Gays out in thousands to embrace the establishment

The sight of moustachioed traffic cops, musclebound firefighters and uniformed women wielding handcuffs is no more than you might expect from the Gay Pride festival, which will draw a crowd of at least 65,000 to London today.

But the difference this year is that such revellers are likely to be real police and firefighters, Foreign Office civil servants and prison staff. They are attending the event in an official capacity to promote their employers, as well as to celebrate their sexuality.

Pride 2003, which has moved from the suburbs to Hyde Park, has been embraced by the establishment as an opportunity to parade their equal opportunity credentials in the recruitment business.

Jason Pollock, the event's director, said: "Police officers will be coming from stations all over the country. We are going to put them at the front of the parade."

The Foreign Office has taken a stall, which will be "staffed by lesbian and gay members of the diplomatic service", who will offer visitors the chance to win a two-week holiday at an all-male resort in Gran Canaria.

Corporate sponsors are also keen to become involved. Delta Airlines is creating an imaginary Key West beach resort, and offering photo opportunities with muscled hunks and uniformed airline captains. The Prison Service will have a float on the parade, as will Scottish and Newcastle, brewers of Newcastle Brown Ale.

Music tents are being backed by corporate giants such as BT, Ford, Virgin Mobile and Strongbow. Interflora is backing a register office to allow same-sex couples to marry. Piper-Heidsieck champagne has given its name to a speed-dating bar and Starbucks is sponsoring the coffee outlet.

The corporate presence at Pride - which costs more than £1.5m to stage - will not please everybody. A fringe group called Queer Ruption is expected to promote its "Pride not Profit" message, and rumours are circulating of the arrival of the American radical outfit Queer Mutiny, which has protested at the commercialisation of gay events in the US.

But Mr Pollock said: "We have been fighting for years to get people to accept diversity and it seems to be the new buzzword with these multinationals. One of the ways they can get the message across to our community is by supporting Pride."

It is a far cry from the first Pride march in 1972, when 700 gay activists encountered homophobic abuse from sections of the public and hostility from police as they paraded through central London.

Peter Tatchell, one of the organisers, said: "The reaction from the public was a mixture of subdued sympathy, hateful jeering and from the majority, confusion. Most had probably never seen an openly gay person before.

"There was a very heavy, intimidating police presence. We were treated like criminals. Now they have their own stalls and will be marching in uniform on the parade."

Despite predictable claims from some quarters of "political correctness gone mad", Scotland Yard is convinced of the value of its relationship with the Pride event.

Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and Lord Harris of Haringey, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, have sent the event a message of support that will be broadcast on its big screens.

Sir John said in a statement: "This year marks a symbolic progression for policing and the National Pride Parade. Officers from the Gay Police Association have been participating in this event since 1990, but it is only now that Met officers and our colleagues from many other forces can wear their uniform whilst parading. Today demonstrates in a very visible way that gay people are part of our police family."

The theme of the Pride march, which starts on Victoria Embankment at 11am, will be "Our History, Our Future". Sections of marchers will dedicate floats to different decades and significant events in the struggle for gay rights.

At Hyde Park, the crowds will be entertained by a line-up of camp musical pop favourites that includes the Cheeky Girls, Blue and Mis-Teeq, with veteran gay artists such as Jimmy Somerville, of Bronski Beat and the Communards, and Tom Robinson.

The event is being broadcast on BBC Radio 1, which is sponsoring a dance stage where DJs will include Judge Jules and Boy George.

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