Why we still need Pride

Pride is something we talk about every year, but I feel I’ve seen increasing negativity towards the month. Maybe it’s because I’m a chronically online student journalist, but seeing people harass student activists online and turn on companies promoting LGBTQ+ inclusion seems to send a message of decreasing acceptance.

If anything, it shows why the celebration is needed now more than ever.

The UK first celebrated Pride in 1972 to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riots, which stood up to police raids of gay and lesbian bars in New York. This uprising inspired the formation of branches of the Gay Liberation Front internationally, including the London branch which first met in 1970. They were key in organising the 1972 march, with around 2,000 attendees. Last year’s event, 50 years after its first, had over a million.

Legal advances accompany this social progress, from the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalising homosexuality to the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013 allowing same-sex couples to get married. Trans people were also granted full legal recognition of their gender in the Gender Recognition Act 2004.

These basic rights boosted the UK’s position in the annual Rainbow Map, which records how LGBTQ-friendly European countries are. Up until 2015, the UK was considered the best in Europe, but has dropped to 17th this year. Such a downfall is rooted in increasing hate crime figures, the failure to ban conversion therapy, and anti-trans rhetoric.

Oxford has recently been the centre of the media’s anti-trans narrative during the protests at the Union opposing Dr Kathleen Stock’s invitation. As a gender-critical lesbian and trustee of the LGB Alliance, Stock represents what I see as the unfortunate fracturing of the LGBTQ+ community in this toxic “debate”. Whether the split is generational or ideological, the lack of unity loses the core values of the LGBTQ+ movement.

Being at the protests was what sealed how I felt towards the controversy: trans joy conquers any theoretical debate. Pride is not about a philosophical conclusion to the meaning of human existence, it’s about the rights of a marginalised group. Hosting a debate on the identity of a group of people is humiliating, with Stock maintaining that it is fiction to claim “transwomen are women”.

Before you accuse me of putting “free speech in peril” as The Telegraph would, I do appreciate the need for discussion in this area. The panel “Between Free Speech and Hate Speech” hosted by the OULGBTQ+ society raised how Trans+ Pride protests actually increased the profile of the dialogue. Dr Clara Baker asked of the backlash “Is it that you want debate or discussion, or that you’re not getting the answers that you want?”.

The recent Oriel speaker event “Conflicting compassion: diversity in gender and sexuality in the modern world” featuring Abigail Thorn from Philosophy Tube and the Rt Revd Dr Steven Croft exemplified what this conversation should be. Topics of how faith, sport, and other aspects of community can adjust to the LGBTQ+ were had with kindness and respect.

Thorn also raised how when the community faces injustice, attackers don’t stop to ask “what letter people fit under”. She expressed it’s better “to bring it back to material conditions”, living in the UK where trans people still lack access to gender-affirming care among other injustices. The event left me with the hope that unity for change is possible.

Another typically toxic element of Pride month is of course rainbow washing, where companies and brands that use LGBTQ+ symbolism without providing real support for the community. This is typically criticised by activists for its superficial nature, appearing as a mere “money grab” using the language and imagery of genuine struggle.

This year the discourse has appeared quite differently, however, as particularly in the US brands have faced significant backlash. Target in particular withdrew its Pride merchandise following harassment against employees. Abandoning even the superficial display of allyship foreshadows even deeper division and discrimination.

In the UK, anti-trans campaigners have recently called out CBeebies for a segment on how some fish can change gender. This was in spite of no mention of trans people, but the BBC stood by the piece under its “Everyone’s Welcome” ethos. Even a British Library tweet on similar fish faced such backlash that the thread was deleted.

Culture wars are not what the LGBTQ+ community needs to fight, but they form part of a country’s psyche. Within this narrative, queer people still face real-life negative impacts from oppositional compaigns. Scotland’s Gender Recognition Bill was blocked by the UK government, US legislatures are passing hundreds of anti-LGBT laws, and 70% of trans people are impacted by transphobia in accessing health services.

Pride is still about celebration in the face of social, cultural, and legal adversity. The value of human dignity remains the same as it was in 1972, and should be fought for with the same passion as those revolutionary roots.