50.50: Opinion

I was at the first Pride march 50 years ago today. Here’s what it taught me

The UK’s Gay Liberation Front only lasted a few years in the early 1970s, but its legacy is still felt today

Stuart Feather
1 July 2022, 12.00am

Gay Liberation Front protest for an equal age of consent, 28 August 1971, the year before the first UK Pride march on 1 July 1972.

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Peter Tatchell Foundation

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’d seen in the US.

Bob Mellors and Aubrey Walter had met by chance in America, and both had become interested in the burgeoning Gay Liberation Front that rose from the ashes of the Stonewall riots in New York. They came home determined to start a parallel movement in London that would reflect conditions here.

On 27 November, six weeks after holding its inaugural meeting at the London School of Economics, the UK’s Gay Liberation Front (GLF) held the first public gay and lesbian demonstration in the country. It was a protest against the use of ‘pretty policemen’ in public toilets, who solicited sexual advances from men who were then arrested, fined, incarcerated and even outed in the press.

I went to the third meeting of GLF, and I vividly remember a lesbian speaker asking attendees to think about the ways we used to hide our sexuality at work. In that moment, I saw in my head all the games I 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) just like them. That we counted – that we were not simply to be tolerated, but acknowledged for who we were.

GLF taught us that it was not we who were sick, but society. That it was not us who should change, but society. Confronted by the necessity of coming out, I felt disgusted at my deceit – at my lack of self-worth and gay pride.

By 1971, GLF was hosting weekly meetings of up to 300 people. That August, 19-year-old Tony Reynolds, the founder of the GLF Youth Group, organised a demonstration against the age of consent – at the time, 16 for heterosexuals but 21 for male homosexuals (women weren’t even mentioned). It began with a party in Hyde Park followed by a march through central London.

Around 350 of us took part. It was wonderful to see the faces of London shoppers as they registered who we were. There came shouts of all kinds, mimicry of forearms raised and wrists flapped, thumbs up, thumbs down, and applause all the way. The problem was the police: there were so many officers we could hardly be seen, and nearly all of them were sneering.

For me, the most memorable scene came after the march, in a ‘Jolyons’ café on the Strand, where a group of us were celebrating with tea and cakes. The waitress went berserk because Claudia, a trans woman, was wearing a dress, and called the manager, who called the police. We ignored all the fuss and said we’d leave when we’d finished what we’d paid for, but they grabbed us and threw us out on to the street – and that was that.

The first Gay Pride March

In 1972, the GLF Youth Group organised what Reynolds called the Gay Pride March – the first of its kind in the UK. On 1 July, we marched from Trafalgar Square to Speakers’ Corner by way of Charing Cross Road, where Foyles stocked a really nasty book called ‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex’. It was a sick, faux-psychology attack by an American doctor on gay and lesbian people and sex workers, with crude analogies like “two fannies together still make zero”, awful descriptions of coat-hanger abortions, and a list of the fruit and vegetables supposedly used by gay men in fornication.

We all booed as we passed the bookshop and continued along Oxford Street – to much the same reaction from bystanders as we’d 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 spread out in Hyde Park, played silly games, shared food and got high with our friends and LGBT families. The weather was beautiful and so were we, and all the divisions within the movement were forgotten amid the palpable joy of achievement.

Today, we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of Gay Pride on the exact same date, 1 July, and on the exact same route, starting at Trafalgar Square at 1pm. (Not to be confused with the mayor-sponsored march organised on 2 July by the racism-tainted Pride in London.)

Lasting legacy of GLF

In autumn 1972, my friends and I formed a commune and squatted an empty film studio in Notting Hill. We were known as the radical queens – that is, men in frocks, no falsies, no padded bras, but with makeup and nail varnish to complete a look that screamed ‘homosexual’ as we went about our work with GLF and the local community.

The commune lasted a year. At times, it was bliss – not drug-induced, but the bliss that comes from sharing all we had: our clothes, our love, our sex, our money (which we kept in a Clarice Cliff teapot and took 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 disarray. All the various factions (Marxist-Socialist, Maoists, Trotskyites) had tried but failed to impose their ideologies on the movement and fallen out with each other. The love, respect and care felt at the beginning had turned bitter.

The women had split from the group in February that year, sick of the sexism and misogyny of the 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.

Thousands of gays and lesbians passed through the doors of GLF and left with a new awareness of themselves, their abilities and ways to resist

But in the few years of its existence, GLF changed the face of this country for the better – not just for homosexuals, but for heterosexuals too. It made for a more honest and open society.

The greatest legacy was that thousands of gays and lesbians passed through the doors of GLF and left with a new awareness of themselves, their abilities and ways to resist.

When HIV/AIDS arrived, it gave them the strength to question the doctors and the pharmaceutical companies – challenging, for instance, the message from hospitals to gay men seeking help to go home and not come back. Lesbians dropped their criticism of gay men and started nursing them in the NHS and at home. Charities were formed, shaped to our needs. Today’s community stems from all these endeavours. It is now the legacy of us all.

Yet everything still needs to be fought for. The Tory government’s on again, off again promises and U-turns – about protecting us against conversion therapy, for example – do just one thing: heat up transphobia, homophobia and misogyny to a violent degree.

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