Birmingham Pride ran over the weekend of the 25th and 26th of September, having been postponed from the Summer due to Covid. You wouldn’t have known it wasn’t running on schedule and in normal times. The weather was warm, people mingled freely and there was a carnival atmosphere throughout the entire city. Brightly coloured crowds lined the parade route, from Victoria Square, where the ‘floozie in the jacuzzi’ sculpture saw the various corporate businesses and community groups assemble to begin the whistling, noisy journey, all the way to Hurst Street; 80’s tunes and drag queens among the rainbows leaving no one in doubt about what was going on.
If you wanted to go to Pride for rainbow branded freebie tat, then you were in your element. The Co-op were particularly visible, but there were numerous businesses represented, from law firms to medical groups. Political parties, youth organizations and religious groups all beamed cheerfully in a dizzying array of branded apparel and accessories. Each had their own version of the flag, and I was particularly baffled by Alliance Medical who had adorned their rainbow flag with images of brain scans. There were the obligatory drag queens, some drag kings on the float for The Fox pub, and a small group of young people, most of them female, clad in hot pants and bra-tops, gyrating around, one holding a sign in trans flag colours that read Trans Bodies Are Beautiful.
This admirable self-confidence wasn’t so obvious in the numerous young transmasculine girls in evidence. Early to mid-teens, often with their parents and siblings, ostensibly on a family day out, sporting short hair and the occasional obvious binder, trans flag draped around their shoulders, not many looked especially comfortable or happy, and I saw one burst into overwhelmed tears at one point near the Hippodrome. The contrast between her distress and the larger than life drag queens getting ready for a party in Hurst Street was marked.
I remember walking down Hurst Street as an 18-year-old, and being nervous as can be, venturing into a very grown-up world for the first time, knowing I liked women romantically and sexually, hoping to find people like me, people I couldn’t find easily in my hometown. I really don’t know what Hurst Street has for these confused trans-identifying youngsters, each clutching a trans flag around themselves like a security blanket.
For a start, any other weekend of the year it wouldn’t have cost them £20 just to walk into the area. Given the massive corporate presence, and the businesses rebranding themselves for the circus, it was remarkable to think that lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people were having to pay at least £20 to visit the streets outside pubs and clubs that were meant to be their spaces, and which, during Pride, were about to be swamped with straight people anyway.
Once inside, the branding circus reached absurd proportions. I expected to find stalls talking to LGBT+ people about sexual or mental health, HIV testing, encouraging fostering or adoption or even the community police presence. These are all issues specific to the community, where there have been structural barriers, and it was great to see that kind of outreach.
I wasn’t expecting to be chatting to an enthusiastic person from the RSPB about the work they are doing specifically to reach out to the LGBTQIA+ community. He seemed to assume that there was a similar structural barrier to everyone on this acronym when it came to wildlife conservation and had a nice array of bird pin-badges, re-branded with rainbows, of course. I learned a lot about hedgehogs from him. Not much about why being a lesbian might mean I would have felt excluded from efforts to preserve the species in the UK from a 97% drop in the last 70 years.
But despite my cynicism, Pride wasn’t a complete washout for me. As I was walking up to Victoria Square among other revellers, a group of young men were coming in the opposite direction. If I had been a woman alone, they would have intimidated me, and in fact a group just like them attacked me outside a station in another city in the 1990’s. I was braced to hear a whoop of ‘Queer lezzer!’ and the memory of a fist to the back of my head still echoes. But they actually whooped ‘LGBT! Alright!’ and their fists weren’t raised to punch, but to bump with each of us, men and women alike, smiling laddishly as they passed. It was actually quite moving.
Later, I saw a flamboyant gay man walking across the New Street station concourse, drawing double-takes from the conservatively dressed by-standers, and when we made eye-contact – obvious butch lesbian to fabulous gay man – a smile and a wink passed between us of genuine understanding and community.
But it was a couple of hours after I left that the sweetest moment happened. I emerged from the train at my home station, and a lesbian couple left the platform in front of me. Rainbow garlands round their necks, they looked at each other. One reached for the other’s hand, and they walked out of the station together, and no one batted an eyelid. For all the empty gestures in the big city, the people just there for a festival atmosphere, the people who went seeking identity, the point of all of that was supposed to be so that same-sex couples could do the things that opposite sex couples have always been able to do.
The following day I spoke to someone who scowled at the financial waste of police clowning and the bloated inconvenience of a Pride event ‘for the bloody gays probably spreading disease again’ and there was a dark undertone of resentment that sent a shard of ice through my heart.
There’s a big sense right now that LGB people aren’t welcome at LGBTQIA+ events like Pride unless they keep their heads down and hold a party line. I know I kept my mouth shut and just joined in the fun, and I’m sure there were many more like me. But there was something deeply symbolic to me in the big shiny expensive event in the big city, where I saw lots of brightly dressed opposite sex couples enjoying a vacuous party, contrasted to the lesbian couple coming home to the small town, who can now hold hands unharrassed.
Our equality and freedom isn’t the big Pride event, it’s being able to be openly ourselves when there are no rainbow carnival vibes to protect us. That group of lads may decide they want to punch with those fists again. The obvious gay man on the station concourse may become a victim. So might I.
If we aren’t wise, corporate rainbow-washing may well be the very thing that sends us back to some bleak days, and I want us to hold on to the good things we actually have.
Kay Knight is a British writer and podcaster. She has a particular focus on women’s stories, and an enduring fondness for Doctor Who, despite everything.
Phot: Jaycee Photography / Alamy Stock Photo