“I’d rather go ballroom dancing with Donald Trump than go to Pride today.”
When I tweeted this obvious joke (I’m rubbish at ballroom dancing, and I don’t think I’d ever be Trump’s pick of partner) during the holy month of pride, the reactions from the usual suspects were as predicted.
Supposed “feminists” and “leftists” (and remember I am a feminist on the left) called me “regressively conservative and homophobic” and went on to explain how supporting Trump is the worst thing in the world. I agree, of course, with the latter (the joke works because he is horrible!) – but certainly not the former. How is it homophobic to say that in the past decade, Pride has become a corporate cesspit?
Let me try to unpick how we got here.
Pride has not always been the big corporate “party” that it is today.
The United Kingdom’s first Pride march in 1972 was a political protest. There was plenty to shout about. With homosexual acts decriminalised only a few years prior, being anything but unambiguously heterosexual was dangerous. In parks and other public places, gay men were routinely picked up by police officers posing as potential sexual partners and unlawfully locked up for days on end. And although there were no laws targeting lesbians specifically, it was even harder for women to live openly as homosexuals.
Forced and coerced marriages were endemic with young women pretty much frogmarched down the aisle. Women who came out later in life after having children with a male partner routinely lost custody of those children as family courts opted to place them with their (at times abusive) fathers rather than allow lesbians to raise them. We had no right to adopt or foster children, and threats of violence were everyday occurrences. So when we marched at Pride, we really did have something to be proud about. We were out, we were courageous, we were sexual outlaws.
My first Pride was in 1980. I was 18. I was sacked from my job and thrown out of my accommodation for being a lesbian. I was angry – and I was resilient. We all had to be. There was so much to fight for. The sense of solidarity between lesbians and gay men was exhilarating, but we women also recognised that we had our own battles to fight, away from our gay brothers. Eventually, we lesbians formed our own annual celebration: Lesbian Strength. In 1983, I was there, age 21, and remember seeing little clusters of gay men lining the route, clapping and cheering us on. We were united in a fight for our shared liberation.
Sadly, the movement soon started to change direction and lose its focus on obtaining equal rights for gays, lesbians and bisexuals (LGB).
In 1989, Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government introduced Section 28, a set of laws that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” across areas ruled by local councils, including schools, theatres and libraries. The legislation further stigmatised homosexuality and gave rise to a culture of fear and self-censorship among gay men and lesbians.
Within the same year, to fight the legislation and the moral panic that paved the way for it, gay men and lesbians founded Stonewall. Named after the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York, which started the LGB rights movement in the Global North, the organisation’s primary aim was to get Section 28 repealed and to prevent the repeat of any such attacks on the community in the future. Stonewall quickly became the leading voice of the LGB community and the leading organiser of all Pride events in the UK.
Over the years, however, Stonewall assumed a conformist stance and introduced a conservative element to the gay liberation struggle in Britain. It called for tolerance and acceptance rather than liberation, pushing the line that beyond a few kinky genes, LGB people are just like heterosexuals. Gay men quickly accepted the notion of the “gay gene” and started repeating the mantra “born this way”. Many lesbians, on the other hand, rejected this conformity and started moving away from Stonewall and linking their movement to women’s liberation more generally.
Further down the line, after lesbians and gay men achieved legal equality with heterosexuals – and the funding opportunities for campaigns promoting LGB rights started drying up – Stonewall made another pivot. It swiftly attached a T to the LGB and made the transgender issue its main focus. It also transformed Pride, which was once a political protest for the liberation of same-sex attracted people, into a corporate-sponsored celebration of “gender identity”. It was Stonewall that popularised the “trans women are women” mantra alongside the “acceptance without exception” strapline.
In a way this was not at all surprising. After all, Stonewall had prioritised men over women since its very inception. At first, it put the needs and perspectives of gay men over those of lesbians. Now, it is prioritising trans women over both lesbians and gay men. It is allowing natal males to speak for lesbians as lesbians. Stonewall ambassador Alex Drummond, for example, describes himself as a trans woman and a lesbian and goes into schools to speak to young people about lesbian identity and issues. This is a whole new level of appropriation.
I have yet to find a way of tying together gay liberation and trans issues that holds water. Each group has its own sensibilities. Gay and lesbian people were fighting to be recognised as our current selves rather than physically trying to change who we were. We were seeking to be acknowledged as equal under the law rather than looking for access to taxpayer-funded surgery or hormone treatments. There was never any question of impinging on the rights and freedoms of others or any insistence that there was “no debate” to be had.
Today, Stonewall is leading a trans crusade and paying no attention to who it harms along the way. It is turning a blind eye, for example, to feminist concerns over proposals to allow anyone who identifies as a woman to use, without any conditions, women’s single-sex spaces and services. Stonewall says such concerns are “bigoted” and comparable to the past claims that all gay men are sexual predators and, therefore, a danger to children. This is a false comparison. Feminists who object to trans inclusion in single-sex spaces are not making an assessment of trans women as a group or branding them as “predators”. What we are saying is simple: Women need single-sex spaces because a significant enough minority of men (some of whom may identify as women, or pretend to) are sexual predators.
The old saying “pride comes before a fall” has never felt so apt. I will never again attend a Pride event until Stonewall’s iron grip on its organisers and sponsors loosens and it returns to its roots: fighting for the liberation of lesbians and gay men.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.