We've still got to fight for our right to party

Pride is just a big party, but there is something important there: a refusal to apologise
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GAY PRIDE has been going so long now that you wonder why anyone still thinks it's worth talking about. It hasn't, however, turned into a mere photo-opportunity for the newspapers, nor into a tourist attraction.

Though it's a major, and welcome, disruption of the daily life of the capital, it isn't an event like the Notting Hill Carnival, or the Lord Mayor's Parade. It has remained something more than a simple summer fixture, the meaning of which no one is quite sure about any more.

Every year, a fierce debate arises over what sort of Pride we want to have, and every year the same complaints are heard that it's not political enough; the same voices warn that things can't go on like this, that if we want to party we're going to have to pay for the privilege.

Every year, it seems more and more likely that the whole event is going to collapse at the last moment, and sometimes it actually does. Two years ago, the disastrous decision was made to sell the free festival on Clapham Common to a wider constituency than the gay community, and radio stations were heard describing it as the biggest free music festival in Europe. The festival was universally agreed to have been pretty hopeless, as thousands of straight kids turned up to goggle at the drag queens and generally lower the tone in the music tents - I mean, have you ever seen straight people try to dance?

The year after, the organisers made an even worse decision: to keep out the straight masses by selling tickets to the event, available only in gay venues in advance. No one, however, was remotely tempted to buy a ticket for something which had been so conspicuously free of enjoyment the year before: days before Pride, the festival had to be cancelled due to poor ticket sales. Actually, what followed was the most enjoyable Pride for years; the march went ahead as usual, and afterwards everyone just went to Soho and mounted an impromptu and probably rather illegal street party before hitting the clubs in a big way.

They're sticking to their guns this year; another ticketed festival is taking place in Finsbury Park, and good luck to it. The same questions as last year, however, have surfaced: things have changed so much, do we still need Pride at all?

On the other hand, it's just as possible to argue that since things have changed so little, isn't it deplorable that Pride isn't more politicized: less of a party, and more of a demo?

The answers, I think, are: yes, we want and need Pride; and no, it doesn't need to be overtly politicised. Of course, things are much better than they were for gay people. It isn't so difficult to live your life as you choose. And, particularly in large metropolitan areas, the visibility of homosexual culture has become an unremarkable fact. A measure of equality has been granted us by the government. Others - partnership rights, the repeal of the disgusting Section 28, the admission of homosexuals to the military - will surely follow. Quite suddenly, homophobia has become something to be widely deplored by all right-thinking people; those old soldiers who argue that you can't let poofs into the regiment because the men wouldn't stand for it start to sound just like those who, 30 years ago, said the same thing about black people.

Things are improving. But we still need Pride. Hatred and ignorance doesn't disappear overnight, and it isn't to be dealt with by staying at home quietly. This year, the appalling Lady Young, the first of the yob baronesses, led a band of lunatics to defeat the government's plans to lower the age of consent; it's only a couple of months since a man planted a bomb in the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho. It's easy to think that these are isolated figures, but I'm not so sure.

Certainly some newspapers are still perfectly happy to print anti-homosexual tirades, where they would never even think of printing anything which might be construed as racial hatred. A Mel Gibson film caused great offence by seeming to advocate violence against gay men; one newspaper, profiling him, didn't see anything wrong in describing him as someone who "wasn't afraid of upsetting gays". It was striking that the sympathy expressed for the heterosexual, married victims of the Admiral Duncan bomb was considerably more than that for the gay victim; you had to wonder, reading some of the coverage, whether some newspaper reporters didn't privately think that gay men were second-class citizens.

And maybe things haven't really changed that much. One newspaper last weekend ran a supposedly celebratory article about the 30th anniversary of the Stonewall riots which created the gay rights movement. A bunch of gay people told their coming out stories. All well and good, until you came to the end and a neat little note: "All names have been changed." I mean, what kind of coming out is that?

Whether the newspaper couldn't find 10 gay people prepared to tell their story under their own names, or whether their immediate assumption was that people actually prefer secrecy, it doesn't seem like evidence that there is much to celebrate. On the whole, I think we do still need Pride.

But whether it needs to be overtly politicised isn't so clear. I'm not that mad about the change of name from Pride to Mardi Gras, but mainly because it's embarrassingly naff. It's not at all obvious that it isn't, in some sense, a political act. It might not be campaigning for anything in particular; it might not have a uniform political voice; but that doesn't mean it isn't a political statement.

I bet Lady Young finds it threatening, for instance. And if the Admiral Duncan bomb was an attack on anything, it was an attack on the right of gay men to gather, rather than huddle at home and obey the request of the straight world that they keep their private lives private.

The right to go out and party doesn't sound like a very serious or a very political aim, but it is. The freedom to live your harmless life as you choose; the freedom to have a laugh on a Saturday night, not to worry about saying who you are or how you live; these are important freedoms, and ones not to be campaigned for. They can only be claimed.

Pride, of course, is just a big ridiculous party, but there is something important there: a refusal to apologise. Perhaps, from the outside, it sometimes looks like one of those carnival reversals, a single day of the year when the madmen take over the asylum.

But in reality it's a big statement of something which is always true; that we are visible, and have nothing to apologize for, and nothing to be ashamed of.