Comment: London Pride 1998 shows us why UKIP should be allowed to march

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Lib Dem councillor and former Director of London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard David Chalmers, writes for PinkNews that UKIP should be allowed to march at Saturday’s Pride in London.

With less than a week away, regrettably it looks like Pride in London is going to stick by its decision to exclude the LGBT+ members of UKIP from taking part in this year’s Parade. So whilst we contemplate the reasoning behind their justification, that they are not banning UKIP because of its policies, but rather to safeguard the security of their stewards, it might be worthwhile reminding ourselves of the summer of 1998, when faced with equally challenging issues, the outcome we arrived at better encapsulated the true spirit of Pride.

That year we were all looking forward to a big party, but at the same time we intended to send a definite message to the Government that we were not happy with the slow pace of reform. Labour had been in power for a year, but many LGBT+ people still lived in the closet – in fear of losing their jobs, homes, friends and family, if they publicly disclosed their sexuality. Clause 28 which declared us second-class citizens was still law and much of the legislation that would end our discrimination was a long way off. Pride Day in London was the only opportunity for a lot of people to be open about their sexuality in public and nothing expressed that freedom more than being able to march through the streets of London.

To ensure that the interests and various voices of our LGBT+ community were heard, a group was formed, to which I was asked to join, as one of the Directors of London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard. By encouraging people from all walks of life to come out, we were popping up in the most unlikely places. It is hard to believe now, but then it was still quite novel to see corporations sponsoring Pride and most LGBT+ networks were just ideas on the table, waiting to be formed. As with UKIP today, it was quite incomprehensible for me, as someone who had resigned their career in the civil service and fought their discriminatory laws for a decade, that a gay man or lesbian could be a member of the Conservative party, let alone want to declare so publicly in the Pride March. Others were offended by the presence of LGBT + members of a Church, which had been persecuting and complicit in the murder of people because of their sexuality around the world for centuries. In the end after much discussion, at times often heated, we put all our differences and objections aside and in the spirit of inclusivity allowed LGBT+ Tories and Catholics to join the March.

Pride consisted of two parts, the March, undeniably a political event drawing crowds of up to 500,000 , and the party afterwards, usually held in one of the parks, that was to be staged that year by a commercial group, charging an entrance fee. In recognition that the march was the main attraction, part of the ticket fee offset the costs of policing, street cleaning and stewarding. So when just two weeks before Pride the company organising the party went bankrupt and pulled out of the event, it left the costs of the march uncovered. Pride was going to have to be cancelled.

It happened so fast, but our response was amazing – an inspiring moment for our community. We all pulled to together to save Pride. That was how the street party in Soho came about, the one that we still enjoy today. Most things were covered except where were we going to get adequate numbers of volunteers to act as stewards in less than two weeks? There was no money to pay for them? Without them the police would not allow the March to go ahead. It was not an easy decision, but Switchboard’s volunteers gave up their position at the front of the March to replace the missing stewards. We went through superfast training, being made aware of possible incidents that could put us in danger, but were reassured that the Police were there to assist us, even though they would stay mostly in the background, so as not to provoke the marchers . The Police were not widely regarded as the best friends of the LGBT+ community.

But they proved their worth on the day. The Police Commander in charge of security could have called it all off. We were not adequately prepared or in sufficient numbers to control such an event. But he let it pass. After all it was Pride. His only real concern was Downing Street. The route of the march went straight past. The solution came from myself and a group of colleagues forming a line in front of the gates to the Prime Minister’s residence. The Police, monitoring the situation constantly from nearby, were ready to intervene should any of the marchers try to breach our line, but for three hours we stood firm as thousands marched past; screaming , shouting and blowing their whistles right in our faces as loud as they could. Certainly not the most enjoyable experience, but a day I shall never forget or want to have missed. We pulled off something magical that day. I am not sure if Tony Blair was home that afternoon, but I like to think that our march and the message it conveyed, played its part in spurring him on to bring in the legislation that helped improve the lives for LGBT+ people across this country.

I do not believe that we are any different today. Had we been asked, I am sure enough individuals or LGBT+ organisations would have put themselves forward as stewards to replace any shortfall. Of course threats have to be taken seriously, but if warned that their actions could jeopardise this year’s Parade from taking place, people would have found non violent ways to show their displeasure at UKIPs participation; for example by turning their backs. Or learn from Sydney in 2007, where on hearing that the LGBT+ Police Group were still taking part in Mardi Gras after they had raided the main dance party a few nights before, and been caught on camera beating up some of the revelers, people lining the route remained completely silent as the LGBT+ Police walked past. The message was strong and clear -– in complete contrast to the wild cheering that greeted the rest of the Parade.

It may be too late for this year to find ways to include UKIP, but this problem is far from settled. If we take this year’s decision as a precedent then groups that might be deemed to offend others should be very concerned at the spotlight falling on them next year. Prides across Europe are grappling with the same issue. Berlin has apparently three separate marches. Do we want that for London? Few would dispute that a line has to be drawn – no-one would want Hitler or his supporters and henchmen on their march regardless of their sexuality.

We have scored an own goal here by allowing the likes of Nigel Farage to label us as intolerant and prejudiced. This is not who we are – we are better than this, and I hope that the dialogue the organisers of Pride in London have suggested will take place over the next year will enable us to regain that spirit of 1998 and set an example for the rest of the world to follow.

David Chalmers was a Director of London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard in late 1990s, a Co- Founder and Trustee of the Kaleidoscope Trust and recently elected a Councillor in North Devon.