Reclaim Pride!

Glenn Wigham, is Vice Secretary of the YCL’s London District

We’ve all been to Gay Pride at some point. Whether you marched behind the banners, covered your face with glitter or danced the night away surrounded by drag queens, there’s a special place for gay pride in the hearts of the LGBT community across the UK. However, there’s something very wrong. 

Pride, sadly, is a shadow of its former self. What once started as a protest riot on the streets of New York against police harassment has become little more than a street party – decades of moderate politics, commercialisation and corporate sponsorship has turned protest signs into glossy adverts; angry slogans transformed into 2-for-1 offers at Nandos if you wear a rainbow badge.

Gay Pride has become an opportunity for brands to jump aboard the bandwagon after realising that the LGBT community, like the rest of society, have a disposable income to spend. Whilst these companies claim solidarity with LGBT causes and offer donation incentives with purchased goods, the actual amount of money going to Pride, charities and gay causes are minimal. The creeping hand of capitalism has not only infected Pride, but it has made many LGBT individuals and organisations forget the deep political struggle that created it in the first place. 

During the early 1960’s, the first gay civil rights movements that sprang up across western countries focused upon campaigns that sought to offer underground support and advice for homosexuals. Following the famous Stonewall riots in 1969, the explosion of anger towards the repressive state and a sense of comradeship amongst the gay community in New York’s Greenwich Village was the catalyst that formed the Gay Liberation Front – whose new, radical way of queer expression and thinking rejected mainstream American society. They demanded political and social emancipation across a wide spectrum of LGBT identity, attacking the nuclear family and traditional gender roles that went beyond simple equality. In addition to this, they frequently campaigned alongside other social justice groups including the Black Panthers – a united solidarity against state oppression that attacked anyone whose lifestyle was not conservatively ‘American’. The GLF expanded across the west, reaching Britain in 1970. 

Meanwhile, the UK had trudged slowly along with sets of laws that gradually decriminalised homosexual acts, but with a catch – the 1967 Sexual Offences Act decriminalised homosexual activity in private, but only between two individuals with a consent age of 21. These laws left out Lesbian women and transgender/intersex individuals entirely, which encouraged many gay individuals to form groups and campaign for further equality and protection under the law. It would not be until 2001 that the age of consent for all sexual activity would be lowered to the age of 16. During these inter-year periods, the struggle in the UK began with the first Gay Pride march in 1972, with a TUC conference focusing upon gay and lesbian issues in 1977. 

The 1980’s saw the HIV/AIDS pandemic reach the UK, devastating the gay community. The ruling class, unable to handle the crisis, upset the progress many LGBT organisations had made – inaction led to public ignorance and fear about the virus. Now vulnerable to hate crimes, discrimination and stigma, the gay community were isolated and abandoned. 

Sadly in 1987 Mark Ashton, once the YCL’s general secretary and a formidable social rights campaigner, died from pneumonia after being diagnosed as HIV positive. The government were initially criticised for their handling of the pandemic, with Thatcher herself suggesting that her cabinet’s own public information campaign surrounding HIV/AIDS would ‘encourage risky sexual behaviour’ and was in ‘bad taste’. Her government were instrumental in attempting to halt ‘gay propaganda’ with the infamous ‘Section 28’, a clause in law that prohibited the promotion of lifestyles and relationships that were not heteronormative in schools and by local authorities. 

By 1990, Outrage!, a queer collective that operated in London, had released a new manifesto demanding the right to sexual freedom and self-determination refreshing the struggle for equality with a focus on libertarian rights. This helped propel the LGBT cause into the mainstream for the turn of the century.

All of these milestones have culminated in a gradual acceptance of gay lifestyles, relationships and identity in the 2000’s but at the cost of submitting and moulding gay culture into a framework that is inherently heteronormative and neoliberal. Currently in the UK, Civil Partnerships, Gay marriage, adoption rights and access to gender reassignment surgery are all legal rights now enshrined in law, which can be interpreted as a win for the gay rights movement, but when observed through a queer gaze there are conflicting questions – just how much of our own identity has been sacrificed for this? Why have institutions that once persecuted gay people now welcome them with open arms? Has the fight for equality been won? 

The short answer is no, it hasn’t. LGBT individuals still face hostility in the workplace and in public, from discrimination to verbal and physical abuse. The 2019 National LGBT Survey summarised the following: 

  • LGBT respondents are less satisfied with their life than the general UK population (rating satisfaction 6.5 on average out of 10 compared with 7.7). Trans respondents had particularly low scores (around 5.4 out of 10)
  • More than two thirds of LGBT respondents said they had avoided holding hands with a same-sex partner for fear of a negative reaction from others
  • At least 2 in 5 respondents had experienced an incident because they were LGBT, such as verbal harassment or physical violence, in the 12 months preceding the survey. However, more than 9 in 10 of the most serious incidents went unreported, often because respondents thought ‘it happens all the time’

The fact many gay couples still feel that they can’t walk down the street holding hands for fear of receiving abuse is a sad reality. With so much work still to do within the movement, Pride parades should be inclusive and radical events that allow discussions and debates to take place that will help further the cause of LGBT liberation in the modern world. But the one place where this conversation should be possible has been snatched away from us; stolen by liberalism and warped into a corporate street party. 

As I mentioned earlier, modern Gay Pride events have had their message of protest subdued into one of ‘celebration’ and ‘acceptance’ that many gay people can easily feel reassured by as they can now be married, adopt children and live life on the same terms as heterosexuals. But this ‘acceptance’ not only disregards new struggles facing our community, but also paints over the hypocrisy and privilege now embedded into Pride events and wider LGBT culture. There is a huge police presence at marches (usually featuring rainbow-clad officers, obviously) who ensure roads are not closed, disruption is kept to a minimum and that protesters are kept in check – meaning the event is strangled of power and anyone with a political message won’t be heard. This is the same police force who, only thirty years ago, were raiding clubs and gay-friendly spaces.

Similarly, the military is involved in Pride parades now, marching in full uniform beneath the rainbow flag. Despite the fact homosexual servicemen and women have been accepted into the armed forces since 2000 (a liberal victory), the role of the armed forces in the UK cannot be overlooked – they exist to defend the capitalist state from threats and to ensure the continuation of imperialism across the globe. The use of Pride to make the army appear as a force for good is yet another clever deception by the ruling elite in allowing the LGBT community ‘equality’ on capitalist terms. This is not what groups like the GLF originally set out to achieve – they wanted radical reformation that questioned the limits of sexual identity; not acceptance into an already corrupt system. 

If more proof was needed to show how well pride has been assimilated into the capitalist mainstream look no further than its corporate sponsors – Pride in London this year is sponsored by Tesco, Facebook, Amazon and Barclays. These four companies are amongst some of the wealthiest on the planet who bear no relation to gay politics whatsoever, so their suitability for sponsoring an event such as Pride should be scrutinised and questioned. 

When large monopolies are given access to events such as pride, any political voice that goes against capitalist interests is undoubtedly silenced. Groups must also pay up to be part of the parade, whilst the organisers of Pride must pay Westminster city council extortionate costs in order to hold the Pride in the first place. This is placing a tax on LGBT expression, as if we must purchase the right to hold a gay event, in accordance with ruling class values. This erodes the political identity of Pride and turns into a opportunity for brands to advertise, sell and make a profit. It alienates the work of grassroots groups, political expression and sexual self-determination, all important issues that should all have a place within this unique event. 

Modern pride is also exclusively LGBT – early Pride marches weren’t just for the gays, as often other marginalised groups and social campaigns marched together, united in solidarity with a clear class consciousness. These days are long gone, replaced with pop music stages and a lack of political struggle. So what can be done? How do we combat this?

The answer is rather than viewing our lives through a heterosexual lens, the gay community must accept that universal LGBT emancipation and liberation cannot be achieved under society’s current system. Capitalism has absorbed queer culture for profit; viewing gay lives as commodities that prop up the state. This ‘assimilation’ aspect is described by the GLF activist and communist Harry Hay as “a contract between an individual and the engulfing majority whereby the individual tailors himself (regardless of his personal independent requirements) to be acceptable to the community’s arbitrary conditions”. Conforming to a structure or identity made for us by the ruling class as ‘acceptable’ denies personal identity and fails to liberate the individual entirely. Why should LGBT people conform to a standard made by people so far removed from our own identity and values? 

This also includes the lives of the working class, immigrants, the disabled and other marginalised groups who are permitted to exist and live within the confinement of the ruling state’s jurisdiction. LGBT people have won marriage equality – yet this ‘equality’ is simply a reflection of heterosexual values that have been brushed haphazardly onto LGBT lifestyles without any real analysis or understanding from a queer perspective. Ultimately these freedoms could be revoked whenever it suits the state. What we have won and struggled for whilst living under capitalism can just as easily be taken away. 

We can no longer exist with our rights in the hands of such an oppressive, unstable and abusive force. 

This concept of solidarity was understood and enacted by the early days of the gay rights movement, which sadly has dissipated over time. The Communist Leslie Fienberg wrote in her book Transgender Liberation that “Like racism and all forms of prejudice, bigotry against transgendered people is a deadly carcinogen. We are pitted against each other in order to keep us from seeing each other as allies. Genuine bonds of solidarity can be forged between people who respect each other’s differences and are willing to fight their enemy together. We are the class that does the work of the world, and can revolutionise it. We can win true liberation.” 

It is worth remembering that capitalism will do everything in its power to divide and sow discord between groups to ensure a mass-movement against its power will never come about. With revolution, the current systems that prevent universal LGBT liberation from taking place will cease to exist, allowing everyone, no matter who they love or how they identify, will finally be able to live as themselves in liberty. This is our goal as Communists.  

In order to make this happen, the LGBT community has a responsibility to reclaim Pride – rather than meaningless partying, we should unite together to remember the gay men, women and transgender people who risked arrest and humiliation at the hands of the authorities because they were sick and tired of persecution. To move forward, we should honour their sacrifice and legacy by building a renewed movement that questions the current stagnation of radical gay politics and works to end the capitalist takeover. In the words of Martha P Johnson, the famous black drag queen who was instrumental in the Stonewall uprising,  “As long as gay people don’t have their rights all across America, there’s no reason for celebration”. Once again, it’s time to rock the boat. 

Glenn Wigham

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