"What we did was as much a revolution as the Russian Revolution, the Cuban Revolution or the American Revolution,"says Andrew Lumsden, quietly but emphatically. "It was political. It was about changing the world."
On first impressions, Andrew doesn't come off as the revolutionary type. He's in his seventies and softly spoken. But listening to him talk, his point becomes undeniable. On the 6th of July, tens of thousands of LGBTQ+ people and their allies will march through London as part of Pride. There will be fabulous costumes, some outrageous parties and countless stirring affirmations that queer people of all identities and orientations will never again be forced back into the closet.
The reason any of this is going on is because of what Andrew and his comrades did five decades ago. In the early 1970s, Andrew was part of the short-lived, but massively influential, Gay Liberation Front. The GLF were the true beginning of the modern organised LGBTQ+ rights movement – and, among other things, they threw the world's first gay Pride marches.
Instead of looking on at what they created with smug self-satisfaction, Andrew and his friends are seething with anger. They look at much of what modern Pride has become – with its corporate sponsors, occasionally garish consumerism and themed M&S sandwiches – and see something far removed from the passionate liberation movement they once fought for. To understand this anger, you have to look back at just how revolutionary the roots of that movement really were.
This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. Over four days in late June, 1969, patrons of the Stonewall gay bar in downtown New York fought back against incessant police harassment – largely led by black and Latinx drag queens. The resulting mayhem has come to be known as the Stonewall Riots, but Stormé DeLarverie – the butch lesbian thought to be the first to fight back at Stonewall – always insisted, "It was a rebellion, it was an uprising. It wasn’t no damn riot."
The New York GLF was formed in the aftermath of Stonewall. Two British activists, Aubrey Walter and Bob Mellor, hopped on a plane and arrived just in time to attend the Black Panther's Revolutionary Peoples' Convention – where, for the first time, an invitation was extended to delegations from the movements for women's and gay rights. A month later they were back home founding the London branch of the GLF in a basement of the London School of Economics.
Andrew Lumsden is passionate that this history not be forgotten: "Our Gay Liberation starts in the Black Panther movement. It's not a white invention. Two white guys went there and learned from the Panthers." This is echoed by Stuart Feather, another of the early British GLF activists: "We called ourselves the Gay Liberation Front, like you'd read about a Front for the liberation of Palestine, or Western Sahara. This wasn’t about equal rights in an unjust society – it was about liberation."
In this era, liberation was vital. Stuart Feather recalls: "When my family found out I was gay, my father beat me up and I had to leave home. When I was accidentally outed at work, the entire factory turned and started shouting and hooting at me – all at once, to my face. I was demoted, so I was actually denied the ability to even earn a living, purely because of my sexuality."
Another original GLF activist, Ted Brown, remembers: "In 1969 I was a 19-year-old gay black man, living with my foster parents. My mother had been active in black civil rights – so at least I knew there were other black people out there fighting that form of injustice. But as far as my gay identity went, there was nothing – total silence. You cannot imagine that isolation. So, walking into that first GLF meeting – just seeing hundreds of gay people together, without shame, just being openly gay – that was as astonishing as walking on the surface of the moon."
Another young activist who drew inspiration from those early GLF meetings was Peter Tatchell, who has since become one of the world's most celebrated advocates for LGBTQ+ liberation. "We consciously drew from the direct action tradition of the suffragettes and the civil rights movement in America," he explains. "Following the tactics of Martin Luther King, we would stage sit-ins in pubs that refused to serve LGBT people. We invaded psychiatric conferences to protest that many psychiatrists were still arguing that homosexuality was an illness and that gay people required 'curing'.
"And we always allied with other liberation movements – for women, black and working class liberation. What people now call 'intersectionality' was at the heart of our movement all the way back in 1970. Our goal was to transform society, not adapt to it."
In November of 1970, a prominent Young Liberal, Louis Eakes, was arrested for cruising on Highbury Fields during a police entrapment operation. In protest, 150 gay and lesbian members of the GLF led a torchlight procession and rally. This was the first ever open, public demonstration for LGBTQ+ rights in British history.
Homosexuality had only been partially decriminalised in the UK in 1967, but the age of consent was set at 21, significantly older than for straight people. In 1971, the Youth Group of the GLF held a highly visible demonstration to oppose this inequality.
Then, in 1972, the London GLF followed their American comrades in holding Britain’s first ever Pride march. About 2,000 LGBTQ+ people, many in drag, marched through central London, culminating with a kiss-in at Trafalgar Square. The date chosen was the 1st of July, the nearest Saturday to the anniversary of Stonewall – a conscious homage to the rebellion's first spark.
Nettie Pollard remembers just how dramatically this stood out from other political protests of the era. "I remember seeing one woman with a T-shirt with 'Lesbian' written in big letters. That courage in being so open and visible was extraordinary to me. This wasn't a demonstration about a specific law or campaign – this was just about who we are, the idea that for LGBT+ people our very existence is political."
Andrew Lumsden also speaks movingly about simple visibility being an act of revolutionary courage: "We were saying: 'We are here. We exist. You will never make us feel ashamed again without resistance.' The first ever copies of Gay News were sold at that first Pride march. It was the birth of the gay press in Britain. But every issue that came out, there would be the story of a beating, a murder or a police raid on gay spaces."
The GLF was never hierarchical or ideological, and it soon began to pull in different directions. In particular, many of the women in the movement felt they needed organisations of their own. The GLF fragmented, but its legacy was seismic – in two ways in particular.
Throughout the 1980s, the AIDS crisis decimated a generation of gay men. Along with the disease itself came a wave of government inaction and media driven stigma, with headlines demonising LGBTQ+ people as vectors of this new "plague".
It was only through a radical campaign of direct action by organisations like Act Up and the UK Aids Vigil Organisation that governments and pharmaceutical companies finally began to direct resources towards treating the disease – eventually leading to the development of antiretroviral drugs and the saving of millions of lives.
The playbook for this direct action – and often the activists themselves – came straight from the GLF. As Peter Tatchell, who led some of the defining campaigns of the era, explains, "What we and Act Up did in the 80s was crucially dependent on what GLF did in the 70s. GLF provided the template of how to do effective activism – they provided the toolkit."
The other crucial legacy of the GLF is Pride itself. No one from the GLF ever trademarked or branded their creation – that would be the antithesis of their entire ethos. So, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the annual Pride marches in London were run in an on/off, haphazard way, some years with no event happening at all. These were organised by what Stuart Feather describes as a "loose succession of boards and committees, always a bit remote from the rest of the community. How one became a member of the board seemed to be just a bizarre, arcane process of knowing someone who knew someone. It felt almost Masonic."
Over the 1990s, however, something changed. Celebrities like Ian Mckellen and Elton John began coming out of the closet. Companies and advertisers discovered there was something called the gay economy and the "pink pound" – and angled for a piece of the action. For a few years an ill-fated attempt was even made to rebrand Pride as "Mardi Gras" – completely losing the sense of Pride as a protest, and even charging an entrance fee. Unsurprisingly, attendance collapsed.
Peter Tatchell recalls: "Pride began as a protest with a fabulous carnival atmosphere – but it was clearly always a protest at heart. The last marches with that spirit were in the late-1990s – still a community event with some limited corporate sponsorship. Pride marches then had over 100,000 people; the post-march festival on Clapham Common brought hundreds of thousands. There were no corporate floats, no motorised vehicles – you simply don't need those to do a great Pride.
"Nowadays, you have to pay to march in Pride – that's completely against all the original principles of an open event for everyone. Individuals can't even apply to march, only organisations can, and they have to pay. Last year it was limited to 30,000 people – 20,000 who wanted to march got turned away. If you look at last year's Pride, it was the corporate floats that took up by far the most space and attention."
How did this happen? How did an event with its roots in the Black Panther movement get to a place of being accused by its own founders of becoming a hollow vessel for corporate branding? The answer lies in deeply ingrained dynamics of British life in the early 21st century.
Like many political movements, Pride had been run slightly haphazardly, and found itself in financial trouble. A degree of mismanagement led the event to lurch from crisis to crisis in the early-2000s.
Stuart Feather explains what happened next: "As Mayor, Boris Johnson doubled the price of using Trafalgar Square from £50,000 to £100,000. So, Pride essentially found itself bankrupt. At that point Johnson's office stepped in and said they would give Pride the £100,000 or so it needed. But that money came with strings. This was how the Pride In London CIC was created."
A Community Interest Company, or CIC, is a mechanism that that allows ostensibly socially conscious enterprises to act more like corporations and save themselves the hassle and oversight of becoming an actual registered charity. They were all the rage in 2000s Britain. The founder and co-chair of the Pride in London CIC – created in 2012 – is Michael Salter-Church MBE, whose previous jobs coincidentally happen to have been Political Advisor to David Cameron and Head of Broadcasting for the Conservative Party.
The process of institutions being run into financial trouble – then privatised through people who just happen to be political insiders – will not be unfamiliar to anyone who observed how much of Britain operated in the David Cameron era. Stuart Feather is scathing: "It's a simple Tory takeover – privatisation and asset stripping." Other GLF-ers are more charitable: "Of course we don’t hold it against Michael Salter-Church that he worked at Number 10," insists Peter Tatchell, "but Pride must return to its roots as a protest."
It is in pursuit of exactly that goal that the GLF – decades after it originally disbanded – has re-formed.
On the 17th of June, 2019, almost exactly 50 years after Stonewall, a crowd of gay, lesbian, trans, non-binary and queer activists gathered at Trafalgar Square, the site of the first London Pride march in 1972. The original GLF members, now in their seventies, gave speeches – and were joined by new, younger activists, with every generation and ethnicity of queer life represented. The original GLF demands, drafted by John Chesterman, were read out – and several modern ones added, focusing on Pride once again defining itself as a protest, free and accessible to all, with environmental consciousness.
Nettie Pollard spoke furiously about how Pride in London had collaborated with the arms manufacturer BAE Systems, allowing the company to "pinkwash" its diversity branding while making billions selling weapons to profoundly homophobic, misogynist and authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia.
Andrew Lumsden struck a more conciliatory tone after the event, insisting that the volunteers at Pride in London are all "beautiful and sensitive people who understand the need for change and are trying – in fits and starts – to work with us. But we cannot lightly forgive Barclay's Bank, which supported apartheid being in Pride. BAE Systems are still sponsoring regional Prides – but I feel confident that within that group there is a determination not to be subjected to this sort of buying off. The corporate money always comes with strings."
Dan, one of the younger generation of activists driving the renewed GLF, explained why this was such an important issue for him: "Pride has stopped being about freedom for all and become about profit. That means austerity and poverty for marginalised groups, who are always at the sharp end. Queer culture and imagination are yet again being exploited, co-opted and gentrified – and our internalised homophobia and low self-esteem are being manipulated so that we ourselves are actually made part of that process."
Dani, another younger, trans non-binary activist expanded on these ideas: "These generations who paved the way for me to be here – gratitude doesn’t even begin to cover it. I feel like they are my family. And I want to pass that on to people who come after me – that this is what Pride is, not what they've been sold… and really, it’s just so much more fucking interesting, and so much more integral to their actual existence. Of course we party, be we can party consciously."
The existential question the renewed GLF are forcing Pride to ask itself simmers down to essentials: is Pride going to be a protest or a party? Peter Tatchell described the original Pride marches as "protests with a fabulous, carnivalesque atmosphere". Modern Pride seems to have kept the carnival spirit, but lost much of the protest.
Pride in London CIC may well point out that putting on huge events in London costs a lot of money, and that cash can only come from corporate sponsors. But here, Peter Tatchell once again points out a glaring contradiction: "The organisers of the anti-Trump march this summer didn’t have to pay a penny. Neither do the organisers of any anti-austerity or anti-war marches. Notting Hill Carnival has no limits on numbers, and the Second Brexit Referendum [march] apparently had 700,000 people. Pride only incurs massive costs and limitations at the exact moment it defines itself as a parade instead of a protest. This is a choice! Return Pride to its roots and you instantly get rid of the need to beg for political permission – and free yourself to only accept corporate sponsorship on your own terms."
This is a glaring contradiction between Pride's origins and its present situation. And, as I walk away from the Trafalgar Square GLF event, I am struck by another thought. The original Gay Liberation Front laid out the toolkit that the 1980s activists used to combat the AIDS crisis. That toolkit saved countless lives. If that anger and energy is allowed to fade – if Pride simply becomes about lifestyle rather than liberation – then when the next crisis strikes, which it will, what toolkit will be left to use?
This year's Pride marks 50 years since the original Stonewall uprising. Amid the outfits and the parties and the joy, it's worth remembering Andrew Lumsden, Stuart Feather, Nettie Pollard, Ted Brown, Peter Tatchell and all the original Gay Liberation Front – as well as all the others who gave so much. It's also worth reminding ourselves that their message was that Pride must mean liberation for all. Always.