What's wrong with mainstream pride events?

Saturday 7 July 2018 / articles

I was contacted by Jason Rosam via Non-binary London about appearing on BBC Radio London on the eve of Pride in London for their pride party to talk about what pride means to me and why we still need it. I wrote some notes and spoke to the community to prepare. They didn't call. So here are my notes tidied up a little, with thanks to Non-binary London members for their contributions.

I'd like pride to mean/be both (1) a celebration and safe space for the entire LGBTQ+ community and (2) a chance to spotlight and show solidarity for the various struggles different parts of our community face - a chance to make a statement to the rest of the world. However as a non-binary genderqueer transfemme person I don't see myself heard, recognised and represented a great deal in most mainstream pride events and (L)G(B(TQ+))* venues. This feeling is very common among non-binary people, as well as other groups within our community such as queer, trans and intersex people of colour and deaf and disabled LGBTQ+ people. Mainstream pride events tend to cater primarily for White cis gay men, particularly those who are extrovert and drink alcohol.

A big part of the problem is that pride organisers are very often predominantly cis gay men, and within that mostly White. A key issue arises from this: the erasure of anything within the community that isn't about love. Guilty of promoting the message that LGBTQ+ equality is just a case of accepting different types of love are both pride organisers and their big corporate pals. They both put out messages about how love is love and in the case of Pride in London 2017 how love happens here (far from the worst message of that campaign). So what is pride and the LGBTQ+ community about if not love? Well, there's gender, sexuality, romantic orientation, intersex people and more. Also: aromantic people exist.

The irony of these "all love is equal" messages is that what they really mean is that love between two people of the same gender (and really two women or two men) is acceptable. Meanwhile more non-normative forms of love remain stigmatised. Monogamous relationships continue to be considered purer and morally superior to polyamorous dynamics and intergenerational relationships between consenting adults continue to have their love considered disingenuous with the assumption of ulterior motives ("sugar" for the younger; sex for the older). Pride events and corporate sponsors rarely if ever talk about or represent these types of love. Really "all love is equal" messages mean "these types of love are okay".

So mainstream pride events need to do more to recognise the diversity of the community for whom they seek to speak, engaging with and listening to the more marginalised and non-normative subsections of the community as well as representing them better within organising teams, performers, communications and so on. They also need to refocus on the politics and develop a better understanding of the intersectional nature of marginalisation and privilege.

In contrast, more grassroots events such as Trans Pride Brighton, UK Black Pride and Wotever World's pride party at the Apple Tree are very much by and for the community. They are gender-diverse, free from corporate pinkwashing and exhibit progressive politics - they aren't just a party for White cis gay men. That said, parties aren't all bad: they are important and valuable insofar as providing safe spaces for people within our community to be and celebrate their authentic selves. But for me pride should first and foremost be about the advancement of social justice. A part of that is just saying "we're here, we're queer..." through a big colourful parade but another key part of it is giving a proper voice to the marginalised and enabling our/their protest. Pride absolutely should be political.

I mentioned deaf and disabled people earlier - as a relatively able-bodied person (though quite possibly neurodivergent in some way(s)) I'm not the best spokesperson for the community, but I will note a few issues we discussed in the Non-binary London Facebook group. Deaf and disabled people are often unable to attend many events and venues as they very rarely consider accessibility issues. If you're lucky, they might think about ramps and step-free access, but there's more to accessibility than that. Pride in London has considered people with mobility issues, but they are only accommodated within a special part of the parade - if they want to march with a group they're involved in, then tough luck. Pride and other LGBTQ+ events also regularly fail to take measures to include deaf people/BSL users and blind/visually-impaired people. If a small queer cabaret night like BaNTs can offer BSL/English interpeters and audio describers for their performances, surely big/huge pride events can too. Quiet chill spaces are also a really good way of providing respite for people who can't deal with crowds, noise or just people for extended periods of time.

Lastly, corporate involvement. Corporate involvement can make pride events (both on the day and in the lead up) seem like a big festival of advertising. In the lead up to pride events, you might see corporations putting out slogans of support, which - as stated above - often fail to appreciate the diversity of the community by focusing solely on love. You have to question just how invested they are in progressive politics and supporting social justice long-term if their understanding of LGBTQ+ issues stops at LGB, or even G. On the day, the big budgets of national and multinational corporations enable them to produce fancy banners, flyers and merchandise to give away, and lots of it. The result is often that pride-goers are drowned in a sea of corporate logos (advertising) while the often-handmade placards and banners of grassroots groups - the groups that actually need that visibility on what should be their day - in juxtaposition appear muted, drowned out.

Perhaps most importantly, however, pride and other LGBTQ+ events really need to consider the source. I understand that if pride events are to avoid making queer people pay to celebrate and protest, they still need to get their money from somewhere. I should say here that an organisation I founded (York LGBT History Month) has used sponsorship to fund its work. But the organisations that funded us were the likes of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the University of York and York St John University - hardly big bad wolves. Similarly, Pride in London say they only "partner" with organisations who demonstrate commitment to the community, and indeed Virgin - one of their sponsors - recently said no to deportation of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers following pressure from Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. But take Brighton Pride (which charges entry - a big no for me). Brighton Pride is sponsored by British Airways who are involved in the deportation of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers. So the money funding a party mainly for Western White cis gay men is coming from companies that are sending our LGBTQ+ siblings back to dangerous environments and potentially death. There's no pride in that.

* these brackets are very much intentional