Thursday 21 September 2017

Comment: 'No floats, no music, no boys in briefs' - Let’s bring Pride back to its protest roots

I’m hoping for both party and protest in equal measure this Pride weekend, writes Rebecca Lumley

Gay Pride parade
Gay Pride parade
Marchers unfurl a huge rainbow flag at the Equality March for Unity and Pride in Washington (AP)
Gay Pride Week picnic at Merrion Square (1980). Photo by Gareth Miller c/o of Tonie Walsh of Irish Queer Archive
Gay Pride Week picnic at Merrion Square (1980). Photo by Thomas A O’Shea c/o of Tonie Walsh of Irish Queer Archive

Rebecca Lumley

It’s the only day of the year that drag queens, flamenco dancers and super-heroes outnumber commuters or tourists on Dublin’s O’Connell Street.

Following a packed  week of events, ranging from glitter parties to art shows, Dublin’s annual Pride Parade will storm through the city this Saturday in a flurry of colour and chaos.

Famed for its extravagant displays and high-energy atmosphere, Pride is a feast for the eyes, as well as an earnest expression of love, respect and progression from the LGBTQ community and their allies.

Pride wasn’t always the party of the year, however. At its inception, it was an old-fashioned protest.

Marchers unfurl a huge rainbow flag at the Equality March for Unity and Pride in Washington (AP)
Marchers unfurl a huge rainbow flag at the Equality March for Unity and Pride in Washington (AP)

The beginnings of the movement date back to 1969, when a riot broke out at Stonewall Inn, a gay club in downtown Manhattan. Police had been known to occasionally raid the venue, but on the night in question patrons fought back.

A protest broke out, with Police and members of the LGBT community locking horns for the rest of the week.

A year later, the first official Pride event, then referred to as Gay Pride, took place in New York. Officially called the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, protesters walked from Sixth Avenue to Greenwich Village, commemorating the Stonewall riots.

Fred Sargeant, a man who attended the actual event, wrote a first person account of the march in 2010, noting that there were "no floats, no music, no boys in briefs." Instead, they held signs and banners, and chanted “Say it clear, say it loud. Gay is good, gay is proud.”

Gay Pride Week picnic at Merrion Square (1980). Photo by Gareth Miller c/o of Tonie Walsh of Irish Queer Archive
Gay Pride Week picnic at Merrion Square (1980). Photo by Gareth Miller c/o of Tonie Walsh of Irish Queer Archive

Four years later, the first inklings of LGBT protest appeared in Ireland. On June 27 1974, a gay rights public demo was held outside the Department of Justice, when eight people protested anti-gay laws.

The movement took a few years to find its feet however , and was strengthened by the establishment of Ireland’s first ever LGBT community centre, the Hirschfield Centre.

Camping it up: revellers at a New York gay pride march
Camping it up: revellers at a New York gay pride march

By this time the resources were finally becoming available to host a proper week of events, Dublin’s Gay Pride Week.

Organised by the National Lesbian and Gay Federation, the highlight of the event was the release of 2,000 pink balloons at St Stephen’s Green. A year later, in 1980, 20 gay men and women walked around Dublin’s city centre giving out pink carnations, then a symbol of gay liberation, as well as informational leaflets explaining the origins of the Stonewall riots.

Gay Pride Week picnic at Merrion Square (1980). Photo by Thomas A O’Shea c/o of Tonie Walsh of Irish Queer Archive
Gay Pride Week picnic at Merrion Square (1980). Photo by Thomas A O’Shea c/o of Tonie Walsh of Irish Queer Archive

It is worth noting that homosexuality was still technically a criminal offence.

Week-long events followed in the preceding years, such as all-night discos, public protests and sun-soaked picnics, with the festival slowly morphing into what it is today.

People hold a protest outside Russian Embassy in London, following reports of the torture and murder of gay men in Chechnya
People hold a protest outside Russian Embassy in London, following reports of the torture and murder of gay men in Chechnya

Homesexulaity was decriminalised in 1993 and just two years ago, gay marriage became legal in Ireland by overwhelming public consensus.

This weekend Dublin prepares to celebrate the biggest day in the Pride calendar, when multicolour flags will line the streets in anticipation of the annual Pride Parade.

While it is easy to understand the shift from protest to party, I hope Pride 2017 retains some of the movement’s original intention and integrity.

Though great progress has been made in recent decades with regards LGBTQ acceptance, equality has not been granted to all. The situation in Chechnya serves as a grim reminder that while we wave flags and don drag this Saturday, scores are still being persecuted for their sexuality.

When reports of Chechnyan “concentration camps” emerged earlier this year, the world was reminded, with a jolt, that the liberties celebrated year on year were hard-won and are not yet ubiquitous.

When asked about the existence of the torture camps, a spokesperson for the Chechnyan leader, Ramzan Kadyrov said:

“You cannot detain and persecute people who simply do not exist in the republic. If there were such people in Chechnya, the law-enforcement organs wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning."

A Chechnyan human rights official echoed the same sentiments, saying:  “In our Chechen society, any person who respects our traditions and culture will hunt down this kind of person without any help from authorities, and do everything to make sure that this kind of person does not exist in our society.”

While the party nature of Pride is one of its greatest aspects, it must not overshadow the tradition’s noble roots. Protest in the community is needed now more than ever.

The bizarre comments and frankly upsetting details emerging from the once-Russian state must act as a reminder that some great things have been achieved, with more left to do.

I’m hoping for both party and protest in equal measure this Pride weekend.

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