On top of everything else the dreadful news: being gay is cancelled. OK, not quite. But in the midst of a global pandemic, the thought that in four months I’d be half-cut, smothered in glitter and working the dancefloor with my nearest and dearest was pretty appealing. The somewhat inevitable announcement that my hometown Manchester Pride was cancelled was quite the blow.
I didn’t even get to go last year because of a stupid wedding (congratulations Sancha and Hamish) but two years in a row? I’m wasting my prime pride years and I don’t care if the person getting married next year is my sister, I’m going to Pride.
However, it’s not just Manchester (although it is scientifically proven to be the best one). Prides across the country have been cancelled due to Covid-19. From behemoths like Brighton, to the more “provincial” Prides like Derby and Stockport. Some, like Birmingham and Sheffield have simply postponed while others like Trafford and Norwich have gone virtual.
Whatever their organisational response to a universal crisis it seems that like so many of the things we look forward to, Pride had to go for the greater good.
Except unlike the pub, the theatre and going to the supermarket without an anxiety-laden, 45-minute long queue Pride is essential. I remember my first Pride (Nottingham 2011) with extreme fondness; there was drinking, there was dancing, there were potential sexual partners but most of all I remember the glow. There’s a glow surrounding people at Pride, smiling people, people holding hands, no one is anxiously looking around or at the floor, no one is walking at a nervously fast pace to get where they need to be. It’s the glow of, for one precious day, being in the majority and of moving in the world unchallenged.
Being LGBT in a heteronormative world is the reason we all need Pride so desperately. The insidious homophobia which we grow up with has many documented (but not documented enough) long-term effects on our health, with queer people more likely to self-harm, attempt suicide and suffer from depression. However, the isolation and internalised shame which contributes to this is itself caused by the sensory experience of being LGBT in public space. Confrontation in the form of verbal abuse, microaggressions and physical violence is common. Self-policing to avoid censure and retribution is essential.
“At this time, I feel most for those who would have been going to Pride for the first time this year.”
As we grow older a mode of escape is to move to places with a higher concentration of queer people and queer spaces, usually urban centres. For safety and sanity, we create our own worlds away from obnoxious questions and searching stares. Worlds where we can relax and authentically be ourselves.
But what is often left unexamined is how much access to these spaces and this everyday experience of security is contingent on location, class and age. Low-income people can’t afford to pay their way into affluent areas of major cities and cosmopolitan queer-spaces, elderly LGBTQ people may feel unsafe or unwelcome in traditional nightlife environments, and those residing outside of urban centres with established LGBTQ communities are self-evidently excluded. For people such as these Pride is a rare opportunity for self-expression and freedom.
In recent years Manchester Pride has been somewhat controversial and Pride in general feels as though it happens in a contested space. Who can forget the uproar that accompanied the announcement tickets would cost £70 and the move from Canal Street to Mayfield Depot? There was also the far more serious issues of poor disability access and racial profiling by venue staff.
These issues feed into ongoing debates around Pride. Firstly, and most importantly, is the question of whether Pride and the community is general can tackle its own prejudices. Racism, transphobia and ableism are all present in LGBTQ circles and the need to be intersectional at Pride and use Pride to aid wider causes is more pressing now than ever.
Secondly, is Pride too commercial? It’s a question which cuts to the heart of a deep tension about who we are and what we want. Are we dismantling the heteronormative capitalist patriarchy, or do we want to be accepted into existing social structures? From this question stems all our disagreements; whether gay quarters are historically important safe spaces or outdated ghettos; whether a big pride “festival” signals progress or a move away from activist roots; whether a big-name headliner is worth the money or simply excludes low-income attendees.
It should go without saying that issues surrounding racial and other prejudices at Pride are not mere complaints and need to be continuously addressed. But in respect of other issues surrounding Pride, sometimes the noise of the debate can drown out the essential truth that Pride is a remedy to the isolation and shame of everyday life. It is often the case that the more access to queer spaces one has the more they’re taken for granted. At this time, I feel most for those who would have been going to Pride for the first time this year. People who’ve felt the inherent loneliness of being LGBTQ and never experienced the tonic of being surrounded by those who are like you. Feeling part of the crowd is something most people take for granted but something queer people rarely get to experience, and, for some, the life-changing glow of that freedom and the healing power of Pride will now have to wait another year.
Timothy Gallagher is a freelance journalist.