Birmingham: Pride and Politics

Sophia Carter

Sophia is a poet and writer based in Birmingham with a passion for LGBT issues, food, fashion and literature, keen blogger and lover of cats.

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As the sun rises and the rays hit the streets of Birmingham, we see empty bottles, plastic cups and paper littering the pavements from the night before. A few bleary-eyed, bottle-swigging people still singing the songs of Katy B. A few revellers lying down on the side with gargantuan headaches and dried tears from last night’s failed encounters. The sound of sweeping cuts through the peaceful morning as the clear up operation begins. Yep, you guessed it, the aftermath of Birmingham Pride.

The years of social drinking and hedonistic enjoyment at Prides have laid waste to the history of a once political statement. It is perhaps the time to remember why we are able to walk upon the streets as free as any other one person. If for a moment we understand the gravity of change for the LGBTQ community this year, there is a chance we will make the effort to visit the stalls that showcase a huge variety businesses, charities and organisations supporting our community. Even if that means just signing up to give a matter of hours a week to mentor younger adults through a huge change in their lives and support them because no one else will, we can truly make a difference, and be examples for others around the world to follow.

This year has seen the fallout from the anti-homosexuality law passed in Uganda which sent shockwaves throughout the globe and caused an international debate on the morality of such laws, to the hunting and barbaric treatment of the LGBTQ community in Russia. There has been a huge rise in domestic abuse within LGBTQ relationships and HIV is once again on the rise, tripling in cases since 2005. Of course, to top it off, Eurovision has seen Conchita Wurst beat all others with her unwavering courage and support for the LGBTQ community. It would seem that we all take the celebration of Prides far too much for granted. So I think that it is time to remind ourselves before we go off to enjoy the drinking and the sun this Birmingham Pride, how through the bravery of others has given us the community we all know and love today.

1967 brought England and Wales the sexual offences act which decriminalised homosexual acts. During this period in early 1972, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed by founding members Aubrey Walters and Nick Stanley. The GLF proved to be one of the most active gay rights groups in the UK, acting in response to the exploitation of homosexuals by profiteering landlords, and the substantial homosexual subculture that existed in Birmingham.

“We will show you how we can use our righteous anger to uproot the present oppressive system with its decaying and constricting ideology, and how we, together with other oppressed groups, can start to form a new order, and a liberated life-style, from the alternatives which we offer”. – GLF Manifesto, 1971

The GLF would go from strength to strength until they disbanded in 1977. They made huge political changes for the time, by producing the printed publication ‘Gladrag’, and then the Gay Education Group with their printed pamphlets on ‘Growing up homosexual’, one of the first of its kind ever to be produced. This was followed up by the LGBTQ community having to hold weekly discos in pubs around Birmingham including The Shakespeare Pub, The Eagle and Old Crown pubs in Digbeth. However, once again the community was held to ransom by landlords, who took the money for the discos upfront and then refused to hold them a week later. In June 1977, Birmingham City Council (BCC) made a huge move in allowing these weekly discos to be listed in an official government document called ‘What’s on’.

After the end of the GLF in December 1976, the Birmingham Lesbian and Gay Community Centre was created and this was the first of its kind to be established in Britain. This centre housed almost all gay organisations and groups. They moved their headquarters to Nightingales from 1981 to 1984. The centre then moved into a former clothing factory on Corporation Street, however, due to its location, a lack of funding from the BCC and then a withdrawal of a rescue fund from the BCC it was forced to shut its doors in 1987.

“No gay organisation would get any funding except over my dead body.”  – Richard Knowles, leader of BCC’s Labour group

Now in 2014 we of course have the Birmingham LGBT centre, opening in 2010 after community discussions expressing a need for an LGBT centre in a central area of Birmingham. With a concentration on health and wellbeing and providing a central ‘hub’ for the LGBT community, it has proved to be an invaluable project. Having also won the National Diversity Award in 2013, the centre has demonstrated the kind of resilience and dedication our community has to offer in Birmingham.

With such change in the 1980’s, the early 1990’s gave birth to the growing presence of a gay village. The male scene developed exponentially and in 1997, Angels Cafe Bar (now known as Sidewalk) opened, it had a clear glass exterior, reflecting a rapidly changing attitude that the community shouldn’t have to hide away in discreet bars and ‘cottages’. This started to radically change the area we know now and love as the gay village.

In 1996 local nightclub owner Bill Gavan started a Triangle Committee dedicated to providing the community with a gay pride. There was an overwhelming desire to hold one in Birmingham to showcase the gay community and it was agreed that it should be privately funded; this is probably the main reason why the BCC allowed it to happen.

The first pride drew in over 15,000 visitors, although the main event of a parade would not be a part of the pride until 2000. This pride was a far cry from the 1970’s, when the GLF would hold Gay Pride weekends for a political statement. Pride became a social event for a community to grow and develop relationships with LGBTQ members across the UK. The event featured the presence of the West Midlands Lesbian and Gay Switchboard, West Midlands Friend, Birmingham Lesbian and Gay Youth Group, LesBeWell, AB Plus and BOSS Project.

“Welcome to Birmingham Pride. It’s a long overdue statement, but one that will prove worth waiting for. Pride is a unique celebration. It’s a party, it’s a piss up, it’s a laugh, but it’s a great deal more than that. It’s also a statement, a reminder that life is diverse, colourful, unpredictable and to be celebrated.” – Introduction to Birmingham Gay Pride Magazine, 1997

Over the years, Birmingham Pride has become one of the best celebrations the UK has to offer, drawing in thousands of people every year, with huge headlining acts and a mass array of stalls and entertainment for the community. However, there are many out there that believe the political statement has been lost, due to the commercialisation of pride. Of course to some degree this could be argued as a fair point, but the growing presence of support from people visiting Birmingham and the gay village is perhaps statement enough. Why so? Because for as long as we are still here and continue to spend time understanding how it all began, we can continue to fight for those who are not lucky enough to be able to celebrate their sexuality. One day at a time, we can change the world for others. This fight to preserve who we are, our unwavering passion for equality and our fair treatment of all in the LGBTQ community, means we will never have to relive the days of our earlier GLF brothers and sisters.

 

With thanks to the Gay Birmingham Remembered Project, The Birmingham City Archives, Birmingham City Council and Birmingham City Library.