We meet five individuals who hold their heads high and live fearlessly, unapologetically and visibly
It’s a beautiful breezy summer day, and we’re at the rooftop bar of the Trafalgar St James Hotel with five people who have never been ignored in their lives.
Guests are dotted around us enjoying cocktails and as our subjects stalk in, heads turn, camera phones are surreptitiously raised and whispers susurrate.
It’s a (very mild) example of what these five fab people experience constantly. They each have their own unique style, dressing and carrying themselves with ambition and verve (hi Ashley O).
Anyone should be able to dress and act how they like in London, and that is often the case. Sadly, it’s also often not. For some people, abuse, comments and aggressive stares happen on a daily basis. It can be hugely draining, affecting confidence, happiness and general mental health.
Some people’s response to that would be “why don’t they just dress differently” or “more conventionally”. But why on earth should they? If you think that, but also think Express Yourself is a bop, then you’re a hypocrite.
As what’s set to be London’s biggest Pride ever descends on our vibrant, diverse, complicated city, we spoke to Cassandra, Sandy, Jamie, Sadiq and Parma about what it means, and what it takes, to live and breathe unapologetically on its streets.
I love to provocatively walk the streets in drag. It started as a performance art test when I was at art school in New York and I was NERVOUS getting changed in McDonald’s toilet near Union Square. I was in a much more surreal look – some people loved it and wanted photos, and I flirted with construction men. Others pointed and laughed like ‘what the fuck’ and a gang of children were saying ‘ew.’
Since then, developing my look and learning makeup, I’ve actually turned into a very HOT BLONDE. One of the fascinating things I’ve discovered is that a lot of otherwise straight men are completely ENTRANCED by me as Cassandra.
Walking through the streets at night after a performance, cars pull up, men flirt and proposition, occasionally flash me (and I flash a leg or my derrière back if I like them). Before doing drag I thought it was only a marginal sexual interest. But I never go hungry for men.
I have had some violent encounters; like groups of men throwing stones at me, and once walking through the back streets of Dalston a group of guys said “people have bare rights nowadays!” I was pissed off and sad at the broader failure of government and education; when other marginalized groups attack us and don’t see the common link of human sufferings that make us the same.
Aside from that, I have a ball and love to take pictures with people – and CHARGE THEM AFTER.
Pride is still needed to remind everyone of the ongoing different treatment of people of different sexualities, for mysterious psychological reasons related to masculinity and tribal groups and the influence of religion. So much progress has been made, but there is always a danger of the rise of populism and pushback.
Let’s have Pride for things that we were once given shame for!
Model & Writer
A lot of people think London is a place of freedom and frivolity, which is correct in part – but there is still a large amount of public prejudice that affects marginalised people every single day. One of the biggest ways in which my mental health is affected is by people who presume that by the way that I present myself, I am public property.
This varies from non-consensual photography, to people just outright standing around me and trying to figure out just ‘what I am’. This is all an invasion of privacy, and even smaller things like staring, pointing and commenting on my physical appearance are violent acts that really influence the way I navigate the world. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I am often stopped by fellow queer people who wish me love and light, and it truly warms my heart.
We are in an incredibly volatile and politicised moment for queer and marginalised identities. At Pride, we should be allowed to express ourselves however we feel we need to at this moment in time. It’s important that we remember its history, and the trans women of colour that made this happen, because a lot of that message gets lost currently, which is a real shame.
We need to be able to process our feelings at the moment, and Pride is a great way to be able to express those feelings. Whether we are angry, proud, upset, scared, however we feel; being surrounded by the queer community is the right space to be able to emote these feelings. We definitely need it, more so for the trans and non-binary people and people of colour that are still not shown the same levels of attention and allyship as our white cis counterparts are during this time. They need to be prioritised at events like this, and unfortunately I don’t think celebrations like Pride In London do that. Hence the importance of spaces like UK Black Pride and the upcoming Trans and Intersex Pride in London.
Brand Director, Recon
My experiences walking around the city really depend on where I am. I’ve been lucky enough to curate the places I feel safe in, in order to thrive and survive in London. It also depends on who is staring at me. Generally, the reaction to me is one of three: “YAAAAAS”; uncertainty; or avoiding eye contact. Who and how they react comes down to how that person interprets my blackness and/or my queerness. There is still this idea that the two shouldn’t go together and in the past, I’ve felt as though I’ve had to choose between them.
I was born and bred in London, so you get used to the occasional comment, confused look or laugh at your expense. One incident that sticks out was on the tube where a black man looked on with disgust at me and my then-boyfriend and shouted, “Black man like you, gay, you should be ashamed!” It was clear his problem with me was layered. How dare I be black AND gay, but also, how dare I be black, gay AND have a white boyfriend! I think his mind would have been blown if I were with a black man.
A lot of people came to our defence and shut the guy down. It showed me that there really are good people in the world.
London is probably one of the more accepting places of LGBTQ+ people in the world, and as a result maybe we’ve felt more comfortable to assimilate into spaces meant for all or just stayed at home, leaving our venues in the dust.
But what’s clear with the change in the political climate is that there is a long way to go until full acceptance and equality. We need to not only be visible online but take up space in real life too.
Pride, for me, is an opportunity to not only show people outside of our community that we are here but also something that connects us as a community. A reminder that we have a shared experience, which can hopefully encourage us to be kinder to each other online and offline.
DJ & Fashion Designer
It doesn’t matter how dressed up or down I am, I attract a lot of stares and looks. I never notice because I begun blinkering myself to my surroundings since the age of 10. But it becomes obvious when I’m in public with a family member who isn’t used to the attention I receive.
Not caring about what others thought was primarily about survival in regards to my sexuality and gender nonconformity. My extreme look then developed because I already felt ostracized by society for being queer. The sad part of blinkering myself to other people is that I don’t make eye contact with anyone, ever. I couldn’t tell you the eye colour of a single one of my exes, and it all stems from this idea that eye contact is potentially dangerous.
Transgender hate crime rose 81% last year and LGBTQ+ youth are four times more likely than heterosexual and cisgendered youth to become homeless. Pride season is a joyous occasion but I approach victories with scepticism. The philanthropists, millionaires, MPs, and companies that sponsor Pride and pretend to be our friends, and who spout the language of accessibility, diversity, and change: they talk the talk while actively making people’s lives worse through egregious labor practices, investments in mass incarceration, obsessions with growth, and a more general money-hoarding mentality.
One of the many bitter lessons that we have learned in the last century is that civil society is dominated by corporate interests. If getting these companies to pay corporation tax wasn’t such a shitshow, perhaps the UK might actually have money to remedy LGBTQ issues related to mental health, addiction, homelessness and violence.
The visibility and acceptance they offer is welcomed, but ultimately a foundational shift in the way corporations and government operate day to day is the going to be a much harder fight – which is necessary if we are going to protect those of us who are most at risk.
Model & Performer
I have had some interesting conversations with my Uber drivers. There’s an assumption that because of my name, we have certain commonalities. Until they pick me up that is. I’m then often told the heritage of my name, asked about the religious practices of my family and quoted numerous Quranic texts. I’m not bashing on this or anything, well maybe a little, but Salam alaikum is the last thing you want to hear when you’re being picked up from Clapham Common at 3am on a Monday morning.
Living in our pink bubble in London, it’s easy to think we no longer need a Pride celebration. But it’s important for us to use this position and lead by example. We can send a gigantic rainbow coloured signal to the rest of the world, which gives hope to LGBT+ people living in countries which aren’t as lucky as us.
I often reflect on the fact that in Sudan, where my family are from, the death penalty exists for same sex activities along with these other laws; no recognition of same sex couples, no adoption rights, no IVF for lesbians, no surrogacy, and you are legally allowed to discriminate on sexuality in employment and in provision of goods and services. We need this to act as an example that gay rights are a human right, it also generates benefits to society well beyond our own beautiful bubble. Our country is definitely a better place with a fabulous Pride celebration in the summer.
PHOTOS BY CORINNE CUMMING
WORDS BY DYLAN B JONES
With thanks to The Trafalgar St James Hotel