Minister darling of the Pride 250,000

Smile if you're clad to be gay ...

The Heritage Secretary, Chris Smith, Britain's first openly gay government minister, received a rock star reception when he addressed an estimated 250,000 people at the Gay Pride festival in London last night, writes Vanessa Thorpe.

Mr Smith told the thousands attending the rally on Clapham Common that they should be proud of their sexuality, and was greeted with rapturous applause. He then delivered a message of support from the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

"Four years ago I said to the House of Commons that yes, we have a different sexuality but that does not make us in any way less worthy or valid as citizens of this country," Mr Smith said. "That message was heard by the people of the country when they elected three openly gay members of Parliament two months ago. That message has also been heard by one man who became Prime Minister of Britain."

A similarly ecstatic greeting was afforded to Stephen Twigg, the openly gay Labour MP who defeated Michael Portillo in the general election.

Mr Twigg thanked the audience for the 15,000 letters of support he has received. A brief message of support from William Hague was read out by David Allen, Chair of Torch, the Conservative Campaign for Homosexual Equality, but was received coolly. Angela Mason, Director of Stonewall, read out a message of support from Paddy Ashdown which committed Liberal Democrats to fight for a change to the age of consent for gay men.

Earlier, the centre of London vibrated to the piercing shrill of 40,000 penny whistles as the Gay Pride Parade wound through Park Lane to Parliament Square. Actress Barbara Windsor, dressed in pink and travelling in a Lincoln convertible, led the procession and in Piccadilly, patrons of Fortnum & Mason mingled with members of Bent Buddhists and Wimbledon Wimmin.

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