Pride’s identity crisis

Published

Pride Marchers with flag

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Tony Webster

Tom McDonald
Features Editor

Protest? Celebration? Both? As recent events in Glasgow show, Pride doesn’t seem to know what it is anymore

There exists a central contradiction to Pride events the world over. As the existential acceptance and tolerance of LGBT persons continues to advance, the Pride marches which began as a commemoration of a riot and protest, have always had an unmistakable air of joyous, almost hedonistic, celebration. This contradiction would perhaps be better described as the essential and obvious duality of Pride: given that to be LGBT constitutes an essential identity, and not the holding of an ideology, any conception of Pride which adopted the narrow ideological motives of most protest marches would never have become the defining, global expression of LGBT presence that it is today. Indeed, to be really here and queer, blatant not latent, broad inclusivity has been the order of the days.

But this duality has come to resemble a contradiction in recent years because, many would claim, its vital balance has been disturbed. We witnessed a fine example of this at Glasgow Pride recently as five arrests were made against protesters who, although from disparate organisations, were united in their belief that official Pride today, leans far too much towards the celebration, almost behaving as if there isn’t anything to protest anymore. The Free Pride organisation, of which three of the arrestees were members, puts it like this: -“Pride should be free. Pride should be a protest. Pride should be accessible to all. Instead, Pride events have become over-commercialised and de-radicalised, and people are charged money if they want to participate. Pride belongs to LGBTQIA+ people and we want it back.” And indeed, with the charging of admission fees, the profusion of entities with a blatant corporate agenda and (critically for the Glasgow protesters) the involvement of uniformed police in the parade, Pride does seem to have strayed somewhat from the spirit of the Stonewall riots of ’69, when protesters rioted in the streets of Greenwich Village following a raid by, of course, uniformed police.

I spoke to a protester and member of Free Pride, who wished to remain anonymous, who witnessed the arrests. – “We were walking in the road in front of the march with a banner with an anti-police slogan on. We were instantly met with aggression from both police and the pride organiser leading the march. They forced us off the road […]None of the protesters resisted arrest or in any way harmed the police. Despite repeatedly being asked the police refused to tell us or those arrested what they were being arrested for, for 45 minutes. One eventually said ‘breach of the peace’ to me when I kept asking.” That such summary arrests were made of what were, by all accounts, peaceful protesters would strike many as alarming within the context of a normal protest; but perhaps Pride, which has grown into a broad inclusivity that sees people who wouldn’t look out of place at a city bank marching beside those who would be more at home at the Faslane Peace Camp, has simply become too big to support such a specific dissenting contingent. For people like my interviewee, this is precisely the problem. – “Pride is borne from a protest in which trans femme people fought back against police brutality and trans/homophobia and racism. LGBT people, particularly trans people and LGBT people of colour and migrants are still marginalised by the police, whose presence at the march in uniform – especially at the front of it – [prevents some] members of the LGBT community being able to attend and celebrate their own pride.” – We may take from this simply that the broad inclusivity of Pride, which encompasses a range of ideologically disparate elements of society, ultimately excludes those still marginalised, or at the very least that police in uniform is perhaps a step too far for the nominal commemoration of Stonewall.

It is important to think of these concerns as very recent, or at least recent outwith the dilated chronology of modern, western Gay Liberation (which only spans, at most, about 60 years). In an unsurprisingly damning coverage of the Glasgow arrests on the radical blog “A Thousand Flowers”, writer “Juan Mac” recalled Glasgow Pride only fifteen years ago as “a few hundred people standing in a Square to be gawked at.” These concerns of over-commercialisation are therefore relatively new, as are the opposing arguments that the protest element of Pride is becoming redundant. In any case, the essential celebration/protest duality remains as this debate begins to rage around it. One of the arrested protesters was involved at this year’s Pride in London, protesting similar issues there. At last year’s Pride in Toronto, Black Lives Matter were successful in shutting down the parade until their demands for no uniformed police officers marching or carrying guns were met. In New York too, twelve arrests were made at this year’s Pride as activists protested the over-commercialisation which has become such a sore issue in recent years. In light of these events, it is tempting to imagine that the trouble over this issue is coming to a feverish head. In many ways, it all seems to be happening now.

After all, what our London protester managed in the capital was met with arrest here in Glasgow. There also seems to be a distinct air of confusion over the reaction to the protests, both in the response of the police – “They arrested people who weren’t breaking any laws, and their disorganisation was clear as they wouldn’t let us know why they had arrested anyone. They held two arrestees against the fence with their hands cuffed behind their back despite them not resisting arrest in any way for 45 minutes.” – but also in the reaction of the official Pride itself, which seems to have flip-flopped several times in its position towards the arrested protesters. In an initial statement on their Facebook page, Pride Glasgow claimed the protesters had “jeopardised the safety of everyone attending the parade”, which, as it is now clear, is a total nonsense. No account of the arrests records the protesters doing anything to jeopardise anyone’s safety, or indeed warrant the police’s “excessively aggressive and heavy handed response”, as my interviewee recounts. This initial post was deleted and a second posted and deleted again before a third post contained an “unreserved” apology appended to a rather pathetic excuse: “It was an emotional response made in the heat of the moment after many long days of work to prepare for the festival.” A reckless “heat of the moment” response is hardly something one would expect from major, official organisation but I would venture that this is symptomatic of the confusion and unresolved tension which surround Pride events in 2017.

Glasgow Pride, for one, doesn’t seem to know what it thinks about the protesters, the initial condemnation was of the severest order, but that the retraction contains such contrition and overtures of goodwill to those still awaiting charges shows that the organisation is not completely in the hands of its corporate participants. This confusion was naturally reflected in the conduct of Police Scotland when they made the arrests. “Breach of the peace with aggravated homophobic intent” was the ridiculous charge that was eventually, after much secrecy and confusion, levelled at the protesters. All of this would lead one to think Pride is going through something of an identity crisis: having grown so much in recent years its broad inclusivity has led some, who feel the protest element is being erased, to challenge what it stands for. Pride accordingly meets this challenge with anything but self-assuredness, and the officers policing the events don’t really know what to condemn and what to condone. We see the result.

These are troubling times for the LGBT community. In the context of things like the Orlando shooting, Trump’s transgender military ban, the reactionary DUP’s newly acquired influence in Britain and the now persistent threat of Islamic terror, we can probably expect clashes like those in Glasgow to become a more common occurrence. Pride is a unique phenomenon, with an essential duality of celebration and protest, and as it now exponentially explodes onto city streets across the west, its essential balancing act becomes ever more difficult. It seems clear now that the arrests at Glasgow Pride were unlawful, and the protesters were well within their rights to at least demand their grievances be heard within the forum of Pride. Precisely how Pride’s duality is maintained is a debate to be had, and this cannot happen when one silences one side with the heavy hand of the law. As my interviewee stated– “people protested outside the Sheriff Court […], and we will be following up with action to ensure the conduct of the police is not forgotten or erased.” – They are correct to, and only when their position is legitimised can Pride get itself back on an even keel.