Simon returned to Northern Ireland six years ago with his partner. He wandered along as a Steward in the parade that year and then expressed a lot of opinions about what the organisers were doing wrong and how they should improve it, they wisely called his bluff and now, as Secretary to Belfast Pride, Simon organises large chunks of the festival and receives daily feedback on where he is going wrong and what he needs to do to improve it. All views are his own as he is at pains to point out — no one speaks for Pride it’s far to disparate for that.
A question often asked, that you would think is easy to answer, I have been going to Pride festivals for well over 20 years and have been instrumental in making them happen here in Belfast for the last six years (to varying degrees).
Let me start by saying that the meaning and motivation behind Pride participation is a personal one, I volunteer with a team of nine people who work all year round to make the Belfast festival happen, we all have different motivations for being there, we all had different triggers that made us step up to the plate and we all chose to focus on different aspects of the festival and place a different emphasis on it. We care about each other dearly, but fight like siblings for much of the year.
Since the first trail blazers, in the Stonewall bar in 1969 decided enough was enough Pride has been about rebellion; it’s been about drawing a line in the sand, it’s about saying “I’m Here”. Beyond that people’s personal perspectives vary widely. So the first point in LGBT festivals and Pride marches is visibility.
Being seen, putting a face to homosexuality (or LGBT identity). It makes it far harder for people to be unpleasant, disparaging, bullying or dismissive when they have to face us, this visibility for many is deeply empowering, from my first Pride as a teenager in England I can remember how good it felt to walk the streets hand in hand with a same sex friend. I have never been a huge fan of public displays of affection, but being able to do it and feel “normal” or “safe” was amazing.
Many people I talk to today still tell me of coming to watch the parade for a year or two before plucking up the courage to walk in the parade. For others just visiting the festival and meeting other LGBT people is the important bit. The sheer size of the festival and the number of non LGBT people attending now gives camouflage to some who for years have been terrified of being associated with their peers.
Some of my colleagues focus on Arts and Entertainment — Pride has always had a sense of humour — knocking aside critics and abuse with wit and a song, for others it’s about a struggle for rights, this may become more complicated and nuanced over the years as we gradually take back more and more rights in law and move towards a cultural equality. For others it’s a celebration of difference, for me often the most difficult to embody — to accept a widely diverse set of behaviours, styles, opinions and taste without judgement and with celebration. A concept I believe in, but one often difficult to live as a value.
Stereotypes exist and there is nothing wrong with that, but helping straight people to see beyond the stereotypes whilst accepting them is often frustrating, If a man wants to dress in drag, that is perfectly acceptable but if the media turns the image of the 1% who do participate in sequins and killer heels into an image of us all that is frustrating. It is also not something I choose to fight too loudly about because I absolutely do not want to criticise any person who uses said art form to express their identity.
People often say to me, “Why do we still need Pride? We have goods and services protection, we have employment protection, we have civil partnerships.” The answer is simple — while we have to rely on law to protect our basic rights in a way that non LGBT people do not, there is a need for Pride. When I meet our friends colleagues from the many different LGBT support and lobbying organisations and hear tales of how people are marginalised, victimised and discriminated against each day I find I am motivated to keep providing a platform for them to raise issues and stimulate discussion and dialogue.
Pride will always be synonymous with rebellion, campaigning, humour and political activism, but its strength comes from its diversity, we may all be political but we don’t all agree: there is no “LGBT ideology”, we don’t all speak with one voice on rights/health/style/culture/faith we don’t all vote the same way, nor should we.
What I have discovered in recent years is causing offence for the sake of it gets us nowhere. Smashing, obstructing, screaming and shouting achieve little, loving your neighbour, opening the hand of friendship and looking for dialogue with all your detractors gets results. Allowing your critics space to hold their opinions and space to change their opinions is truly empowering, the economic benefits of the festival for our city have opened far more doors for me than a protest ever has.
I will be at Pride again this year, adding my perspective to a very, very, diverse collective (sounds more like the Borg than a civil rights movement). I hope you join me, whether it’s to fight the good fight, be visible, or simply to have some fun.