The 1969 Stonewall Riots in NYC. Photo by Joseph Ambrosini, New York Daily NewsImagine an enormous parade through Central London this year. Hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to have gathered as spectators or participants. The military, supported by the Scout Association, beam proudly from beneath their peaked caps as they march through Whitehall. Behind them, representatives of Citibank and Barclays Bank, who have paid towards the costs of hosting the parade, carrying their corporate banners, alongside Microsoft, diplomats from the US Embassy, Facebook and Tesco. Vodafone follow along, whilst in Trafalgar Square staff of BSkyB, Proctor and Gamble, KPMG, BP and BAE Systems, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of weaponry and munitions, make up the tail end of the parade. Representatives of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party are assembled, walking together. Finally, in full dress uniform, men and women of London's Metropolitan Police march in step, their bright buttons gleaming in the midday sun.
What event would occasion such an unprecedented demonstration of the powers of the British establishment, a near-dystopian coming together of the corporate and state forces that rule Britain today? The answer is Gay Pride (now rebranded as Pride in London), an event that welcomes LGBT police officers with open arms and pride of place on the parade. What does such a prominent position of the police in the Pride parade say about the priorities of gay politics today? Does a corporate, police-friendly Pride make the whole event pointless?
Rooted in anti-police riots
The relationship between the police and Gay Pride hasn’t always been so collaborative and close-knit. Indeed, Gay Pride has its roots in anti-police riots, and its early history is intertwined with antagonism towards the police force. It’s this history, contrasted with the present, which demonstrates how the purposes and uses of Pride as a political event have changed over the past forty years.
Pride has its roots in the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Movements for homosexual rights in the West go back to the late 19th Century. Between then and the 1960s subcultures around deviant sexual identities and practices emerged and were repressed across Europe and North America, with varying degrees of public visibility and wider political engagement. From the 1950s onwards homophile groups, such as the Mattachine Society in the U.S. and the Homosexual Law Reform Society in the UK, worked for increased civil rights for homosexual people, sometimes achieving significant results. In England and Wales, for example, same-sex activity was in large part decriminalised in 1967 following decades of lobbying.
However, without diminishing these achievements, these groups largely built their non-confrontational public campaigns around positioning gay people as searching for discreet legalisation and tolerance. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that a new form of gay social movement reached fruition, one which loudly proclaimed “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it”, and one that took as its aim not legal concessions but a wider social transformation, and sexual liberation, through smashing gender oppression.
One of the triggers of this new movement of sexual politics, which took visibility and self-representation as some of its key tools, was the Stonewall Riots. It was also in these four days of civil disorder in New York City in which Gay Pride has its roots.
The Stonewall Inn was a popular underground bar on Christopher St, one of the few New York City gay bars that allowed dancing. Running gay bars in New York was practically illegal at the time, and the Stonewall Inn, like many, was run by organized criminals with little respect for their clientele. Like many gay bars it was also subject to frequent, humiliating raids by the police (despite paying bribes), who would violently break-up gatherings, arresting clients for cross-dressing, soliciting same-sex activity and other “moral crimes”.
In late June 1968, however, many of the LGBT drinkers had had enough of police harassment and fought back during a heavy-handed police raid on the Stonewall Inn. Scuffles between cops and revelers — particularly transwomen, who often bore the brunt of police bigotry — turned exceedingly violent and over the ensuing nights a series of street battles erupted between LGBT people and the NYPD. The roads around Christopher St were full of kick lines and burning trash cans. This was the catalyst for a new political consciousness amongst many LGBT people. Organisations and movements emerged or were revitalised, alongside other struggles such as black power campaigns and the increasingly mobilised and militant feminist movements.
Policing Pride and police pride
Out of this militant response to police violence emerged London’s first Gay Pride march. Held on July 1st 1972 (the closest Saturday to the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising), it encountered immediate police hostility. The Met Police presence was heavy, even by the standards of today’s public order operations, and participants recall an “aggressive” police response. Participants were manhandled and pushed into the crowd, and officers openly abused marchers with homophobic language.
Over the following decades Gay Pride grew in size and scope, from the 700 participants on the first march to an estimated 20,000 marchers today. Despite this, police harassment continued, both on Gay Pride marches and in everyday life. Many gay people felt not only unsupported by the Met, but actively oppressed; raids on gay clubs continued, men using cruising grounds were harassed, and trans people suffered assault and persecution at the hands of police officers. For decades the involvement of the Met in Pride was, at best, public order policing, and at worse harassment and persecution.
The birth of the Gay Police Association (GPA - originally the Lesbian and Gay Police Association) in 1990, however, began to change some of those attitudes. Suffering oppression and discrimination within the Police Service, a group of officers formed this professional body as an organization to defend and represent the needs of LGBT officers. It was shortly after the formation of the GPA that gay police officers began to attend Gay Pride as police officers. Although officially marching as private citizens, off duty and out of uniform, they saw themselves as making visible the fact that gay people were serving in the police.
The change in attitudes that happened in the Met, partly as a result of the work done by the GPA, can be seen in the fact that, in 2007, the police hierarchy made an exception to the long-standing ban on off-duty officers wearing uniforms as part of political parades or demonstrations. This exemption was not widely welcomed by many serving rank-and-file officers; police forums from the time, for example, record opposition to the exemption voiced in bigoted and homophobic terms. Not only signifying changing social norms, this was a significant shift in the political purpose and dynamic of Gay Pride. It also raises serious questions of what the ethos of Pride is today, whom it is meant to represent and what its wider social and political potential is.
Political identity and radical community
How did we go from a march of radical social outcasts celebrating anti-police insurrections, and calling for the dissolution of the family, to a parade organized for, and funded by, multinational banks, arms companies, the Tory Party, the Army and the Metropolitan Police, amongst others? Just what are we supposed to be proud of?
The answer lies in how Gay Pride was conceived as a political form. It was never intended as a traditional demonstration, lobbying lawmakers with demands or asserting specific civil or legal rights. Instead it operated as a cultural-political form based around asserting one’s existence, and attempting to diminish some of the shame that LGBT people felt about their sexuality. It aimed to create a free space where LGBT people could acknowledge their own existence as sexual beings, different from a society that materially, culturally and psychologically suppressed those sexual expressions. This was a political strategy that worked hand-in-glove with the injunction to come out — to publicly acknowledge your sexual identity and merge it within your wider social identity as a political tactic.
The aim was visibility — to demonstrate the extent of gay people as part of everyday society, and, in acknowledging the shared oppression felt by gay people, build a political caucus and wider cultural, social and sexual community around ourselves. Pride was cultivated to overcome the feelings of shame and self-disgust which kept us complicit with the sexist system of enforced gender norms.
As the founding manifesto of the Gay Liberation Front, organisers of the first Gay Pride marches, said:
Within gay liberation, a number of consciousness-raising groups have already developed, in which we try to understand our oppression and learn new ways of thinking and behaving. The aim is to step outside the experience permitted by straight society, and to learn to love and trust one another. This is the precondition for acting and struggling together.
By freeing our heads we get the confidence to come out publicly and proudly as gay people, and to win over our gay brothers and sisters to the ideas of gay liberation.
Visibility was intended as a stopping-off point in a much larger political project to destroy the patriarchal family as the incubator of oppressive gender roles. “Coming out” and Pride were tactics to build that movement, not end-goals in their own right, necessarily. Visibility alone would not lead to liberation.
Today those transitional demands have become not only the constituent, necessary parts of a gay identity, they’ve also erased the further structural criticisms and demands they were intended to further. Visibility and legal rights are what makes up the political demands of contemporary Pride politics (as far as they exist at all). Once you have reached the bar of being out and proud, any further structural or material concerns are a private matter, and unrelated to your sexual identity or politics.
Once corporate and state institutions realized that structural critique had dissipated, the “visibility” of their employees on a public march associated with youth, diversity and openness became a positive boon. In the past two decades they have elided their staff into a thoroughly old-fashioned worker’s subjectivity; there are still LGBT people who work for Microsoft, say, and attend Pride, but there are also Gay Microsoft Employees, people who choose to identify their sexuality within their identity as a happy, loyal and productive worker. Nowhere more true is this than in the gay police officers attending in uniform, marching with their fellow officers. Their bodies are used as symbols, building an image of the police as an inclusive and tolerant body reflecting the makeup and values of society as a whole.
The problem here lies still with the issue of visibility. When the bodies of law enforcement become part of the corpus of Pride, other bodies are necessarily erased. As the notion of gay pride and coming out is co-opted by an establishment of police, banks and arms dealers, it removes those political tools from people who might potentially need and value them more. For many of us, a political identity which can also be held without contradiction by a police officer is useless, when the principles and practices of the Metropolitan Police are precisely those we need that political identity to help combat.
We need to apply an intersectional critique to this dynamic to make sense of it; how can we ask people materially, psychologically and physically oppressed by the police (or the financial services institutions, or the Army) to “come out” and be proud of a collective political project which so visibly and proudly features those institutions that oppress them? How can we stand together on a parade that celebrates gay police officers not as gay bodies, as gay humans, but specifically in their role as police officers — a role essentially unchanged since the days of Stonewall, where the very same institution beat and humiliated us?
The entry of police bodies into Pride erases and excludes the bodies of those whom the police oppress; it is a continuance of that daily policing in another form, where our once-radical political tools of visibility and community are co-opted into supporting the very oppressive structures they were designed to smash. By excluding those bodies from Pride, we perpetuate a public image of LGBT people limited to those who have no conflict with the police in their daily lives, ensuring a vicious circle of erasure for the excluded.
As such 'Pride in London' will continue to support the values of the police and the establishment; the supremacy of property rights, marriage, the oppression and othering of people of colour, and racist attitudes towards foreign cultures. It is wrong to say Pride is now a depoliticised event: it is more politicised than ever. It has been turned over to the service of the dominant ideology, and so is harder to distinguish from the cruelties and injustices of everyday life. We have lost Pride. The question now is whether it’s worth reclaiming, or whether strategies that reach further than representation, pride and “coming out” are needed in the struggle for sexual self-determination.