Invisible Stranger

Invisible Stranger

Collecting Crises on Old Compton Street and Beyond

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Wednesday, June 30, 2004
First Pride
There's a kind of hush over Queensville right now, as everyone stays at home, saving up all their pink pennies for this Saturday's fairy frolics instead. Last weekend was so quiet you could hear a pill drop on Old Compton Street. You couldn't move in the gym though, with a hundred Marys muscling in on just one pec deck, in a desperate last-ditch attempt to buff themselves up to perfection before the coming weekend.

Yes, my dears, it's that time of year again, when our gay community bands together for a proud celebration of our wide diversity, and an affirmation of our solidarity and self-worth for an opportunity to listen to third-rate cheesy pop acts, half of whom are closet-cases, to buy dodgy drugs from a homo-hater round the back of the dance-tents, and to snatch itself a shag with one of those wide-eyed country boyz just arrived in the big, bad city.

This coming Pride weekend is supposedly our Christmas, and the highlight of the gay calendar. At least, I think they’re calling it Pride this year, instead of Mardi Gras or some other nonsense, although I'm not too sure whether they've bothered to prefix it with the word "gay" or not.

Come to think of it, I can't recall seeing any posters around town mentioning the P-word at all, although there's a rain-forest's worth of advertising for the twenty-five-quid-a-head open-air festival which follows the Gay P**de March, and which is being organised by what seems to me to be a primarily heterosexual website no queen had ever heard of three months ago.

(Yes, there really is a P**de March as well, although you wouldn't know it if you asked half of Old Compton Street. I think we're supposed to call it a Parade, these days, anyway.)

Now, I love a few dance-tents' worth of unbridled hedonistic excesses as much as the next scene-queen lying beside me in A&E the following morning, but I think it's a shame that, with each successive year, Pride seems to become less and less politicised, and the emphasis is no longer on the politics and the March but on the big E's-up afterwards.

You could argue we've now achieved much of what we've campaigned for in the past – partnership rights, equality of sorts, as well as Todd in Coronation Street – but people are still getting queer-bashed, suicide is the biggest killer of gay men under twenty-five, and the Vatican's never going to let the likes of me become Pope Stranger the First. So don't tell me there's nothing to march about.

I don't miss the oppression, but I do miss the solidarity of those earlier Gay Prides. The first Pride March I went on was about twenty years ago. I'd never much bothered with them in my first couple of years in London, as back then I was far too busy with my full-time job of being young and pretty. And, as we all know, the young and pretty don't do politics. Well, not until they become aged and grizzled at the grand old age of twenty-five, that is, and then swishing in gold satin shorts down Piccadilly is the only way they're going to attract any passing trade ever again.

Back then, the capital was hardly the homopolis it is in these queer times. There were only about three openly gay pubs in central London: the City of Quebec (rent-boys and punters), the Golden Lion (rent-boys and Denis Nielsen), and the Salisbury (everybody else), although there were plenty of one-off nelly nights at other venues, usually on those evenings when no other right-thinking punter could be bothered to turn up. There was little visible pansy-presence on the streets, no-one had heard of the Pink Pound, and the only homo most people had consciously clocked was Mister Humphreys, and even then they weren't too sure.

Everyone knew which team I batted for, but I'd never made any particular public statement of the fact. In fact, I'd only turned up to this Pride March because the previous year I'd watched a drag-show held in a pub on the Pride evening. There, the star berated all those in the audience who had turned up for that night's show, but hadn't been bothered to march earlier in the day. (To be more precise, she urged all those who hadn't marched to f**k off home. If they couldn't be bothered to walk for equality, and fight for those rights we still hadn't yet won, then she couldn't be f**king arsed to do her Liza Minnelli routine for them either.) No March, no Party was the message.

So that year, I thought I'd make the effort, and the rag-tag collection of people I met on that rainy day made me realise not all gay men believed life revolved around a bottle of Liquid Gold, a HiNRG soundtrack, and which bit of totty you could drag back home after Heaven had chucked out for the night. There were men – and I'm their age now - who'd been around when male-to-male sex acts were illegal and they were put inside just for what they did beneath their flannelette sheets. Boys younger than me, more political and savvy than I'll ever be, who weren't going to take the prejudice any more. And moustachioed clones, whispering about a nasty little virus a friend of a friend of a friend of theirs had picked up in the States, demanding that something be done about it. And there were also – gosh – real, live lesbians, and, you know, they were actually rather nice. (That's not meant in a misogynist or homophobic way: back in the eighties the gay and lesbian scenes hardly ever crossed. They hardly do today either.) It was a politicised gay world, wholly different to the one I'd known up to then, safe and secure in my little scene-queen bubble as I was.

But most of all, and something my straight friends still can't quite grasp, was that sense of empowerment I felt on my first Pride March. Imagine being able to hold hands and snog with my boyfriend in public, rather than in a club or bar, and not risk arrest or getting our heads kicked in (mainly because the boys in blue who normally did that sort of stuff were on both sides of the road now, there for our protection for a change). Imagine being the star, rather than the freak-show attraction. Imagine being united as a community in your common fight for something, rather than divided in your self-centred quest for the best lay of the night. Imagine being part of a family.

And that's why I feel sad Pride has nowadays been effectively depoliticised and turned into just another big excuse for some gay, and increasingly straight, entrepreneurs and promoters to make a fast and exploitative pink buck out of us all. And it's also why I feel angry at those Compton queens who snootily say they'll "do the Park", but that they can't be bothered to "do the March".

Because by saying that, it effectively refuses to acknowledge the part all those other Pride Marches played in winning us the almost-equal rights we enjoy today. After all, we should never forget those who fought for our right to party in the first place.

(Thanks to John from Rainbow Villa and his Gay Firsts for giving me the idea for this post – although I think this is probably not quite what he had in mind!)