Pride marches are a global phenomenon, with colour-festooned flags, banners, badges, and paints brightening up the streets in many countries, from Mauritius to Montreal, Los Angeles to London, and Hong Kong to Pretoria (too much alliteration is A Bad Thing).
Pride is a public forum for for the community of people who fall under the expanding banner of LGBTA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and asexual – not allies, no matter what anyone else tells you), and they allow people to come together and – one hopes – feel safe in the knowledge that they’re in the majority for a few hours.
I’ve always been very curious about pride marches; never having attended one, I rather wondered what all the fuss was about. A large amount of LGBTA+Q!PLMDN (if you want to read something into the initials, go right ahead) people walking through temporarily-pedestrianised roads with a lot of supporters lining the road, cheering and joining in the general festival-style atmosphere. Well, they sound like fun, but why – what was the point?
I understand the theory, of course; there were arguments made for the marches fifty years ago, when they first started in Chicago and New York City in June 1970; the year before, LGBT people rioted at New York’s Stonewall Inn. Perhaps (hopefully) realising that riots wouldn’t necessarily engender the respect and friendship of wider society, the following year, peaceful marches were set up in two cities on the same day. It seemed to work; more than 1,000 turned up at each event, and that number has grown exponentially since.
In those early days, people were making a comment; LGBT people were treated differently to non-LGBT people. They couldn’t marry, were often vilified on the streets for showing affection, experienced discrimination in the workplace, and were still getting over generations of direct discrimination when any form of non-hetrosexual activity was illegal. So that mindset caused the community to be viewed as different, and that needed to be challenged.
Flash forward fifty years and things have changed, mostly in the right direction. LGBT marriage is now on the statute books of many liberal democracies, and sinkholes haven’t opened up to destroy society. LGBT people can often be out at work and be accepted, gain promotions, and treated equally. But there’s a darker side to all this; people in Chechnya are being sent to concentration camps for the “crime” of being gay, people are being executed in Uganda and Nairobi for the same reason, and President Trump, in the country that is meant to typify freedom and tolerance, condones the separation of LGBT people into a subset – rather than a part of society at large – and seeks to remove hard-won freedoms, such as equal marriage, equal rights in the workplace, and to just live quietly and privately.
So yes, there is a lot to celebrate – perhaps a reason for a march, to acknowledge freedoms gained? – but also a lot to defend and change, as intolerance is still rife. I speak for a constituency of one – me – but imagine that a lot of LGBT people want something very similar to me; to be treated normally, as an equal part of society, without having to defend or demand a particular right. Many people march for those reasons, and many also march for a bit of a party as well; who can blame them?
I was caught on the fringes of 2016’s London pride, only because I was visiting one of my friends in the Evelina Children’s Hospital, where her son had been for a few days, and hadn’t realised my visit coincided with the march. As I left the hospital and crossed Westminster Bridge, I was immediately caught in a huge logjam of people, and the walk up the street – one which usually takes me five or ten minutes – took me nigh on an hour. There were people everywhere, and I don’t do crowds of people; I get terribly irritable. Almost hard to believe, isn’t it?
2017’s London parade came round rather quickly. I’m a member of a few asexual groups, and in one group in particular, the London march was being discussed. We try and arrange a meet-up every month through this particular group – UK Asexuality (the picture on the front of this post is of the three admins – myself, Diana, and Jamaal) – and so a few people decided to go along to pride and join in with the asexual contingent that was being organised through the Asexuality Visibility & Education Network (AVEN).
Having friendships with people who are like you isn’t something that can be underestimated; it’s a huge privilege to know that there are others out there who have experienced similar things to you, and see the world through similar eyes. When I’ve wondered, “How does asexuality actually work? How does it become part of my life?”, I’ve got people who have asked similar questions and perhaps come to some conclusions.
But back to pride. I was intrigued to go along to the day, but something was holding me back; a hesitation, perhaps, that I was having a heretical thought in the hind part of my brain – was pride relevant in the 21st century? Did asexuals have a place in it? Would it just be three asexuals and a couple of balloons?
I met up with a friend in the morning to discuss over a drink at a new haunt. He told me about previous prides that he’d taken part in – that intrigued me enough to think, “Well, I should at least see what all the fuss is about.”
The two of us travelled over to the edge of Regent’s Park, and that was a momentary blotting out of the sun – all the asexuals who had decided to come were to meet by the tube station, and so it would be then that we would know how many were going to actually turn up. I still wasn’t holding out much hope of it being higher than 8, but for no other reason than that was the most asexuals I’d ever been with at any one time. Stupid, I know, to think like that, but there you have it.
There are occasions when I can easily – and verifiably – be proved wrong, and I am very glad to tell you I was proved wrong on the numbers front. Forty-three asexuals gathered together to march in the parade, and that was a little overwhelming to my tiny brain. For someone who only came to understand that he was asexual just three or four years ago (it takes me a while to adjust), to be around such a plurality of asexual people, with a multiplicity of stories, experiences, and ranges on the spectrum, was fascinating; it connected with me on an emotional level that I hadn’t expecting, reminding me that asexuality is a spectrum all by itself – you can be attracted to your own gender, the opposite gender, both, neither, or some subtle gradient that I couldn’t even begin to imagine yet.
We then took our place in the marching order – by this point, I was very much swept up in the day – and you then get to see the diversity of people who come of pride. I hadn’t dressed up, nor did I have any flags, bunting, coloured paint, brightly-decorated clothes, or anything other than just my ever-attached hat and a small asexual badge. People from across the LGBT community had dressed up in all sorts of costumes, which I shan’t even begin to try and describe to you as I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I shall say only this; there was more flesh on display than I could have expected in various decorative form, and others were dressed up in highly-elaborate costumes that would have put peacocks to shame.
There was actually a long wait before we could begin the march, as a protest against it had been held well up ahead of us. I saw nothing of it, and can’t find any mention of what precisely happened online, so I shall have to be regrettably sparce on that point. Suffice to say, it massively delayed the start by at least two hours, but it did have one good point; I got to know my fellow aces in more detail. There was the Pieces of Ace podcast members, who do a brilliant job raising awareness with their Sunday night podcast; the American visitor who was working and studying over here and had wanted to be involved; there was the trainee barrister whose friends turned out to declare that she was a fantastic friend; someone whose knowledge of sports as a device for social action was unparalleled; and a young guy of 17 whose mum had also come along and was the most effective advocate for asexuality to be treated equally that I think I’ve ever met.
I also spoke to a lot of others from the wider LGBT community; a guy who travelled to a number of the bigger prides each year to feel connected to a community that, at home, he couldn’t access; a couple who were Dutch / German and spoke to each other in English whilst telling me about their respective university studies over here; and a Portugese woman who was talking to me about tattoos and the various issues about good and bad tattooists.
Of course, when we finally got moving along the 1.5 mile route, we got to see hoardes of people lining the route, and it was moving to realise that people wanted the solidarity a day like this provided; there seemed to be a communal desire for people across the LGBT community for us to be amongst people with a common denominator, and I think I began to properly understand – I suspect for the first time – the emotional desire behind these events that remains central to them even to this day.
Pride marches were born out of frustration and anger at inequality in the system – the established core of ideas that seemed to permeate through society – and they remain powerful and potent to this day because people want to celebrate the successes they’ve experienced and remember the issues that brought to the liberalised present … as well as accept that there are still things to be done.
And as for me? Well, I’m a convert, as much I can be towards new experiences that I’ve had once – I need to take my time and see them a few times before I can fully absorb their enormities. But it’s an event that I would willingly do again, so see how people adapt and cope over time, and how the march evolves to meet changing values in society.
But I’d do it again for one reason above all; seeing a young woman in the crowd smile broadly as she saw the asexual contingent walk past and look like – for the first time – she had seen people who were just like her. I know how she felt; like she belonged.