Over-commercialisation, a drinking culture, and hedonistic non-LGBT attendees have left many feeling alienated and disenchanted with Pride.
Pride festivals emerged following the Stonewall Riots in 1969, which saw LGBT people take to the streets in protest at a police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Manhattan, New York. The first Gay Pride marches were held in June 1970 in many US cities, to commemorate the anniversary of the demonstrations, and today many other countries host Pride festivals in a celebration of LGBT liberation movements.
Recently however, some LGBT activists have said they feel that Pride is becoming lost to forces extracting the historical and political significance from the event, be that straight people simply out for good time yet unwilling to think of the personal and political significance for LGBT attendees or companies trying to make a profit from such events. There has also been criticism of the heavy presence of alcohol companies at Pride, especially with the high alcoholism rates amongst the LGBT community, with almost half experiencing substance abuse.
Noticeably, the origins of Pride did not involve corporations or a party culture, but individuals coming together to protest the injustices faced by the LGBT community. Recent Pride events in the UK have seen the presence of companies from Nandos to Absolut Vodka, and their attendance has been met with cynicism by some. Christina Cauterucci wrote, “The gays have buying power, and now that it’s not okay to be anti-gay in the public sphere, big business wants that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” And it’s not just journalists. Fiona Sullivan, 17, said to me that she isn’t attending Pride this year despite enjoying it in previous years because of “unethical companies spending f**k loads of money on their promotion of ‘look at us we are so progressive.’”
Writing for The Wire, Richard Lawson asks, “Does MasterCard really care about the gay community or do they just want the gay community to care about them?” Certainly, we have seen some companies actively campaigning against homophobia, like PayPal in North Carolina. But then there is a sentiment amongst young LGBT people that brands are merely doing this for self-interested purposes; 21-year-old Jess Glass said that marching is hard when it’s with “companies who are actually just there to win over customers.” Having said this, Ellen Jones, 17, told me that at Prides she had attended she had seen brands adeptly find a balance between helping to raise awareness of LGBT issues and becoming so corporate-focused that the real meaning of the event was lost by “keeping major brands at the back of the parade.”
Research from the University of Gothenburg on attendees of Stockholm’s Pride Festival in 2015 found that half of those at the event identified as fully heterosexual, and it is fair to say that the amount of non-LGBT people participating in Pride events has increased in the last decade. Sixth-form student Fiona Sullivan said, “I have no problem with allies going to pride but I distinctly remember bumping into someone from my school at Pride last year and feeling f**king sick because of how homophobic she had been to me and how transphobic I knew her to be.” Another teenager, who wishes to remain anonymous, said, “Pride is supposed to be primarily an LGBT space and for celebration about liberation. It’s not something that straight people can partake in in that regard because they don’t share that experience.”
Jess Glass, 21, also said, “Pride isn’t meant to be a space for straight people who want to party – that’s the rest of the world’s festivals,” whilst another anonymous 19-year-old said of Liverpool Pride, “It always had straight people but they generally behaved and people felt comfortable being who they were but now is literally ticketed,” and spoke of how performers were now mainstream performers, as opposed to local LGBT artists.
Something that many of the young people I spoke to stressed was the importance of not making assumptions about people’s sexualities and identities at Pride. Ellen Jones said that she “wouldn’t want to presume why anyone was there” by making judgments about orientation and identity of strangers, and that she did not wish “to say people shouldn’t attend because it seems to go against the ethos of inclusivity.” Others I talked to also pointed out that there are heterosexual people included in the LGBT community.
A pressing issue for young LGBT people is the fear that Pride is losing touch with its roots of protest. A 19-year-old who wished to remain anonymous told me that, “For straight people it’s a spectacle but for LGBT people, for me, it’s like all these people faced the struggles I did and came out (literally and metaphorically) the other side fighting.” “I definitely feel alienated from the mainstream Pride movement, London Pride in particular. For me, Pride has its roots in protest, as a way of unashamedly standing up and existing,” said Jess Glass, whilst others said that Pride had been “diluted” and “co-opted”.
With up to 45 per cent of the LGBT community experiencing alcohol abuse, some have questioned the appropriateness of the presence of alcohol brands at Pride events. Daniel Kort, a PhD Student at the University of Washington and an LGBT blogger wrote, “Alcohol companies are exploiting and endangering the lives and wellbeing of sexual and gender minorities,” in the Huffington Post last year, with regards to the large number of alcohol brands sponsoring Pride festivals. 17-year-old girl Ellen Jones also told me that the drinking culture is intimidating, as “alcohol can contribute towards undesirable behaviour,” and mentioned that the strong drinking at Pride makes it more difficult for young teenagers to get permission from their parents to attend. Another young girl, who wanted to remain anonymous, said she didn’t feel welcome at her local pride as “it seems to be more of an ‘event’ with alcohol and loud music than a community event.”
That’s not to say that Pride isn’t still a liberating and inspiring space for young LGBT people. Another LGBT student I spoke to, who wished to remain anonymous, called it a way to “contradict a past full of silence and shame.” But it has its problems; an eagerness by organisers to win the favour of corporations and to appeal to a large enough proportion of people to make a profit. These factors have led to LGBT attendees feeling unwelcome in a space that felt safe to previous generations. One teenager said that Pride now feels like, “a strange event that isn’t really even slightly LGBT.”