Yesterday I was in York, for that wonderful city’s annual Pride. I like Pride probably for the same reasons that I love Lib Dem conference – the diverse and interesting people, the lively personalities and the way the event unifies and inspires. York Pride has been running for five years now and attracted about 1,000 people but while I have been to larger Pride events (i.e. Glasgow) I’ve not been to a better one than York’s. There was a tangible sense of it belonging to the local community and the friendly, fun atmosphere would be hard to replicate anywhere. It was a real carnival.
Actually, this is what was so striking. I remember going to these kinds of things in the past and they have often been protests rather than parties. In the context of the times, this was both understandable and necessary. Anyone who lived through the 1980s and 90s, or who experienced the poisonous and hate-filled “Keep the Clause” campaign knows what it means to actively fight against homophobia. But, in most cases now, such protest takes a back seat to cultivating a celebration of diversity and tolerance. This shows just how far social attitudes have progressed as well as the degree to which Pride has helped shape attitudes towards LGBT people.
I found it incredibly reassuring to see young gay and lesbian people in their late teens being able to simply be themselves so openly. To be honest it made me quite emotional. 15 years ago, in the wake of vicious “queerbashing” in Glasgow, it simply wasn’t safe for gay people to be open about their sexuality. Yesterday, not only were York’s LGBT community celebrating their own identity – many non-LGBT people were there too, venerating with them the values of inclusiveness and tolerance. Many people brought their children to what they knew would be a fun day out. It was great to see.
It is touching to know that young gay people today do not have to fight the same battles as previous generations. That is no bad thing – in fact, I’d rather people have the liberty to simply get on with their lives than to have to fight against injustice. One inevitable consequence though is that young LGBT people are less likely to be politicised: people like myself became politically active as a result of Brian Souter’s nasty and vindictive campaign of homophobia which thankfully is now firmly in the past. Consequently, political parties should do far more to engage with young LGBT people than ever before.
Which brings me to the one thing I found quite depressing about York Pride: the fact that there was no Liberal Democrat presence there. Other political parties set up their stalls, including Labour, the SWP, the Socialist party, the Tories and a local anti-cuts party. But the Lib Dems were nowhere to be seen. How can it be that the only party to commit to marriage equality doesn’t feel that Pride is an appropriate venue to sell its ideas and programme for creating a more liberal society? That said, few of the parties had anything to say about explicitly LGBT issues although Labour made some impact distributing stickers declaring “I’ve never kissed a Tory” and asking people to lobby the government to facilitate marriage equality. I had an interesting chat with the Labour activists who were (rightly) keen to remind me how much Labour did for LGBT rights under Tony Blair. But I felt disappointed that my own party - which should be the voice of liberalism, tolerance and cultural plurality - for whatever reason was not present. If we are to rebuild, we need to take opportunities to engage with people, listen to them and provide a distinctive voice on the issues that concern them. York Pride was one such opportunity.
I’ve mentioned that great strides have been taken in tackling homophobia, and that Pride has been at the forefront of challenging outdated and illiberal attitudes. All that is true and should be celebrated. But homophobia remains, even if it is less socially acceptable than it once was. Anyone looking at episodes of Queer Duck or videos of the Village People’s hits on YouTube can’t escape the unenlightened and vitriolic views of a minority who feel the need to post their views online. More seriously, the spectre of homophobia and the evil it causes was brought home in York yesterday, where a speech was made and hundreds of coloured balloons released as a tribute to Ugandan gay rights campaigner David Kato – a former student of York University who was beaten to death in his home country on account of his orientation. York Pride’s Chair Dan Sidley said "Despite the great progress in our own society, prejudice is still relatively commonplace and it is really important for us to get the backing of York's political and civic leaders."
On the same day, across the water in Belfast, over 20,000 people attended Belfast Pride, a quite considerable statistic and evidence of real progress. However, this happened against the predictable backdrop of bigotry and intolerance that has become increasingly associated with Northern Ireland’s political elite. Only last week Democratic Unionist Party MLA and health minister-in-waiting Jim Wells sent a text message to the secretary of Belfast Pride in which he stated “I find the behaviour of those who take part in this march totally repugnant”. The press predictably picked up on this and debate has since raged on whether he was describing LGBT people as “repugnant” or just their behaviour. To be honest, such discussions are academic and largely irrelevant – a supposedly intelligent and responsible person such as the future health minster surely recognises the likely impact such a text message would have. He knew how his comment could be interpreted. And, whatever he is referring to, he and his party have a less than progressive record on LGBT rights that has hardly been helped by this recent intervention.
Mr Wells has refused to elaborate on what exactly is so repugnant about Belfast Pride. Perhaps it the kissing, same-sex holding hands or wearing of brightly coloured t-shirts he finds so offensive because as far as I know there is no history of any illegal behaviour at Belfast Pride. Maybe he’s simply an incurable bigot. Either way, it was unprofessional and his comments set the scene for this year’s Pride in the city with many people of all orientations and persuasions determined to prove that it is Wells’ attitudes that are “repugnant”. What seems to have passed a lot of people by is that whatever one thinks of Belfast Pride it is a lot less “repugnant” and socially divisive than several other parades which have occurred in Northern Ireland in recent years. Perhaps Mr Wells has a short memory. More likely, he simply doesn’t understand what Pride is actually about.
Homophobia is a crime against humanity and should not be accepted in a healthy, democratic and tolerant society. Whether that homophobia manifests itself in the unwise ramblings of a politician, in the ignorance of cultures that do not respect diversity, in campaigns of overt intolerance like Souter’s which masquerade as promoting religious or family values or simply in the mindless contributions of young teens on YouTube it must always be challenged head on.
I take a great pride in Pride, not least because it has a valuable role to play in countering prejudice. It is also impossible not to admire something powerful enough to create an environment like that in York yesterday in which people of all orientations and political and religious persuasions can come together for a peaceful celebration of diversity. To Dan and all the team – thank you!
More photographs of York Pride can be found on my facebook page: York Pride 2011