Yesterday’s release of the Community Advisory Board’s annual report into this year’s Pride in London, and the social media storm that followed, was an interesting and painful experience for me. Whilst the wave of euphoria that I have felt supporting the CAB from bi and queer friends, and from those who feel that Pride has lost its edge as a protest and become too corporate, has been very welcome; the sharp criticism from the lesbian and gay mainstream, especially Pride’s organisers has been uncomfortable and name-calling.
This year’s CAB report was critical, and unashamedly so. It pointed out real and serious failings by the Pride organisers around issues of diversity and inclusion, especially of BAME and bi people. The response from the Pride Board has failed to address any of the significant and genuine concerns about diversity, but has instead focused on process, and attempted to undermine the members of the CAB. They have said that our report isn’t statistically based, that we are unrepresentative, that we don’t portray the majority opinion which was favourable about Pride. But that’s exactly the point. We’re not here to speak for the majority. The Community Advisory Board exists to represent those who aren’t necessarily in the lesbian and gay mainstream, to ensure their voices – those of the marginalised, the excluded, the erased – are heard and that this is their Pride too.
What was particularly sad for me, was the way in which some Pride Board members initiated a proxy fight by using the web pages of the once great DIVA magazine, alongside their own social media posts, to call CAB members sexist and misogynist. To drag-up and misquote a recommendation from last year’s CAB report in order to allege that we had tried to block the women’s stage. Nothing is further from the truth. We did recommend not using gendered language for the name of the stage. We did say that it ought to be open to those that fall outside the gender binary, who might otherwise feel uncomfortable appearing on a women’s stage. But we did so alongside our strong recommendation that action needed to be taken to increase the number of women attending Pride in 2016, from a lamentably low 36%.
What became clear in yesterday’s flurry of social media, was the desperate need by the Pride organisers to paint a very stark binary picture, of good versus bad, of men versus women, of happy Pride supporters against bitter Pride opponents. Anyone who reads CAB’s full report will be very clear that this was not our language. Throughout, we were full of praise and support for Pride, and especially the 1,000 volunteers who enable it to happen. We were constructively critical, evidence based, and full of positive recommendations for the future.
The last thing we were was binary. And that is when the political becomes personal for me. I have attended Prides for most of the last twenty-five years. I have been involved in organising or advising Pride in London and Manchester over several of those years. Pride has been at the core of my queer identity as it has ebbed and flowed for over thirty years. Let me explain….
My own queer story starts when I was about thirteen. I attended a boys’ independent grammar school in a drab town just north of Manchester. I was a quirky sort of fellow back then as I probably am now. I loved politics, drama, and debating much more than playing sport or the more usual pursuits of lads of my age. I enjoyed watching football, but found the politics and economics of the game were as interesting to me as what was happening on the field. And I didn’t have any particularly close friends and I certainly didn’t have any girlfriends. Whilst we had a sister school on the other side of the road, it may as well have been an ocean between us and the creatures that inhabited the girls’ school were truly alien to me. It is therefore probably unsurprising that my early sexual adventures, and the romantic ones in my head, were all with boys of a similar age to me. Inevitably, given my initial sexual experience was with other men, and I had no experience at all with women, I left school at eighteen and arrived at university convinced that I was gay, and came out as such immediately.
And that is where my sexual orientation publicly sat for more than a decade. I became involved in the lesbian and gay society on campus. I was a supporter of Stonewall and helped Angela Mason on the first Parliamentary age of consent campaign in 1994. And I joined the then Pride Trust Board when I was 24.
It was a magical experience being part of the team that put on the incredible march through central London and festival on Clapham Common in 1996. I still have the poster from that Pride, and my exclusive Levi’s jacket made for the Board. Ironically, it was around that time that I had my initial awakening that, first, I found some women attractive, and secondly, I wasn’t that keen on many aspects of gay male identity. I felt much more attuned with the lesbians in my life, those I had met through student politics and those who were involved in Pride, one of whom remains to this day my best friend. They became my closest circle, the ones that I would feel most comfortable sharing my life with, the people who supported me in times of trouble.
Unfortunately for me, it was also those women that I found attractive. Oh, how I would long for the soft masculinity of those beautiful butch dykes. But it was not to be. The politics of our community back then was very clear. Lesbian and gay good, bisexual bad, and trans invisible and unwanted. I still recall the vituperative language used by lesbian and gay activists about bi people. The angry, hateful, confrontational words: ‘breeders not welcome here’, ‘make your mind up, pick a side’ and ‘bi now, gay later’. How could I come out and be myself? So ingrained was I in that lesbian and gay community that it was impossible.
So, I was gay. Proudly but uncomfortably so. Active in our community. Involved in Pride, Stonewall, and other campaigns. I even spent some time working for that iconic gay nightclub Heaven. I had boyfriends, not many, but a few. I explored the darker side of life in Russell Square and on Hampstead Heath. And I also had the occasional elicit tryst with a woman or two, often lesbians who themselves were not as gay as they would publicly have you believe. But most of the time, I was madly in unrequited love with some dykey friend or other. I never told them. They probably knew. But we just kept calm and carried on. It was only when I was thirty-one that one of my flirtations with a self-confessed ‘not very good lesbian’ turned into something more serious. I was in a relationship, in love with a woman who loved me back. It lasted for six years. And I came out, for the second time, as bi.
It was not easy. I was terrified that some of my closest friends may desert me. One did in fact, unable to come to terms with my ‘new found’ sexuality. Most though were unsurprised and welcoming, and even the friend I lost has become close again in recent years. Through this process of coming out anew, I also found the bi community, such as it is. The decades of marginalisation have taken their toll. Despite forming the largest proportion of people with same-sex attraction, bi people are often isolated and erased within both gay and straight worlds, made to feel unwelcome or odd in either.
That was what I found when I left my safe normative lesbian and gay community and ventured into a new world of BiCon, BiFests, Bi meet-ups, and they were weird. The clothing was either dark or very vibrant, as were some of the personalities. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel entirely queer enough. Being quite normative in my appearance and in my career and lifestyle choices, I became the oddity, the different one. I wasn’t quite kinky enough, or poly enough, or alternative enough to be part of the in crowd.
Despite this, I made it my mission to get involved in my adopted community, and to try to use what skills and contacts I had to secure the recognition and acceptance for bi people that they should have. I used my status as a Stonewall donor to become a thorn in Ben Summerskill’s side, constantly challenging him whenever they produced a publication where the only place bisexual appeared was in the LGB strapline under the logo, or when he constantly used the umbrella term gay, erasing both lesbians and bi people. I helped the bi community get a new charity off the ground to protect the financial and intellectual property assets of BiCon, the major annual event in the bi calendar. I attended meetings with Government, and allowed my name to go forward as a bi role model involved in public life.
And through all of this, I got to meet my partner, the awesome Meg-John, and, over the last five years, they have helped me change my life. MJ is a writer, therapist, and activist-academic, they are non-binary in gender and proudly bisexual. And I love them. Their support and encouragement has enabled me to feel comfortable in my orientation, to explore far more widely how I express that sexuality in practice, and to open myself up to all sorts of other relationships and connections with some wonderful people. MJ has also enabled me to open up the way I think about my gender.
Earlier I wrote that in my 20s I began to feel uncomfortable with gay male identity. Over time, it has become much clearer that I feel uncomfortable with cis masculinity, be it gay or straight. The toxicity attached to the commonly held concepts of what it is to be a man constantly upset and frustrate me. The expectation that men must be strong, and that showing emotion is incompatible with being strong, or that a man cannot be a victim of abuse, and that talking about it is shameful. I simply don’t feel that this idea of masculinity represents me, or that it is my gender. Moreover, I don’t accept that gender is a binary in any event. It is so obviously a spectrum and we all have our individual place on that spectrum.
That doesn’t mean that I am dysmorphic about my body or that I want to become more physically feminine. In fact, since growing a beard and accepting my presentation as a big queer bear, I have been a lot happier with the body I inhabit. But it is the intellectual concept of my gender that remains the challenge. I know that in appearance I am a man. I recognise fully that I have grown-up with and still receive male privilege, which I try to check constantly. But I do not see myself as wholly male and that is why in the last eighteen months or so, I have slowly started saying ever more publicly that I identify as non-binary or genderqueer as much as I identify as male, if not more so.
So, why have I said all that, and what on earth has it got to do with Pride in London? Well, for me, my personal experience drives what I do and what I say. It gives me my politics and my identity. It makes me the passionate advocate for diversity that I have become. It is behind my involvement in, support for, but also criticism of Pride in London. And it is why I feel so distraught the day after the Community Advisory Board’s report was published, because of the way it was received by the Pride organisers.
I didn’t get involved in the CAB to destroy or undermine Pride. Indeed, I was encouraged to join by Pride’s then Deputy Chair, who saw me as someone who could be a voice of reason on the Advisory Board. And that is what I have tried to be for the last two years. Every step of the way, I have tried to be constructive, to help, to bring people along. I facilitated Pride being able to hold its gala dinner for three years in the City’s magnificent Mansion House. I supported the Pride Board when they found themselves beset by problems with the TUC, LGSM, and UKIP. I drafted the code under which Parade entrants agree to participate. I ensured that the CAB did not adopt a sponsorship ethics policy which would have made it impossible for Pride to receive support from virtually any corporate. I acted as intermediary between Pride and more radical CAB members when they were concerned about military and defence industry participation. I chaired some challenging public meetings, where the Pride Board was under attack.
And yet, despite this, I find myself and my colleagues being besmirched and smeared by those self-same Pride Board members and their allies, just because we stood up for those whom they had failed. I am proud we provided a voice for people of colour who find themselves shut out or marginalised at Pride. I am proud to have represented my own bi community, who were forgotten and erased by Pride this year. I am proud to be an advocate for diversity in our LGBT+ communities.
Edward Lord OBE is deputy chair of Pride in London’s Community Advisory Board, a Board Member of BiUK, and a role model for Stonewall. Edward is an elected Member of the City of London Corporation, where he jointly leads on HR and diversity. He was awarded the OBE for his public work promoting equality and social inclusion in 2011.