As brands don rainbow flags, and soften the edges of political statements, organisers are raising ticket prices, and insist Pride is a “party not a protest”.
Pride invariably comes hand-in-hand with a lot of partying, it’s true. Getting sloshed in Soho Square and dancing with drag queens outside G-A-Y Late, being served shots by a chiselled man wearing nothing but a jock-strap, and getting temporarily barred from She Bar for lip-synching ‘Man I Feel Like A Woman’ atop a table is all part of the fun. But Pride is also a protest; a time to take up space. It’s a free for all event where LGBT people and their mates can take over the streets, shout loud, express themselves and have a laugh along the way; regardless of where they come from, who they are, or how much money they’ve got in the bank.
But wait – unless they want to get into an event billed as Manchester Pride Live. A weekend pass for the “full Manchester Pride Festival experience” – with live music at Mayfield depot – will set you back a jaw-dropping £70. Oh, and unless you fancied seeing Britney Spears play at Brighton Pride last year – that one cost £37.50. And if you want to march with any kind of political banner at Pride this year, you’ll have to check that it’s not banned first. According to Sheffield Pride organisers the event is a “party not a protest”. Wishful thinking, with politicians like Donald Trump in power.
In recent years, every brand under the sun has established some sort of presence at Pride; moving away from its political roots, businesses have recognised it as a lucrative commercial opportunity. At various events from New York to Bristol, organisers are now charging substantial amounts for pricey tickets to fenced off, heavily-sponsored parties. Meanwhile, branded floats and promotional stands are pushing out the organisations who started the whole event. At London’s parade last year I could hardly move for people trying to sell me things. In the end I retreated to a pub in Soho to watch England thrash Sweden in the World Cup.
Savvy corporations now realise that LGBT spending power is well worth harnessing; the Pink Pound, as it’s known, contributes an estimated £6 billion to the UK economy per year. Each June the high streets inevitably become saturated with shop-fronts decked out with rainbow makeovers; shops become awash with themed creations. Burger King famously sold a rainbow-wrapped ‘Proud Whopper’ which bore the slightly saccharine but well-intentioned message “we’re all the same inside” on the inside. Apple even started flogging rainbow-hued Apple watches. It’s undeniably ‘a good look’ for a massive bank like Barclays to sponsor London Pride, and on a practical level financial clout allows the whole thing to get bigger each year. The issues arise when a day that originally started out of necessity – as a political protest in the aftermath of the Stonewall riots in New York – ends up in the pocket of a mega-corporation.
When Manchester Pride begins charging a substantial sum of money for entry to a fenced-off live music event, no wonder people are outraged. Whatsmore, they’re also charging an entry fee – with prices starting at a tenner – to the city’s Gay Village. All this sends out the message that Pride is about celebrating only wealthy, middle-class queerness, and palatable, well-behaved partying with a price-tag. It’s an ethos that goes against the very origins of Pride; a march which began to commemorate the poorest, and most marginalised people in the LGBT community
The Pride Parade first began in 1970, to commemorate the one year anniversary of the riot at New York LGBT venue, The Stonewall Inn. Many of Stonewall’s customers were vulnerable members of society. Controlled by the mafia, the club’s owners frequently handed pay-offs to corrupt police officers. Police regularly targeted unlicensed clubs with raids; during which customers would be ordered to line up with their identification cards. At this time “solicitation of homosexual relations” was illegal, and gatherings of LGBT people were viewed as “disorderly”. During the raids, officers dragged customers into the bathroom to perform invasive checks. People wearing fewer than three gender-conforming items of clothing were arrested, along with anyone in full drag. And on 28 June, 1969, the punters of Stonewall Inn fought back. A huge crowd quickly assembled outside on Christopher Street, and clashed with the police; protests continued for six days. Multiple activist organisations were founded in the months following the Stonewall raid, and the riots mark a hugely significant event in the LGBT rights movement.
The following year, the first Christopher Street Liberation Day was held in New York, with a city-sanctioned sister march in LA. Numerous other marches on the same weekend, in cities including Chicago, London, and Philadelphia, are also documented. Though huge crowds took to the streets, it wasn’t a parade, but a solemn march. “No floats, no music, no boys in briefs,” wrote the Village Voice’s Fred Sargeant, who attended the New York march. “Say it clear, say it loud. Gay is good, gay is proud.” The event spread around the world.
In 1985, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners – who you may know from the 2015 film Pride – led the London march alongside miners’ labour groups in a show of solidarity; the support of trade unions like the miners (who pressured the government to pass equality laws) would later play a huge role in driving LGBT rights in politics. In 1988, when Margaret Thatcher introduced Section 28 (a cruel law which banned the “promotion of homosexuality” by schools or local authorities, isolating an entire generation) Pride attendance rocketed. And in marches around the world to this day, Pride stands for trans and non-binary rights, ending the deportation of gay refugees, the black LGBT community, fighting against ongoing oppression.
See, Pride isn’t really a party for the sake of a party; it’s a significant show of visibility. Protest can come in the form of the politically charged banners that the Sheffield event attempted to ban in 2018, and protest can also come in the shape of a float filled with dancing drag queens, blaring out ‘Believe’ by Cher. Either way, it’s a loud presence – a symbolic gesture that says ‘fuck the bigots, we’re taking over the streets”.
The problem is that when mega-brands become involved in things like Pride, they don’t just up ticket prices to chase profit. Often, they want to benefit from the perks of a ‘rainbow equality’ vibe, without having to contend with the politics at the centre. It’s all too easy to print vague mantras like ‘Love is Love!’ on a few branded placards, while simultaneously profiting from the business of other customers who actively loathe the LGBT community.
Sponsors’ fears of making any kind of controversial statement has contributed to a wider watering-down of marketing around Pride. In 2018, for instance, London Pride organisers caught a lot of heat for their cloying posters which were clearly concocted with a rising cohort of straight Pride attendees in mind. “Befriend a gay person and win a prize: friendship” read one sterling clanger. “I’m a straight man with gay pride” read another. And correct me if I’m wrong, by all means, but I don’t think that a “straight man with gay pride” threw the first brick at Stonewall…
Look, hun, while I’m really happy that you’re mates with loads of gay people (and yes, by all means straight people, along come to pride, you’re very, very welcome) the event is NOT about you.
And as for that cuddly corporate ‘Love is Love’ marketing bull-crap: first of all shut up, you’re just making single people feel bad. Secondly, what does that even mean? Being in an LGBT relationship is not just the same as being in a straight relationship. Not yet – not when gay men regularly get abuse in public for holding hands with other men, not when bisexual people get continually assigned assumed sexualities depending on their partner’s gender. You’re welcome to try telling that dickhead that called a same-sex couple on the bus “disgusting” that love is love – but I don’t expect you’ll provoke a gigantic revelation about how hassling queer people is bad. And also – love is love…. what about all the gays who are just down to fuck?
While I’m all for businesses getting behind pride and acknowledging their LGBT employees, unless it’s backed up by bold statements and real tangible support of Pride’s origins – I’m talking progressive workplace policies all year round, inclusive Pride events, using all that business clout to push for equality laws, and all the profits from that rainbow bracelet donated to legitimate LGBT organisations – I’m not interested.
Without long-term ally-ship to back up those big gestures, all these well-meaning rainbows amount to no more than empty virtue signalling, with the added bonus of chasing profit, and pricing out the very people who Pride was built for.