Pride takes place in London this weekend – and despite both being members of the LGBTQ+ community, two of our writers have opposed views on the event. They’ve been asked the the same questions on their first realisations, coming out, and what Pride means to them today, and you’d be a fool if you didn’t think the answers are available for your eyes, right here:
When did you first realise you were gay?
Ashley: It will have been my last year of high school. So, I guess around age 15/16. Until that time I’d had crushes on girls, had girlfriends, had “experiences” with one particular girl. I can tell you now that that wasn’t really for me. I can’t pin-point an exact epiphany where someone spoke down from the heavens to tell me, but it was around that time. Things had phased out with my girlfriend (we only ever held hands and kissed, so she must’ve known something was up…. Or wasn’t up, to be blunt). I knew that there was something different about me from the other boys. For quite some time I had no idea what the hell it was. Everyone else all seemed to know, though. Would’ve been handy if you’d told me, folks.
Robert: In hindsight my first sexual feelings emerged just before my 8th birthday. I was at school handing out invitations to my party like I was Tom Cruise in Risky Business and I became super tongue tied giving one to a classmate called Wesley. I know now that I fancied him but I don’t recall knowing that at the time. I just wanted him to eat my cake. Literally.
The thirst began aged 11 when I started secondary school and my form class was littered with guys I lusted after and as my body morphed and altered to puberty, a tiny voice in my mind started telling me I was different and although I sort of knew the reason (*whispers* “gaaaay”) I sure as hell wasn’t going to accept it and so began almost a decade of internal fighting that would make the Russian government seem positively amicable.
Who was the first gay person you met?
Ashley: I think it was probably Brian, my Godfather (or fairy Godfather as I now call him). Of course, I was incredibly young at the time, so had no idea what gay even meant, except for maybe hearing older kids use it to describe something that was a bit shit. I mean, also my maternal Grandmother was a raging bi-sexual, but again, not the sort of thing that you chat about at afternoon tea. The first time that I met a gay person (when I knew what it was) would have been in high school. There was a guy in the upper forms who was camp as Christmas, and had a lot of female friends. People used to whisper and gossip about him, and that’s how I knew. We never spoke at length as he was a few years older than me. I did look up to him in a way; probably because I saw so many traits in him that I felt I had as well.
Robert: By 1998 I was working a Christmas temp job at Argos in Watford (only the best places for me). One of the supervisors, Paul, was an out and proud gay man and the first one I ever met. I was intimated and terrified of him and avoided all conversations, but watched mesmerised from afar as he spoke of his long term boyfriend (Mark), about going to gay clubs (Vauxhall, natch) and he did so with confidence. His hair was bleached (of course) and he was the only member of staff who wore the uniform grey blazer (oooh, suits you, Sir!). I fancied him just as much as I was jealous of him. He had achieved something I truly believed I would never be – he was out.
It would be 4 years until we actually spoke. In early 2002, I accepted a job at another Argos store (if anything just to quench my fetish for a laminated catalogue), and Paul was part of the management team. He didn’t remember me but his gaydar was absolutely triggered. I wasn’t as terrified this time around because I was in the end-game of my closeted period. But one night at a colleagues’ house, several of us were chilling out and Paul, very much out of the blue piped up, ‘Robert, we all know, so just come out!’ That floored me. Left me speechless and wishing for the Earth to swallow me. For another gay man to do that to someone he suspects is closeted is confusing. Did he not recall his own coming out struggle?
What did being gay mean to you?
Ashley: Initially it meant nothing sexual to me. I was very lucky that my mum used to watch trashy TV shows with gay characters. Buffy, Will & Grace etc. In that respect I always associated being gay with humour. Even once I figured out that I was, I never particularly thought it meant I was any different or handicapped. If anything, I saw it as a benefit. I wanted to be in show-business at the time and everyone I seemed to see who’d cracked it were all flaming homosexuals. Or at least played them on TV. I thought I could essentially be a very thorough method actor. Over the years my opinion on what it means has changed dramatically, but I’m sure that will become apparent in the rest of this article.
Robert: My understanding of “gay” then was rather different to what it is now. In my younger days I had no idea about any struggles anyone else had, nothing about the Stonewall riots or Thatcher’s government, I only knew I was gay and I wanted to be out, but just couldn’t get there. I couldn’t imagine it.
When/how did you come out?
Ashley: The first people I told were my two best friends at the time. It was New Year’s Day and we had all woken up on one of their living room floors after being out for NYE. It was the same year I had finished high school, and I was taking a premature gap year, so I knew that if I told anyone I didn’t have to worry about people asking me about it in the near future. I didn’t really make a song and dance of it, I just said it quite bluntly. Neither were shocked. Mainly because one was my ex, and one was the girl I’d fooled around with, and I’d just spent a night with them and not tried on a single move. They were both happy for me, and then we went back to our normal business of sitting around, watching movies and chatting.
When it came to my parents, I never actually told my mum, she just knew and never mentioned anything otherwise. Probably the way it should be, really. With my dad, he picked me up from my house in Manchester once I’d moved away and on the way back just asked me, “Why didn’t you tell me you were gay?”, and that was it. He’d heard it through word of mouth, as I am from a tiny Welsh town where if someone farts it’s on the front page of the Daily Post. But there was no drama, no tears, no nothing. I am very aware and grateful of how easy my experience was, and wish that it could be that way for everyone.
The local bowling alley sold 4 shots for £5. My Argos was next to an Iceland so we all made friends and went boozing together. I fancied a guy called Dave who stocked the freezers (I pick the good ones) and after way too many shots and zero bowling we found ourselves sat on a bench in the high street chatting. There was a pregnant pause and I used that as an opportunity to kiss his neck. He recoiled (as many have done since, and many will continue to). He wasn’t offended. In fact I’m surprised he wasn’t unconscious (did I mention 4 shots for £5?). I didn’t know I had that confidence in me …(4 for 5) …but what I did know is that I would have to tell our mutual mate Marc (no, not Paul’s long term boyfriend) before Dave did. So on that walk home in the Summer of 2002, in the deserted car park that Argos and Iceland shared, I said two words I had never before said to anyone I knew. I may have chatted to people anonymously online but to actually say “I’m gay” out loud to someone who knew me personally was liberating.
It would still be 6 months before I told my parents. By that time I had relocated to Leeds for University. I knew I had to move away from home if I was ever going to fully come out, I just didn’t see staying in London and finding happiness as a realistic eventuality. From freshers week onwards I made a pact with myself to slowly come out. At first I was selective who I told; only people who would conceal my secret, almost like dipping my toe in the gay-water. But then alcohol played its part once more. After a few pints in the student union, a friend asked me when I was going to tell my ‘rents.
‘I just don’t see it happening.’
‘Just do it. Like a band aid, just rip it off quickly in one go. Just do it.’
And she left it at that. The conversation moved on. As did we to our respective homes.
Her words resonated with me ‘…like a band aid…’. I reached for my navy blue Nokia 3310, lifted myself up onto my window-sill (the only place to get signal), scrolled my contacts and dialled my mum’s mobile.
Then I cancelled the call.
Deep breath, Dialled again. She answered.
Mum: Hows you?
Me: Fine, you?
Me: … Are you sitting down? Mum: Yes, why?
Me: Two things?
Me: Did you record Alan Partridge? (The second series was airing on BBC and I didn’t have an arial. There was no on-demand back then. Fucking stone age.)
Mum: Yes, the tape (TAPE!!) is on your bed for you to watch at Christmas.
Me: Good. Thanks. (Deep breath) I need to tell you something.
Me: … I’m…gay
Mum: Fuck off!
Mum: Your father’s pissing me off. I’m not in the mood for your piss takes.
Me: I’m not taking the piss.
Mum: Robert, I’m trying to watch Corrie
Me: I’m not joking. I’m gay!
Mum: Ok. That’s fine. As long as you don’t get yourself into any trouble, you know I’ll always support you.
And that was it. Close to a decade of wandering what this moment would be like, building it up in my mind to expect a more catastrophic revelation than Revelations was met with an equivalent of “Whatever Trevor”.
It was November 21st 2002. I was 19 and I was out. I could finally begin my life.
Did you have any gay allies/friends at that time?
Ashley: My female friends from back home were always supportive of me (it was a novelty to have a big ol’ Mo in town), and I’ve never, ever been bullied for my sexuality. My parents have also always let me be whoever I wanted to. My dad would sometimes jokingly use words like “poof”, but the moment he knew I was gay, I’ve never heard it since. It wasn’t until I’d moved to Manchester that I started to have gay friends. And even then it was a good 6 months after I’d moved. When I got to college in my first year, despite studying acting, there wasn’t a single other gay man in my form, so made more female friends who, having lived in the city for most of their lives, saw my sexuality as completely familiar and normal.
Robert: Please prepare your violins.
My pre-uni days were spent interacting with no gay people whatsoever. You’d sooner find a Rabbi moonlighting at McDonalds. There was no one I could talk to, no one I could relate to and seek advice from. I did have some straight mates but as we ebbed towards our late teens, my secret restricted how much I let them in. I became very closed for fear they’d find out and eventually I drifted from them. I was alone and turned to the internet for anonymous conversation. My so-called gay life was as gay as a straight convention.
Leeds offered me access to my first gay friends and in particular a course mate, Nick. He’d been out for years and seemingly had slept with everyone and then kept them as friends, collecting them like Pokemon (gotta fuck em all). He oozed confidence and was friendly and far from awkward. Just like Paul he knew about me instinctively and we became rather close. His shoulder carried me a fair bit and by osmosis I began to grow in confidence too. He was harsh at times, like when he scoffed at me for hiding my copies of Attitude Magazine from my flat mates, but I think I needed that. I needed pushing out just a tad, otherwise it might not have happened in the time frame it did. I would have remained a closeted, fuzzy haired, podgy Jewish geek. In the 15 years since, I’ve managed to drop “closeted” from the list. No-one ever really changes.
My 20th birthday party in 2003 did sort of turn into a coming out party for me, as mid-way through I just officially announced to all within eat shot that yes, their suspicions were correct and can someone please pass me a WKD Blue. I eventually got the to stage where I didn’t need to sit anyone down and declare it, it just happened in general conversation, “oh I can’t go to the cinema tonight, I’m going to Queens Court (Leeds gay bar)” – that sort of thing. I don’t find that I have to out myself very often these days.
How did you meet other gay people?
Ashley: Through friends, mostly. Or social media. I had a Tumblr account at the time, on which I followed a lot of other gay people and ended up chatting through there. I also met people through dating. To this day a lot of my friends are people who I’ve dated, and then when it didn’t work just stayed in touch. When I started my second year of college I moved to a different campus which was on Canal Street, Manchester’s gay village. I then had another gay guy in my form, though at the time he wasn’t out, and was a bit distant from me. We’re now good friends and he’s told me that he avoided me purposefully so I wouldn’t “out him”. To be frank, he was so camp that I don’t believe he was ever in; a joke he makes himself. But I wasn’t too fussed about meeting gay people, really. I didn’t think that because I was gay I had to have a network of them at my disposal. I had good friends that weren’t, and that was enough for me. As the years have gone on, I do have a lot of gay friends, but through natural social interaction, not searching for them like a hound searches for a fox.
Robert: Pre-uni I was a regular in the AOL gay chat rooms – but only after 6pm and if no-one was on the phone (dial up was a right bitch). There was one for Central London and another for Hertfordshire (which is actually where I lived). Mostly the time was spent trying to find out peoples A/S/L, but occasionally I’d get DM-ing with someone who I could quiz. I dared not meet anyone, that would be far too scary. I viewed them as confident and out, as if they lived in another period to me. I was the Time Traveller’s Wife… only male… and closeted.
Living in Leeds meant I met guys through other guys and eventually down the pub, bars and clubs. Leeds is a party city and I soon became a scene queen. I even bleached my hair. I stopped short of wearing white trousers and angel wings. Everyone knew me. Some even knew me… if you understand what I mean… oh you do….
Having friends who could relate to me on a deeper level than before, for the first time in my life, was glorious.
When did you first visit an LGBTQ+ venue? What did you think of it?
Ashley: It was G-A-Y on Canal Street. I remember only being allowed in because I was with people that the doorman recognised. I mean, c’mon love, you’re a cheap and sweaty club, not the Groucho. It was horrid. All quiffs, and no conversation. I felt like I was a calf being led through a cattle market. Why anyone would want to be a regular, I had no idea. To me, it embraced the damaging stereotype that has plagued the gay community for too long; that it’s all about sex, looks, and popularity. I didn’t see it as a safe-house away from homophobia, but as a breeding ground for it. If eyes weren’t undressing you, they were daggers in your back. The patrons had little respect for themselves or anyone else. It seemed like you either had to consent to someones advances, or leave the place. I quite swiftly chose option B. As time went on, I picked my gay venues carefully. There was one about 50 metres down from G-A-Y called View, which I quite liked. It had more booths to sit and chat in, a clientele of men in their 30s who were more respectful, and a chilled out, less intense atmosphere. That was the side of the community that I liked. Being able to meet and chat already knowing that you have one thing in common. It felt safe, and it felt like somewhere you could go with friends, rather than somewhere you go to get off. Plus it was about 30 seconds from college. And above anything else, I love convenience.
Robert: Leeds was and still is a very liberal city. This was the age of the metrosexual (boot cut jeans and mullets) and in the venn diagram of bar, clubs and pubs, the lines were often blurred between straight and gay places. One particular club, The Cockpit (unsurprisingly) spent most days as a gig venue but on Thursday nights housed Poptastic, a well known LGBT club night originating from Manchester that played pop (Britney) and ‘indie’ (No Doubt). In early January 2003 I persuaded Marc (deserted car park guy) and some of our student hall mates to go with me. It was full of gay people; there were gay people dancing and drinking and chatting and laughing and I was one of them. I was no longer on the outside, I was integrated into a world I had really only ever seen on AOL or in Queer As Folk. I was doing, I was really doing it. Then Marc got thrown out for fingering a girl on the dance floor and we all had to leave.
What did you know about Pride?
Ashley: When I first heard about Pride, I could see the appeal. On paper it seemed like a celebration of the rights gay people have achieved, and a demonstration of what more needed to be done to tackle discrimination still currently faced. Other than that I didn’t know too much. I’d never researched it, and as I had never lived in a big city before I had not seen one in passing, or even heard people discussing it. In Manchester it’s one of the big calendar events of the season, so I thought there must be some merit in it if almost everyone waited all summer for it to start.
Robert: I don’t remember when I first became aware of Pride (the festival). I certainly did not attend, nor was I ever aware of London Pride before I moved to Leeds.
When did you first attend Pride? What was your experience?
Ashley: The first Pride that I attended was indeed Manchester Pride. I had high hopes after reading about the good causes it was for, and the hype that fills the city when August approaches each year. Unfortunately, it was not what I had envisioned. Rather than a parade of informing people and tackling stigma through demonstration, it was float after float of in-your-face sex and shock factor. One would go by with men, all with their arses out, the next a group of men in leather harnesses, etc. It became blatantly clear that to these people Pride was nothing about the struggles of the past and more about the opportunity to pull and show off in the present. It was seedy and shallow. And that feeling spread through the crowd and spectators. They weren’t there to watch the people marching with banners; in fact most of them retired to the bars once the big floats of topless men had gone past. They were there to get an eye-full of bulge and tits, and a belly full of vodka. I only attended for about an hour, and then went to a bar outside of the gay village for a quiet drink away from the embarrassment.
I knew that there was a vigil that night at the AIDS memorial in Sackville Gardens, and thought that that might be more like what I though Pride would be. I headed up there, got a candle, and took my place in the crowd. I was there no more than 5 minutes when a man next to me turned to his friend and said, ‘This is fucking boring, let’s go to BaaBar, they’ve got £1 shots on’, and sauntered off. Not only that, I saw two men tongues entwined, with their hands buried in each other’s rubber underwear. There was a girl squatting and pissing in a bush; all while there was a moment of silence for people who had died because their government thought they weren’t deserving of proper treatment due to their sexuality. Once the vigil was over I’d had enough of “Pride” and headed home. It wasn’t a celebration or a remembrance; it was a piss up.
Robert: Leeds did not have a Pride event at that time so my first actual Pride experience was in 2008, after I have moved back to London. Watching the parade I finally understood what it was all about. These different fractions of our community; the G, the L, the B, the T and the Q+, all joining forces like Power Rangers to create a massive Pride-Megazord. But not aggressively fighting the Rita’s or Ivan Ooze’s who opposed us, but to peacefully stand up for who we are and to be proud.
Do you attend pride now? Do you think it’s still relevant in 2017?
Ashley: I have not attended a Pride since. I have been invited to by friends and colleagues, but made a point out of not doing so. I have, on occasion, been passing through Soho during it but always as a necessity. And every time I see the same behaviour that I saw that first time. I don’t believe that this is an event that we need right now. I think that a form of political demonstration is definitely still relevant in today’s society, but not the current “Pride”. Even the name makes me shudder. I’m not proud of my sexuality anymore than I’m proud of having blue eyes or being a man; it’s just something that I was born with. I think Pride should be reserved for achievements, not nature. And I don’t even believe that people even attend because they’re proud to be gay. They attend because it’s like speed dating with cheap booze and blurry morals. All over social media in the run up to Pride I see people saying, ‘Need to get a six pack before pride’ or putting photos up of shirts that say Power Bottom and Be My Daddy with captions about ‘Which one should I wear for pride?’. It’s hopelessly toe-curling. Some of these people obviously don’t give a shit about the men and women who were beaten, abused, and killed so that they can even find secure employment. They’re quite happy to strut around the busiest city in the world, with maximum exposure, in a shirt that will immediately make people wince and scowl. That, to me, is not very progressive.
Robert: London Pride has become a mainstay of my annual calendar ever since. It’s right up there with Halloween and my birthday (which I’ve taken to calling Robby Pride). It’s my way of checking in with my community in a big bad way. My way of standing up and being counted. I like how Pride has developed over the years to become more of a parade and celebration than a march and protest. Legally the LGB fractions are in a pretty good place, and societal opinions are better than they’ve ever been. But we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. There is still some way to go, especially when you consider T and Q are somewhat behind.
There is a commercial element to Pride now. Large multinational companies (airlines, broadcasters, banks) have a presence in the parade and whilst this is often the target of negativity, I genuinely see it as positively progressive. That a company with shareholders and a board of members would align themselves with communities who were once societies punching bag, deemed perverts and a danger to the very moral fabric of our fair Great British Isles (rule Britannia etc, etc) is wonderful and can only send out a positive message. Yes they are chasing the so called pink pound, but a happy side effect is the hope that maybe seeing a Pride flag in Nando’s window while ordering their cheeky half chicken and two sides for £9.99 will give people young and old the confidence to come on out and declare ‘I’m gay/bi/trans/queer’ (delete as appropriate).
Is it appropriate that men in speedos march with leather queens and rubber gimps and glitter drenched drag queens and lesbians in denim and couples with toddlers? Yes. That’s the smorgasbord of our LGBTQ+ community. The truths and the cliches. I often hear worries within our community of ‘I don’t want straight people to think that’s all we are’. Watching the parade is proof that the above list is not the be all and end all – there are just as many community groups wearing shitty jeans and t shirts – gay christians in sandals, bankers in cheap suits, the police in their uniforms.
It’s important to look past the frills, past the t shirts, the jock straps, the make up and pay attention to the humans. They have names and they each have a history of growing up in a society where the default is straight + marry someone of the opposite sex = happiness. On that level we really are all the same, we’re all connected in this way and that is why the Pride movement is still relevant in 2017. There are forces in this world that want to undo us. ISIS are busy rounding up gay men and throwing them from tall buildings; 49 LGBTQ+ people died in Pulse nightclub; 8 years ago Ian Baynham was kicked to death in Trafalgar Square just for the crime of being gay. Do you really think those people will care whether you dislike Pride? To them you’re either LGBTQ+ or not.
Going forward would you want pride to continue? Why?
Ashley: I would love to see Pride replaced with an annual march against discrimination of LGBTQ+ people, not only in the UK, but globally. Jockstraps and glow sticks won’t change the world, but politics might. I’ve even heard of Pride celebrations where men have been picked out of crowds to have sex on stage. The disrespect in that is inexcusable. We have made great leaps forward as a portion of the population, but I fear that we’re now going backwards. Bitchiness and cruelty to each other is now seen as “sass” and “shade”. Well, in my eyes a bully is a bully no matter how much RuPaul they watch. I think we need to stop calling each other “girl” and “queen”, as to people outside of the bubble it encourages the perception of being gay being associated with femininity. A lot of the community make things harder for themselves by trying to be more different than they are. I know people who in private are thoughtful, intelligent, and engaging. The moment those people are in crowds, they revert to the “yass queen” personality that they think will make them interesting. I wish that we could educate kids as they grow up that developing your own opinions and personality is far more admirable than copying it.
The western world does now see the gay, bi-sexual, and lesbian communities in a much more positive light than they did even 10 years ago, but there is still so much to be done to help and protect those who identify as transgender. By making such a spectacle of themselves, the LGB community is draining away opportunity to let transgender individuals take the stage and show the world that they are no different to them. People may say, ‘Well that’s not very fun’, but change is very rarely fun, and never easy. It’s not about asking for a spotlight, it’s about taking it. And we as the gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual community need to take that spotlight and shine it on those in our society who now need it more than we do.
What has happened in recent times is rather than being the fighter, younger gays (who now have the most exposure in the media and online) have reverted to being victims. They seem to try and find offence in anything, and in some cases actively seek it out on social media. If they’re put down or ignored they immediately believe it must be because of their sexuality, rather than negative personality traits or reason. They also retaliate against those who are trying to be better, I’ve found. When someone innocently may use the wrong pronoun with someone, they’re attacked rather than informed. If someone who isn’t part of the LGBT community enters a gay bar they’re starred down rather than welcomed. I’ve heard people on so many occasions say that they don’t want to go to a particular bar because it’s, “Full of straighties”.
And I have to admit, it is the LGBT youth who I believe are letting the team down. I think we should put these demonstrations back in the hands of the people who should be proud of what they’ve achieved. The people who were thrown into jail cells for loving someone. The people who lost their jobs because of gossip. The people who lost loved ones to AIDS. The people who dragged themselves up from defeat and made a change that now means I can be safe in my work, I can love my boyfriend without any fear of repercussions, and I can be known as Ashley who writes for that website, or Ashley who’s from Wales. Not Gay Ashley.
Being gay is not the most important thing about me. It’s not my personality. And it’s nothing I’m proud of.
Robert: Pride is important. It sends a clear message that our way of life is really no different to our heterosexual counterparts. We’re just as valid. I’m not naive in thinking that a member of ISIS watching the parade online will immediately see the error of their ways. Or that a homophobe somewhere in the UK will suddenly become an ally over night because someone handed them a Stonewall ‘Some People Are Gay, Get Over it’ sticker. But what’s the alternative, close it all down and deny our community a chance to celebrate how far we have come since 1970? Visibility is important. If people cannot see us, they will not have the opportunity to learn about us and understand us.
Pride is more than just the parade and a has-been-pop-star singing to a backing track on a make shift stage. It’s a two week festival comprising of talks, debates, social outings and allows real face to face contact between charities/community groups and people who may not yet be out – people who need our support, people who need both pride and Pride. It’s like ComiCon for queers. When we live in a world where Barry Manilow has had more face-lifts than open conversations about his sexuality, you know the balance is off. Manilow and countless others, young and old shouldn’t have to hide and if Pride events can go someway to infusing them with confidence, then more of it I say.
You don’t like certain aspects of Pride? Then ignore those parts and embrace the bits you connect with. Y’know, like sane people do with Michael Bay films – we ignore the movie and enjoy the credits. It’s called PRIDE – find some.