Pride season is in full swing, as is the debate over commercialisation. Have brand sponsors and ticketed events made Pride a less authentic voice for the LGBT community it serves?
Personally, I am old enough to remember the “authentic” Pride marches of the ’80s and ’90s, when Section 28 and the 1967 Sexual Offences Act prevailed, the age of consent for gay men was 21 and equal rights felt like something I wouldn’t see in my lifetime. I remember those events with gratitude. (Of course I also remember queuing forever to get a drink, and for the grossly inadequate toilet facilities).
But here we are in 2017 – heirs to the victories of half a century of political protest. Now the march is a ‘parade’; discrimination based on sexual orientation outlawed; marriage equality enshrined, and high profile, well-organised Pride events among the highlights of the public calendar in many cities.
Pride has morphed from protest to party, focused on affirmation and inclusiveness rather than changing laws. I would argue that the increased visibility and larger, more mainstream audience is serving us well. But it comes at a cost.
It’s a lot cheaper to stage a protest than a party. Expectations are higher. People vote with their feet and apparently want quality performers and a fun, well-organised experience end-to-end.
Providing adequate resources to deliver that at scale is expensive, and the costs are primarily met by brand sponsors and ticket revenues. Volunteers with collection buckets won’t cut it, and even the largest of Pride organisations still struggle to solicit personal donations.
Of course, for those who feel the dominance of the carnival aspect of Pride is a mistake, any practical consideration of who pays for it is irrelevant. They argue that being less overtly political weakens the message and fails to address the challenges that remain.
I disagree – and here’s why.
Protest movements come into existence to enable individuals to fight centralised oppressive powers. That was exactly what was needed until very recently. But those battles were won. Those laws were changed.
Yes, discrimination still exists, but no longer government-sanctioned. The challenges faced by LGBT people come not from government but from bigoted individuals, be it on the streets or in the boardroom.
So what entity would a more protest-based Pride fight today?
Protests don’t change bigots. The proven way to disempower those people is having them realise that the majority is not on their side. Take away their belief that they are simply saying what “everyone else” is thinking and you take away their oxygen.
Making inclusiveness and tolerance more visible is key, and parties are much better vehicles for that than protests.
Once those parties have scale, they have power. Just look to the USA to see how fast Pride in Los Angeles and New York – so long the vanguard of commercial sponsorship – flipped back to protest in response to Trump. Supporters and sponsors may have come for the party, but they stayed for the fight.
I like to think the same would be true here, should the UK ever experience the political backslide on LGBT rights that the US is currently facing.
Criticism of sponsorship and ticketed Pride events is so often presented without balancing argument about what that allows Pride to achieve. And that’s how I come to be writing this.
I have a personal perspective, as a firm I co-founded – ticketSource.co.uk – provides free online ticketing and audience management services to Pride events around the UK and is even sponsoring one – Pride Cymru in Cardiff.
I’m personally proud that we’re able to help out this year as they step up to a larger more complex city-centre site and a three-day event. I was privileged to see how having free access to our ticket scanning technology last year enabled a handful of volunteers with only a few minutes training to seamlessly handle a crowd of 10,000 and help pave the way for such growth.
So really, all I want to say is, anyone who thinks their local Pride is missing the mark, get involved. But work to make improvements, not to turn back time. And please don’t turn down freely available commercial and practical support.
Other than that – party on!