

Pride can and should be fun. At one level, it is an opportunity to let your hair down, dress up, dance badly and hope that no one has taken any embarrassing photos. But it needs to be more than this if it is to create and sustain the interest of the community to which it is ostensibly dedicated. Thankfully, Brighton’s 2010 Pride celebration attracted the biggest crowds in its 18-year history.

At one point during the Pride Brighton parade a float containing a group of giggling teenagers singing along to Dizzee Rascal was replaced by eight people dressed in black, their mouths taped shut, carrying coffins. On each crudely made box was the name of a country where the punishment for homosexuality is imprisonment or worse. Places where we have no voice. The juxtaposition of the two floats was unsettling. It made me pause, and it made me think. And that’s a place to start.

First published in the Guardian‘s Comment is Free section