They say you never forget your first Pride.
I certainly haven’t forgotten mine, when two impossibly beautiful young guys in bondage gear ran up to me to declare that “you have the best hair at Pride!” At 19 (in the days before the advent of useful hair products) I had thick black curls all the way down to my waist that I’d spend hours scrunch-drying. It was wonderful to get some appreciation for my efforts from people who wouldn’t look out of place in a My Little Pony-themed S&M dungeon.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York, which led to seismic changes in organised LGBT+ rights activism. Growing up, I knew all about racism and sexism as part of my everyday experience, but my first conscious brush with homophobia knocked me for six. It came not from obvious thugs, but from people who were generally regarded as perfectly ordinary – who fitted in.
I was 15, and it was the first time I’d met an openly gay person – a sweet and gentle guy with a big smile, who was a friend of a friend. One afternoon, he and I had a natter in Oliver’s Coffee Shop, where a mishmash of local teens from across social hierarchies would gather after school to “doss down Ealing”. Once he’d left, one of the “trendy” girls (do please feel free to bask in the late-Eighties slang) marched up to me and hissed: “Why were you talking to him? Don’t you know what he is?”
I had no idea what he was. Well, I knew he was gay, but given that a “trendy” was actually going to the trouble of talking to me – a mere wannabe Grebo – I started to wonder if he was something else too. Perhaps he was an escaped serial killer who’d lure you into a false sense of security by drinking hot chocolate with you and telling you how much he loved Erasure?
But no. What she really meant was “how can you be talking to a gay?”
Those were the times that we lived in. The girl kept her place in the “in crowd” and there were no social repercussions for her or any of the other kids who sought to intimidate and humiliate with cries of “queer”, “bum-bandit” and “poofter”. And how could there have been? The adults in our lives used the same words with a smirk, my teachers and some of my friends’ parents among them. “Kenny Everett is a pervert”, we were told, and again there was no deeper meaning: “pervert” was just another hateful proxy for “gay”.
None of us talked about homophobia. For one thing, we didn’t know that the word existed, but nor did we really understand the concept, because it was the default position. This girl in the coffee shop had no problem saying that the warm and friendly guy I’d been chatting with was not someone to associate with “unless you want to catch Aids”.
What I did know for sure, though, was that that gay kid was my tribe. But there could be no saying it out loud. My crush on Michelle Pfeiffer remained a secret, and my growing love and respect for Peter Tatchell – whose campaigning with the non-violent direct action group OutRage was the first clue I had about the fight for LGBT+ rights – I kept quiet. In the days before online communities, an insecure teen had few means of finding a social bolthole, so you didn’t risk being ostracised by the one you were already in.
When I think back to my childhood, the most vivid memory I have of unquestioning homophobia is of Tatchell’s candidacy for the Labour Party in the Bermondsey by-election of 1983. He suffered a horrific onslaught of abuse and innuendo from the media and beyond, with the campaign of the Liberal candidate Simon Hughes (bisexual himself, but closeted at the time) and even members of Tatchell’s own party jumping aboard. A leaflet distributed by the Liberals described the election in block capitals as a “straight choice”. It’s hard to imagine that this happened in my lifetime.
At university, I hung out with the Gay Society folk and became involved for the first time in campaigning for LGBT+ rights, chanting: “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” We listened to the Communards, wore Billy Bragg T-shirts, and sang the Village People’s “Go West” at the tops of our voices. Back in London out of term-time, I cocooned myself in the gay club scene, where I felt safe.
And every year, we went to Pride. Back then, our straight friends left us to it. Not anymore.
In a pub some time last year, a friend and I found ourselves trying to explain to an 18-year-old the significance of Billy Bragg’s 1991 hit “Sexuality”, and of lyrics such as “just because you’re gay, I won’t turn you away”. She nodded along politely but was clearly a bit baffled, as though we were explaining to her that the sky was blue.
It’s not the end though: of course it isn’t. Homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, and all manner of intolerance are still rife. We still have a lot of placards to make and marches to go on.
But on the bright side, there is also plenty more dancing to do. Let the scrunch-drying commence.
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