Philip Hensher: The struggle for gay rights is far from over

Violence against gay people is on the increase, and there is an undeniable culture of homophobia in the media

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I suppose I've been going to Gay Pride for somewhere between 20 and 25 years – my memory for the exact figure, as with so many things connected with this annual festival/march/piss-up, is a bit vague.

That qualifies me for seen-it-before Old Queen status, though not for Militant Veteran. It started in July 1972, preceded by a march in 1970 against police provocation in Highbury Fields, and has been going, more or less, ever since. Occasionally it's renamed, from Gay Pride to Mardi Gras (cue camp sick-making noises) and then to Pride, for whatever reason. The march moves its route around from time to time. It gains or loses a festival in some park starring Hazel Dean, some off-colour drag queens and a boyband on the make. But Pride goes on.

There have been some memorable ones over the years. There was the one where a lady standing in a window in a five-star hotel in a bathrobe gave way to the crowd's enthusiasm and performed an impromptu strip – known forever afterwards as the year of the "Tits at the Ritz." There was the year when, despite freezing weather, a boy pranced ahead of us all the way in a yellow feathered jockstrap and nothing else – I said, "God, will you look at that silly tart," before realising that it was someone I worked with, normally in a blue serge suit.

Legendarily, it always rains, causing someone in the gang to observe at some point "God hates the gays". We always have a passionate and quite personal argument with those gay jobsworths who police the route, shouting at anyone who gets even slightly out of line or stops walking at the approved pace. ("This is not the way for you to get off with anyone," is the usual rebuke). There's always great enjoyment at what we call Christian Corner. The appearance of the placards quoting Leviticus incites a traditional drunk gay chant of – well, do you know what, I don't think I'm going to repeat it. It is all more fun than I can really say.

"Well," you might say. "I can see what the point of it was in 1972. But do you really need to block the traffic and make a proper spectacle of yourselves once a year any more?" Certainly, in 1972, things were quite different. The sexual offences bill that legalised homosexuality was passed only five years before, and inequality would remain in place for decades. You couldn't work in parts of the civil service, in the armed forces; you could be sacked from any job without recourse to the law; you could lose your home; be refused service in a shop, restaurant or hotel; there was no legal recognition of any relationship you might form, which could only be with someone over 21; and you were liable to be arrested for showing affection to someone in any public place. (That didn't mean sex – well into the 1980s, people were arrested for kissing at bus stops).

All those things have now changed, and when a gay couple is refused a hotel room, it makes headlines just as it would if it happened to a black person. There are pockets of intolerance – violence against gay people is on the increase, and there is an undeniable culture of homophobia in the media, of the ill-natured homophobic joke on television and in the workplace which is resistant to any kind of legislation. But things are so much better. Why march? Why have Pride at all?

Five months ago, David Kato, the Ugandan gay rights activist, was beaten to death in his own home. Gay people are often vulnerable to attack in much of Africa, but there was something particularly horrible about this death.

It followed a campaign by the Ugandan magazine Rolling Stone, in which homosexuals were identified and vilified, their photographs printed. The editor of the magazine, after Kato's death, supporting a disgusting proposed crime of "aggravated homosexuality", said: "We want the government to hang people who promote homosexuality, not for the public to attack them."

It will be a long time, in the wake of these events, before there is a gay pride march in Kampala. But in many other countries, Pride has had a very difficult history. The first Moscow Pride was attempted as late as 2006; every year from 2006 onwards, permission to hold the festival has been refused by the Moscow authorities. In 2007, the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, said Gay Pride "cannot be called anything but satanic".

Repeatedly, those attempting to make themselves visible have been viciously attacked by far-right groups while the police look on. In 2007, eminent visitors, such as Peter Tatchell and the Italian MP Marco Cappato, were attacked: the police arrested 10 or so participants in the rally, letting the assailants go free.

Gay people in Uganda, or Russia, or any of the 80 countries of the world where homosexuality is partly or wholly proscribed, are not going to want to make themselves visible in the way we take for granted. But, these days, a very large number of them have access to computers. They can read about a wonderful place, far away, where gay people can walk hand in hand, can have a street party, can get off with each other and wear yellow feathered jockstraps in the street. The wonderful place is called Soho, as it happens.

I can tell you, most of those gay people who hear about Pride from Uganda or Moscow won't start thinking, "I must start up our own Kampala Pride." They will start thinking "How on earth can I get myself to London?" Those gay people who give up on their countries and head to ours on the strength of Gay Pride, we have to say this to them: your route was hard. You're extremely welcome. Your countries don't deserve you. So let's put on our dancing shoes. And let's march.



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