My brilliant German publisher, Fischer Verlag, asked me to write something about Pride. They’ve published it in German –here it is in English. Happy Global Pride.
Most years, I love going to Pride. I love the teenagers with glitter on their faces, the buses full of LGBT+ pensioners, the way it’s acceptable to drink wine straight from the bottle at eleven in the morning. I understand why some people stay away – some feel that mainstream Pride events aren’t inclusive enough of everyone in the queer community, particularly people of colour, and that there are too many Barclay’s Bank employees, handing out leaflets about savings accounts – but I think it’s important to show up. Because Pride isn’t just a celebration of the LGBT+ community: it’s a political protest. Just an extremely joyful one.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first Pride parades, and fifty-one years since the Stonewall Uprising – also known as the Stonewall Riots – which started on 28 June 1969. That night, the police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York City and arrested thirteen people, including people found guilty of violating New York’s ‘gender-appropriate clothing’ statute. Hundreds of people – led by Black lesbians and trans women – fought back against police intimidation, sparking a new civil rights movement. Pride parades often feel more like parties than protests these days, but for millions of people around the world, it’s far too dangerous to take part in Pride. Ugandan Pride was called off in 2017: the government said ‘No gay promotion can be allowed’. In Uganda, ‘carnal knowledge against the laws of nature’ between two men is punishable by life imprisonment. In 2018, Russian police arrested dozens of LGBT activists for taking part in a Pride event in St Petersburg, under a law banning the spread of ‘gay propaganda’. In 2019, Istanbul Pride went ahead even though it had been banned by Turkish authorities, but police used teargas to disperse the crowds. Most 2020 Pride events around the world have been cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but this year, Pride feels more political than ever.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the origins of Pride recently, as I’ve watched and taken part in the global Black Lives Matter protests in response to police violence and discrimination against the Black community. Some of these protests have been characterised as ‘riots’, just as the Stonewall Uprising was. I hope very much that we’ll look back and celebrate them as a turning point in the fight for racial equality across the world, just as we celebrate Stonewall as a crucial event in the LGBT+ rights movement. The Black Lives Matter protests have reminded me how privileged I am not just as a white person, but as a cis lesbian. It’s reminded me that there’s so much we still need to fight for: this Pride month alone, Donald Trump has reversed protections for transgender Americans against healthcare discrimination and has told the Supreme Court that adoption agencies should be allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples. In the UK, Boris Johnson has scrapped plans to make it easier for transgender people to change the gender on their birth certificates, and to legally recognize nonbinary gender identities.
Partly, the point of Pride is to counteract shame – but when you’re privileged enough to be a white woman living in 21st century London, like I do, it’s easy to think that shame among LGBT people is a thing of the past. Last year, I took part in an event at London’s Globe Theatre about gay shame, and I felt a bit like a fraud – I feel so utterly lucky and grateful to be queer, and I wasn’t sure I had anything to contribute. But then I remembered that I only came out at 25. It wasn’t as though I didn’t know I was queer when I was younger – I had a massive crush on a girl in drama class when I was 14, and even listened to Slipknot to get her to like me (desperate measures) – but fancying girls made me feel dirty, predatory, as though I’d be a danger at sleepovers, and it just seemed easier not to. It’s not surprising I felt like that. While I was at school, newspapers regularly referred to gay people as ‘poofs’ and ‘perverts’, and a clause in the UK’s Local Government Act, known as Section 28, banned teachers from ‘intentionally promoting homosexuality’, which meant same-sex relationships weren’t mentioned at all in schools and homophobic bullying went unchecked. When I finally did come out in my twenties, I’d got the shame out of my system, and I was THRILLED when I realized I was a lesbian.
To me, being queer is an absolute gift, one of the things I love most about myself, and I wanted to reflect that in my debut novel, In at the Deep End. The novel tells the story of Julia, who realizes she’s a lesbian when she’s 26 and doesn’t feel any shame whatsoever about her sexuality. She throws herself into gay life with gay abandon and feels so lucky that queer culture is her culture – RuPaul’s Drag Race, Dusty Springfield, But I’m a Cheerleader, vegetarian food, musical theatre, Carhaart trousers, all the best things. I also wanted to celebrate lesbian sex and to write about it frankly and honestly, the way writers like Philip Roth have been writing about heterosexual sex for decades. Julia is AMAZED and DELIGHTED when she first has sex with another woman, and she can’t believe the variety of things queer women can do together (fisting! Amazing! Strap-ons! Incredible!). I loved writing about Julia’s first Pride parade – that wonderful, exhilarating feeling of freedom you get when you’re among your community for the first time, when holding hands with your girlfriend feels like the most natural thing in the world, when you realize that being queer isn’t something to be tolerated, or accepted, but celebrated.
Today, Pride organizations from all around the world will come together online to celebrate Global Pride: a 24-hour livestream of music, artistic performances and speeches from activists and public figures from all over the globe. I’ll be watching, and celebrating, and I’ll be finding ways to protest from a distance, too. Because I want everyone to feel the joy and the pride I feel, and I know that we’ll only have achieved equality when everyone, of every race, nationality, gender identity and background, enjoys equality both within the LGBT community and in the wider world.