This weekend sees the start of Pride season, with Sheffield and Birmingham Pride events happening this weekend. Interestingly, both festivals are changing this year – both have traditionally been free, but Birmingham’s just started selling tickets giving access to some areas, and Sheffield’s also just introduced an entry charge. It might seem churlish to complain about this – after all, Birmingham Pride stresses that many parts of the festival are still free, and the entry fee for Sheffield is only £3. But a look around the country shows what can happen when Pride events start charging – Brighton charges £12.50 for a ticket, or £50 for a VIP one, while in Manchester, prices are up to £20 for an advance ticket, or £90 for a platinum ticket. Just as it’s worth paying attention to the US to see what Britain might look like if the welfare state gets totally stripped away, Manchester’s unaffordable prices and £90 platinum passes are a vision of what a Pride event can become if money-making takes over – luckily, I don’t have to write a full report on how dodgy Manchester Pride is, because there’s already an excellent and very in-depth report on its murky dealings here, and Gay Mafia Watch* have also reported on its close ties to big business. While Sheffield and Birmingham – and Nottingham, which like Sheffield currently has a very low entry price – might seem a long way off from this mess, they’ve already set the precedent of charging for entry, which means that it’ll only be a question of degree if they put prices up a bit next year, and then a bit more the year after that.
As well as being the most commercialised Pride, Manchester’s also been one of the most contested, with a fairly militant intervention by working-class queers in 2008, and a free alternative event organised in 2010. The struggles over the meaning of Pride got a bit of attention in 2010, although I’m not sure if any alternative events happened last year.
In some ways, Pride as an institution resembles a sexual equivalent to the trade unions – founded with the best of intentions by people who really wanted to change things, they did some good along the way, but they also became more and more comfortable in the world they set out to transform, and now they’re just one more part of a world we have no control over**. Just as some sectors of the ruling class want to get rid of the unions altogether, there are still plenty of homophobes who are openly hostile to Pride, from the hilarious idiots of the National Front and Christian Voice to more sinister opponents like the thugs who forced the cancellation of Kiev’s first gay pride parade and beat up its supporters earlier this month. With the current resurgence of religious activism, we’re likely to see more opposition to Pride events, and that needs to be countered. But, as with the unions, it’s not enough to just defend them – we should also point out the internal contradictions within these events, and do what we can to escalate them. As a celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer*** identities, Pride serves as a reminder of how intolerant society still is, but this kind of political message has to battle for attention with the voice of companies like Smirnoff.
When talking about forms of oppression that can’t just be reduced to economic issues, anarchists and other class-struggle militants often see our role as being to argue against cross-class alliances – for instance, the Anarchist Federation makes this point one of its key principles. This is fine as far as it goes, and it’s certainly better than arguing for cross-class alliances, but it can seem a bit abstract and vague – for one thing, if someone’s suffering homophobic abuse or bullying, just telling them not to rely on gay politicians to sort things out doesn’t do much to establish what we can do to change the situation, and, as a general rule, pointing out that gay bosses exploit workers too might seem a bit irrelevant to someone who’s never worked for one. But Pride, supposedly an apolitical celebration of an identity that all LGBTQ people have in common, is also an event where opposing class interests are visible: obviously, it’s in the interests of virtually everyone interested in attending not to have to chuck away a tenner or more on a ticket, just as it’s in the interest of the Marketing Manchester businessmen lining their pockets with Pride money to charge as much as possible.
So, what would a radical intervention into Pride actually look like? The examples discussed above give some ideas, but it’s hard to suggest a general set of tactics when local conditions vary so wildly. In areas like Sheffield and Nottingham, where the entry price remains very low, or the many areas of the country where entry remains free, it’d be hard to justify anything more than a leaflet or something similar highlighting the contradictions of Pride and raising key points like the danger of ending up with an event, like Manchester or Brighton, that effectively excludes people on low incomes, and trying to stir up debate about the direction the event is heading in. At the most expensive events, doing this kind of propaganda work would still be worthwhile, but since benefits claimants and other people on low incomes are shut out, you could think about trying to justify the use of more militant tactics – it’s not often I’d suggest emulating the hippies as a political model, but it is worth noting that radical hippies responded to the increasing commercialism of their scene by sabotaging fences to turn profit-making events into free festivals, both at Woodstock and in the UK. Even if that’s too ambitious and controversial to pull off successfully, it’s still worth arguing for – if nothing else, it’s a contribution to the larger task of trying to make direct action the standard response to being ripped off.
* a gay site, not a homophobic one, in case the name has you worried
** of course there are also important differences between Pride events and the unions, for instance the fact that no-one has ever suggested that going to the GMB NEC would be a fun and relaxing way to spend an afternoon.
*** I always feel the need to spell out any potentially unfamiliar acronyms the first time I use them, although I can’t really imagine any reader who’d be interested to read a 1,000 word article about Pride and class politics but had never come across the term LGBTQ. Still, you never know.