The 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riot – the first mass uprising of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people – is fast approaching. With it, I am also celebrating another anniversary: the birth of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). I am an original member of the British GLF and have been involved in grassroots LGBT+ activism ever since, but now I am also fighting an additional battle, as an active campaigner against the arms trade.
Of course, these issues are not actually separate. In the GLF, we always said: “No liberation without sexual liberation and liberation for all.” For us, this isn’t just an empty mantra. It means that no one can be free while others are oppressed, and that the fight for our rights as LGBT+ people can never be won in isolation.
That is why, earlier this year, I attended the AGM of the world’s third largest arms company, BAE Systems, to challenge its chair Roger Carr. I confronted the multimillionaire to ask how BAE Systems reconciles its supposed support for LGBT+ people – including through sponsorship of Pride events in Blackpool, Surrey and Portsmouth – with the export of arms to countries with appalling human rights records.
BAE Systems, licensed by the British Ministry of Defence and the British Foreign Office, supply Saudi Arabia with arms – a country where homosexuality is punishable by death. The Saudi bombing of Yemen has created what the UN has called the worst humanitarian crisis in the modern world – 60,000 civilians have reportedly been killed and 85,000 infant children have died of starvation and preventable diseases.
How can BAE justify supplying combat aircraft and bombs that massacre and maim countless civilians? Unsurprisingly, when asked, Roger Carr wasn’t able to. Instead, he asserted that BAE Systems’ LGBT+ friendly diversity policies here in Britain are a completely separate issue from the impact of their sales of weapons abroad.
But they are not separate while our queer siblings are being hanged, or while children starve and die. Not to me and not to the majority of other LGBT+ people. BAE Systems want to present themselves as a friend and ally to the LGBT+ community but we know that’s not the case. We cannot let them use our identity to “pinkwash” their shameful actions and normalise the trade in weapons of war and death. We are not prepared to profit from this trade.
Despite their best efforts, BAE Systems’ attempt to ingratiate themselves with the LGBT+ community in Britain is falling apart. Since my challenge to Roger Carr, lesbian magazine DIVA dropped BAE Systems from its 2019 awards shortlist. This came in response to pressure from the GLF and the No Pride in War coalition, made up of LGBT+ and anti-war groups challenging the militarisation of Prides and LGBT+ events.
York Pride, which previously allowed the army to run recruitment stalls at the event and let the armed forces march in uniform, have also changed their approach. Under pressure from campaigners this year there was no official presence from either arms companies or the armed forces at the city’s Pride parade.
It’s not just the queer community waking up to the hijacking of their events. Only last month, The Festival of Making dropped BAE Systems as a sponsor just days after campaign group Art not Arms launched a petition against it.
The GLF relaunched this week on Trafalgar Square, with both original members and new activists. Our struggle might have moved on from the first time we came together in 1970 but queer people continue to face persecution and criminalisation around the world. Our movement is just as needed today as it was then.
In addition to our original demands for liberation for all, we are calling for all organisers of Pride events and LGBT+ awards ceremonies in Britain and Northern Ireland to exclude arms companies from sponsorships and nominations. Rainbows might provide the perfect backdrop for the arms trade, but we cannot let it use our Pride to wash away the devastation it causes. That’s why we want to make sure that no advertisements or logos of arms companies – be that on clothing or parade floats – are present.
This Pride season, we reflect on how far we have come since the uprising at Stonewall in 1969, but also how far we have left to go. We have fought for our rights to get where we are today and as we celebrate our Pride and our power we must continue to look to what we can achieve. A world which is safe not only for LGBT+ people, but for everyone: free of war and free of the arms trade.
Nettie Pollard is an original Gay Liberation Front member and LGBT+ activist
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