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What I Learned At My First Gay Pride

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As June rolls around every year, I’m filled with a feeling of dread. Pride season is upon us, and as a gay woman, I’m asked on average 60 times a week in the lead up if I’m looking forward to celebrating. Patiently, I explain to a series of people that I’ve never been to Pride, despite living in London for eight years and being “out” for half of them. Then, they look at me like I’ve strangled their kitten.

I’ve always felt that Pride is a bit like a wedding – it’s nice to have, but not entirely necessary. There are other ways to demonstrate your love, commitment and appreciation; I internally celebrate my ability to live freely as a gay woman every single day and I never take for granted that people have fought for me to be able to live openly with my girlfriend, most of the time without prejudice.

And then there’s the fact that I just don't really feel like dragging my (predominantly straight) friends out on to the streets of London once a year to congratulate me on being gay. I know it's not all about me – I get that it's about the wider community – but what I like the most about my friends is that my sexuality is not part of our relationship. I'd feel like a bit of fraud if I decided to make it A Thing every June.

All of that said, my disassociation with the LGBT community came to a swift end when on the 12th of June 2016, a gunman killed 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando. In the face of this act of hate, it became obvious to me that we need to stand together in solidarity to show that we will not be afraid. And so, armed with several cans of gin and tonic, my girlfriend and a couple of good friends, I hesitantly made my way to Soho on Saturday to join in London’s Pride celebrations for the first time.
This year, the organisers of Pride in London chose the slogan "#nofilter" and urged attendees to "live your life as you". Pride in London’s website read: “Many LGBT+ people feel the need to filter their behaviour, to self-censor, or to hide who they are. We are encouraging people to live as themselves, nothing more, nothing less. So, stand proud, show us your authentic self and celebrate authenticity.”

Despite this, when I hopped off the tube at Leicester Square around lunch time on Saturday, I couldn't help feeling like "me" wasn't quite the right look for gay pride. I was wearing a black jumpsuit and Converse, with not a spec of glitter on my face, and I felt positively underdressed. Self-confidence a little low, I drained three cans of aforementioned gin and began marching to Soho Square.

Walking through town, it dawned on me that this was the highest number of gay people I'd ever seen in one place, and I started to get some warm, fuzzy Pride feelings. I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the event – the BBC have since reported a turnout of "tens of thousands of people" – and feeling a little disorientated, I sent my location to one lesbian friend, hoping for some guidance.

“Why the f*ck are you at Soho Square?,” she said on the phone, her voice drowned out by the crowds of people singing and dancing to "It’s Raining Men" as water fell heavily onto our heads. “Only straight people and first-timers go to Soho Square on Pride,” she said.
I gratefully left the busy square to meet her and we wandered Old Compton Street together. People were hanging from upper storey windows, gay couples were kissing in the street, and rainbow balloons were sporadically floating upwards, out of the crowd, and gently into the sky. In that moment I experienced a pang of FOMO for never having experienced this before, even if it was claustrophobic.

A few hours passed, and later in the afternoon, something unexpected happened: I locked myself in a portaloo and cried. Following what was – for me – the unwelcome result of the EU referendum just one day before, the sight of a navy and yellow starry European flag being waved alongside a rainbow flag had put a lump in my throat. But it wasn't just that, I was crying for the atrocities that have taken place this year, and crying because I knew that no parade can change the attitudes of the people who need to be reached the most – the reason that, ultimately, Pride is still not for me.
As I left Soho that evening, I thought about how, when the parade has passed and the 48 hours of rainbow flags and glitter are over, everything returns to exactly as it was before. LGBT people still feel unsafe on the streets. We still look over our shoulder before we give our partner a kiss on the cheek. We still break from holding hands when we see someone coming towards us. The capitalist institutions that wave their rainbow flags in the parade go back to business as usual, after proving themselves to be free-thinking and progressive.

Perhaps I’m being cynical. There's no doubt that Pride is a beautiful, mass display of people celebrating love, and yes – the atmosphere of inclusivity is tangible. But in the forefront of my mind, I can't help but wonder whether Pride is actually about fighting for liberation for LGBT people, or just a marketing tool. It was fun, I spent time with the people I love, I felt safe, and we never once felt ashamed to be ourselves. And still, I’m not converted. The doubts that I had before the event remain.

A survey carried out by the organisers of Pride prior to the event found that over half of LGBT people have felt threatened by other people’s attitudes and behaviours towards them because of who they are. It's this that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. No matter how big the turnout at Pride this year, we need to ask how we are using the event to make sure that we’re contributing towards a lasting change that’s going to protect ourselves in the future. Feeling safe for one weekend is a good thing, but we need to feel safe the rest of the year round, too.
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