Peter Tatchell celebrates 40 years of gay Pride in the UK…
This year’s Pride London takes place 40 years after the first ever Gay Pride parade in Britain. A lot has changed for LGBT people since then. We’ve gone from outcasts and criminals, to mainstream and respectable – all within the space of four decades. It’s been one of the fastest, most successful social transformations in British history.
Back in 1972, I was 20, with long curly hair, and living in Shepherd’s Bush with my 17-year old boyfriend, Peter Smith. I was a student. He was a budding jazz guitarist. We smoked dope and tripped on acid. There was no HIV. The tube cost 10p. David Bowie was the latest pop sensation. Life was a party, up to a point.
In those days, gay people were not free. Many aspects of gay life were still criminal. Police harassment was routine; with periodic raids on bars, saunas, parks, toilets and even private parties. Same-sex couples could be arrested for holdings hands, dancing together and meeting each other in public. You could be legally refused service in pubs and restaurants because of your homosexuality. Queer-bashing was rife, in the press and on the streets.
We had to fight for our rights. I was a member of the defiant, radical Gay Liberation Front (GLF) – the first movement of openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. We did not plead for law reform. We demanded queer freedom; fearlessly challenging the straight political and religious establishments with feisty, irreverent protests.
GLF had a slogan: “Gay is good.” These three words were a revolution in consciousness. Previously, nearly everyone – including lots of LGBT people – saw gays as mad, sad and very, very bad. We were deemed by society to be not only criminal, but also sinful, abnormal, immoral, unnatural and sick.
To combat the denigration of queer people, in 1972 myself and other GLF activists decided to organise a Gay Pride march, with the theme of being out and proud. This was a very novel and controversial idea. In those days, nearly all LGBT people were closeted and many felt ashamed of their sexuality. Few would dare publicly acknowledge their gayness, let alone march for LGBT rights.
Not surprisingly, only 700 people joined the first ever Gay Pride march in Britain, held in London on 1 July 1972. Many of my friends were too scared to march. They thought everyone would be arrested. We weren’t arrested, but we were swamped by a very heavy, aggressive police presence. They treated us like criminals; abusing us with impunity. Confident and unfazed, we just smiled and chanted: “2-4-6-8! Is that copper really straight?” It really riled them.
Despite police intimidation, we were determined to have a fun time and make our point. The march was a carnival-style parade, which went from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park. There were lots of extravagant costumes and cheeky banners poking fun at homophobes like the morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse.
We got mixed reactions from the public – some hostility and some support but predominantly curiosity and bewilderment. Most had never knowingly seen a gay person, let alone hundreds of queers marching to demand human rights. “Aren’t you ashamed?”, one man shouted. “No”, we shouted back, as we blew him a kiss.
Unlike nowadays, there was no festival or entertainment in the park after the march – just an impromptu “Gay Day” – a sort of D-I-Y queer picnic. Everyone bought food, booze, dope and music. It was all shared around.
We played camped-up versions of party games like spin-the-bottle and drop-the-hanky. I won one of the games and my prize was a kiss with Thierry, a gorgeous French gay activist who had come over from Paris. My boyfriend wasn’t jealous. He just insisted on a kiss with Thierry too.
But it was more than good fun. Same-sex kissing in public was, in 1972, illegal. You could get arrested. Our party game was therefore a gesture of defiance. The cowardly Metropolitan Police would have arrested us if we were lone gay couples kissing, but they dared not arrest 700 of us. They just looked on from a distance, glowering and sneering.
In the last four decades Gay Pride has grown from one march with less than a thousand people to two dozen nation-wide parades with a combined attendance of hundreds of thousands of people. We’ve come a long way, baby. Bravo!
The increased acceptance of LGBT people is another big change. In 1972, homosexuality was still viewed as an illness, lesbian mothers had their kids taken off them by the courts, LGBT people were being witch-hunted out of the armed forces and the police were arresting thousands of men for consenting gay behaviour.
There are still injustices to overcome, such as homophobic bullying in schools and the ban on same-sex marriage. That’s why, 40 years on, we have to keep fighting, to overturn these last vestiges of homophobia.