Crowds huddle in the up-market shop fronts of Regent Street, bodies flat against the grey stone and cold glass. The sudden heavy rain has driven all but the toughest and best prepared from the streets. Fabulous this is not. Indeed, I wonder whether this is proof that God really does hate gays.
London has, in one form or another, been celebrating all that is L, G, B, T and plus since 1972, although more recent outings look to have been a darn sight more cheerful than those of earlier years. London’s annual gay pride march: what started as a protest in commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall riots has transformed into a street-closing, capital-stopping carnival that draws interest from groups as diverse as Amnesty and CitiBank. And it increasingly has the support of the establishment: Sarah Brown famously took part in when her husband was in Number Ten, and even Boris Johnson has turned up in previous years.
The rain eventually subsides. Those of us dressed for sun drift out from under the awnings – my sister had gone on a mercy dash to Liberty – to join the umbrella-carrying classes at the barriers in the centre of the street. Things get off to an inauspicious start. A committed God-botherer with a microphone has taken it upon himself to provide the pre-march entertainment, which seems to consist chiefly of hell-fire and brimstone. He cuts a lonely figure as he plods up Regent Street, and is politely ignored save for a burly-looking gentleman traipsing along behind brandishing a “God made me gay” t-shirt. He turns back as our God-fearing friend is accosted by an earnest police office, but not before he’s received a small cheer for his subversive efforts.
We kick off motor cycles – a whole flotilla of them. Rainbow flags abound: on handlebars, on helmets, big ones, small ones. It doesn’t really go with the big-man, black-leather biker look, but then gay men aren’t all mincing fashionistas itching to give us a showtune.
As a rule, those marching fall into four groups: the angry, the outrageous, the friendly and the corporate. The first consists mainly of protest groups – Peter Tatchell, international LGBT+ rights groups (the Ugandan flags are especially poignant given recent developments there), Stonewall and the like.
Into the second category fall the more Notting Hill-style participants. People wearing nearly everything, people wearing nearly nothing, people wearing things you didn’t even know could be worn. One gentleman has a menagerie of small toys posing on a two-foot high hat. Drag queens feature heavily; one of them comes over to say hello after an intense bout of whooping on our part. In a case of life imitating Flashdance, it transpires that she is a builder by day, dancer by night, though I’m afraid that she looks a little bulky to spending much time bending backwards over chairs.
But all are blown away by my favourite entrant in the outrageous category: Jackie Kennedy (it’s a bloke, of course) sat in a cross between FAB 1 and a hummer, waving delightedly as her dead, dummy husband languishes in the back seat. She even has a security detail. Goodness only knows who she’s representing, but I can’t say that it much matters! Close second is drag Thatcher, although she’s a little cheerful to be truly convincing, even if the costume is bloody good, right down to the handbag.
The friendly groups are the lesbian mums, gay dads – lots have brought the kids with them, many of them too young to notice that having two daddies is still outside the norm – and the buses of older people who should have had the chance to do this decades ago. One man comes down on a mobility scooter, waving majestically, the banner sticking out of his basket declaring that he is “the oldest gay in the village”. You can see in their faces that it means more to them than it does to anyone else.
The corporate groups are the slickest and, perhaps predictably, consistently among the largest. It does feel slightly strange to be cheering companies such as BAE Systems – “Hooray for the military-industrial complex!” – but I suppose it’s about people more than corporations, so I endeavour to shelve my politics for the afternoon. I do, however, draw the line at cheering for the Conservative party. Old habits die hard. On the subject of partisan politics, the Labour party have by far the best stickers: “Never kissed a Tory”, they proclaim in proud, socialist red. They give one to my friend Ciara, even those she once did kiss one of Them, but the marchers don’t seem to be in a vindictive mood.
Which brings me on to the most important part of the day: the stickers. I collected more than last year, and that is all that counts. By the time I sashay away, the front of my shirt is more sticker than fabric: I am a walking advert for everything from gay scouts to sexual health clinics.
Ciara, fresh from covering up the doctrinal failings of her private life, sums things up better than I could. London Pride, she says, does away with the idea that to be LGBT+ is to accept minority status. And she’s right. Thousands of people have turned out to celebrate a section of the population that until painfully recently was almost invisible. Yet LGBT+ people have claimed one of the most colourful spaces in British public life. And with that, we’re off to Soho for a cheeky drink.