We all know that, for Pride in London to remain a free event, corporate sponsorship is a must. But there are some people who believe that corporate involvement has moved the event too far from its community roots. It’s a tricky dilemma to which actor, poet and writer Helen Oakleigh might just have found a solution.
It has been 50 years since the Stonewall Riots in which police raided a gay bar after years of extorting money from customers. They checked patrons were wearing clothes “correct for their gender” and assaulted and arrested many. It led to days of rioting which in turn led to the queer revolution which so many of us benefit from today.
Black, homeless and trans individuals led the way as a community fighting for the respect and dignity afforded to many of us today. We have a lot to thank these people for. And yet now Black, homeless and the trans community often feel excluded from pride protests. Why? And why is pride still important?
In many aspects, but not all, queer rights have come on leaps and bounds over the last five decades. It is important to recognise that many places in modern society have rights now that could only have been dreamed of 50 years ago. The right to be out without being fired, the right to marry and almost equal rights when it comes to domestic living.
But we still have a way to go. Many of us grew up under section 28 and know only too well how damaging it can be to have a part of you not exist when you are trying to discover your place in the world. I started school as section 28 began and left as it finished. With Ann Widecombe as my local MP throughout it is little surprise I never heard of anyone who was gay or that they even exist. But I’m still gay. As are many of my friends from school. What has that got to do with pride? Everything! Pride is to protest the inequalities faced by the queer community – at first this was as basic as not being assaulted or being allowed to drink in a bar while now it is for the right to live equally alongside our straight friends and allies whilst giving support to those who are still living in countries where it is illegal to be yourself.
There are of course places in the UK where it is easier to live openly than others but on the whole this is moving in the right direction. The right to marry, the right to work without being fired, the right to use a toilet, the right to work free from judgement and bullying and so forth. Pride in 2019 should be about celebrating these rights and promoting safe havens that are available whilst letting others both in the UK and around the world know that we stand in solidarity with those who do not have such privilege. It is a terrible thing to hate love.
In recent years and in many places queer rights are so taken for granted that some people question if protest is still even needed at all. In those places, for those bubbles I can understand why this would be thought and it is great they exist. However only certain privileged groups are in that position. For many younger people growing up they prefer the term queer as they discover their own sexuality and identity often keeping the term queer. This is a positive direction for a day where we no longer need labels although we must remember that minority groups within the queer community need to hear their voices within the wider community too. This includes at work, on screen, in sport and in music to name but a few. It is not okay to mis-gender someone at work or anywhere else and it is always okay to tell someone your preferred pronoun to make them feel comfortable to tell you theirs if they want to. Incidentally, some people may not wish to reciprocate with their preferred pronoun – and that’s ok too – neutral pronouns are useful and safer in certain circumstances. It is inappropriate however to ask someone’s sexuality in the work place and even more so to publicly share that. However, I have heard that these things have happened in companies that in the summer have a float at pride.
As a white cis Londoner, I consider myself to be part of the privileged bubble. Most of the time. However, this is not always the case. I feel like even small things can be triggering for past events. For example, a few months ago myself and a group of queer friends were minding our own business in a post training swift drink in a pub when food was thrown at us and slurs called out at us for being queer. Nobody was physically hurt as it was only food and the abusive group were asked to leave the pub. After they left other people in the pub immediately came up to us and asked if we were ok and voiced that no-one else in the pub felt that way. One woman said she had even filmed it. And yet nobody had stepped in at the time. I understand that from each of the individual’s point of view. The youths were larger, tall young guys and we were all shorter, female or non-binary. They were intimidating. It reminded me of only a few years ago when a similar incident finished with the youths returning and throwing glasses at us resulting in a trip to hospital for cuts and bruises. That is just one small example, there have been many other incidents which resulted in much worse. These things happen daily and often unreported. In London. But the fact that nobody stepped in is a key factor in why Pride is still needed. We need people to step up when it matters. All year round. Had everyone who spoke to us after the event literally just all stood up and faced the group during the event a very different message would have been sent. It would have been a peaceful way of saying “we see and it is not okay”.
Of the 576 groups who marched at Pride in London this year only 31 are LGBTQ charities and only 3 are trans groups. There were 30 LGBTQ community groups and 25 LGBTQ sports groups. In comparison, 343 corporate brands were represented.
Anyone can hang a rainbow and say they support queer rights. Any business with spare cash can put that money into a float for pride and say they are supportive. They can drape their businesses in flags and sell products featuring flags and publicly show that they support pride. And that is great! It really is wonderful to have allies. But it is not enough. Instead of selling a product covered in rainbows why not sell clothes that are neither male nor female. Why not donate all profits from pride themed items instead of a small percentage if any at all? Why sell eye glasses for males or females when you could sell them for round, oval, square or heart shaped faces? Why sell sports shoes and go to the effort of printing male onto the label when you don’t sell shoes for other genders of the same size? It makes no sense. As a cis woman I have worn “male” trainers for some time for this exact reason. They’re for my feet! Why the need to specify “men” or “women” for a shoe for sport? But really. Why?
How is this relevant to pride? Over 50 years pride has turned from protest into celebration. Which is fabulous. I dream of a day when pride is no longer needed at all. But in recent years the commercialisation of pride has in a bizarre twist stopped many queer people from attending. It has turned from a day to shout about what needs to change to companies advertising that they are inclusive. It has stopped highlighting facts and figures and educating the crowds on key issues. It has excluded many people who devote their lives to volunteering for queer communities. It is probable that the very people who started pride would today be unable to even march due to so many restrictions. Places in the march are fought over as they are so limited, divided up amongst the corporate companies and only a small number of the queer community organisations who the march is about. For many it has turned into a day out jolly often without any mention of anything queer related except a few rainbows and blatant advertising for the company. In recent years I have seen many floats that had nothing except their company logo on them. While meanwhile there are many more things they could be doing to help.
Call to action
I am calling on all companies to approach pride differently next year. I would like to see every company who has a float in pride to partner or buddy up with a queer charity or organisation, ideally those who would otherwise not be able to attend due to the high costs to enter a float on top of the cost of obtaining and decorating one too. Then I would encourage everyone from the sponsoring company to go and cheer that float on in the crowd. Perhaps organise a good viewing spot for your colleagues. And have some buckets to collect donations for said queer charity or organisation to use too. Then instead of the crowd cheering on a financial company or retailer and the like everyone can cheer on the queer groups who are working hard all year round at grass roots. Cheer on the unions fighting for equality and diversity.
Cheer on those fighting for a better life for all! Do not get me wrong, if you are a company who has gone to the effort of having a float at pride, I do not doubt for a second that you have a skilled team who has implemented a diversity training scheme and has policies for inclusion. And that is great! But also, that is law and a basic for you to provide. Of course, your staff should be respectful. But I want to see the queer community march as our siblings of past years could not. They were beaten and imprisoned, as they still are in many places around the world. So, support a group that needs you! Acknowledge the achievements and the work still to be done. And have a large logo displayed on the float or banner that you sponsor alongside your chosen group. Let everyone know it was your company that supported that group. Then let your colleagues see the full range of other organisations that are working hard year-round too instead of being in the parade yourselves. Advertising for the arts groups, the charities, the choirs, the sports groups, cheer on those who help the homeless, the refugees and those vulnerable in society. Cheer on the emergency services working on the front line and know first-hand that the fight against hate crime is not yet over.
This year, for the first time in my life, I know more queer people who are boycotting or protesting pride than are actually attending. They are hosting their own picnics, parties and private events to celebrate the achievements of the queer community. This is nothing new. Over recent years many groups have felt excluded from Prides around the UK. They did not feel represented.
I have a huge respect for Lady Phyll and Rikki Beadle-Blair for the work they have done to establish Black Pride and Fox Fisher and Owl for their work on Trans Pride to name just some of the other pride events and people responsible. They differ in that they do not have nearly as much sponsorship as Pride in London by a mile but they have community groups at the core of what they do. Whether is it race, gender or sexuality – or indeed disability (hidden or otherwise) there is a lot to be said for making sure pride remains inclusive for all. Together we are stronger. But we must work together and let each voice be heard equally.
Do you know a company that would like to sponsor a float next year and partner up with a charity or community group in your local area?
In the words of Storme DeLarverie at The Stonewall Inn back on June 28th 1969… “Why don’t you guys do something?”
Peace and Love.
Helen Oakleigh is an award-winning actor and writer. Check out her “Why We Need A Pride” video poem here.