After a Pride festival which has been celebrated as one of the largest ever, Conor McFall discusses Liberation, the need to be uncivil and keeping protest at the heart of a Pride sliding towards corporate co-option
Belfast Pride on Saturday was the usual colourful mixture of parade, pageantry and partying. The parade itself was once again larger than the year before, with organisers claiming that 50,000 joined in the march through the city centre or supported from the sidelines. Following the overlapping of the parade last year, the usual parading route was changed to accommodate the ever-increasing participation.
Despite the increasing turnout, the run-up to this year’s main showpiece seemed to be more fraught than in previous years. The ten or so days leading up to Saturday 4th took the form of a constant media circus around objections to all sorts of trivial LGBT-related matters. It is both unsurprising and shameful that in the week of Pride, the person with the largest media platform was Jim Wells. Of course, he was far from the only culprit in the cacophony of noise that included; objections to Primark having a Pride clothing range, objections to Translink having rainbow-themed displays on buses, objections to the Alternative Queer Ulster event at Stormont, objections to drag performer Electra La Cunt speaking at the event and objections to the word ‘fuck’.
The worst part of the latter objection was that it wasn’t exclusive to the Wells or Allister types, but was also seemingly shared by apparent supporters of the LGBT community and even some Pride officials. Ellie Evans, who was questioned by police last year in relation to her ‘Fuck the DUP placard’, was aggressively confronted by event security for marching with a similar sign. She was reported to security by a Pride official, before being threatened with ejection from the march if she didn’t give up the sign. As seen in the widely shared video footage, security then became aggressive and attempted to snatch the sign from Evans. Luckily, others stepped into the fracas to hold off the security and allow her to continue her march. But not before a security guard managed to snap the wooden handle of the placard in his attempts to pull the sign away. Eventually, another Pride official approached the most vociferous of the security guards and told him to allow her to continue marching.
Once the videos inevitably hit social media, there was a widespread reaction to the aggression of the security guard. However, amongst this there was also a wave of condemnation for the sign itself. Granted, some of this came from the usual disingenuous corners – Jamie Bryson, Elene’s husband from Corrie, anyone with a flag in their Twitter avatar, who wanted to sectarianise the issue by asking why there was no ‘fuck Sinn Fein’ sign and other such nonsense. But aside from that, other seemingly well-meaning people were critical of the sign for its use of bad language, assuming that the only way to make a political point known is to play nice at all times. The worst manifestation of this criticism was the call made by more than more person to ‘take the politics out of Pride.’
Anyone reading this will likely know that this is a patently ridiculous thing to say. But as Pride events across the west become more and more depoliticised it is interesting to consider what this means. As with its equivalent in London, Brighton, Manchester etc., Belfast Pride has continued to amass corporate sponsorship over the years. Due to Northern Ireland still being excluded from marriage equality legislation, it stands as an odd half-way house between a standard western Pride event and something more akin to the earlier years of protest. As I walked the length of the parade route, a few things seemed clear. One was that it becomes more and more obvious every year that the cultural battle over the place of LGBT people in Northern Irish society is being won. For the most part, it is now a mainstream community. While this is obviously a huge improvement from where things were even a decade or two ago, a downside of this is the sanitation of events such as Pride. This leads to my second observation from the day; while it is obviously heartening to see people lining the streets in support of the parade, there is an odd feeling of being ‘on show’ as people clap and take photos at those walking through. The parade takes on an element of performance – not just with DJs and dancers – but for those walking through. As people come to town dressed in the colours, shops put up displays in their window and local bars hold themed events, Pride resembles more and more a sort of Rainbow St. Patrick’s Day. People are there to see an event. A performance. And with that they want a bit of protest chanting but ultimately, something that is rather sanitised.
Local media also plays a major role in sanitising LGBT voices, or indeed ignoring them. The LGBT community (or at least, gay people) becoming ‘mainstream’ means that the usual symbolic issues become easy fodder for tabloid journalists like Stephen Nolan to whip up controversy around. As aforementioned, the person with by far the largest media platform in the run-up to Pride was Jim Wells. Whether it was whinging about Alternative Queer Ulster, whinging about Primark or claiming that he’d rather ‘go up the Falls in a Rangers top’ than go to Pride, Wells clearly recognises that saying something unkind about LGBT people grants open access to the pages and airwaves of local media. Indeed, there is an entire ecology of evangelicals and bigots who exist seemingly to do just this – if it isn’t Wells, it’s Allister; if it isn’t Allister, it’s Peter Lynas; if it isn’t Lynas they might even branch out and get Susan Anne White. There is open recourse for these people to spread whatever hatred, falsehoods or myths they want in the name of ‘controversy’ and ‘debate’, while any response is expected to be ‘reasoned’ and ‘respectable’ in order to never offend on-the-fence readers and listeners. This has reached the point where the constant media coverage afforded to these people seems to be an active attempt at trolling, to goad people into a more animated response.
Indeed, in the days after Pride, Wells returned yet again to the media spotlight to condemn #AltQueerUlster speaker Electra Le Cunt for using the word ‘fuck’ in the hallowed halls of Stormont. Christ forbid! To me, this seems like a clear attempt to paint LGBT activists as angry, unreasonable and vulgar. But for those who condemned Ellie Evans’ sign, this should be a clear signal. If your criticisms are the same as those of Jim Wells, then you’re on the wrong track. It should be no surprise that LGBT people in Northern Ireland are angry. Are we really expected to sit back and lap it up as Arlene Foster basks in plaudits for turning up to an LGBT event to lecture activists about how she deserves more respect? Is it really a shock that people don’t take too kindly to having their voices marginalised in a media climate that is endlessly beholden to reactionary extremes? Should people simply acquiesce to not having basic equality provisions such as same-sex marriage, let alone accepting this rather conservative issue overshadowing larger concerns such as failings in the education system and cuts to mental health services?
Pride cannot be without politics. Alternative Queer Ulster and Ellie Evans’ sign put the politics back into Pride. Thank fuck!