Forty years of LGBT Pride, 1972-2012


Peter Tatchell writes:

This Saturday’s Pride parade marks the 40th anniversary of the first Gay Pride march in Britain, which took place in London in July 1972. Back then, I was 20 and living in a grotty basement flat in Shepherd’s Bush with my 17-year old boyfriend, Peter Smith. I was student. He was a budding jazz guitarist. Marc Bolan and David Bowie were the latest pop sensations. The tube cost 10p. There was no HIV. Life was a party, up to a point.

In those days, police harassment of gay people was routine; with periodic raids on bars, saunas, parks, toilets and even private parties. Same-sex couples could be arrested for kissing, holding hands, dancing together and cuddling in public. We could be refused service in pubs and restaurants because of our homosexuality. There was no legal redress. Queer-bashing was rife, in the press and on the streets.

We had to fight for our rights. I was a member of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) – the first movement of openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. We did not plead for law reform. We demanded queer freedom; challenging the straight political and religious establishment with feisty, irreverent direct action protests.

GLF’s catch-phrase was: “Gay is good.” These three words were a revolution in consciousness. Previously, nearly everyone – including many LGBT people – saw us as mad, sad and bad. We were deemed to be criminal, sinful, abnormal, immoral, unnatural and mentally ill.

To combat the denigration of LGBT people, in 1972 we decided to organise a Gay Pride march, with the theme of being out and proud. This was a very novel, controversial idea. In those days, nearly all LGBT people were closeted and many felt ashamed of their sexuality. Few dared publicly acknowledge their gayness, let alone march for LGBT rights.

Not surprisingly, only 700 people joined our first Gay Pride parade. Many of my friends were too scared to attend. They thought everyone would be arrested. We weren’t arrested but we were swamped by a very heavy, aggressive police presence. They treated us like criminals; abusing us with impunity. Confident and unfazed, we just smiled and chanted: “2-4-6-8! Is that copper really straight?” It riled them.

Despite police intimidation, we were determined to have a fun time and make our point. The march was a carnival-style parade, from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park. There were lots of extravagant costumes and cheeky banners poking fun at homophobes like the morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse.

We got mixed reactions from the public – some hostility and some support but predominantly curiosity and bewilderment. Most people had never knowingly seen a gay person, let alone hundreds of queers marching to demand human rights. “Aren’t you ashamed?” one man shouted. “No”, we shouted back, as we blew him a kiss.

Unlike nowadays, there was no festival or entertainment after the march; just an impromptu “Gay Day” – a sort of D-I-Y queer picnic. Everyone bought food, booze, dope and music. It was shared around.

We played camped-up versions of party games like spin-the-bottle and drop-the-hanky. I won one of the games and my prize was a kiss with Thierry, a gorgeous French gay activist who had come over from Paris. My boyfriend wasn’t jealous. He just insisted on kiss with Thierry too.

It was more than good fun. Same-sex kissing in public was, in 1972, illegal. You could get arrested under public disorder and indecency laws. Our party game was therefore a gesture of defiance. The Metropolitan Police would have arrested us if we were lone gay couples kissing, but they dared not arrest 700 of us. They just looked on from a distance, glowering and sneering.

Over the last four decades Gay Pride has grown from one march with less than a thousand people to two dozen nation-wide parades with a combined attendance of hundreds of thousands of people. We’ve come a long way, baby.

The increased acceptance of LGBT people is another big change. In 1972, homosexuality was still viewed as an illness, lesbian mothers had their kids taken off them by the courts, LGBT people were witch-hunted out of the armed forces and the police arrested thousands of men each year for consenting gay behaviour.

These injustices are history. But there are still prejudices to overcome, such as homophobic bullying in schools, the ban on same-sex marriage and the refusal of asylum to LGBT refugees fleeing persecution in violently homophobic countries like Iran, Jamaica, Cameroon and Uganda. According to the British Social Attitudes survey, 36% of the public still believe that homosexuality is mostly or always wrong. That’s why, 40 years after the first march, we still need Gay Pride.

•Peter Tatchell is Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation: