Fifty years on from the first pride march in London, Elliot Sloman assesses its impact on the movement for LGBTQ+ rights, and what we can learn from this.
On the 1st of July 1972, just five years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the first pride march took place in London. The march took place during the ministry of Heath, the rise of Thatcher and the breakdown of industrial relations; it was a time in British History renowned for change and action. Action through protest came centre stage and for the first time, the LGBTQ community was included in a community outside of their own, by the unification of working-class, union workers, BAME communities and the LGBTQ community working alongside each other in a beautiful movement for societal progression.
Chosen as the closest Sunday to the American Stonewall riots, LGBTQ people took to the streets of London in the first official Pride march ever held in the UK. Small activist groups like the Gay Liberation Front and the Campaign for Homosexual Equality took part in one of the most heavily policed demonstrations of the 1970s.
This, however, came in the face of fierce opposition and the community was only accepted as a valid part of society when the wider culture had shifted enough, by the work of the community, for LGBTQ people to be recognised as a genuine minority group by a large enough group of the majority, rather than a group of pestilent outcasts, as they had been for so many years prior. This was largely a response to the coincidental intersection of long-lasting campaigns, the development of HIV/AIDS and the forced action by the government to respond to the AIDS crisis and the acknowledgement of LGBTQ people to be real members of society that weren’t going anywhere, even if done so inadvertently.
There is a tipping point in societies where something moves from being an unspoken controversial topic to an acknowledged marginalised group. Think of the way that many major industries have pushed body positivity in recent years but go back as early as the late 2000s and being overweight was a rare taboo in modelling whereas now it is a nuanced beauty with Plus-sized models being portrayed in a good light for the first time, especially after the rise of many body-positive celebrities like Lizzo. The same can be said for the LGBTQ community, there was a tipping point when campaigns and LGBTQ voices had become so loud and prevalent on their own, for it to transition away from being a taboo religious abomination or underground phenomenon to acceptable by corporations and political society (whether real or forced). LGBTQ celebrities were a massive part of this, Elton John, Freddie Mercury, Ian Mckellan, Steven Fry and more, all LGBTQ, all giving our community prominence. It is at this point that liberation can be seen to take precedence in the face of opposition.
The first Pride march in London was what I can identify as the catalyst to the tipping point, paving the way for societal inclusion. Letting those who would instead have silenced them, know that silence was no longer acceptable.
Such opposition came from figures such as Margret Thatcher and her decision to implement section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, or section 46 of the Eductaion Act 1986, in order to prevent the portrayal of homosexuality in education and media and to fund a safe sex campaign instead of putting sufficient funds behind an AIDS treatment or medical campaign, manufacturing a reputation to fester of sexual deviance and unnaturalness. This gave false validity to the sentiment of LGBTQ sex and relations being unnatural and disease-causing. It caused a new wave of cultural backlash against pride. However, it didn’t rid the community of its passion and drive for acceptance and consensus became that relationships should be celebrated as a beautiful and natural thing, which is always something the community has championed and never lost in their fight for recognition. This is just as much of a testament to what the community is and was capable of because of the work of those in the first pride march in London.
From this persistence and fight, change was fostered in legislation and government when Blair and Brown were elected. Our rights as individuals progressed for the first time in a meaningful way since Wilson. This is what, as socialists, we can learn from the first Pride march and what blossomed from its inspiration: never give up in the face of opposition, no matter how violent or brutal. The Pride movement was built through and grew in the face of some of the most powerful opposition and remains, to this day, thriving and strong. Socialists should take the same ethos and LGBTQ socialists should carry on the legacy and strength of our predecessors. History has made clear that what is our fight as LGBTQ people and our fight as socialists is one and the same, and we must continue to fight with as much strength as those that came before us.
50 Years later, veterans from the march will retrace their steps, celebrating how far we’ve come and bringing light to how far we still need to go for LGBTQ equality.
Elliot Sloman is a history buff currently studying his A-levels in South London and thinks it’s important that everyone knows where they came from and how the world got to where it is today. He tweets at @elliot_slmn.