Does the increasing commercialisation of Pride make it any less meaningful?

Harry Hillery, a veteran of Prides past, on how Pride has changed, how he’s changed and why it’s still powerful

I moved to Brighton in 1988 to setup a small business and decided that setting myself free should also be part of the adventure. In London I’d lurked in the shadows, fearful of what people might think. 

This might sound over the top nowadays, but it was different then. I remember testing the water with a ‘friendly’ boss once, only to be told that if my news went public, any hopes of progression would evaporate if I wasn’t sacked first. So, I came to Brighton to be reborn and vowed to never lie about myself again. 

In 1991 I met Alf in the Black Horse and we soon fell very much in love. Looking back, I owe so much to his gentle nudges and knowledge of all things queer. He introduced me to new ideas, new writers and helped me navigate a new queer reality. My first Brighton Lesbian & Gay Pride with Alf was in May 1992 if memory serves. 

I remember how moved I was by the spectacle and how overjoyed I was to be holding hands with my boyfriend. At the time, Brighton was gripped by the AIDS epidemic and the fallout of Section 28, which made it doubly important to shout our presence and challenge a tsunami of hate and misinformation. 

As we walked along Western Road towards Churchill Square, chanting ‘we’re here, we’re queer, we’re not going shopping’ there was a tangible sense of loathing from the pavements, that sometimes turned into abuse or occasionally a missile. Although I was nervous and a little frightened, I felt a belonging that I’d never had before as a queer man – a kinship with those who’d trailblazed for me – Marsha P Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Antony Grey, Jackie Foster, Peter Tatchell. Lesbian & Gay Pride had to be loud and angsty to be heard above the din of hatred – we were under attack and our friends were dying. 

I haven’t been to a Pride event for many years now for a number of reasons. Apart from getting older and a general dislike for crowds and mess, for me that sense of kinship and a link to the past has gone. Dropping ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ in the title and the rebrand to Brighton Pride made me uneasy. Although queer as I prefer to call it is thankfully less siloed these days, the dropping of these words still felt like a watering down and a betrayal of sorts. A bowing down and compliance that was perhaps necessary to attract corporate sponsorship from banks and other institutions that would not have been welcome (or wanted to be associated with us) in days gone by. 

The event struggled for years due to alleged financial mismanagement and in fighting, so things had to change, but I for one would be happier if the activism backbone was more prominent and given centre stage. I recognise things are better now, but gay marriage and the proliferation of rainbow flags to sell anything and everything, hasn’t made everything OK. 

Our hard-won rights can be taken from us in a heartbeat, and there are many out there who still wish us harm. Queer Pride (or LGBTQ Pride if you prefer) is not just about getting horny and high or listening to Britney Spears, it’s about kinship and remembering how we got here. There’s also still so much more to do – look at all the venom around Trans rights for example – that’s surely what ‘Pride’ still needs to focus on. 

On a final positive note though, it is wonderful that Pride is now so fully embraced by the city. It’s also wonderful that it raises such large amounts of money to help organisations close to my heart like Lunch Positive and Mind Out continue their amazing work. And lastly of course, whatever we call it, it continues to be the best of parties, and a great excuse to be loud and proud.

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