London Pride 2021. Photo: Paul Mattsson
London Pride 2021. Photo: Paul Mattsson

Half a century battling for our rights

Michael Johnson, Socialist Party LGBTQ+ group convenor

On the 1 July 1972, 2,000 people gathered in London – the first official Pride march in Britain. Part of a global upswing in militant action from LGBTQ+ people, Pride marches would become a major point of reference on the issues of the day for the community, and mark a period of change for the rights of LGBTQ+ people in Britain.

Just a few short years before, male homosexuality was still criminalised. This had a dampening effect on the ability of gay people to campaign for their own rights.

Even living as an LGBTQ+ person had to happen in secret to avoid being arrested for homosexuality, which could be life ruining. In 1967, the decriminalisation of homosexuality was a turning point for campaigning in Britain.

On one hand, the legal reforms did not end prejudice, far from it. In 1968, homosexuality started being formally treated as a ‘mental illness’.

Between 1967 and 2003, 30,000 men were convicted of crimes related to ‘treatments’ for homosexuality – peaking in the 1960s and early 1970s. Decriminalisation actually saw an increase in police repression.

New confidence

However, on the other hand, with some risks removed, there was a new confidence among LGBTQ+ people. In 1969, the first open campaigning organisations – the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and the Scottish Minority Group – were formed.

In line with the global upswing of militant campaigning for civil rights, anti-war activism and mass student protests in 1968, there was a similar movement for more radical action for LGBTQ+ people – culminating in the Stonewall riots in the US in 1969.

This battle against police repression in New York served as the birth for the gay liberation movement. One campaigner estimated that in the year after Stonewall, groups across the US increased from around 60 to at least 1,500. A year after Stonewall – to mark its anniversary – a march that would eventually become known as Pride was held in the US.

The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) came into existence following the Stonewall riots, including in London in 1970, as a response to growing debates about how to tackle oppression. The GLF quickly became a campaigning organisation.

It protested against harassment by the police in 1970, and in 1971 against the Christian Nationwide Festival of Light organised by the likes of Cliff Richard and Mary Whitehouse against what they saw as the ‘permissive society’, especially around sexuality. Also in 1971, the GLF launched its own radical manifesto for social change and tackling oppression, as part of wider social struggles.

These developments, alongside the growing social struggles, set the stage for the 1972 Pride march. Despite worries about the impact Pride could have on their lives – teachers, who for example, attended feared the effect of being recognised would have on their jobs – the march attracted thousands. It culminated in a kiss-in at Trafalgar Square, defying the law at the time.

Attendees spoke about the impact the visibility of LGBTQ+ people had for them. One person said the march showed “we are here. We exist. You will never make us feel ashamed again without resistance”.

Pride marches saw the beginning of a new period of activism in Britain. They were a crucial focal point for campaigning and working out key issues for LGBTQ+ people. For example, in 1978, faced with increasing attacks on gay people – including the attack on the Royal Vauxhall Tavern by the far-right National Front – Pride was an opportunity for LGBTQ+ people to show strength.

Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) was formed out of activism at Pride events. As chronicled in the film Pride, LGSM had a major impact on the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights.

With the help of LGSM activism, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) turned out in support of Pride marches, and used its vote at Labour Party conference to ensure LGBTQ+ rights were made part of the Labour Party programme. The increased visibility and campaigning of LGBTQ+ people had a major impact in changing social attitudes for the better.

Despite its radical roots, Pride has been increasingly diverted to a non-political carnival. This year, corporations like Tesco – who have cut sick pay for workers, straight and LGBTQ+ – will slap a rainbow on their logo and pretend to be a friend to the community.

Companies will have lines of Pride products, whose profits will not go to helping us in any real way. And, unfortunately, the self-appointed leadership of Pride events has encouraged this, arguing Facebook selling itself at Pride is a sign we’ve won real equality.

Fighting back

But, faced with attacks like the failure to ban conversion therapy and still existing prejudice in society, alongside the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, there is a mood for a fightback from some LGBTQ+ people. We’ve seen strong protests, including ‘Reclaim Pride’ demonstrations, showing the understanding of the need for a political fightback.

We need to take lessons from the history of our movement, such as Pride, to help us prepare for the struggles we face today. The Socialist Party calls for Pride to return to its political roots.

As part of that, we call for an organised movement to fight for LGBTQ+ rights, and the resources and services we need – building together with other movements of workers and groups entering struggle. This needs to be linked to the trade unions launching campaigns to fight back against the Tory government, austerity, and discrimination, and to fight for a real socialist transformation of society to end oppression.