opinion

'Pride in London has always had a complicated history - those who take the reins next must heed its lessons'

Any new incumbent leadership must work hard to restore faith in the capital's biggest LGBTQ community event, writes Attitude editor-in-chief Cliff Joannou.

2021-03-22

Once again, London’s Pride event finds itself at a crossroads, a situation that the capital’s LGBTQ+ celebration is not unfamiliar with, for it has often had a complicated history.

The latest challenge to face Pride in London, the group that organises London’s annual event, was made public last Wednesday (17 March) when its director of communications, Rhammel Afflick, resigned. His departure was followed by the Community Advisory Board (CAB) represented by Ozzy Amir a day later. Amongst the reasons for the resignations were the inclusion of the Metropolitan Police in the parade and a "hostile environment" for Black and ethnic minority volunteers.

By Friday, the Pride in London leadership resigned, issuing a lengthy statement in relation to Afflick and the CAB’s concerns and apologising for the situation.

The situation pulls focus on the challenges that the city’s LGBTQ+ pride community has faced in the past, for this isn’t the first time London’s Pride organisations have faced difficult times.

Conflict between Pride ‘the commercialised party’ and the politics and social issues around Pride ‘the protest’ has lingered since its early days. The free Clapham Common festival in 1997 left a bitter pill in the mouth of the wider queer community after it ended-up with debts of £160,000. A march went ahead a year later in 1998, but without a festival element – for the first time in its 26 years.

The group that took over management of London’s Pride events from 1999 renamed it ‘Mardi Gras’, much to the ire of queer activists. The Guardian reported that activists disapproved how the event had been “hijacked, depoliticised and commercialised.”

Mardi Gras’ organisers, featuring many prominent names from the LGBTQ scene, were criticised for spending £1m on a Finsbury Park event for 65,000 in 1999, whereas 300,000 people attended the free Clapham Common event in 1997, which cost £600,000. The Mardi Gras group continued running ‘Pride’ until 2003, when it ended after its management was unable to maintain funding after a high profile move to Hyde Park.

Pride London (not to be confused with the current Pride in London group) took control of the event in 2004, until trouble plagued it eight years later for arguably the most shambolic year for London’s long history of Pride wrangles. The summer of 2012 saw London not only hosting World Pride, but the event also coinciding with the London Olympic and Paralympic games, as well as the year-long celebrations of The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. If ever there was a year not to fuck it up, it was this.

After a key sponsor withdrew support, what was set to be London’s biggest and most high-profile Pride event ever, was scaled back at the last minute to the bare minimum, with no motorised floats and the cancellation of entertainment stages and Soho street parties. The Pride London organisation folded in the fall out in a mess of mismanagement.

The current Pride in London group was founded in October 2012 after it won a competitive bid to stage the event, and was officially backed by the Mayor of London.

It seems almost unfathomable that one of the world’s greatest cities can have such a long history struggling to stage such a landmark calendar moment.

There have been conflicts of interest at play since Pride grew beyond its roots as a protest in the 1970s and ’80s. As equal rights were won, Soho grew to become the hub of queer life in London. With wider social acceptance, the community carried Pride beyond the placards of the daytime protest in Whitehall to the streets of Soho, gathering to revel in the kind of pride that Pride was intended for.

For a long time, Pride events in London faced relentless obstacles from Westminster Council, which put the interests of local residents before Pride day. It wasn’t until LGBTQ rights started to find favour with the straight community that attitudes began to change. Pride was suddenly more than just an annual "freakshow" that the tabloid press revelled in photographing to portray the gays as the epitome of social decline, but a day that welcomed all, from rainbow families to straight grandparents. Everybody was getting involved.

Attitude editor-in-chief Cliff Joannou

I was born in London and have seen the hedonistic highs and shameful lows that have been London’s Pride events. I’ve worked in gay media for over twenty years, editing scene magazine QX from 2003 to 2015, when I joined Attitude. I sat in on those early meetings when Pride in London was being established in 2012 after the World Pride debacle, and had some insight into the complex nature of putting on a world class event, with a budget of zero and only eager volunteers.

Pride is the capital’s biggest street event after the Notting Hill Carnival and New Year’s Day celebrations, and with the exception of a single paid employee to manage the day-to-day orchestrations of the operation, it is entirely voluntarily run. Yet, while volunteers they may be, an obligation remains to be inclusive of all voices.

It is not an easy event to stage, or get right. Also, Pride is staggeringly expensive. Streets need to be closed to traffic, access for differently-abled people needs to be considered, toilet facilities provided, and the entire area cleaned immediately after the last revellers have left. Amongst other expenditure, Pride also needs to compensate Westminster Council for the income that is lost to it for every parking bay that is closed during the event. The policing alone costs upwards of £150,000.

In an ideal world, Pride would be free of these requirements, but we don’t yet live in that world.

Yes, we could strip Pride back to its protest roots, but people would still descend en masse to central London and flood the streets to dance and celebrate. So, owing to health and safety concerns, those crowds need to be managed, and their desire to celebrate accommodated.

People demand Pride to be free. But for it to be free, it needs to be paid for. And that means corporate involvement, which many dislike. There is a simple solution to removing corporate involvement: ask every LGBTQ identifying person in London to donate just £1 a year for a Pride that can be a protest, a street party and still have the money to pay for Lady Gaga to perform on the main stage at a festival in Hyde Park. But we don’t (yet) live in a world in which that can happen, or the community will support.

Other cities make Pride look easy. Brighton & Hove welcomes the day with wide-open arms, thanks to a very liberal-minded city, a forward-thinking council, and event organisers that work closely to support the local community. The same goes with cities like Manchester and other key British prides, who don’t face the challenges of up to one million visitors descending onto the city streets in a single afternoon.

Pride is many things. To some, it’s a day to dance and drink and dress up. For others, it’s a boujis lunch at Soho House. For other LGBTQ people still, it’s a day no different to any other in which they avoid the hectic streets of London’s zone 1.

For many of us, Pride’s long history remains rooted in political activism. This has been at the core of the many debates around what the purpose of a modern Pride is in a country in which LGBTQ equality has advanced so much in the near-fifty years since our forebears first gathered for its first Pride in 1972.

Who does Pride speak for today? Just because equality legislation has advanced for many, does it mean all within the queer community have moved forward together? Clearly not, as we know the disparity between the experiences of our trans and intersex communities and queer people of colour differ wildly. The focus has shifted to uplifting not just all of our voices together, but amplifying the individual voices that don’t always get heard when we speak as one.

Whether Pride in London has been able to sufficiently deliver for these communities has been questioned, while the accusations of bullying and racism levelled at it are serious and must be tackled by any new incumbent leadership. We only have last week’s events to determine that there has been an unfortunate breakdown in the dialogue somewhere along the way.

What we know is that Pride belongs to no one single person; it belongs to all of us. We can help make Pride better by volunteering, supporting the event and getting involved, in whatever capacity we can. But those who take the reins next would do well to heed the lessons of the past.

From the Stonewall uprising to the complex challenges involved in staging one of London’s biggest annual events in the crowded city streets, the road to Pride has never been an easy one.