7 Pioneers Reflect On The 50-Year Evolution Of UK Pride

“The spirit of 1972 lives in today’s generation.”

by Nick Levine
The collage shows eight vintage photographs of UK Pride activists throughout history.
Steve Eason, Mirrorpix, Scott McPartland, Evening Standard, Eye Ubiquitous/Getty Images

2022 is a landmark year for Britain’s LGBTQ+ community as it marks 50 years of UK Pride. Dozens of events will be held this month from Belfast to London and Shetland to Brighton where queer people and their allies will march, raise placards, and party. But it’s also a significant year to look back at all of what the LGBTQ+ movement has achieved.

It’s now half a century since the first Pride march took place in London in 1972, in which hundreds took to the streets in protest against oppression, police mistreatment, and homophobia. It came after the UK’s first LGBTQ+ rights demonstration that took place on November 27, 1970, when 150 members of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) held a torchlight rally against police harassment in north London’s Highbury Fields. “Back then, most LGBTQ+ people were ashamed and closeted,” recalls activist Peter Tatchell, who helped to organise the 1972 march. “They didn’t show their face in public for fear of arrest, rejection by their friends and family, and being sacked from their jobs."

Tatchell points out that many young men were still treated as criminals for sleeping with other men. Though the Sexual Offences Act 1967 had ostensibly decriminalised male homosexual acts, it only applied to men of 21 and over. The age of consent for gay sex between men wasn't reduced to 16 – the same as for everyone else – until 2000.

But it was the inaugural Gay Pride Rally held in London on July 1, 1972 that had a broader agenda. "The theory was that while everybody was hiding their sexuality or gender identity, we [as queer people] were never going to get anywhere," says Nettie Pollard, another GLF member who helped to organise the 1972 march. “For that reason, it was really important for those of us who were able to come out and declare our sexual orientation to do so."

LGBTQ+ people don’t show their face in public for fear of arrest, rejection by their friends and family, and being sacked from their jobs.

Pollard describes the march from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park, which attracted around 700 activists, as both "very serious" and "enormous fun". It climaxed with a mass kiss-in that was both ingenious and risky given that protestors could have been arrested for public indecency because they were embracing members of the same sex. At one point, around a dozen men stripped naked and danced in a circle: a display of literal gay abandon. "The police really didn't know what to do about it because there was nothing to cover that in their orders!" says Pollard.

Still, the activists' flair for camp theatrics shouldn't obscure the fact that what they were doing was incredibly courageous. Public acceptance of homosexuality was so low at the time that Tatchell recalls being "very pleasantly surprised" that around a third of onlookers seemed to applaud as they marched towards Hyde Park. The first Pride rally was deemed such a success that the GLF decided to make it an annual event. "By the second or third Pride, we knew it was here to stay," Tatchell recalls. "And it grew year-on-year so that by the late-1990s, there were about 100,000 people in the march." Today, Westminster City Council only allows 30,000 people to participate in the Pride in London parade – as it's now known – but an estimated 1.5 million flocked to the capital to experience the 2019 festivities.

Activist Peter Tatchell with Comedian Rhona Cameron at London Pride in 1998. Steve Eason/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though Pride in London bedded down and became a mainstay in the ‘70s and ‘80s, similar queer events in some other UK regions were few and far between. Brighton is often regarded as the UK's unofficial "queer capital", but there was an 18-year hiatus between the city's first Pride march in 1973, and its second in 1991. Since then, it's grown into an annual staple with an accompanying festival that books A-listers like Kylie Minogue and Britney Spears. In Scotland, the first Pride march didn't take place until 1995, when around 3,000 people gathered in central Edinburgh to shine a spotlight on community-wide trauma caused by the HIV/AIDS crisis.

"Edinburgh had this reputation as the HIV/AIDS capital of Europe at the time," recalls award-winning author Damian Barr, who attended the 1995 march. "So there was this real collective consciousness that we had to commemorate people we had lost. We were also very angry and wanted to make people aware of what was happening because of HIV/AIDS." Barr was just 19 at the time, and recalls approaching his first Pride with a heady combination of trepidation and excitement. "I had no idea what might happen at a Pride march because I'd never seen one on TV," he says. “Back then, even to wear a red AIDS awareness ribbon in public was a defiant gesture because it immediately marked you as gay and in some senses a target."

A 2006 Pride Scotia march in Scotland. Danny Lawson - PA Images/PA Images/Getty Images

Four years after the 1995 march kickstarted what is now known as Pride Scotia, Scotland's national LGBTQ+ festival that alternates between Edinburgh and Glasgow each year, the first Pride event in Wales was launched. Titled Cardiff Mardi Gras, it was created after a spate of homophobic hate crimes in the city. "The police wanted to raise awareness so badly that they came to us with the idea," recalls drag queen Dr Bev, who along with other prominent members of the local LGBTQ+ community helped to organise the event in Cardiff's Bute Park.

Despite being a gloriously ramshackle affair a long way from today's polished Pride festivals, it attracted a far bigger crowd than anticipated. "There wasn't a main stage: the stage was [made from] a lorry cargo bed," Dr Bev recalls with an affectionate laugh. "But when me and another drag queen called Miss Kitty did a lip-sync to 'It's Raining Men', 2,500 people in Bute Park absolutely lapped it up." Cardiff Mardi Gras has also blossomed into an annual event, and was renamed Pride Cymru in 2014.

In the last two decades, new Pride events run by and for especially marginalised sections of the LGBTQ+ community have sprung up. After beginning in 2005 as a seaside day trip for the Black Lesbians in the UK [BLUK] social network, UK Black Pride has evolved into Europe's largest celebration for African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American, and Caribbean-heritage LGBTQ+ people. "The communities UK Black Pride fights for and represents continue to show up and show out," says Phyll Opoku-Gyima, its co-founder and executive director. "I think our growth is testament to two things: the increasing need for spaces like UK Black Pride and our desire to always have spaces where our cultures and experiences are truly centred and celebrated."

To this end, Opoku-Gyima says that UK Black Pride is now "going to be focusing more on our year-round offering as well", so that "meaningful, culturally-inclusive and sensitive support" for queer people of colour isn't just a staple of Pride season. Another community-led initiative supporting a particularly marginalised group is Trans Pride Brighton, which launched in 2013 and now attracts 10,000 attendees, making it the largest trans rights protest outside North America. However, co-founder Sarah Savage says growing the event year-on-year has never really been an objective. "What we do is a bit different from many other Pride festivals," Savage explains. "It's less about raising awareness among the cisgender community and more about providing a community for trans and intersex people. Every year, multiple people come up to us and say they’ve had the most amazing day of their lives. For some people, it's the first time they've ever met another trans person or gone out dressed as the real them."

Nearly everyone’s doing this voluntarily. I can count on one hand the number of people who get paid to organise a Pride festival. We’re all from the LGBTQ+ community, and we’re all trying our best.

In a way, the UK's current patchwork of different Pride events could be seen as a system of checks and balances. As some larger Prides have become more commercially minded and arguably less politicised – all while continuing to improve LGBTQ+ visibility – smaller local and community-led events have emerged to reconnect the movement with its radical roots. Last year brought the UK's first Reclaim Pride, which was billed as a "both a celebration and a protest for LGBT+ rights, ditching the corporate sponsors and commercialism". Among the thousands who attended were Tatchell and Opoku-Gyimah. "As long as there's an understanding between all the different Pride events, I think that's healthy," continues Savage. "Nearly everyone's doing this voluntarily. You know, I can count on one hand the number of people who get paid to organise a Pride festival. We're all from the LGBTQ+ community, and we're all trying our best."

Pride in London is a case in point. In 2019, it was criticised by activists including Pollard for accepting sponsorship from BAE Systems, the world’s third-largest arms manufacturer. Nevertheless, it remains a volunteer-led body run on a not-for-profit basis. Head of PR Haven Thorn says of its future aims: "Pride in London gives back to the local community through volunteering and awarding grants to local LGBT+-serving organisations in our capital city. In 2021, £100,000 raised via commercial sponsorship was awarded to grassroots community organisations in this space including Aesthesia CIC, Black Trans Alliance CIC, FTM London/TransM London, House of Rainbow CIC, Living Free UK CIC, London Gay Symphony Ochestra, and Out & Proud African LGBTI. We aim to raise and allocate much more over the next decade."

On July 2, 2022, the Pride in London parade will pay homage to the inaugural 1972 march by retracing its route. "The spirit of this first protest lives in today’s generation, which was built by the veterans who came first," says Thorn. It's a heartening and entirely appropriate reminder that Pride in the UK is built on the courageous actions of around 700 queer pioneers who really took a stand 50 years ago.