It's Pride Month again and across the globe hundreds of thousands of LGBTQI+ folk are gathering together to celebrate our freedoms, our unity and our hard-fought rights to marry, to adopt, to dance, to parade and to be treated decently as humans without discrimination or prejudice. We also march to remember the thousands of LGBTQI+ people worldwide who do not share in the same legislative freedoms that we enjoy.
Marches, parties, after-parties, after-after-parties and picnics the next day, great swathes of people gathering in all of their resplendence in the sun, rain or snow. In the UK, often a mix of the three makes an outfit choice typically British – sexy covered by waterproof covered by sexy.
It's our time to show the world at large how at ease we are with ourselves and how we, too – like all others – laugh, love, cheer and whistle (god, do people whistle) and delight in being alive. It's also a time that shows just how far we have come in terms of visibility and community confidence. The number of sponsored, corporate banners is testament to our gains.
It's also a time in which I wonder and ponder about which Pride event I should attend, if any, and always without fail my mind wanders back over the 30-odd years I have been attending or thinking about attending Pride events.
Often I don't attend because I'm not great with crowds now, or travel woes (the Tube on Pride Saturday!) but mainly because the first Pride or the first few Pride events you attend can never truly be beaten. They represent and remain, however old you get, epic moments in your life, moments of pride, exhilaration and just a tiny bit of fear. I remember thinking, as a young queer femme, 'How do I fit in?' to what at the time was a pretty non-diverse, binary scene in which the tribes were limited to perhaps two or three and often men were in one place and women in another – for me a nightmarish scenario until I found the fantastic Rebel Dykes in the very early 1990s, when we set up the first LGBT housing cooperative.
I first attended Pride properly in the mid-to-late '80s. The spectre of AIDS loomed but still just far enough away to be disconnected from most of our lives. The landscape was incredibly different: a few clubs, a few club nights – many of us had the same social calendars revolving around the same places, some West End, some north London and just a few in south London. Towns often had a gay pub or a 'gay-friendly' night, sometimes related to drag shows, but still most places were surrounded by homophobia and 'gay bashing', as it was affectionately known. Distinctly unfriendly spaces, you never queued.
The first Pride I vividly remember was, I think, 1985. When I saw the beginnings of the gathering for the march I genuinely could not believe my eyes. Hundreds of queer folk, most dressed down, casual – jeans, vests, DMs, a uniform for all genders back then – but a few dressed up to the nines and beyond, costumed drag queens who normally came out after dark, boldly on the street in beautiful outrage, holding banners with slogans and awakened meanings: 'Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners', 'Gay Parents Have Rights', 'Out, Lesbian and Proud'. They were fighting words, then, as we had little equality and even less lived equality. I joined the line in my jeans (torn, of course, it was the '80s), faded salmon vest, cherry-red DMs and sweat top tied around my waist, and marched alongside comrades and would-be friends, but silently – I never uttered a sound. I was so overawed by the sheer number of people like me that I felt like I could or probably should burst into tears, of joy, of sadness, of potential. I was far from the only one.
At that point we didn't have networks in our workplaces and no positive media coverage at all; we had no icons we could look up to, only rumours in the exposing red-tops. On all the days that weren't these Pride days, we were still easy to dismantle as a community – we came together at night in clubs and bars but often with trepidation and fear. I had never seen so many queer people in daylight; queer people marching, singing, linking arms, kissing and not giving a flying fuck what others thought of them. It was utterly empowering. It silenced me. It fuelled my soul.
At the end of the march – my 'silent march' – we were funnelled down a set of stairs somewhere on the South Bank (I can't remember where exactly) and then, turning a corner, I saw a sea of people spread out across Jubilee Gardens, a sea of people surrounded by shimmering white tents. It was light, it was sunny and it was most definitely love. A miraculous sight, truly – these were still the beginning days of an open and liberated difference.
I had never seen so many lesbians and gay men in one place. It wasn't nearly as diverse as it is now – very white, very few trans identities proud and present – but still, for a young femme queer like me, there was a sea of difference. I remember thinking, 'I'm home'.
Madonna's "Holiday" was blasting out of what was probably quite a small disco tent full of men who called themselves clones and, on stage, Tom Robinson was singing, a beautiful moment. I remember him – I was near the back, looking out over the assembled crowd who had linked arms willingly with strangers, in great lines of kinship, and were singing at the tops of their voices the line, "Sing if you're glad to be gay, sing if you're happy that way".
Even now that feeling of belonging brings a tear.
I knew I didn't quite fit in – my BodyMap sweatshirt tied around my waist was slightly too femme for the men in leather, and had slightly too many holes in all the wrong places for anyone else. But I met people, lots of them, and when the day ended we strolled out of there, radiant beings zinging with life, hope and optimism, vowing to do it the next year, only better and bigger. By the next Pride, I'd found my tribe and we had a tent.
Many things have changed since then: I've transitioned, LGB has grown to include a dazzling array of difference, LGBTQI+, Pride has become much bigger and much more commercial – how could it not – and we as a collective of communities have fought hard and won many battles and rights. As a woman who is transgender and HIV, I now have freedoms and legal rights I could only ever have dreamt about.
Pride has grown and changed, as have all of us.
A very wise drag queen once said to me, "Don't think just because it's your time to leave the party that the party is over". Even from a distance Pride is a fabulous thing, and even from a distance I luxuriate in all that it is and all it ever was – a truly empowering, enlivening time when people come together like flocks of migrating birds to celebrate not being alone and being part of a much larger community.
Somewhere at this year's Pride there will be a person who feels, deep down, that they are the only one like them. My wish is that they drink it all in as fast as they can, grab a whistle and blow it loudly until the cobwebs fall away and they can truly enjoy being alive, and being part of our great big queer family.