Is Pride becoming too Corporate?

The two main controversies I’ve picked up on regarding Prides this year have been the overwhelming presence of corporate groups in the Leeds parade (which is free, as is the rest of the festival), and the high cost of tickets for the Manchester event (where the parade was free, but required advance tickets to take part).

Back in the Dark Ages, or – if the LGBT Archive is correct – 1993, I went to my first Pride: in London. Presumably my flatmate and I had acquired some details about it via The Pink Paper and/or BiFrost: our main sources of information about what went on in the world in those mostly pre-internet days. We caught the Tube to somewhere Herne Hill or Brixton-ish then tumbled out into the streets with a big bunch of happy noisy people and followed them to Brockwell Park, where we found stalls selling magazines and T-shirts, families and groups having picnics, and a stage with some well-known musical artists performing on it.

A couple of years later, we had the first Pride Scotia (or possibly Pride Scotland as I seem to remember it was originally called). Taking a day off from revising for my finals, I wandered down to the Broughton Street end of New Town, was hugged by a very pissed intern from my college and marched back up to the Meadows with everyone else. We had stalls (I helped on the Edinburgh Bi Group one, and managed to lose my rucksack), there were probably entertainments of some sort, and people had picnics. I even fetched my dog at one point, but he was a little too fazed by the crowds to enjoy himself.

I didn’t do much in the way of Pride attending again until the late 2000s, when I moved to Fareham and attended a number of Brighton Prides, which were fun in spite of torrential rain in some years and a rather strange woman who thought she was my girlfriend and needed to keep me in sight at all times in one of the years it didn’t rain. Then Brighton Pride all got a bit too big and started costing money to attend on top of the money I had to fork out to get there, so I had a few more years of not going to Prides.

Fast forward to 2018, and I made it to Leeds Pride on the main marching day and Manchester Pride (a couple of weeks later) on the day when it rained a lot. Leeds Pride was free, Manchester cost what seemed like a lot of money for the number of stalls that were scattered around two locations in the village. Maybe if the weather had been better, I’d have made it to a few of the talks and other events that sounded interesting, rather than hiding in the LGBT Foundation where the free food was. On the whole I preferred Leeds, even if the post-march party area was a little too crowded and noisy for me to stay long (I’d already spent a lot of time hanging out in Millennium Square taking lots of photos of the pre-march party and then of pretty much every group in the parade).

This year I kicked off my Pride Season with International Non-Binary Day in Leeds. An event was held at the City Museum, and the City Council had arranged for the non-binary flag to be flown from two civic buildings (a bunch of us trooped outside into Millennium Square to get photographic evidence, but the breeze was insufficient to properly unfurl the flag).

The event went very well, with talks, paper copies of two new zines produced by Non-Binary Leeds, and a vast pile of shoelaces in the non-binary flag colours, courtesy of Pinsent Mason Solicitors. Also present were folk from West Yorkshire Queer Stories, who conducted interviews away from the main room (I’ll have to make an announcement when mine is online). It was a generally chilled out day, and it was great to see so many non-binary folk gathered together in one place and have the opportunity to talk to them all.

Spurred on by that excitement, I decided that I needed something fabulous to wear at other upcoming Pride events. My blue denim jacket is well-adorned with pin-badges and patches, but is starting to look a little shabby, so I pulled a grey one out of the back of a wardrobe and decided to see what I could do with it. A trip through the washing machine revealed that the Pink Floyd patch its previous owner had glued on the back needed to be re-affixed, and if I was going to start sewing, then I might as well add more patches. I bought four from Tab Kimpton’s Discord Comics store and got them sewn on in time for Happy Valley Pride.

Happy Valley Pride is a week-long festival, taking place across Calderdale, and concluding with a full weekend of events in Hebden Bridge. I decided the Saturday’s outdoor markets and live music, with an indoor lesbian authors event, were well worth a look, and pencilled in some of Sunday’s happenings as well, depending on the accuracy of the rather off-putting weather forecasts. Saturday the 27th of July started out dry, if not very sunny, and I arrived early enough to wander round the town for a couple of hours (energised by a Unicorn Milkshake purchased from the Hebble End Coffee Lounge).

The whole town felt genuinely geared up for Pride, with various of the small stores’ owners offering to share their face-paints and telling me they were planning to go out dancing later. The market had a good mix of community groups and larger organisations, some of whom had merchandise on offer: allowing me to add to the badges and patches on my jacket along with a pair of earrings in the shape of David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust’s lightening bolt symbol in the non-binary flag colours. Just up the road, the regular Saturday Market stallholders were also catering to the Pride crowd, and making a good show of putting up with the rain that was now coming down a bit hard.

The lesbian authors event was a welcome respite from the weather, and I was planning to go home straight afterwards, but was tempted back into the main square by the music of Thee Windom Earles and danced under my umbrella for a while.

Following my adventures at Happy Valley Pride (it was too wet to go back on the Sunday), I ordered more patches from Tab’s site and spent a frantic week adding them to my jacket in time for Leeds Pride, including a session of pinning during a Non-Binary Leeds Support Meeting, where people discussed Pride and ranted about its excess of attending corporate groups. The issue hadn’t really occurred to me before: Hebden Bridge is a very uncorporate town generally, and my main feeling on seeing the corporate groups at the previous year’s Leeds Pride was one of optimism that maybe my own employer might catch up one day (and also excitement at seeing JCBs in the parade). I may also have been swayed by the fact that the parade in 2018 was led off by various trans* groups rather than by the corporate floats and groups.

I’d arranged to march with the group from Non-Binary Leeds on the following Sunday, although it took me a while to track them down after I arrived (Leeds Bi Group were more in evidence around the museum steps where I thought we’d arranged to meet up), giving me plenty of opportunities to take pictures and eventually track down someone I recognised on the way to our official assembly point. Once we were all assembled, I was given the job of carrying the brand-new genderqueer flag (with some help from a very glittery and sequinny ally), since the flagpole only had sufficient attachment points for the equally new non-binary flag.

We marched in the middle of a 200+ trans* contingent and were very shouty and political. Other than one little incident of protesting TERFs (shouted down by us lot and a bunch of counter-protesting bi and lesbian supporters), the reaction from the crowds who’d turned out to watch the parade was very positive and affirmatory, although I had no voice left by the end of it. The after-party, when we finally got in was a tad anticlimactic, and nowhere near as much fun as the all-day partying that went on in Hebden Bridge.

Overall, I think I prefer Happy Valley Pride and the tiny, not-very-organised Prides of the 1990s, to the big city Prides of the 21st Century. I think corporate sponsorship of bigger, city centre Prides is a necessary evil these days, if we’re going to make them financially accessible for as many people as possible (and I like free swag almost as much as I like JCBs). I can see ways the situation could be improved while still allowing the corporates to show off their diversity credentials.

Looking back at my photos from Leeds Pride 2018, the corporate groups seem well scattered amongst the other groups, although some do seem to have the force of numbers on their side and might have done better to make their group more about LGBT+ representation within their organisations rather than on having as big a turn out as possible in pursuit of the pink/purple/whatever pound. Getting corporations to sponsor (discreetly) charities and community groups in the parade and year-round would also move things forward: there was general agreement amongst people I spoke to that we liked the Co-op’s “strawberries” ad this year. Corporates could also have more of a presence in the community area, and stay there until all the marchers had arrived and had time for refreshments, in order to let people know just what they were doing for the community and for the LGBT+ members of their own workforce.

Corporates: love them, hate them, or simply tolerate them, but they aren’t going away any time soon.

Stevie Carroll

Some words and pictures lifted and adapted from my August 2018 Women and Words blog-post.