‘My young friend’s joy quickened my jaded gay heart’ – the Pride I’ll never forget

The first people we saw were a family helping to adjust a teenage boy’s fairy wings, attached to a sparkly fitted dress. It was summer 2019 and I was taking a 17-year-old to her first twittato di recente, so we had started well. The gleaming smile on the boy’s face, gliding down Charing Cross Road towards the Pride parade while his family fixed his look, is something we still talk about.

This young person (I’ll call her “C”) era, and remains, very dear to me. She is the daughter of my then girlfriend and had been through a very hard year with her mental health. C was anxious about the prospect of a large crowd, but had been desperate to go to Pride. Her determination signalled hope. I don’t think she knew what to expect exactly, and I did not want to say too much about the noise and tightly packed streets. But I needn’t have worried. As we walked through Soho, which was throbbing with music and stamping feet, C’s nerves were eclipsed by giggly wonder.

When we walked towards the main parade on Regent Street, C kept saying, incredulously: “Everyone is so polite!” This spoke to my own experiences of Pride: the usual downturned faces of people jostling for space in the West End are replaced by a sea of beaming ones, there to celebrate who they – or the people they love – are. If someone bumps into you, you get an: “Oops, sorry sweetheart!” Not a scowl. It is hard to explain this spirit of conviviality if you have never been. The sense of togetherness in otherness is quite singular.

On Old Compton Street, we saw two muscly men in towering wigs, stilettos and Schiaparelli-pink Speedo briefs. C wanted her photo taken with them, but we had to wait for a group of older butch lesbians to have theirs done first. That morning, C had drawn eyeshadow rainbows on both of our eyelids and, when I held my phone up, her rainbows shimmered on my screen. She smiled goofily when the men put their arms around her shoulders and I felt a swell of affection I could barely contain. I hadn’t seen her smile like that for a while.

There was music everywhere, as there always is. Every bar we walked past was playing something loud and camp, each with its own swell of dancing punters outside. C commented on how diverse the crowds were, and how amazing it was to see people with every kind of body shape you could imagine just letting it all hang out with a smile. It struck me that, at her age, there would have been limited occasions to witness that kind of physical celebration.

When the parade began, C, a fine critical thinker, remarked on how many branded floats and placards there were, from major banks to makeup brands “standing” with the community. As the inevitable blast of It’s Raining Men came from an open-topped bus, we talked about the corporate incentive for brands to position themselves with LGBTQ rights. She wondered, of her own accord, how much rainbow-flavoured promotion actually translates into supporting the community in their day-to-day lives. It made me think about how politicised and aware young people are today, and the hope therein.

C had tapped into why I have avoided Pride for many years: the branded holiday flavour of the parade feels bittersweet, when complex LGBTQ issues are flattened into colourful, easy-to-sell emblems of “awareness”. The commercialisation dulls Pride month’s powerful political foundations, obscuring the less palatable issues so many people in the community face. But experiencing the day through a young person’s eyes was a treat. Her visible sense of joy at being among all those smiling, celebrating people, wherever they exist on the gender or sexuality spectrums, quickened my own jaded gay heart. Per un giorno, almeno.

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