Putting the protest back in Pride

Siobhan McGuirk reports on the fight to reclaim Pride in Manchester and beyond

July 25, 2010
7 min read


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.

At last year’s Manchester Pride, Peter Andre, the (straight) beau of gossip-column queen Jordan, was paid handsomely to perform as the main stage’s headline act. Meanwhile, local artists were asked to perform for free.

Poet Vanessa Fay was unimpressed. ‘People who had performed for many years were confined to a gazebo with no PA system, trying to compete with the straight London-based artists on stage,’ she says. ‘It was a real shame, especially for those hoping to find diversity and politics – the whole origins of Mardi Gras.’

Andre’s attention-grabbing attendance sums up how far Manchester Pride has become commercialised and exclusionary, detached from the diversity, vibrancy and radicalism of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community.

Its critics say Manchester Pride is the most commercialised such event in the country, hosting its parade as part of a private, ticketed ‘Big Weekend’ event. Increasing numbers in the LGBT community are deeply critical of the ‘corporate friendly’ image they say it promotes at the expense of politics, community and its liberation roots.

Alan Bailey, NUS LGBT Officer, explains: ‘LGBTQ [the Q stands for queer] people don’t have liberation. Despite some legal victories, we must still fight for free love, free gender expression and a radical alternative to an exclusive society.

‘Prides started as protests but now many charge entry, some just to take part in the parades. They “pinkwash” the real issues we still face.’

Commercial takeover

Manchester has hosted LGBT festivals and marches for decades, including an annual event formerly known as Gayfest or Mardi Gras.

In 2003, Manchester Pride Ltd took charge of the event, introducing barriers to close off the village surrounding Canal Street – the heart of Manchester’s gay community – to non-ticket holders. The ticketing was ostensibly to raise money for charity, but Manchester Pride Ltd was not officially granted charity status until 2007, and overlaps between board members and Canal Street Business Association members, bar owners and promoters continue to raise eyebrows.

An investigation by ‘Gay Mafia Watch’ – an LGBT blog exposing commercial exploitation of gay events – found in 2007 that less than 1 per cent of the charity’s income went to LGBT community groups.

Soon after, Phil Burke, chair of the Village Business Association, resigned from the Pride board, stating that the event was ‘run by dictators’ and is ‘just about making money…What should be a community-driven event is now a purely commercial operation. Established operators are shunned and overlooked for non-entity, non-gay organisations that just have bigger purses.’

Parade entries now include brands such as Selfridges, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Premier Inn and WKD drinks, who pay £1,300 for the privilege.

Entry to the parade is for registered organisations and applications may be refused if they ‘do not support the values and ethos of Manchester Pride’. Two years ago, members of the NUS and Queer Youth Network parade entries were informed they were in breach of this regulation for holding placards that read ‘Pride is a protest’ and ‘Stonewall was a riot’. They were told to leave them behind or leave the parade.

And last year, local singer Ste McCabe was asked not to wear a t-shirt reading ‘too poor to be gay’ – the name of his album – because ‘it sent out the wrong message’. He declined to perform as a result.

Reclaiming the scene

But activists are fighting back. A coalition of Manchester groups has come together, under the banner ‘Reclaim the Scene’, to stand up to the sanitised corporate image of the ‘pink pound’ – which is, they feel, creating new prejudices and barriers and sidelining pre-existing LGBT issues.

In response to the perceived paucity of community presence at official events, an alternative pride festival, Get Bent, was held in Manchester in 2006 and 2007. The non-profit group put on free arts events and club nights, aiming to ‘provide an alternative to commercial gay spaces by creating a queer autonomous space that is sex-positive without being sex-centred, doesn’t depend on alcohol to have a good time, and is unafraid to put the politics back into pride’.

In 2008, the NUS and Queer Youth Network marched under the banner Pride is a Protest, inspired by activists in Birmingham who created an overtly political march when the city’s official Pride was cancelled. In Manchester, the first act of the group was to picket the birthday balloon launch of Pride with placards and banners reading ‘Queer fightback!’ and ‘Pride as a protest or pride as a corporate sham?’

The movement evolved into Reclaim the Scene, to reflect the broader aims of the group: to see the local ‘gay scene’ become more community focused, less commercialised and more accessible, all year round. Last year, Reclaim the Scene organised banner drops around the village, had a political entry in Manchester’s Pride parade and held a Community Pride Picnic outside the fenced-off official Manchester Pride area.

The picnic was completely free, with food donated from local allotments, political speakers, children’s entertainment and a diverse range of entertainment from poets to local bands. All donations raised were given to a LGBT safe house in Iraq. ‘Manchester Pride should be free, accessible and community based. We are showing that this is possible,’ says Reclaim the Scene member Emma Kerry.

The ethos of Reclaim the Scene is gaining popularity across the country, with a group of Londoners planning to set up their own group.

Sky Yarlett says: ‘I was inspired by the Reclaim the Scene movement in Manchester and, after talking to a few of my friends, I discovered that we hated the scene in London: the lack of variety, how gays and lesbians were divided, how sexism, racism and transphobia are rife. The [Pride London] focus isn’t on a community project and our scene should be uniting to fight this.’

The shift towards new kinds of queer politics is not limited to city-based campaigns. The trade union Unison passed a motion called ‘Pride is a Protest’, soon followed by the NUS LGBT campaign. Unison was also an official supporter of Reclaim the Scene Manchester. At Pride London this year, students from NUS LGBT marked the anniversary of the Gay Liberation Front march by re-enacting photos of their actions.

Taking note

Manchester Pride organisers are, it appears, taking note: they have now introduced some more diverse and widely publicised events in the lead up to the Big Weekend. Last year, a community float also allowed people not part of an official group to join the parade, and the NUS was allowed an overtly political entry – complete with radical banners.

David Henry of Queer Youth Network broadly welcomes the changes. ‘Some of the things Pride are doing outside the village are really great – positively on the edge of the mainstream and yet still endorsed by them. We applied for their community funding grant and got money for a portable PA, which will go on more radical marches, so I suppose they are also funding radical voices indirectly.’

‘The visibility of radical voices is still restricted, though,’ he adds. ‘Despite the Fringe title of some events this year, it’s all funded and run by Manchester Pride, who still tell some performers their music’s too radical.’

Manchester Pride is slowly changing its attitude, but the overall balance still seems to place commercial over community interests. This year, Reclaim the Scene will be there again: holding another community picnic, open to everyone and starting as the parade ends.

Also taking place will be Manchester Queeruption, an international movement of ‘DIY, non-commercial, non-hierarchal, safe and open space for workshops, political action, parties and sex…’ Planned to coincide with, but not in opposition to, Manchester Pride, Queeruption organisers say: ‘This event is not associated with Manchester Pride, but supports pride and queer spaces in Manchester and hopes to compliment the event by filling a big gap we’ve been missing for quite a few years now.’


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


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