Bigger, fluffier, oilier than ever

More than 50,000 revellers went on the London Pride march. Mark Simpson joined them
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Extravagant costumes and flamboyant colour swept through central London yesterday as tens of thousands of people from around Britain gathered for the annual Pride Parade.

The procession, thought to be the biggest gay festival in Europe, was led by actor Sir Ian McKellen and Deputy Assistant Commissioner Brian Paddick from the Metropolitan Police, culminating in a rally at Trafalgar Square.

Lord Waheed Alli, the first openly gay peer, and London Mayor Ken Livingstone both addressed the crowds.

More of a cultural event than a political protest, Pride was bigger, fluffier and oilier than last time I attended, six years' ago.

Standing on the side of the road in Piccadilly Circus, once a haunt of the pre-gay demi-monde, I watched the out-and-proud marchers go by: dykes on bikes - and even rather femmey scooters. Gay policemen. Gay groups from around the country with their hand-made banners, and the promotional floats for gay nightclubs and bars.

Disco music pumped everywhere. Whistles blew. Drag queens in peacock array and people painted pink were shrieking, some on roller skates, hitching up their skirts to avoid getting them wet. Plenty of lesbian and gay "civilians" turned up too: fairly unremarkable looking same-sex couples walking hand-in-hand and enjoying the carnival atmosphere. And of course, the main audience: lots of tourists eagerly taking pictures. One Japanese man leaves his wife's side and elbows me out of the way to snap a drag queen.

There seems to be rather less Lycra than there was six years ago, but then the weather forecast for today was for heavy showers and it proved soddenly accurate. Not that this has deterred the Mr Gay UK open-topped double-decker full of open-topped men, dancing heroically in the downpour in their thongs, oblivious to the way their fake tans are streaking in the rain.

Likewise there is, I feel, a certain obliviousness to the point of all this in 2004. When it began in the early Seventies, Pride was about visibility, radical politics and an antidote to shame and oppression - which involved running a gauntlet of abuse from some passers-by. Today they're more likely to ask for styling tips.

This year the London Gay Pride parade has tried to reclaim something of the politics lost over the years by being dedicated to the murdered Jamaican gay activist Brian Williamson, found dead in his Kingston home last month.

Depending on your point of view this is either a sign of international solidarity or of the desperation of some British gays to identify themselves as victims in a society that is no longer terribly interested in victimising them. Without a sense of oppression Pride doesn't make much sense, except as a "celebration" of the kind to be found at any gay nightclub any night of the week.

For some on the parade remembrance remained important. James Murphy, 24, marching alongside his rugby club team-mates, felt today's generation of gays owed a debt of gratitude to their "forefathers".

"Because of them, younger people like me can feel a better sense of equality than they experienced," he said.

For others, there were still battles ahead. Jude Jackson, a union rep from Leicester, though admitting that things had improved, argued that homophobia is still prevalent in the workplace.

At the front of the parade, Tim Gutterdige, a 39-year-old finance director, danced down the street dressed as a pantomime dame. "Gay pride did sell out a few years ago," he said, "but this is the first time since then that it has been a community event. It's got its politics back."

Additional reporting by Steve Bloomfield.

ON THE MARCH

Sir Ian McKellen, veteran Shakespearean actor and Lord of the Rings star

"Not that long ago there were important political issues that people were angry about, like Section 28. Now we are hopefully going to see the Partnership Bill go through Parliament, so this is a celebration.

"This parade helps say to people who haven't come out yet, 'there's nothing to be frightened of'."

Brian Paddick, deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, marching with nearly 100 uniformed gay police officers

"When police officers know their chief constable has given permission for gay officers to march, it sends a strong message from the very top that homophobia is not acceptable.

"We've got more forces represented than last year, so it's gaining momentum. But those chief constables still refusing to let their gay officers march need to be honest about why that is."

Peter Tatchell, human rights activist

"We've come a long way but there is still a lot of discrimination to overcome. For example, it is still lawful to refuse to serve gay people in shops.

"There is a range of views in the community. I helped organise the first Gay Pride in 1972 and the same splits existed then between those wanting to keep homosexuality private and those wanting to overturn discrimination."

Steve Bloomfield

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