Last week I went to Brighton Pride. My goal was to support a Lesbian presence. I didn’t know that my lesbian friend Claire and I would be the ONLY Lesbian presence there. Claire had, in the traditional way, hand-sewn a beautiful banner which said, ‘Everybody knows Pride was started by Stormé Larvarie, a black lesbian’. We wore purple t-shirts stating ‘Lesbian =Female homosexual’. I thought it was all very appropriate for Pride.
As unregistered participants, we joined the back of the parade. Our first surprise was a graphic piece of porn, a large drawing of a naked woman trussed and bound for sex. It was horrifying and it was displayed on the back of a float laden with people with small children.
The music blared, the people danced, the sun blazed, the people sweated and reached out for goodies, rainbows and glitter twinkled from every visible surface. The corporate floats seemed endless; I gathered from talking to some of the occupants that they got free transport and day off in lieu for joining in this act of Corporate Social Responsibility and handing out hundreds of plastic advertising flags to the crowd.
Soon an orange-clad security man stopped and spoke to us. ‘You can’t carry that here,’ he said, pointing to our lovely banner. ‘You’ll have to stand over there at the side with that,’ indicating the crowd at the side of the procession. We affected not to have heard him, so he tried again. ‘You can’t march along here. This is for companies, they have booked these spots.’ I explained that we had joined the back of the procession and that we were a lesbian group carrying a banner, and he said he was going to get someone else to speak to us. We marched on. The crowd seemed very positive about our banner, some asking if it was true, a lot of black people giving us the thumbs up, a lot of older people agreeing and even thanking us for marching with it. One fellow-marcher wore a cloak which said ‘Pride is Protest’ but the rest was either advertising or jolly celebration.
Another steward, in yellow this time and friendly, drew alongside for a chat. I explained to him the importance of Stormé Larverie and he was impressed. ‘You’re a bit like those ‘Get the ‘L’ Out’ people at London Pride,’ he said. ‘Yes, you’re absolutely right,’ I said, ‘And in fact I was one of those ‘Get the ‘L’ Out’ people at London pride, and we’re a bit worried because your colleague seemed to want to throw us off the procession.’ He looked concerned, and offered to go and ‘have a word’ with someone senior on our behalf, because he supported our message and thought it was good that we were there. He thought the ‘head honcho’ would think the same. He returned after a few minutes and said that we had permission from the top man to be in the march, and would not be bothered by anyone else now. Relieved, we thanked him.
After a while we really couldn’t stand the porny picture any longer, and skipped a few floats further up to a better spot. The first orange-clad steward was now giving us a wide berth. A photographer friend from London popped up to say hello. ‘Lovely banner,’ she complimented, ‘it’s the only time today I’ve seen the word ‘Lesbian’. She clicked away avidly. ‘Really?!’ we asked. ‘Yes’, she said. ‘Janice, I can’t photograph you, you’re too pink.’ Click, click. How many pictures of a banner can a person want, I wondered. ‘Just getting it with the right background, catch you later,’ she smiled and disappeared.
The crowd was still appreciative. Claire, an ex-teacher, was educating them by shouting ‘Stormé Laverie started the Stonewall riots. She was a butch black lesbian’. They seemed to like it. As the parade slowed to take a corner, I had time for a bit of a chat. ‘This is the only time at Pride today that you will see the word Lesbian’, I said. They looked surprised, concerned. ‘Have you seen it on any of the other floats or groups?’ I asked, and they had to admit that they had not. ‘Women are being erased,’ I continued, ‘and lesbians most of all. Please don’t let it happen’ Off I went. Noone argued. Everyone looked thoughtful.
As the parade got going again, another orange-jacketed person drew alongside. ‘I’m not sure you should be here,’ she said. I smiled. ‘How many of you are there?’ I gestured at Claire on the other end of the banner. ‘I mean, is it just you two, or is there a whole big group of you?’ I looked around. ‘They were here,’ I said, ‘Where did they go?’ She gave up and went to speak to Claire. ‘Which group are you?’ she asked. After some apparent misunderstanding (Claire is slightly deaf), she seemed happy to find out that we represented the Stormé Larverie Appreciation Society, and went away for reinforcements. It was starting to feel a bit Groundhoggy.
Reinforcements arrived. Two security people now blocked our path. ‘We were told it was ok for us to be here,’ we said. ‘The boss-man has ok’d it. We are just two women walking along with a banner about Lesbians at Pride.’ It is hard to take photos when you are holding one end of a banner. Fortunately one of the dancers behind us kindly offered to record on her phone if we had any trouble. While the security staff chatted about how or why they would remove us and talked into their hand-sets, the gap in the parade in front of us got longer and longer. The crowd joined in on our behalf. ‘Leave the ladies alone, they are only walking along with a banner’, ‘What’s the problem?’, ‘ They’re not doing any harm’. Claire chatted with them, following her excellent lesson-plan about the deeds of Stormé. They took it all in.
A third and then a fourth security person joined the group which blocked our path. They turned their backs when I photographed them. They were looking more and more edgy, muttering together, looking down. We could now hardly see the procession up ahead. Still we waited. And waited. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the little group of security staff edged towards the side of the road. We had enough room to pass. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, we raised the banner and crept forward. Phew!
We caught up with the company in front, a car club. We were behind the car. A young man in a corporate t-shirt walked alongside handing out rainbow wristbands to the conventionally prettiest girl in each group. He made the others ask for one. As we strolled along, an older guy leapt alongside him, his hand on the young man’s bum, a finger thrusting into his anus. There was a bit of a chat. The older guy eventually left. ‘Wow, does that count as a grope?’ I asked him. ’Yes, well,’ he said. ‘I suppose I haven’t seen the wife since Wednesday.’ I found it sad that felt he had to try to justify an older man sexually harassing him at work.
Unworried now and nearing the end of the route, I tuned into a man with a megaphone who had for some time been trying to whip up some reaction from the crowd. ‘Gimme a G’ (silence), Gimme an A’ (silence), ‘gimme a Y’ (silence). ‘What does it spell?’ (Silence, then megaphone man filled in enthusiastically : ‘GAY!’ The last time, there was a slight variation. After the usual Gimme’s for G-A-Y, he called out, not GAY this time, but …..’LESBIAN’! I caught Claire’s eye. She had clocked it too. Total erasure. Lesbian is now spelled G-A-Y.