‘I felt for the first time I wasn’t alone’: how Pride transformed lives

When Richard French-Lowe first went to Pride in London in 1989, he was too afraid to join the march. As a civil servant and serving territorial army soldier, he kept his sexuality hidden because both organisations regarded gay men as a security risk.

But joining the party in Kennington Park, Sur de Londres, after the march proved to be a transformative experience for French-Lowe, one of about 30 LGBTQ+ people and allies to respond to a Guardian callout about their memories of UK Pride events, 50 years on from the country’s first march.

“I will always remember the sense of safety I felt as I emerged from the underground into a crowd of thousands,” said French-Lowe, 55, a training manager for HS2 from Birmingham. “I felt for the first time that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t deviant and that I should be proud of who I am. I remember seeing the leather men and the drag queens, which was all new to me. It introduced me to LGBTQ history.”

En 1990, he joined the Pride march though central London, which he found empowering. “I remember there was a guy in drag, dressed as Margaret Thatcher, who was standing by the gates of Downing Street being turned away by the police,” said French-Lowe, who has dressed in drag for recent marches in Birmingham. “There was lots of humour as well as politics.”

French-Lowe’s experiences are typical of many LGBTQ+ people who attended Pride parades when homosexuality was still a criminal offence, according to Stef Dickers, the special collections and archives manager of Bishopsgate Institute, which is collecting stories and memorabilia, including flyers, banners and T-shirts, from events since the first UK march in 1972.

“Going to the marches was a political move, but it was also about the joy of being surrounded for the first time by other gay people,” said Dickers. “If you look at the people who there in 1972, they were smiling and dancing down the street.”

The programmes donated to the People’s Pride archive, the first of its kind in the UK, show how early events were far less corporate than modern parades, which have featured floats from banks and arms manufacturers, with local gay and lesbian community groups organising picnics, discos and discussions around London.

Jon Pyper, 60, a landlord from Goole, sent the Guardian photos of his first Pride march in London in 1982, when he was on the organising committee of the Gay Youth Movement. Dressed in a yellow jump suit, with his hair dyed red, he stands in front of a banner painted like bricks, representing the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969.

“It was the one point in the year, where it seemed like everyone you knew on the scene in London and elsewhere in the country all came together,” said Pyper.

The event was also memorable for other reasons. “Halfway through the march there was a huge thunderstorm,” he recalled. “My red hair dye was not permanent, so it bled into the top of my jumpsuit. I dyed it pink and wore it again the following year.”

For gay men of colour, early marches offered some refuge from racism, not only in mainstream society but within the LGBTQ+ community. Karun Thakar, 62, from London, recalled feeling accepted as a South Asian gay man by Gay Liberation Front activists, but also being targeted for racial abuse.

“You were made to feel unwelcome in gay venues,” said Thakar, the author of books on African and Asian textiles and dress, recalling his first London Pride march in 1982. “It was a different atmosphere at the marches. You felt liberated that people were not just supporting you because you have the same sexuality. They were seeing you as an Asian or black person, and accepting you.”

Dickers said most donations to the People’s Pride archive so far were from white gay men, and he encouraged other groups to share their experiences of black and trans Pride events.

Nu McAdam, 29, from Brighton, a trans, non-binary and disabled illustrator, told the Guardian how liberating it was to take part in their first Pride march in 2006 as a wheelchair user. “I had this big banner saying ‘accept disabled people at Pride’, which my carer held up for me,” McAdam recalled. “And I had a little sign on my cheek that said ‘bi’ on it with a big heart next to it.”

McAdam is now a co-organiser of Brighton Trans Pride, which they say reflects the more radical roots of the early Pride marches. “A lot of the people who come to Trans Pride are not just white, gay males. They are trans women, trans men, non-binary, people of all colours. Trans Pride are the champions of what Pride should be.”

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