Usually, the aisles of Sainsbury’s on Hackney Road in east London on a Saturday evening are filled with shoppers quickly grabbing dinner and bottles of booze for the weekend. But on 13 August the store was packed with dozens of activists kissing in protest after a same-sex couple had been escorted from the premises for holding hands.
A security guard at the supermarket forced Thomas Rees, 32, and his boyfriend Joshua Bradwell, 25, to leave on 8 August after a customer complained about them “touching inappropriately”.
Sainsbury’s apologised and offered the couple a £10 voucher to spend in store, but activists said that the gesture “doesn’t cut it” and urged protesters to gather for a mass kiss-in.
Mr Rees told The Independent at the "Big Gay Kiss-in" that he and Mr Bradwell were initially uncertain about attending the protest but were “blown away” by the “unreal” response.
"I feel amazing, elated, overjoyed and I can’t stop smiling. It’s undone everything," he said.
"It realigns our faith in our community. We felt let down, but to see this turnout is incredible," added Mr Bradwell.
Protesters, who blared "Kiss Kiss" by Holly Valance from a portable speaker in the store, cheered when Mr Rees and Mr Bradwell joined the crowd to kick-off the event at 6.30pm. Cars driving past the supermarket beeped their horns in support.
Inside the store, kissing couples lined the aisles while others cheered and waved rainbow flags. Some, including a drag-queen towering in leather heels, danced in the shop window.
"The more we [LGBT people] hold hands, kiss, and show affection in public the more healthy we will be as a society. People are only shocked because they have never seen two men together before. That's how shock happens, it comes from fear," said Mr Rees.
Mr Bradwell added that he was shocked that he was discriminated against in the cosmopolitan capital.
"This protest is adding fuel to a fire of conversation that people are people and love is love and humans are humans," he said.
Asked how they would react if they were to encounter the woman who complained, Mr Rees said he would simply give her a hug. The couple, who had never attended a protest before, said they felt inspired to become involved in LGBT activism.
They added that they hope Sainsbury’s will better train their staff to avoid such incidents in the future.
Rodent DeCay, the drag queen who had danced in the supermarket window, told The Independent: “We are here, we are queer and we won't go away."
The protest was a symbol of LGBT people demanding to be seen, said the 22-year-old.
Discrimination and hate crimes against the LGBT community have come to the fore recently after 49 people were killed and 53 were injured at a shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. It was the largest mass shooting in US history.
Joshua Hubbard, a 25-year-old dancer, moved to London from Manchester four months ago partly in the hope of escaping homophobic abuse. "To move to London and find out that something like that happened was disappointing. I want to feel free. It's sometimes difficult to show your identity how you want to when you are faced with hatred," he said.
"With the Orlando shooting this year it is so important to go and support your community because who else is going to?"
Michael Segalov, a journalist at the culture magazine Huck, organised the Big Gay Kiss on Facebook. He had previously set up a similar event at a Sainsbury’s store in Brighton where hundreds of protesters had gathered after two women complained that a security guard called them “disgusting” for kissing.
A spokesperson from Sainsbury’s commented prior to the protest: “We have apologised to Thomas and Josh for their unfair treatment earlier in the week and we understand why people want to come together to highlight this issue. We hope Saturday's event provides an opportunity for the community to show their support at what we hope will be an enjoyable event.”
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