Partying with Pride - a sign of the times

Gay Pride has come a long way in 25 years, and this year's festival will attract the greatest mainstream support ever, says Andrew Saxton
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The Independent Online
Gay Pride celebrates its 25th anniversary tomorrow with the usual pink din. It begins with the march through London's West End, and culminates with the biggest gay and lesbian party of the year. About 200,000 people will converge on Victoria Park to hear Erasure, Boy George and Jimmy Somerville, and make good use of nine beer tents and a market with 500 stalls selling everything from macrame to Lesbian Avenger T-shirts.

The festival has always been the biggest event in the gay calendar, but this year it is clear something else is happening as well. Not only will this probably be the biggest Gay Pride ever, but it will be the one with the most mainstream supporters. Evian, Smirnoff, Grolsch and Virgin Megastore are principal sponsors, and the march comes three days after a straight health minister, John Bowis, has made the sort of supportive comments that would make most of his colleagues recoil in horror.

Gay and Lesbian culture is being embraced as never before. The mainstream media give scant coverage to the Gay Pride march - not as controversial as outing bishops, little chance of a riot - but the general media interest in gay and lesbian affairs is at its highest ever. There are television and radio series on many networks; Lipstick Lesbians are on the cover of mainstream magazines; large parts of several streets in London, Brighton and Manchester now thrive on the trappings of gay and lesbian commercialism. What has caused this upsurge in interest? Why are more people happy to walk with pride than at any other time in its history?

The Gay Pride festival started as a small, stridently political protest in London in 1970, a year after the Stonewall riots in New York when drag queens and male prostitutes fought back against routine police harassment at a popular gay bar. The few hundred that marched to commemorate this first anniversary in London took the risk of alienating not only the authorities, but also less visible members of the gay and lesbian community. It was an angry time, and there was certainly little of the party atmosphere visible today.

The march grew only gradually over the following years. The commercial boom that began in the late Eighties was reflected in growing attendances, and recently the festival has changed venue several times. In 1991, 40,000 swamped Kennington Park, necessitating a move to Brockwell Park in Brixton, which last year attracted an estimated 160,000.

The participants have changed dramatically. It used to be a regular demonstration: the slogans consisted of the most fundamental calls for gay rights and equality, including lowering the age of consent and less oppressive attitudes by police, employers and the public. More moderate gay and lesbians expressed outright hostility to such public displays of sexuality. There was a strong feeling that in the years following the 1967 decriminalisation of gay male sex, the new gay boat shouldn't be rocked publicly too much.

Times have also changed from the days when the most popular placards on the march were the ones supplied by the Socialist Workers Party. The placards and slogans have become fewer over the years, and the shouts of "Maggie out" have not been replaced by calls to dismiss her successor. Instead of borrowing from traditional left culture, Gay Pride has progressively established its own identity. Tomorrow, the most prominent placards will feature slogans reflecting this year's theme of Lesbian Visibility. One reads, "Blasting Lesbianism into the 21st Century". The float at the front is expected to carry a heavily pregnant topless woman, painted silver and gold and bearing the word "lesbian" on her belly.

These days the march is frequently referred to as a parade, and it is the ability to party in the face of legal and social oppression that for most people make it such a stirring experience. Despite an unequal age of consent, despite the ravages of Aids killing thousands of gay men, and despite the upholding of the military ban, there is a common belief that the general situation for lesbians and gays - on both sides of the Atlantic - is gradually improving.

Many use the march as a public coming out; it would be difficult to find a more supportive environment in which to do so. It is unlikely that London ever witnesses such a concentrated display of hand-holding and open affection.

The influx of new sponsors reflects the belief that being lesbian or gay, and lesbian in particular, can even be fashionable. From the lesbian characters in British soap operas (Beth Jordache in Brookside, Zoe Tate in Emmerdale, and Della and Binnie in EastEnders) to the atmosphere that allows the actor Nigel Hawthorne to come out, awareness of homosexuality has risen to an unprecedented level.

But this ceaseless excavation of lesbian and gay culture has created some degree of hostility towards such commercial representations from lesbians and gay men themselves. This is one reason why so many more people are taking part in tomorrow's festival - it's about the community being itself rather than about other people - TV scriptwriters or advertising copywriters - glamourising gay lifestyles and making the community "acceptable". Perhaps the ultimate value of Pride is that it is the best way of showing the rest of the country the full diversity of the lesbian and gay community.

The drag queens, leather clones and butch dykes might make the best photographs, but the true picture is one of tens of thousands of unexceptional people marching as themselves.

Andrew Saxton is editor of the `Pink Paper'.