Gay Pride heads for a fall as rival bids battle it out

There's little time left to organise this year's gay festival, warns Richard Phillips
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The Independent Online
CONCERN is growing that Gay Pride, the annual open-air free festival and highlight of the gay calendar, may be cancelled because a continuing and acrimonious battle over who will run it has left little time to organise it.

Around 250,000 people attended last year's Pride, whichkicked off with a 40,000-strong march. But many believe the festival is perilously close to disappearing, at least for this year.

The event plunged into crisis last year after organisers Pride Trust went into voluntary liquidation with debts of pounds 170,000.

But the problem is now acute after Lambeth Council last week postponed a planned meeting to select a new organiser. Now the two rival bidders seeking to run the festival have to wait until the end of the month for a decision.

But Gay Pride is pencilled in for 4 July, and both bidders - Pride Promotions and Freedom UK - say three months is barely enough time to ensure a successful event.

Matt Williams, of Freedom UK, said: "Each day that goes by without a decision makes it more difficult." Jean T, from Pride Promotions, said the longer it took to decide, the harder it became to negotiate with sponsors.

Even if Pride goes ahead, it will be a slimmed down version of last year's affair on Clapham Common. Lambeth Council has insisted on a maximum of 150,000 festival-goers this year.

The problems last year have prompted a welter of recriminations. "The whole thing has fallen into a quagmire of intrigue, backbiting, gossip and bitching," said one onlooker.

The two bidders emerged after various half-hearted attempts to rescue the original Pride Trust failed. Pride Promotions offers the prospect of the festival being run for the first time by a partnership of two lesbian businesswomen. Linda Riley runs the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London's Baker Street. Her business partner is Jean T, a cabaret performer.

Pride Promotions has drawn a vitriolic response from the gay press, which seems to have organised an unofficial cartel in support of Freedom UK's bid.

"What we are not is a couple of fluffy dykes," said Jean, in reply to some of the disparaging comment on their bid. She fears that the pink press has backed the Freedom bid for commercial motives in an unholy alliance between the gay press, its club advertisers and the festival.

But Pride Promotions may yet outmanoeuvre its rival to win the backing of Lambeth councillors, who see rock solid financial stability as a prerequisite to any event - last year's cost the council pounds 27,000 in unpaid debts over refuse collection. Pride Promotions has supplied a deposit of pounds 30,000 as financial security, and drawn up a deal with the liquidator to repay 80 per cent of the debts accrued by Pride Trust.

Although Pride is potentially a big money spinner, there is strong resistance in some quarters to the festival losing sight of its roots in Seventies radical gay activism. Still, a consensus seems to be emerging that Pride must put itself on a more commercial footing if it is to survive.

Both bidders accept this and intend to turn Pride into a ticketed event - a move which will provoke howls of anguish from some quarters. "What about those who are HIV positive and living on benefits?" asks David Pollard, a gay journalist who followed the collapse of Pride Trust closely. However, Mr Pollard accepts that a lack of simple commercial awareness was Pride Trust's downfall.

n Prospects for an early reduction in the age of consent for gay men from 18 to 16 improved last night when it emerged that the Crime and Disorder Bill is likely to be amended.

The Home Office expects backbench MPs to press the issue when the Bill, now in the Lords, returns to the Commons shortly. With the three major party leaders pledged to vote in favour, the change could become law by the summer.