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Why I Will Be Marching At Pride For The First Time

06/07/2017 09:28 BST | Updated 06/07/2017 09:29 BST
JOAQUIN SARMIENTO via Getty Images

This weekend, alongside hundreds of thousands of others, I will march through the centre of London to celebrate Gay Pride. Fairly unremarkable, for most I know, but for me it will be significant. Despite being an openly gay man since 2014, I have never been to Pride before.

Over the years, I have justified this to myself in any number of ways. I don't like big crowds; I'm not much of a party animal; and it's just an opportunity for people to hook up. But most of all I told myself that things were getting ever better for gay people in the UK - so do I really need to march to secure my rights? Wouldn't my time be better used fighting poverty or inequality?

And, in a sense, of course, I was right. There has been remarkable progress over the last few decades. Not so long ago being a gay man was illegal. Today (at least in Metropolitan Britain) same sex couples walk down the streets holding hands. We can get married and adopt children. Back in the 1980s and 90s contracting HIV was a death sentence. Since then, AIDs mortality has fallen by 63%, thanks to a combination of prevention and cure, with people able to live normal lives (although worryingly infection rates are at their highest level in decades).

Moreover, this progress has been underpinned, not just by legislation, but by public opinion. In 1987, nearly two-thirds of people thought that sex between two people of the same gender was wrong. By 2012 this figure had fallen to one in five, with nearly half of the population saying it was 'not wrong at all'. This is crucial because it makes it much harder - though not impossible - for it to be undone by an unsympathetic government (the DUP, for example).

However, as I've become more comfortable with my sexuality, I have also started to learn more about the community of which I am a part, and what I have found has not always been easy. We may have broken the back of the AIDs crisis, but the reality is that a killer, equally as devastating, still haunts us: the mental health crisis, prevalent across the whole of society, is even more acute in the LGBT community.

Young LGBT people are four times more likely to kill themselves than their heterosexual counterparts. 52% have self-harmed; 42% have sought help for a mental health problem, and drug use is seven times higher than the societal average. All of this is of course made worse by austerity: cuts to drug and alcohol services and to sexual health clinics and, despite Theresa May's rhetoric, to mental health provision.

So, what is causing this epidemic? Why are LGBT people so prone to mental health problems?

The answer is most compellingly set out in Matthew Todd's brilliant book, Straight Jacket. He argues that the problem isn't people's sexuality, but rather society's attitude to it. Despite the crucial legislative gains made over the last few decades, gay people still grow up in a society where the assumption is that kids are (and should be) heterosexual, forcing them through the stressful and often shame-filled process of coming out - not just once, but time and time again.

This argument makes complete sense to me. I was lucky. I had supportive parents and I grew up in a fairly liberal community, with good schools, that didn't tolerate bullying. But despite all this I still felt it. I still felt uncomfortable that I was different. I still spent years hiding who I was. And I still raged internally that I had to come out, that I had to explain to people that I was gay.

Of course, it would be both stupid and inaccurate of me to suggest that things haven't radically improved for many in the LGBT community. Barack Obama's phrase 'if you had to choose any time in the course of human history to be alive, you'd choose...right here...right now' is entirely apt for the gay people in Western society. But I have also realised that I was wrong to think that we had reached the summit. There is undoubtedly still work to be done and, for me, that work starts at Pride on Saturday.

Harry Quilter-Pinner is Director of Strategy at SCT, a homelessness and addictions charity in East London, and a Research Fellow at IPPR, the progressive policy think-tank. He writes here in a personal capacity.