Incorporation and commercialisation

The annual Pride march was symptomatic of a divided LGBT movement, reports Daniel Harvey

The new normal

Each year, when the Pride march comes around, the claims that it has become commercialised and separated from its roots get stronger. This year was no different, with the movement becoming more splintered than ever - the divisions are clearer between its traditional left support and the newer, corporate-sponsored wing. There has been a concerted effort over the last decade to incorporate some forms of gay identity, but that process is partial, and incomplete, because, despite everything that has changed, the LGBT ‘community’ is hardly homogeneous.

That was certainly in evidence on the June 27 march, and in the arguments that swirled around it. There was an altercation with the Pride board over the UK Independence Party’s gay section, LGBT Ukip. Pride originally invited the group to attend, only to retract the offer because of “health and safety concerns” when there were so many complaints. Whilst the Ukip leadership is formally for gay equality, so many of its members have come out with homophobic statements that the idea of a Ukip LGBT section faintly seems ridiculous. And, of course, Ukip has such horribly reactionary policies on a whole range of issues, not least immigration.

The darker side of the incorporation of gay identity into the mainstream has been the small but real rise of what has been dubbed ‘homonationalism’: that is to say, the use of gay symbols and tolerance of LGBT people to promote nationalist and Islamophobic politics. Israel has been a very strong promoter of this, counterposing its own ‘liberalism’ to the intolerance of Hamas, etc. So it is not that surprising that Ukip now has an LGBT section - even English Defence League members have been seen waving rainbow flags on EDL marches.

Dubious

The Pride board itself is a deeply dubious organisation. The leader is Michael Salter, until May 2015 head of political broadcasting at Downing Street, and most of the others are from business. The “campaigning and political rep” is actually from LGBTories. The TUC, which has been a major sponsor of Pride, is only allowed a non-voting observer status. This situation resulted from a shift that took place in 2004, which turned the Gay Pride protest march into a parade, a party to celebrate gay identity. This demanded a lot more money, which had to be raised from somewhere. The then London mayor, Ken Livingstone, was able to deliver some funding, but mostly the organisation came to rely on corporate sponsors.

Boris Johnson did not hesitate to use his financial leverage to threaten Pride if it refused to allow Ukip to take part. This left the board trapped between two equal and opposing forms of spinelessness, making claims and counterclaims. In the end a group of Ukip supporters did turn up, but they were told to stay well clear of the African LGBT section on ‘safe space’ grounds. However, after meeting with not a little hostility from other marchers, the contingent decided to leave.

Despite the corporate sponsors, the board originally wanted Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners to lead the Pride march this year. LGSM was originally formed during the Great Strike of 1984-85, and has since been immortalised in the wonderful film Pride. It is unlikely that this decision was taken out of any sympathy whatsoever with the cause that the group espoused: much more to do with the star appeal of the actors involved in the film. Even so, it could not hurt the appeal of the march and help some of the other more mercantile groups involved to be led by a leftwing presence. When the line-up was announced in March, it was revealed that LGSM would have a delegation of about 50 at the front of block A, which it would share with Barclays, HSBC, Citigroup and Starbucks, amongst others. All the unions and working class campaign groups were to be in block C, which would mean they would be so far back that when LGSM arrived in Trafalgar Square they would not even have set off.

But LGSM was unwilling to collaborate in this sham that would make a mockery of everything the group stood for and thankfully insisted the unions were brought up the pecking order - or else LGSM would relegate itself to block C. The board could not countenance the demotion of the business sponsors, so it reluctantly accepted the demotion of LGSM. As a result, it felt as though block C was almost a separate Pride because of the size and range of groups and unions involved. It felt like a spill-over from the anti-austerity march a week earlier, with a lot of the same chants and placards.

The LGSM grouping marched alongside the Tredegar Town Brass Band - a delegation from the Welsh former mining town. This added to the cathartic feeling - it was good to be able to celebrate the history of our movement and have some time off being furious at the present state of things. With the near universal enthusiasm from the crowds for the miners, it felt as though everyone knew where the real Pride march started - and that was with us.

A group called RIP Pride evaded stewards and carried a black coffin in front of the Barclays logo before being pulled away. It was an appropriate gesture, since a lot of gay and lesbian people are indeed in mourning for the state of the LGBT movement. There was also an ‘alternative picnic’, run mostly by black and minority LGBT+ people, who understandably felt they just could not participate in the actual march, given Pride’s current trajectory. This represented a protest against misogyny and racism - which can exist among gay people as much as anywhere else sadly. The main problem with black gay people, as well as other minority sexual and gender orientations - the transgendered, intersexed and asexual - is unfortunately just invisibility a lot of the time.

We cannot challenge that marginalisation by splintering into different competing identity positions, but will have to reach back to the universal message of solidarity that was present in the original Gay Liberation Front - the GLF was opposed to the system of capitalist profit-seeking, whose representatives now head the Pride march.

Roots

Gay Pride, as it was formerly known, has always offered gay and lesbian people solidarity in their struggle for rights and against stigmatisation from hetero-normative society. For most of the original marchers, represented as the “veterans of 1972” on the day, the assumption was simply that capitalist society could not accept gay liberation because of the threat it posed to the nuclear family, the essential ‘atom’ for the social reproduction of the working class.

This has turned out not to be the case. However, as women have made gains, ie, to control reproduction, to work independently, this has created openings for the gay and transgender movement to also make gains. As capitalism has become recomposed in its neoliberal form, it has incorporated new identities - at the cost of atomisation and the weakening of trade union organisations.

For the LGBT movement this has meant a qualitative shift: weakening the aspects that were based on solidarity and social networks, but retaining an alternative form of community and the optimistic vision of the 1970s and early 80s. In London a lot of LGBT projects and centres have either closed or are under serious threat of closure, with as many as 25% disappearing since the beginning of the recession in 2008.[1] Some commentators have spoken nostalgically about the Joiners Arms in Hackney, which has shut down, along with Madame Jojo’s in Soho and Camden’s Black Cap. The Vauxhall Tavern is under serious threat of closure and a campaign to try and save it is in full swing. Soho itself is threatened by developers and gentrification. These sorts of venues which were not just gay bars, but social spaces where some form of mutual aid was taken for granted - built up in a time when property in London was much cheaper and when there was space in the city for venues that were not just commercial.

Nowadays gay life more and more seems to resemble the straight equivalent, but is dominated by big clubs and the internet, which some mistakenly see as an alternative in itself. This has given rise to what a lot of gay people see as quite an alienated form of sexual freedom, which, despite the ever greater levels of superficial acceptance and presence in the mainstream, has actually led to gay people living increasingly separate lives.

Organisations which are supposed to defend gay rights, like Stonewall, have become increasingly corporate, paying six-figure salaries to directors.[2] Such organisations are now often focused on consultancy for big business, despite their nominal commitment to outreach and charitable work for gay causes, particularly around homelessness, discrimination and HIV prevention. As the gay and lesbian movement has broken through into the mainstream, the appearance of support for gay rights has become essential for commercial companies.

Notes

[1]. www.theguardian.com/society/2015/feb/04/closing-time-gay-pubs-lgbt-venues-property-prices.

[2]. This list from the United States is indicative: www.washingtonblade.com/2015/02/19/much-lgbt-organization-leaders-make.