La Lotta Continua (or, Plus ça change…)

It seems I need to write about Brighton Pride every couple of years. If you missed the previous instalments, here’s what I wrote two years ago, and here’s the (rather tetchy) piece I posted in 2012.

noone is illegalYesterday, I was proud to march in the parade with the contingent from Lesbians & Gays Support the Migrants (Brighton), alongside the Hummingbird Project, Brighton Migrant Solidarity and the English Disco Lovers. We gave out leaflets to the crowd lining the streets, about how the aggressive maintenance of European and British borders results in the brutal detention and deportation of queer people, and how LGBTQ rights are being weaponised as a tool of racism. If you are interested in getting involved in LGSMBrighton, please go along to their next meeting on August 17th, 7.30pm, at Knoyle Hall, Brighton.

I felt at home playing this slightly disruptive role on the parade, reclaiming the march as a political space, complete with placards and chants (“Refugees are here to stay, let’s deport Theresa May!”).

The first Pride was a riot

Afterwards, relaxing on the Level, we were discussing how Brighton Pride has changed over the decades since I was involved in getting it started. There’s been a massive transformation, not just of that event, of course, but of the whole attitude of society towards queer people. I picked up Brighton Solfed’s leaflet on the subject during the afternoon, and found it uncharacteristically clunky in its analysis, jumping straight from rioting New York drag queens in 1969 to Brighton Pride as commercial orgy, with nothing about the struggles in between.

Surely, that’s the most interesting bit – how did we travel from there to here, and what can we learn about how society gets transformed?

As if by magic

My first observation is that it seems to have happened when I wasn’t looking. That may be literally true – I was quite preoccupied with parenting for at least a decade from 1997, by which time Section 28 was long gone from the statute books and civil partnerships were well established in law. However, I think that even if I had been paying close attention, I wouldn’t have been able to spot this change happening, because that is part of the nature of societal change.

Things as they are now (at any given moment) present the illusion of having always been so. But (paradoxically) the way things are when we first become aware of them is fixed in our minds as somehow more real, or true, than any previous or subsequent reality. The fact of Pride as a moneyspinner for the whole city is undeniable, but for those of us who met with town hall officials to challenge the stubbornly heterosexual presentation of Brighton as a family resort in the late 1980s, it still seems somehow unlikely.

Pushing back against the backlash

My (obviously partial) understanding of what happened is that there were a series of struggles. The one in which I was most directly involved was provoked by Section 28 – a really shocking piece of legislation designed to appease bigots within the Conservative Party by threatening teachers and local government workers who dared to voice views unacceptable to the Christian right. It was a law which truly created “thoughtcrime” and which was, of course, never tested in court. There was no need to prosecute anyone, as the law was designed to operate directly on the minds of local government managers, to prevent new initiatives, to stop people discussing homosexuality, to create an atmosphere of fear.

section 28

The enactment of this law was itself a backlash against the initial implementation of equality policies within a few left-wing Labour councils, mainly in London. The hysterical reaction to this from sections of the media was part of a terrifying atmosphere of hatred, focused particularly on gay men, who were blamed for the AIDS tragedy even as they watched their friends and lovers die.

Many of the equality officers who put forward anti-discrimination measures in London boroughs in the 1980s had been trained in the Greater London Council (GLC), where Ken Livingstone’s popular, left-wing administration was such a threat to the Thatcher government that the whole organisation found itself abolished in 1986.

In 1988, it seemed that the Labour left’s tactic of introducing anti-discrimination policies from above had backfired badly, with the GLC abolished and a pernicious law in place to stifle any further imaginative ideas. But it was this backlash which finally produced the grassroots rebellion that had been missing until then.

The campaign against Section 28 was chaotic, passionate, angry. It was driven by outrage, fear, and a feeling that we may as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb. If we were so hated as to be specifically legislated against, if we were blamed even for the disease that was killing us, why not fight back?

We had no real strategy to prevent the law coming into effect. The Tories had a large majority in Parliament and the campaign had hardly begun before it was ostensibly defeated. But we didn’t accept defeat. We carried on organising, demanding change, rebuilding a community. We made plenty of mistakes and had lots of rows.

The Section 28 campaign in Brighton was the crucible of Brighton Pride. It was also pioneering in terms of rebalancing relationships between the lesbian & gay community and the police, and initiated the shift towards promoting Brighton as a destination for LGBT tourism. By the time Section 28 was repealed in 2003 (2000 in Scotland), it had already been dead for a long time.

Many of the things we asked for at that time – in a spirit of demanding the impossible – have come about. So why do I feel so ambivalent about Brighton Pride?

Why does winning feel like losing?

Power struggles are rarely straightforwardly won or lost. I am certain that our campaigning changed attitudes, in a more thorough and lasting way than the policy prescriptions of Haringey council could have done alone. Just being visible, supporting each other and having the courage to demand reasonable treatment was revolutionary. We took the campaign into our lives as we grew older, not by continually protesting, but by refusing to be closeted and claiming our rightful place as equal citizens. Pride was, and is, part of that process.

But the structures of capitalism and patriarchy were more flexible than the Christian fundamentalists had hoped, less brittle than we perhaps expected. I think the decision of professional campaigners to focus on marriage as a key goal meant that the direction of organised lesbian & gay campaigning became explicitly towards becoming incorporated into existing structures and systems, rather than changing them. The development of donor insemination techniques and the opening up of adoption to lesbian & gay couples also meant that ‘traditional family life’ became a real option for many of us, opening up new life choices but removing our former ability to view these institutions from the outside with a critical eye.

Meanwhile, capitalism did what it does best, and seized every new opportunity to make a profit. From gay wedding fairs to rainbow-decked Tesco floats on yesterday’s parade, we have finally made it as a highly valued market segment – not really the outcome I was hoping for.

We changed the world, but we have to keep changing it

The process of change is more complicated than writing a policy, passing a law or organising a campaign. The interaction between all those things – and many others – is what has brought us from there to here.

Nobody in this story had a winning strategy, and nobody has definitively won. The forces of capitalism are powerful, but there isn’t a central conspiracy and things can be fundamentally shifted by ordinary people taking action.

One key lesson for me is about the danger of assuming you have won because you have become part of the establishment. Employing good people to implement equal opportunities policies in London was not enough to change the situation of lesbians and gay men in the 1980s. Electing a socialist as Leader of the Labour Party is not enough to change people’s views about the kind of society we need.

We need a grassroots movement to do that. People who can support each other to speak out and argue the case for solidarity, collectively owned public services, fair wages for those who do vital caring work, justice and equality for migrants and refugees, and a genuinely sustainable relationship between the economy and the planet.

We need to keep demanding the impossible, and never forget that everything we have was won by the struggles of those who came before us.

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