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.


Island of dreams

I’m just back from a week in the pleasant company of my teenage son, visiting Sorrento, on the Amalfi coast of Italy.

We had a lovely holiday – we saw the ruins at Pompeii, went to the archaeological museum in Naples, took a boat trip to Capri and relaxed by the hotel pool. We were welcomed and treated very well by everyone we met – rather more so than I was really comfortable with.

I find tourism a fascinating process. As everyone who lives in a tourist town knows, tourists are both a blessing and a curse. In my day to day life in Brighton, I don’t have much to do with them. I don’t work in an industry that depends directly on income from tourism, though the economy of the city as a whole does rely heavily on it. They don’t bother me much, and I generally avoid them when I can.

Nevertheless, there is something double-edged about tourism. We want visitors to come to our city, to enjoy and appreciate it, and to spend their money in local businesses. But the work of providing food, accommodation and entertainment for tourists is often poorly paid and has punishing hours. Work of this kind – that is reminiscent of domestic service, or housework (“women’s work”) – is usually pretty badly rewarded and has very low status in society.

On the other side of the coin, the experience of being a tourist – what I went to Sorrento looking for – feels a bit like being a king, or lord of the manor. No need to cook or wash up, an invisible hand cleans your room, makes your bed and brings fresh towels while you are out, and new delights are on offer every day, just to please you.

You can be a tourist – or a tourist town – in a variety of ways. I don’t think there’s a right way, nor that any of them are wrong. It’s quite a responsibility, being the place where people go to escape, to find their dreams. How a town approaches the task can make a big difference to the kind of place it becomes.

In Sorrento, the town centre has only five types of business: hotels; restaurants and cafes; shops selling souvenirs (bottles of limoncello, mainly); shops selling clothes, shoes or handbags; and places offering tours – Pompeii, Vesuvius, Capri. Every single enterprise in the town centre depends entirely on the business of tourists. Everyone speaks English and all written information (shop signs, menus, tour brochures) has an English translation.

Sorrento knows exactly what you like and is prepared to go to some lengths to show you a good time.

According to our tour guide at Pompeii, Sorrento was a holiday resort, even in ancient Roman times. So they have had plenty of time to settle on a winning formula.

Business was booming last week – the town was packed, Capri was even busier, all the buses and trains were heaving with tourists. Tourism is clearly a thriving industry in the whole region. I have no idea how well people can live, running or working in a shop, restaurant or travel agency in Sorrento. I imagine some people are doing very well from the industry and others are working flat out for little pay, just like in Brighton.

Andrea, who took us on his own boat to Capri, said he couldn’t imagine a better job to have – he rents out a self-catering apartment in the town and takes small groups to the island, where he too can swim in the sea and have a nice drink and a chat in the afternoon sun as the party returns to port. He is fluent in English and Spanish (at least) and can afford to holiday in the Caribbean himself. His 9 year-old daughter had just returned from a few weeks in Brighton, learning English.

I don’t think I was exploiting Andrea, nor was he ripping me off. Being a tourist brings responsibilities too. Your role is to hand over the money and appreciate the effort people are making to please you.

I’m always haunted by the memory of my fellow holiday-makers in Zanzibar when I was a young woman, complaining about the $1 dollar charge for visiting a particular island. We were staying in a hotel, right on the beach, with running water – a luxury that hadn’t been extended to the local villagers who worked there. My feeling is that it’s a bit rich for people who are being treated like kings to complain about how much that privilege costs.

So I am not at all ungrateful for the welcome I received in Sorrento. I had only a few words of Italian, and would have found the week much more difficult if so many people had not taken the trouble to learn my language. A break from cooking and washing up was just what I needed, and the landscape and history was wonderful.

But I am pleased to be home. It’s a little bit overwhelming to be playing a role all the time, even if it’s the role of someone with nothing to do.

In Brighton, we do tourism a little differently. Though we do, of course, have hotels and tourist tat shops, we also have plenty of other strings to our bow. And even as a destination – especially for the queer ones, the outsiders and misfits who wash up here – we have a subtext that is different from the straightforward tourist transaction.

Brighton doesn’t know what you are looking for, exactly, but you may well find it here. Whatever it is, we’ve probably seen it all before and you can rely on our discretion.

In some ways, what we’re selling is the opposite of the tourist experience. We say – you’re not the king, but here you can be yourself, whoever you are. You can be one of us for a week, if you like, or maybe you’ll stay longer – we take all sorts here.

I arrived back just in time for Brighton Pride, which has become one of the city’s biggest events of the year. I volunteered to carry one of the placards in the parade, bearing the names of the 78 countries in the world where homosexuality is criminalised. Watching the reaction of the crowd was very interesting. Many people were simply bemused – the placards didn’t explain clearly enough what they were about, and so there was something of a missed opportunity to share information about this injustice.

After so many years in which Pride had become nothing other than a commercial opportunity and a fabulous spectacle, it’s perhaps not surprising that many of the people who lined the streets to watch the parade were not aware of the significance of this collection of country names. Much more unforgivable was the ignorance of the commentator as the parade passed by the VIP viewing stand (er, wtf?)on the seafront – who called out the names of several countries from our placards and then said “amazing support from around the world”. I kid you not.

But all along the route of the parade, there were people in the crowd who did understand, who stood and applauded, with anger and defiance on their faces, or who simply wept. For the sake of those people, I am proud to have been able to help restore a tiny bit of content to our celebration of diversity.

One other welcome development in the official Pride event was the return, for the second year, of the Literature Live tent in the park. I spent the afternoon there, listening to a range of fascinating prose, poetry, reminiscence and autobiography by queer writers from Brighton and further afield. People shared their stories, made each other think, laugh and cry, listened to each other and tried to understand. It was a precious space of meaning and connection, offered free of charge by our local library service.

Brighton hasn’t been a tourist town for as long as Sorrento, but being an island of dreams is part of our city’s story from its beginnings. Listening to some of the readings in the literature tent, I was reminded of how important Brighton has been over the decades for queer people of all kinds, not just for those who live here but also for those who come here to escape, to dream, or to disappear.

I wish Brighton Pride were more like Brighton and less like Sorrento. At Brighton Pride, outside the literature tent, there’s only one way to be and only one thing to do. We are kings for a day, but that means we are expected to do nothing but eat, drink, drink some more, dance and spend money.

For the rest of the year, Brighton knows that queer people come in all varieties and bring all kinds of knowledge to our city. Why don’t we bring some of that diversity to our special day?

When was the first Brighton Pride?

Originally posted on 1st September 2012, at Reflections in the Greenhouse


Every year it irritates me, the way people are so slapdash about the history of Brighton Pride. This year, the papers are full of a “20th anniversary” story, which is odd, because the current run of Pride events in Brighton began in 1991, 21 years ago. I remember it well. I was there. I helped to organise it.

I know this makes me sound like a mad old aunt in the corner at Christmas, making nitpicking criticisms of other people’s family stories. Maybe that’s who I am, now.

I haven’t been to Pride for a few years now. It’s not really a fun family event for us and our kids. I don’t enjoy getting pissed in the daytime very much. I find the overwhelming commercialism hard to stomach. We might have gone down to watch the parade this year, but family commitments prevented it. As it turned out, I’m quite glad I wasn’t there to see the Queers against the Cuts contingent subjected to heavy-handed policing and treated like troublemakers by the parade organisers, while commercial firms like EDF Energy, Easyjet and Mastercard are welcomed with open arms.

Why does it bother me if people get the dates wrong? I think it’s because Brighton Pride in 1991 is the radical political root of the commercial tourism-fest celebrated today by the Argus, Brighton & Hove City Council and the Conservative Party.

By 1991, we had been campaigning against Section 28 for 3 years. We were tired, still angry, and proud of what we’d achieved. We hadn’t stopped Section 28 from becoming law, but we had begun to build a community that could lessen its pernicious effects.

We had spoken out about homophobia in schools. We had protested about the lacklustre police response to queerbashing. We had publicly remembered and mourned our dead. We had defined family our own way, declaring our relationships with lovers, friends and children to be as real as anyone else’s, whatever the law said about it.

That community defiance was what we were celebrating in 1991. Joining the Pride march was not a vote-winner in those days. There was no eight-page spread in the Argus. Hell, even the gay clubs didn’t join in. We didn’t have sponsorship money or council funding, we just had each other to rely on.

We had also begun to take our history seriously; the campaign against Section 28 spawned the wonderful Brighton Ourstory project. One of the highlights of Pride in 1991 was a walking tour of queer history in the city, led by Ourstory founder Tom Sargant. We knew that there had been a Pride parade in Brighton in 1973, but that the momentum had been lost and there had been no local Pride events since.

The Brighton Pride events in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995 were organised largely by political activists who had been closely involved in the campaign against Section 28. In 1993, after the previous year’s Preston Park event had over-reached itself and gone bust, Pride was coordinated by just two people, who thought it was important to keep the idea alive, to prevent the flame going out for another 20 years. I know this for sure. I was one of those two people.

I know things have changed. I’m not saying I want to turn the clock back. I’m happy that people can get married (if that’s what they want to do) and be out in the police force and win votes by supporting equality.

I guess all I’m saying is, let’s not forget how we got from there to here. Let’s not pretend that attitudes have changed by magic. Brighton Pride started in 1991 with a demo, not in 1992 with a piss-up. When it took some courage to join the Pride march in solidarity with LGBT people, many of the straight people who stood alongside us were socialists, like Queers against the Cuts and their supporters. They have every right to march in the parade now.