Pop music blasting, crowds cheering, ambulance sirens screeching, engines revving: it’s the sound of a city. It’s the sound of a city like London. It’s the sound of a city like London celebrating complete and utter, unadulterated Pride. This year’s Pride in London, which took place on July 8th, is particularly special as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. One could find it hard to believe, what with all the colour and corporate sponsorship that now comes with Pride festivals, that little over 50 years ago all homosexual acts were illegal in Britain. Even as I stood along Oxford Street watching all 26,000 participants march and dance their way along the Parade route, I felt in awe how very different the social landscape of Britain is to just half a century ago. However, the road of acceptance into mainstream British society has been in no way a rapid and straightforward trajectory but instead a marathon filled with pitfalls, setbacks and challenges. From the stigma of HIV and Aids to same-sex marriage, the recognition of gender identities and endless hate crimes the LGBT+ community has battled to make their voices heard and known. Thus, this why I believe that in 2017 Pride is as, if not more, important as ever.
When discussing the beginnings of the sexual revolution, Hekma and Giami describe the 1960’s as a period of time that ‘created new perspectives and practices regarding sexuality and brought a flood of eroticised texts and images into the public realm’ (2014: 1). These new perspectives challenged the established codes and norms of behaviour in Western society and politicised personal and public life, arts and culture, religion, education and justice. The sexual revolution consequently lead to a societal and cultural revolution which transformed a number of established systems and domains such as that of the traditions of marriage, freedom of speech and, of course, female and gay liberation.
The early liberation of the LGBT+ community in contemporary Britain came with the Sexual Offenses Act 1967, which partially decriminalised sex between men in England and Wales. However, the Act, as Buckle asserts, was a compromise. The Act did not apply for men in ‘Scotland and Northern Ireland; it only applied to men over the age of 21, in private, with no more than two people present; and it did not apply to those in service in the armed forces or the merchant navy’ (2015: 17). Alongside this Lord Arran, a main sponsor of the bill, gave a warning to the people whom the bill helped emancipate:
I ask those who have, as it were, been in bondage and for whom the prison doors are now open to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity. This is no occasion for jubilation; certainly not for celebration. Any form of ostentatious behaviour; now or in the future, any form of public flaunting, would be utterly distasteful and would, I believe, make the sponsors of the Bill regret that they have done what they have done. Homosexuals must continue to remember that while there may be nothing bad in being a homosexual, there is certainly nothing good. Lest the opponents of the Bill think that a new freedom, a new privileged class, has been created, let me remind them that no amount of legislation will prevent homosexuals from being the subject of dislike and derision, or at best of pity. We shall always, I fear, resent the odd man out. That is their burden for all time, and they must shoulder it like men—for men they are
As problematic and restrictive as this initial bill would come to be seen in an increasingly liberated Britain it did, however, begin a movement towards acceptance for the LGBT+ community in mainstream society.
It was five years following the Sexual Offenses Act that Britain saw its very first Pride parade in 1972, taking place on July 1st as it was the nearest Saturday to the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in 1969. It was a tiny event in comparison to Pride parades today, with only 700 people marching as many were too fearful of being seen and, as a result, losing their jobs or homes (Tatchell, 2017). For, even though homosexuality had been partially decriminalised it was in no way an accepted part of society. A fact that a man called Andrew, speaking in a Pride sponsorship advert by HSBC, was painfully aware of when marching in the very first parade: ‘It was the young of the future we were thinking about. We didn’t want them to go through what our generation went through’ (YouTube, 2017).
Thus, throughout the 1970’s and 80’s homophobia and hate crimes towards the LGBT+ community were still rife, a fact which was made ever more prevalent by the misunderstanding of HIV and Aids. The virus was little understood in the 1980’s as scientists could not understand why unprecedented numbers of perfectly healthy people were dropping dead. As it became more apparent that the LGBT+ was being heavily affected by the mysterious disease it became inaccurately labelled a ‘gay disease’, one that could only be passed between men who have sex with men. This rhetoric only continued to perpetuate homophobic attitudes in Britain, in one example for six months in 1982 HIV was actually named ‘Gay Related Immune Deficiency’. The attitudes at time are recounted vividly by Michael Penn, who at 75 is one of longest surviving people in the UK with HIV: ‘People were ignorant. There was nothing known about the disease. No one knew how to treat it. The ordinary man in the street was very suspicious if he knew you were gay. […] I went to local pub and the publican in my hearing said to someone ‘don’t let anyone drink out of that glass’. I was furious.’ (The Independent, 2017). Although the 80s were a time of stigma and misunderstanding, attitudes towards LGBT+ people were not so black and white. For instance, in 1986 EastEnders’ featured its first ever homosexual character and then a gay kiss in 1987, much to the outrage of the right-wing press. Even with this step forward there were inevitable steps back, with questions in parliament about whether it was appropriate to have a gay man in a family show when AIDS was sweeping the country (Brooks, 2003). While there is no cure for HIV and AIDS there are, nowadays, very effective drug treatments which enable those living with the virus to live long and healthy lives (NHS, 2017). This does not mean, however, that the stigma attached to the virus has been completely alleviated
As the new millennium appears on the horizon, the velocity to which change and equality is appearing in British legislation and culture picks up an unprecedented speed. Whereby in the year 2000 the Labour government scrapped policy banning homosexuals from the Armed Forces, the following year the age of consent is equalised and in 2002 same-sex couples are given equal adoption rights. It was then in 2004 that both the Civil Partnership Act and Gender Recognition Act were passed in Parliament but it was not until 2014 that same-sex marriage became legal under the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013. In amongst these legislative changes the social and cultural landscape of Britain began to fully embrace the LGBT+ community as part of the British community. In 1999 Queer as Folk bustled onto our screens, offering the public an eye-opening and unashamed view of gay culture as they had never seen it. BBC2’s adaption of Sarah Waters novel Tipping the Velvet in 2002 saw a lesbian drama with plot and depth hit the screen. While the following year in 2003, 16 years after EastEnders’, Coronation Street aired its first gay kiss. As homosexuality continued to become more accepted and HIV less stigmatised Chris Smith became the first MP to publicly acknowledge that he is HIV positive.in 2005. Fast forward ten years and Russell T Davis, the producer who brought us Queer as Folk, brings trilogy series Cucumber, Banana and Tofu to Channel 4. Of the trilogy, Cucumber focuses its narrative on middle-aged gay man Henry while its sister series Banana is an anthology looking at a wide spectrum of LGBT+ lives. Tofu is then an online documentary series focusing on issues raised in Cucumber and Banana such as sex, sexuality and love.
However, it is in 2017, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, that the need for Pride, LGBT+ activism and support is more earnest than ever. Even as channels such as BBC, BBC3 and Channel 4 are dedicating entire seasons of programming to the LGBT+ community and its history, with Gay Britannia, Queer Britain and 50 Shades of Gay respectively, the day-to-day political and social climate remains ever tempestuous. Only yesterday, July 26th, US President Donald Trump announced on his ever favourite platform Twitter: ‘After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow […] Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming […] victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you’ (2017a, b, c). While in the last six months there have been disturbing reports of concentration camps for homosexual and bisexual men in the Chechen Republic, where 100 men have been reported to have been captured and an unspecified number have died under the LGBT+ purge. These reports coming as in the last few years the systematic, social and political climate of Russia becomes ever more aggressive and oppressive of the LGBT+ community.
To some, these issues may seem far away as they take place on foreign soil but the struggles of LGBT+ people are universal and may take place as close as next door or your child school. Whereby the charity Stonewall reports that ‘45 per cent) of LGBT pupils – including 64 per cent of trans pupils – are bullied for being LGBT in Britain’s schools’. While shockingly ‘Two-thirds’ of LGBT+ people who experience ‘a hate crime or incident did not report it to anyone’ (Stonewall, 2017). It is not simply bullying and hate crime that are issues, general misunderstanding and a lack of education also effect and endangers the lives of LGBT+ people, as only one in five LGBT+ students report that their school teaches about same-sex relationships (ibid). This lack of education that is still prevalent in British society is something that Theatre and Creative Writing graduate Hannah Bibi knows all too well. In an interview for this piece Hannah reports how as a non-binary person they feel a huge issue is ‘non-binary genders not being taken seriously’ in which ‘more could be done to expose and educate cis-hets and other LGBT+ people about non-binary genders’. Hannah also implores that this lack of education makes them feel ‘nervous and afraid’ to tell people who are not non-binary about their gender. This running much in the thread of research by Stonewall (2017) which reports that nearly half of trans people of not living permanently as their preferred gender due to the response they may receive, while a quarter of lesbian, gay and bisexual people are not open about their sexuality.
As negative as things may seem sometimes there are, inevitably rays of hope. 50 years on from the Sexual Offenses Act 1967 and the government have launched its very first ever National LGBT+ survey, which aims to hear the voices of all members of the community heard on issues from education in schools to hate crime and employment. With over 60,000 people filling in the survey in little under two days (PinkNews, 2017) it highlights how important, and overdue, understanding the experiences of LGBT+ people truly is. Perhaps this survey maybe a watershed moment, enabling law makers, employers and the general public to see what the community feels and needs. Perhaps, like us, in 50 years our children and grandchildren will look at the changes that were fought for in 2017 and beyond and, like us, celebrate Pride with all the colour and vibrancy they can muster.
Brooks, L. (2003) With Prejudice. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/dec/12/gayrights.labour (Accessed: 23rd July 2017).
Buckle, S. (2015) The Way Out: A History of Homosexuality in Modern Britain. London: L.B. Tauris.
Hekma, G. and Giami, A. (2014) ‘Sexual Revolutions: An Introduction’, in Hekma, G and Giami, A (eds.) Sexual Revolutions. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 1-24.
NHS (2017) HIV and AIDS. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hiv/pages/introduction.aspx (Accessed: 23rd July 2017)
PinkNews (2017) Over 60,000 respond to nationwide LGBT survey – have you had your say yet?. Available at: http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2017/07/25/over-60k-respond-to-nationwide-lgbt-survey-have-you-had-your-say-yet/ (Accessed: 26th July 2017).
Stonewall (2017) LGBT Facts and Figures. Available at: http://www.stonewall.org.uk/media/lgbt-facts-and-figures (Accessed: 24th July 2017)
Tatchell, P. (2017) This is how LGBT Pride began in 1972. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/peter-g-tatchell/lgbt-pride_b_17418306.html (Accessed: 21st July 2017).
The Independent (2017) The Terror and Prejudice of the 1980s AIDS crisis remembered by a gay man who lived through it. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/love-sex/aids-crisis-1980-eighties-remember-gay-man-hiv-positive-funerals-partners-disease-michael-penn-a7511671.html#gallery (Accessed: 22nd July 2017).
Trump, D. (2017a) 26 July. Available at: https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/890193981585444864 (Accessed: 27th July 2017).
Trump, D. (2017b) 26 July. Available at: https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/890196164313833472 (Accessed: 27th July 2017).
Trump, D. (2017c) 26 July. Available at: https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/890197095151546369 (Accessed: 27th July 2017).
Youtube (2017) HSBC & Pride | Celebrating LGBT rights at London Pride 2017. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EoyBaMAmTU (Accessed: 22nd July 2017).