Gay Pride: just another Saturday night out

A minor storm has been brewing in Brighton for the last couple of months over the announcement that a part of this weekend’s Gay Pride celebrations will be ticketed. The ‘main event’ in Preston Park has been ticket-only for a few years, but the seafront street party on St James’s Street in the Kemptown area has, until now, been free to all, mainly because it takes place on public streets.

There have long been complaints that Pride events in London, Brighton and elsewhere are over-commercialised, over-regulated and cleansed of their political content. Indeed, things have come a long way from the original Gay Pride marches which were conceived and organised by Gay Liberation Front activists as an annual commemoration of the Stonewall riots of 1969. Today, they are organised and funded in conjunction with local councils and businesses, and are seen as a way of boosting the local economy and projecting an image of tolerance, freedom and social inclusion.

Of course, all things change and Pride festivals have evolved to reflect the fact that homosexuality is no longer the social taboo it once was. Indeed, it’s fairly routine to find young straight kids going to gay clubs and Pride festivals. And it’s fairly obvious that it’s this group of ‘undesirables’ that the street-party entrance fee is designed to deter. According to Brighton councillor Geoffrey Bowden: ‘Uncontrolled access and irresponsible attitudes to alcohol have turned what should be a celebration into something of a headache and, for some, a nightmare.’ James Ledward of Brighton magazine G-Scene claims that ‘a rough, noisy and, especially on the Saturday night, a not-too LGBT community crowd’ are spoiling the event. So, everyone is welcome except the uncouth, ‘noisy’ oiks who want to join the party and have a good time on a Saturday night.

This move comes on the back of increasing restrictions on who can participate in Pride celebrations and what placards or banners they can display. At last year’s festival, the group Queers Against Cuts were allegedly kicked out of the procession for being ‘too political’ and activists are claiming that, this year, organisers are stipulating exactly what banners and placards are allowed at the festival. Ironically, according to activist Beth Granter: ‘if you volunteer to hold a placard from Pride about other countries’ homophobic laws you can get a free pride-park and street-party pass’.

The reality is that Pride festivals today are little different to the plethora of privately organised summer music festivals, where attendees expect to pay an entrance fee and organisers are well within their rights to dictate who comes in and what goes on. The irony in this case is that Gay Pride, a festival that claims to uphold freedom and tolerance, is working to keep out specific undesirables.

Nevertheless, there is a broader issue here – that it’s almost impossible today for anyone to organise their own event, be it a festival, a party in the park or a demonstration, without the say-so of police and local government. This is why most festivals, from the Notting Hill Carnival to Gay Pride, are heavily controlled and, in part, funded by the authorities.

In a free society we should be free to organise our own events and activities, be they political or social, without the interference of the authorities. The fact that we can’t is a much bigger problem than a few rancorous lads tearing about St James’s Street.

Niall Crowley is a writer based in London.

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