Put the Politics Back into Pride

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The future of London's annual gay and lesbian Mardi Gras is in doubt. Organisers claim it lost nearly £450,000.

They are now talking about selling the Mardi Gras to another company. This should come as no surprise--they did consider the idea of copyrighting the word 'Pride' a number of years ago.

This year's gay and lesbian Pride demonstration was one of the smallest for many years. Ten thousand marched in central London in July while 27,000 attended the Mardi Gras festival at Hackney Marshes. It was only five years ago that 50,000 marched and over a quarter of a million attended a free festival at Clapham Common.

The blame for this year's debacle lies squarely with the organisers. This is the fourth Mardi Gras since the Pride demonstration was cancelled in 1999. Then a group of gay businessmen set up a consortium which took over the event and turned it into an expensive corporate sponsored day out. Since then each year it has got progressively smaller. The day has become increasingly depoliticised--the demonstration is now called a parade and is only seen as secondary to what is a money making enterprise.

There were also problems with Manchester Mardi Gras in August. Just four days before the event was due to take place the Village Business Association (VBA), which organises the event, called it off. This was because police refused to extend the city's alcohol tolerance zone. They also imposed a fence around the Village--the gay area in Manchester--with checkpoints where people were searched when they entered. The Mardi Gras eventually went ahead when organisers reached a compromise, but the event was significantly smaller this year than in the past.

There is now a fight on to put the politics back into Pride. Following his election Blair pledged a more tolerant and equal society. His promise was read out at that year's Pride festival. Yet Section 28 still remains on the statute book in England and Wales and gays and lesbians continue to face discrimination. This is despite the fact that there are greater levels of tolerance within society towards gays and lesbians than previously. Over 50,000 turned up to the Brighton Pride demonstration in August and the city was brought to a standstill as thousands lined the route of the march.

There is now a deep divide opening up between gay bosses and 'gay friendly' businesses who have been happy to make huge profits from Mardi Gras, and working class gays and lesbians who continue to face discrimination and want to do something about it. The strategy of quietly lobbying MPs and having respectable, corporate sponsored festivals has failed to achieve any significant results. Next year's Mardi Gras in Sydney, the largest in the world and the model for the one in London, has collapsed as so called 'gay friendly' corporations hit by the economic crisis have cut back on their advertising budgets. There is now a real danger the same could happen in London.

The 'Pride not Profit' campaign has launched an Open Letter which calls on the organisers of Pride to restore the demonstration as the central focus for the annual day in London, and to arrange a huge festival which is free and open to all. The campaign has received the support of thousands of individuals, gay and lesbian groups and trade unionists. This gives some indication as to how deep the anger is. It also reflects a mood to save the annual Pride demonstration and make it a political event which can force the government to take the issue of gay and lesbian equality seriously.