Way back in the early 1970s, I was a member of the newly-formed Gay Liberation Front (GLF). It was Britain’s first freedom movement of openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
In those days, queers were invisible. Nearly everyone was closeted. Many gay people felt ashamed of their sexuality. Homosexuality was widely condemned as sinful and shameful.
On 1 July 1972, GLF held the UK’s first-ever “Gay Pride” march. Our aim was to show that we were proud, not ashamed. Determined to come out of the shadows and stand up for our rights, we wanted to make ourselves visible and demand LGBT liberation.
Only 700 people turned up. Most of my friends were too scared to march. They feared that if they were seen at Pride they might be sacked from their job or evicted from their flat. Many thought we’d be beaten up by queer-bashers or arrested by the police. This didn’t happen but we were abused by some members of the public and swamped by a very heavy, aggressive police presence. They treated us like criminals. It was a bit scary.
Despite this intimidation, we were determined to have a fun time and make our point. The march was a carnival-style parade, which went from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park. There were lots of extravagant costumes and cheeky banners poking fun at homophobes like Mary Whitehouse.
Back then, Pride was very political. In 1972 homosexuality was still classified as an illness, lesbian mothers had their kids taken off them by the courts, and the police were at war with the gay community – with thousands of gay and bisexual men arrested for consenting behaviour. The partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 was very partial indeed. Arrests rocketed in the years after law reform.
Many of us saw the Pride parade as the gay equivalent of the black civil rights marches. We were demanding an end to homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. Our slogan was “Gay Is Good”. This simple, three-word catch-phrase was revolutionary. It refuted the bigotry of centuries, which had always said that gay was mad, sad and very, very bad.
We got mixed reactions from the public. Some were hostile. Many were curious or bewildered. Most had never knowingly seen a gay person, let alone hundreds of queers marching to demand freedom. They just gawped.
Unlike nowadays, there was no commercial sponsorship. No business wanted to be associated with queers. London council’s spurned the event. MPs refused to attend. The media mostly ignored or rubbished Pride.
There were no floats or marching bands, and no festival or entertainment after the march. Instead, we held a DIY party in Hyde Park. We called it a “Gay Day.” Everyone bought food, booze and dope, which was shared around.
We played camped-up versions of party games like spin the bottle and drop the hanky. I won one of the games and my prize was a kiss with a handsome French activist who had come over to London especially for our Pride celebrations. Kissing was more than good fun. In those days, same-sex kissing in public could get you arrested. Our kissing games were a gesture of defiance. The police kept us under surveillance but they didn’t make any arrests. I guess there were just too many uppity queers for them to handle.
Looking back over the last five decades, Pride has grown from a march with less than a thousand people to a march, rally and festival attended by hundreds of thousands of revellers. Since 1999, we’ve finally won many LGBT law reforms, like equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, legal protection against discrimination and same-sex marriage. But the battle for equality isn’t over yet. Nearly half of all LGBT pupils are bullied at school, there are hundreds of queer-bashing attacks every year and a quarter of the British public still believe that homosexuality is always or mostly wrong. This is why the campaign for our rights must continue. Let’s have a fabulous, fun Pride but let’s also send out a political message: We want full freedom, justice and equality!