Pride in London: what I learned from the first march 50 years ago
In the autumn of 1970, two young gay sociology students returned to the UK, inspired by the radical gay rights and black rights movements they had seen in the United States.
Bob Mellors and Aubrey Walter had met by chance in America, and both had become interested in the burgeoning Gay Liberation Front that had risen from the ashes of the Stonewall riots in New York. They returned home determined to launch a parallel movement in London that would mirror the conditions here.
On November 27, six weeks after holding its inaugural meeting at the London School of Economics, the UK’s Gay Liberation Front (GLF) organized the country’s first public gay and lesbian protest. It was a protest against the use of “pretty policemen” in public toilets, who solicited sexual advances from men who were then arrested, fined, jailed and even exposed in the press.
I went to the third GLF meeting and vividly remember a lesbian speaker asking attendees to think about the ways we hide our sexuality at work. At that point, I saw in my head every game I’ve played to do just that.
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Coming out was important, GLF told us, because most heterosexuals thought they didn’t know any lesbians or gays. They needed to see that we were (more or less) like them. That we matter – that we should not just be tolerated, but recognized for who we are.
GLF taught us that it was not us who were sick, but society. That it was not us who should change, but society. Faced with the need to come out, I felt disgusted with my deception – my lack of self-esteem and gay pride.
In 1971, GLF held weekly meetings for up to 300 people. In August, 19-year-old Tony Reynolds, founder of the GLF Youth Group, organized a protest against the age of consent – at the time, 16 for heterosexuals but 21 for gay men (women were not not even mentioned). It all started with a party in Hyde Park followed by a march through central London.
About 350 of us participated. It was wonderful to see the faces of the London shoppers as they registered who we were. There were shouts of all kinds, gestures of raised forearms and snapped wrists, thumbs up, thumbs down and applause throughout. The problem was the police: there were so many policemen you could hardly see them, and almost all of them were giggling.
For me, the most memorable scene came after the march, at a ‘Jolyons’ cafe on the Strand, where a group of us were celebrating with tea and cake. The waitress went crazy because Claudia, a trans woman, was wearing a dress and called the manager, who called the police. We ignored all the commotion and said we would leave when we finished what we had paid, but they caught us and threw us out on the street – and that was it.
The first Gay Pride March
In 1972 the GLF Youth Group organized what Reynolds called the Gay Pride March – the first of its kind in the UK. On July 1, we walked from Trafalgar Square to Speakers’ Corner via Charing Cross Road, where Foyles stored a really nasty book called ‘Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex’. It was an unhealthy and false psychological attack by an American doctor on gays and lesbians and sex workers, with crude analogies like “two fannies together always make zero”, ghastly descriptions of coat hanger abortions and a list of fruits and vegetables supposedly used by homosexuals in fornication.
We all booed as we passed the bookshop and continued along Oxford Street – much the same reaction from passers-by we had received the year before. At Marble Arch, we all took part in a mass kiss-in, which disgusted the police – who fled at the sight of it.
We then scattered around Hyde Park, played silly games, shared food and got high with our LGBT friends and families. The weather was glorious and so were we, and all divisions within the movement were forgotten amidst the palpable joy of accomplishment.
Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Gay Pride on exactly the same date, July 1st, and on the same route, starting from Trafalgar Square at 1pm. (Not to be confused with the mayor-sponsored march organized on July 2 by the racism-tinged Pride in London.)
GLF’s Enduring Legacy
In the fall of 1972 my friends and I formed a commune and squatted in an empty cinema studio in Notting Hill. We were known as the radical queens – that is, men in dresses, no fakes, no padded bras, but with make-up and nail polish to complete a look that screamed “gay” so that we work with GLF and the local community.
The commune lasted a year. Sometimes it was happiness – not drug-induced, but the happiness that comes from sharing everything we had: our clothes, our love, our sex, our money (which we kept in a Clarice Cliff teapot and we went out as needed, no questions asked).
However, it must be said that even at the time of the first Gay Pride March, GLF was in complete disarray. All the different factions (Marxist-Socialists, Maoists, Trotskyists) had tried in vain to impose their ideologies on the movement and argued with each other. The love, respect and care felt in the beginning had turned bitter.
The women had split from the group in February of that year, tired of the sexism and misogyny of men who refused to question their privileged mindset and formed Women’s Gay Liberation. They returned for the Gay Pride March under their own banner. A year later, GLF collapsed.