14/06/2020 08:18 BST | Updated 09/03/2021 11:19 GMT

Queer But Not Here: This Is What Happens When Pride Gets Cancelled

The loss of physical Pride events to coronavirus has hit performers, businesses and community groups hard.

A smorgasbord of colour, dancing, music and celebration, Pride events draw together LGBTQ+ communities across the country.

But this Pride Month, coronavirus has stopped the party, and the impact has been felt far beyond the high streets that would have hosted parades.

So what will happen to the performers, businesses, community groups and queer folk who rely on Pride? In particular, how will it affect those in regions which don’t have as much LGBTQ representation year-round? And will they make it to Pride 2021 – or could this shut them down for good?

The musician 

“For so many people these Pride festivals are their safe spaces, to find family, to see like-minded people. To think that that beacon of hope isn’t there this year is distressing,” says Rod Thomas, aka the musician Bright Light Bright Light. 

Thomas says his finances took a direct hit due to Pride cancellations. “Payment for Pride gigs would have offset the cost of making a new record,” he says of forthcoming album Fun City, featuring Jake Shears and Andy Bell.

The pay for digital performances carrying on online also isn’t anything like as good. “There’s a huge loss of income, and of course, that many fewer people will know about the songs,” says Thomas.

“I was lined up to play quite a few big Prides to connect with the community and share the album narrative, so not being able to do that is very disappointing.”

He adds: “All my online events that I’m personally organising are donation or tip based so that people can be part of them whatever their financial situation.

“Does that earn as much as an actual DJ set or show? Absolutely not. But it also costs me nothing to ‘get there’ so at least I’m not paying to fly or take a train to somewhere, or pay for three of us to get somewhere.”

Another negative knock-on effect of the digital meet-up sphere has been preferential treatment of well-known artists rather than local community figures. “It’s really only the more known artists who are getting pulled into online Pride events as the organisers need to draw views without a local focus now. It’s a very tricky situation,” adds Thomas.

“The whole purpose of regional Prides is to show what the LGBTQ+ world looks like in that region, and all those artists will have lost an important platform.”

And while digital performances may bring in a little cash, they’re unlikely to be as effective as real-life shows in terms of promotion. “Reaching a new audience over the din of the thousands of online events? That’s not easy,” he adds. 

The drag performer

“I think it’s bad to say that Pride is cancelled. It’s not – Pride is every day,” urges the drag performer Just May. “For want of a better word, ‘corporate Pride’ is cancelled, and people won’t make the money off the queers, nor will the queers make money off them, but the community has come together in these times, and that in itself is Pride.”

Despite their positive outlook, they say the cancellation of Pride events has realistically been financially and creatively stifling. “My main draw to the stage is the audience,” adds Just May. “I love the reactions, the contact and the banter you get with a crowd, and that’s something I personally can’t get from a digital platform.”

“In terms of money, digital shows are not even half the amount you could have made. Some companies I have worked for on a digital platform have been generous and paid as much as real life shows, but that’s not as common as you’d like.” 

That isn’t to say there aren’t benefits to Pride in the digital sphere. “Firstly it allows us to create still – it allows us to show our art and what we have to say,” says the Geri drag queen. “It lets people know you are still working and still have a voice. Pride on a digital platform has already begun, and I have taken part, and have plans to take part in a number of others.”

Another effect of lockdown noticed by Just May has been the gradual decrease in people attending Zoom parties. A number of factors could be behind this, including tech fatigue, especially for people staring at computers all day, and the aforementioned issue with the quality of digital experiences compared to real-life ones.

The Eurovision star 

“I was so looking forward to dressing up, getting my dancing shoes on and joining in the joyous, colourful, positive, celebratory events in the capital and regionally,” says SuRie, Eurovision contestant for Britain in 2018 and singer-songwriter. 

“Without Pride this summer I really do hope that people can still find that sense of community, albeit a virtual one, for now.”

SuRie has been booked for digital performances but agrees they fall short. “It’s quite disheartening performing to my phone and my bored dog,” she reflects.

“I love the back and forth between a performer and the audience, the energy exchange and spontaneity from a live crowd during a performance. I do really miss live shows and digital meet-ups isn’t quite the same, for me.”

SuRie has added a virtual tip jar to her online events to sustain herself during the lockdown and says: “I am so fortunate that my kind and loyal audience did indeed tip!” 

But she urges: “There’s been a real peak in requests for online content, but mostly without any mention of a fee. [...] I completely respect and understand that this situation has financial implications for us all, but some of these requests are coming in from big producers and institutions, and I just wonder [...] Performers shouldn’t just be asked for charity’s sake. I think there’s a difference between us choosing to offer insights into our creative worlds, for free, on social media, and a company asking us to perform, curate, film, record, edit, stream a half hour show, also for free.”  

“I worry about how artists will manage come winter, if not before.” 

The campaigner

For Libby Baxter-Williams, the cancellation of Pride could have grave consequences for the communities she is trying to support – as well as her personal finances. 

Baxter-Williams heads up Biscuit, a bi-advocacy group that focuses on well-being of bi women mainly, or anyone who experiences bi-phobia and misogyny.

Pride season is usually where Biscuit makes the money it needs in order to survive the year. Baxter-Williams and her volunteers will sell trinkets such as stickers and badges and provide resources including leaflets and postcards – an event that provides funds for the organisation to keep running year round.

Baxter-Williams tried to get ahead of the game this year and had all of her merchandise printed in February – rendering most of it useless after Pride’s cancellation.

Holly Wong
Biscuit at London Pride 2018 

She said: “I’m trying not to have my head in my hands because that doesn’t do anyone any good, but how we will survive without being able to fundraise publicly? I just have no idea at the moment.”

Biscuit has also seen its events planned for September cancelled and Baxter-Williams will have to dip into her own pockets to keep the organisation afloat for the time being.

But the more urgent issue for Baxter-Williams is that there is so little bi-representation at Pride events.

She told HuffPost UK: “It’s really important we get there because if we don’t, there’s a chance there will be no one there representing the bi community. Our whole mission is getting in front of people and now we can’t.

“It’s shocking that bisexuality has such low representation at Pride. Depending on which study you read, we make up around 52% of the LGBT population but it’s still very much a sideline as a sexuality.

“I think a lot of people think that we can hide in straightness if we want to, there’s a lot of bi-phobia we get from within the community and that makes people not want to put their hands up and do things like we do because you get shouted at for it.

“A couple of years ago, in 2017, there was no bi-representation at London Pride at all and they got flack for it.” Organisers said bi groups didn’t apply on time and it was “first come, first served” basis.

Holly Wong
Biscuit provides support and resources for anyone who experiences bi-phobia and misogyny

“It forced our hand really to say: ‘We’re coming, we’re doing this, we’re going to be there.’ The last couple of years there has been bi-representation in the parade and in the stalls and community area but that’s only because of specific bi activists putting themselves out there. It’s not because we’ve ever been asked to participate.

“A lot of people think we are part-time gays, for want of a better phrase. They think: why would we chose to be part of a community which is persecuted if we’ve got the option not to.

“Of course we get persecuted for being in same-sex relationships from outside the community and we get persecuted for being in different sex relationships inside it. It’s a double-edged sword. People do feel isolated and lonely and scared and that’s one of the things we try to highlight and prevent with the meet-up groups. We have to keep looking for new ways to reach out and be a visible presence so that people know we’re there and that they’re not alone.

“We’re very worried about people feeling isolated at the moment. There’s been a rise of domestic abuse in the community so we’re trying to highlight that. People have a lot of problems being bisexual and claiming asylum so we’re trying to highlight that. We send all our resources out but on the ground we do a lot of meet-up groups and, of course, social distancing has put paid to that as well.”

The party planner 

For Eden Topall-Rabanes, Pride is “like a second Christmas”. An organiser of queer events for Riposte, this year would have seen a Pride-themed mini-festival on June 27 with accessibility at the forefront. BSL interpreters had been booked, as well as audio descriptors for the blind and visually impaired, seated areas and a sober space as well as tattoo artists, hairdressers and clothes sellers.

This year Eden had planned to host around 1,000 people with eight DJs, 40 artists and performers. It would have been a step up for Riposte, which has catered for groups of up to 600 people in the past 

He told HuffPost UK: “We started working on this in January as the venues disappear super quickly for Pride. So we had already booked some DJs and booked some plane tickets. To organise such events you need to pay for many things up front and then you only start to make the money back from the ticket sales – which we now won’t get.

“As well as losing money we’ve lost a year of work. We will have to start again slowly to go back to where we were and then use Pride or a similar big event to grow again.

“Riposte at Pride would have raised queer visibility in a big way. We live mostly through social spaces and obviously everything is closed at the moment.”

Eden also points out that the rainbows being painted to support the NHS have had the unintended effect of potentially reducing LGBTQ+ visibility.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s super important to show support to NHS workers and key workers, but the rainbow is also one of the main signs in LGBTQ rallies. So even if we put rainbows out now for Pride, as we do in windows for example, it will be taken as something else. One of these simple signs has been totally erased.”

The nightclub promoter 

The cancellation of Pride in Hull is being seen as a huge blow for a city that can struggle to compete with larger ones that are more compelling in attracting big names.

James Woods works for two of the LGBTQ+ venues in Hull – Fuel and Propaganda.

He said: “For us, the impact of Covid-19 has been pretty significant on not just the business, but the events and plans we’ve now had to scrap as a result.

“Hull is unlike other larger cities because our queer population is much smaller, meaning we often miss out on big names that regularly tour larger cities like Leeds and Manchester. We hope to continue with our momentum once restrictions are lifted and it is safe for us to meet again, but the impact of Covid-19 on bars and clubs – in which social distancing is next to impossible – remains to be seen.

Kerry Railton
Pride in Hull in 2018

“We were in the process of planning a huge event on Baker Street, where Pride in Hull has historically been held, which would’ve continued the celebration after Pride’s main event at Queens Gardens.

“We were in the process of submitting applications for street closure and beginning negotiations with potential sponsors to secure funding for the event. We would’ve featured headline artists with performances from a wide roster of the city’s local talent.

“For a small business like ours where resources are limited and precious, the impact of Covid-19 on our plans is months of lost work.

“The unfortunate reality is that most of this work cannot be salvaged for next year as our situation will have changed entirely.”