The day Pride came home
Pride is 50 today. It was a long way to here. And what a journey it’s been. Now, in late middle age, I can say without hesitation I’m proud to have been on it most of the way. But to begin with, I wasn’t really sure.
Pride for me — in the literal sense — was a slow burn. I was only 11 in 1972. It was a different time and news of that trailblazing march on 1st July didn’t reach the leafy Cheshire village where I grew up. Neither did I know I was gay. But I did have an inkling I might be different.
In the years that followed just what that difference might mean began to reveal itself. By the time I heard Rod Stewart sing the words ‘Georgie boy was gay I guess’ four years later I was pretty sure I was too.
I didn’t have much of a clue what it meant. But I’d already had my first unrequited crush and made the connection between Georgie’s affections for the same sex and mine. I told no one, of course. There was still quite a bit of figuring out to do.
By the time Tom Robinson urged us to sing a different set of lyrics in 1978, I wasn’t in much doubt. And by then my second unrequited crush was simmering. But I wasn’t sure I was actually glad to be gay, nor why anyone else might be.
Yet within a couple of years, I had come out to the world, or at least my little bit of it. And in February 1981, on a cold, damp day I travelled from Lancaster where I was a student to my home city of Manchester to attend my first gay rights demonstration.
It was organised by an activist coalition called the Campaign Against State Repression and an outfit called Gay Noise. Back at university, I penned an article for the Lancaster Gay Group newsletter bemoaning the poor turnout from my fellow group members.
‘We must act now before it is too late!’ I signed off. Such a serious young activist. The personal was political but it was the political I took to heart. Glad? Proud? Me? That wasn’t the point. Fighting for our rights was. Collective endeavour.
And that was how it was for much of the next decade and a half — spearheading the campaign for lesbian and gay rights in my union, all the way to Blackpool and the 1985 Trades Union Congress. I’m proud of that now. Back then it just felt like the right thing to do. It wasn’t a fashionable cause.
But something else happened just a few weeks after that triumphant moment in the Winter Gardens. Something personal. Something which changed my life forever. I met Lawrence, fittingly — inevitably even — at my union’s lesbian and gay conference.
I guess there had to be some reward for all that toil — and Lawrence was mine. And what a glittering prize he was. Handsome, fiercely intelligent, quick-witted, and so much more. There was just one catch — he was positive. He had the virus. The one that was killing us.
To hell with it. I was smitten. I said it was okay. Did we have ten weeks? Ten months? We didn’t know. In the end, remarkably, we had ten years. But by the time we stepped out into the sunlight at Victoria Park for Pride 1995, our time was almost up.
Lawrence was in a wheelchair by then, his brain addled by HIV encephalopathy. If you’re not sure what that looks like, think Colin in It’s A Sin. Looking back, it seems mad we went there at all. And quite where he thought he was half the time I really don’t know.
The other half, he made perfect sense — to me at least. Including the moment when he queried the rainbow flag I pinned to his jacket, muttering something about pink triangles. And another when he beckoned me to his ear and warned me not to trust someone we’d run into.
In the intervening 10 years, I’d learned to love Pride. Not so much the party, but the resistance. Marching with the miners in 1985, wearing our Never Going Underground t-shirts in 1988. F**k Section 28; we DID have an ‘inalienable right to be gay.’
And in a moment of reflection looking back at the main stage in Brockwell Park in 1992, I saw my union’s name emblazoned across the list of sponsors. We did that, I thought to myself. And I was quite proud. But I told no one, of course.
Now, three years later, here we were, Lawrence and me, just a short drive from the home we had made together in Stoke Newington. We lost lives back then, but we built them too.
We hadn’t been on the march — that would have been a step too far. But Pride had come home, and we had come to the party. We were going to be there no matter what.
And as we meandered our way haphazardly around the park — I never quite mastered the art of pushing that wheelchair — we were, in our own small way, celebrating. His life. Our life together. And he was saying farewell to the cause through which we’d met.
And now, all these years on, I get why we were there that day and, despite the craziness of it all, just how proud I feel. Of him. Of us. Of all that.
So, it’s fitting for me that this Pride weekend is bookended by another, tragic, anniversary. On Monday it will be 40 years since Terry Higgins died. AIDS: The Unheard Tapes, currently streaming on BBC iPlayer, tells that story like it’s never been told before. Don’t miss it.
Lawrence died on 10 July 1995, just two weeks after that proud, proud day. I never owned a camera before smartphones but luckily some dear friends took a photo. I could scarcely look at it for a decade or more. But I can now — and I can see the pride shine through.
This piece was inspired by taking part in a Listening Project conversation with Ashley from the Proud Trust https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0018fs4