As inevitably seems to be the case for anyone who dares record the thoughts they have as a teenager, my childhood bedroom is home to an overwhelming amount of pretentious drivel scribbled on just about every surface imaginable. Among these archives of a closeted, creative introvert who ping-ponged between crippling insecurity and insufferable arrogance, tucked away in the pages of my teenage journals is a slogan that reads:
The depths of the Avant-Garde
too deeply shallowed
by the normality
of complacent conformity.
This needlessly elaborate shunning of those who complain about the world but do not do enough to fix it – a population of which I most definitely was and am still an active member – reads now, true to its origins, more like the scribblings of a 15- year-old studying GCSE Economics for the first time than it does the mark of an undiscovered lyrical genius (which I was sure that it was at the time).
But last Saturday, marching among 35,000 fellow rain-soaked queers and a handful of disgruntled police pretending to ignore the smell of weed emanating from the crowd, it came back to me – initially with a sense of irony, and then with an admittedly tequila-induced profundity and a growing sense that the crowd I stood in, a field of latex-clad women with stubble and men with scarred chests, was perhaps the last true example of what can be called autonomous democracy.
The match that first started the fire of Pride was lit in the early hours of the 28 June 1969, when police officers descended on the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in a raid that quickly became violent and would lead to the Stonewall riots. A year later, in June 1970, marches took place across the United States – in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – in defiant remembrance of the riots and with an impossible-to-ignore voice crying that the cause was still in need of fighting for.
These marches were the first Prides. And, in an unprecedented phenomenon, the same ones re-formed year after year, growing in size in proportion to the level of progress that had been achieved for all but two of the 53 since the original (the exceptions were 2020 and 2021, when marches were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic).
The Conservative government’s recent, shockingly blatant, moves against the free speech of British citizens mean it goes without saying that the right to protest is one that must not only be steadfastly preserved, but also used in active response to attacks on it. With corruption and incompetence running rampant through our democracy, you would be hard-pressed to pick a day of the year when there wasn’t some government manoeuvre worth marching against.
But perhaps as an unintended side effect of the constant aggravation from the powers that be, marching has come to be seen by both politicians and activists alike as purely reactive: as protests that happen only in response to shock and scandal.
For a long time, Pride stood out as the opposite of this. Year after year, more and more people amassed on the streets, not in outraged response to some new law or a political or police outrage, but because it was their right. Its origins are a reminder that the role of the people in a democracy goes beyond the responsibilities of voting day. The annual protests remind us that specific catalysts of some horrific or inhumane nature are not and should not be prerequisites for an individual or a community to make their voices heard.
Yet Pride in 2023 looks very different from the flagship marches of 1970. Throughout June and into July, marches and parades now take place across the globe. In London, home to one of the largest parades outside of the USA, over 30,000 people took part in the parade and marching this year, with thousands more in attendance. It was a colourful reminder of all that has been accomplished since the first protests.
But despite my own queerness, I cannot march for free. The cost of my Pride is the purchase price of a wristband – a wristband branded with the logos of the world’s largest corporations, many of which openly fund the political campaigns of anti-LGBTQ+ politicians in the USA, to say nothing of involvement with fossil fuel production in the open air of our economy. Safe from the past atrocities of marriage illegality and AIDs inaction, it seems that the contemporary cost of my Pride, lowered from the price of my life, is now the comparatively affordable sum of my moral conscience…as well as my money.
It seems, then, that Pride has long since given up being a protest at all. And in 2023, the legend of the recurring protest lives on not in Pride but in Trans+ Pride. Operating as an entirely separate entity to commercial Pride, it is a march that takes place a week after it.
It was there that my boozy epiphany took me back to the slogan of my teenage journal. Those who participate in Trans+ Pride do so for free, and in the wholehearted belief in the organisers’ tag line – Pride is a protest. We march as an expression of “Love, Rage and Power”. We march, to echo the words of my closeted, 15-year-old self, against the normality of complacent conformity.
Marching past The Ritz, its arches filled with police sheltering from the rain, my friend, prone to emotional outbursts, raised their voice and shouted to the crowd, “This is what community looks like!”