The Hairpin Drop: The Radical Origins of Pride in the UK

by Emily Jessica Turner

9 July 2017

LSE Library, Flickr.

In an age where queer heritage is sanitised and commodified by those who stand to profit off a co-opted, revisionist tale, it is crucial that Pride’s history is acknowledged for what it is: a story of rebellion and resistance.

The first London Pride, held in July 1972, was characterised by a defiant claiming of the rights to visibility, safety, and public space, organised by a group with liberation at its forefront.

“Back in 1972, I was 20, with long curly hair, and living in Shepherd’s Bush with my 17 year old boyfriend,” says campaigner Peter Tatchell, recalling Britain’s first pride march in his blog post. “In those days, queers were not free. We had to fight for our rights.”

Tatchell was one of around 30 or 40 people who helped establish and publicise this first Pride March, which had, he says, “very much a carnival atmosphere, but also a very strong political message about human rights and equality. We did not plead for law reform. We demanded queer freedom. To combat the invisibility and denigration of queer people, the Gay Liberation Front decided to organise a Gay Pride march, with the theme of being out and proud. This was a very radical idea.”

The first Pride march in the UK came three years after history was made when a 1969 police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York City sparked the iconic Stonewall riots. These anti-police demonstrations followed on from other marches and demonstrations held across the US in support of gay liberation, including the Annual Reminders – a series of pickets at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall as organised by homophile groups – the Cooper’s Donut riot, where drag queens fought LAPD officers at a Los Angeles donut shop, and San Francisco’s Compton’s Cafeteria riot, in which the trans community picketed the establishment.

It is crucial to note the phenomenal impact that trans people and queer people of colour had within and upon protests leading up to and including Stonewall. At the time, the aim of several gay liberation groups in the US was to ‘assimilate’ and prove that gay and straight people could be indistinguishable. This goal excluded trans people, cross dressers, drag queens and those othered due to their race; the people who bore the brunt of homophobic or transphobic violence on the streets. Unable and unwilling to conform, trans people such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera chose to resist, and it was this resistance which led to the Stonewall Inn becoming a key site of combat.

The nature of the so-called kulturkampf in which pro-LGBTQ+ media was routinely suppressed, along with the necessary secrecy of groups such as the Mattachine Society for gay men and the Daughters of Bilitis for lesbians, contributed to the monumental impact of the Stonewall riots. “It is precisely because the American public was so unaware of these early stirrings that the Stonewall Riots came as such a shock to the system,” writes David Carter in his article What Made Stonewall Different, “Michael Denneny, living in Chicago, remembers his reaction on seeing a headline about rioting homosexuals in a New York newspaper: ‘Stonewall came like a thunderclap’.”

Known as “the hairpin drop heard around the world”, the Stonewall riots, according to Carter, engendered a “new kind of militant organization”, inspiring the constitution of the Gay Liberation Front immediately after Stonewall in 1969 and then the Gay Activists Alliance six months after the protests. Those who rioted at Stonewall helped generate a politicised, ideological form of gay liberation activism, and their impact has echoed throughout the following decades. The first Pride, known as Christopher Street Liberation Day, was held on June 28, 1970, to mark the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and marches have been held every year since.

The spontaneous, violent demonstration at the Christopher Street Inn galvanised queer liberation across the US, setting in motion a significant movement of resistance and provoking a feeling of radical potential amongst queer communities and equal rights campaigners across the States and beyond.

The urgency and rage which drove the Stonewall riots, and the resulting Pride marches in the US, did not take long to cross the pond. The first British Gay Pride Rally in 1972 saw around 1,000 people marching from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park. Partly inspired by the so-called hairpin drop in New York, the first Gay Pride march in London was held on July 1, a date chosen because of its closeness to June 28, the anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

This show of resistance was originally organised by the British branch of Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which emerged in the basement of the London School of Economics after coordinators Bob Mellors and Aubrey Walter noted the revolutionary impact the US’s GLF had had on political movements. Founded in 1970, the British branch of the GLF was, as Peter Ackroyd suggests in his book Queer City, “borne out of rage, and defiance, against harassment, [and had begun to organise] partly in response to the ‘Stonewall’ riots”.

“I was a member of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) – the first movement of openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,” Tatchell says, speaking on the phone. “I arrived from Australia in August, 1971, and on my second day, I spotted a lamp post sticker for a GLF meeting. In Melbourne, where I had come from, there were no LGBT+ groups and certainly no campaigns, and so I pounced at the opportunity to join GLF. I became one of the de facto organisers of GLF, helping to organise many campaigns and action groups. Inspired by the actions of the black civil rights campaigners in America, we would do sit-ins at pubs that refused to serve queers, disrupting business, embarrassing the owners and causing a loss of custom. This worked remarkably well, and often the owners would relent within one to three weeks – they got the message very quickly that we were not going to give up until we won.”

He goes on. “GLF was partly inspired by the Stonewall riots and subsequent gay liberation movements, but it also had its roots here in Britain. People were angry that even after the partial decriminalisation, there was still threats of arrest and violence – arrests actually went up 400% after partial decriminalisation.”

A UK government committee, chaired by John Wolfenden, had been established in 1954 in order to review laws on homosexual offences. It recommended, three years later, that homosexual behaviour between consenting adults – in private – should be decriminalised. Although the government did not act on these recommendations for several years, despite pressure from organisations, homosexuality was eventually partially decriminalised in England and Wales following the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which is marking its 50th anniversary this year. Despite this legal development, in 1972 queer people still faced violence, stigma and prejudice.

Where the Wolfenden report and partial decriminalisation assisted in enabling the country’s capital to host its first Pride march, social factors and the threat of civil force meant that deciding to take part in the UK’s first Pride march was a brave and revolutionary act.

“We organised the very first Pride march, which was followed by a Gay Day,” continues Tatchell. “In the 1970s, Pride was all about making LGBT+ people visible at a time when hardly anyone was openly gay. The march was very political, demanding liberation and our right to public space. At the Gay Day event which followed the march, we played party games which involved expressing physical affection for members of the same sex, which could get you arrested.”

As with the original rioters at Stonewall, gay rights campaigners in the UK had good reason to be fearful of both the authorities and of the wider public.

The threat of violence and arrest, as well as prejudice from the wider populace, was faced daily by queer people in the 1970s. Although there had been a law change in the form of the  Sexual Offences Act, this was a “limited, narrow decriminalisation”, Tatchell points out, and it was still dangerous for same-sex couples in 1972 to kiss in public. Queer people faced police hostility and the constant threat of violence, with arrests and prosecutions of gay men actually increasing in the years following partial decriminalisation.

As Dominic Janes points out in his essay Public Lives, Private Passions (from Queer British Art: 1861-1967, Tate, 2017), “male and female homosexuality was regarded with great disapproval by a substantial part of the British public for much of the twentieth century, and the former was heavily criminalized […] both blackmail and arrest were very real threats for many gay people”. Lesbians routinely lost their children during court cases, and electric shock treatment, hallucinogenic drugs and brainwashing techniques, known as ‘aversion therapy’, were used on homosexual men up until the late 1970s. The publication of Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male in 1948 caused fascination and concern within the population, showcasing findings that suggested that same-sex attraction was a widespread phenomenon. Although Alfred Kinsey’s key text eventually contributed to the paving of the path to reform, its publication initially led to public alarm and an increase in police activity.

Indeed, this hostility and prejudice was experienced by many of those protesters marching during the first London Gay Pride. An overwhelming police presence meant that the 1,000 demonstrators were hemmed in by almost an equivalent number of officers, some of whom threw homophobic abuse, along with the insults and bottles hurled at protesters by around a third of those who had turned up to watch the parade.

“We were very nervous, even scared, and we feared arrest or violent assault from gay-bashers. However, early Prides were very exciting – it was something completely new that that was directly challenging straight supremacy,” Tatchell says, reflecting on what galvanised the GLF to begin Gay Pride. “We knew that there had been gay protests in the US, and we were aware of the idea of the Gay Pride celebration, but our Pride emerged independently of those events. Some people erroneously think that we were just continuing the model of the US Pride marches, but although we were inspired by the Stonewall riots, we created our own model of gay liberation.”

The UK’s Gay Pride Rally in London was the first to take place outside the United States following Stonewall, and since that June day, Pride marches have blossomed in popularity. One week after London’s march, the first Birmingham Gay Pride Weekend took place on July 8-9, 1972. Brighton’s first Pride march was organised by the Sussex Gay Liberation Front and held in July, 1973. The first Pride event held in Manchester was the Manchester Gay Pub and Club Olympics and Gay Centre Fun Day, held in 1985. Leicester and Leeds began hosting Pride marches in 2001 and 2006 respectively, and Pride Scotia, alternating between the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, has taken place since 1995. Other major cities such as Bristol, Belfast, Londonderry, Sheffield and Newcastle also host Pride events today.

London Pride itself has grown over the decades, and was temporarily moved to Jubilee Gardens following swelling participant numbers in the 1980s. This decade also saw Section Act 28, a law which prevented the “promotion” of homosexuality, a legal change which motivated Pride marchers even further.

Animated by resistance and the fight for liberation, London Pride was, and still should be, a protest. Today, some critics feel that these radical origins have been lost, replaced with commercial interests, ‘pinkwashed’ or overtaken with participants who are there to drink, rather than to protest.

Tatchall is amongst those campaigners and writers lending his voice a campaign to reclaim Pride’s radical roots. He explains, “It’s great that Pride continues today, but its lost its radical cutting edge, and is less about human rights. The battle is not yet won, although we’ve made great progress. It is important that the new generations keep alive the spirit of Pride and fight to complete the unfinished battle. There’s nothing wrong with a party, but it should also be a clarion call for LGBT liberation, striving to overturn the abuses and discriminations we suffer worldwide, for example in Chechnya and Syria. The early Prides were also about standing in solidarity with queer people in the UK and worldwide – we also held campaigns against homophobic repression in Russia, Cuba, Spain and East Germany. ‘LGBT’ is a global struggle that transcends borders, and that is as true today as it was in 1972.”

The hard won rights afforded to the queer community over the decades following the UK’s first gay pride march in 1972 – equalising the age of consent, marriage equality, overturned ban on gays in the military – are rights partly won thanks to the political ideology inspired by those early events at that Christopher Street Inn.

Despite this, of course, there are many battles still to fight. As a community, we face a mental health crisis, as demonstrated by Owen Jones in his Guardian article illustrating how depression, drink and drug abuse, self-harm, and suicide are issues disproportionately present within gay communities.

In addition to this, UK-based LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall (named, of course, after the riots) has shown that  queer people face a plethora of other negative issues: one in six LGB people have experienced a hate crime or incident during the last three years, 45% of LGBTQ+ pupils (including 64% of trans pupils) are bullied in the UK’s schools, and 42% of trans people are unable to live in their preferred gender role through fear of jeopardising employment status.

It is important for us to remember – particularly those of us from the younger generations – just how new and fragile our grasp is on the rights that we hold.

Given the capitalist and authoritarian investment in perpetuating an apolitical queer heritage, it is unsurprising that such history, for many young people within the LGBTQ+ community, is self-taught. But repackaging queer history as an organic, swift and unchallenged rise to liberation not only negates the reality of our past, but also pulls from our jaws the incisors we need to shape our future.

As Novara Media writer Shon Faye stated in her LGBT History: What’s the Point video blog, “large parts of queer history have been violently taken from us […] we’re encouraged to think of LGBT histories as a succession of political successes and legal victories [which] amounts to a defanged, anodyne whitewash of our history, and our radical politics which have shaped our movement, as well as the human cost. It erases a history of a suppression of voices which were less palatable to capitalism, whiteness and the state.”

In the States, several projects, documentaries and publications work to reclaim the radical history of Stonewall, recognising the work of the trans women of colour at the movement’s epicentre, telling the authentic story of the movement’s radical origins, and championing progressive laws. The UK’s radical history of Pride, however, continues this spirit of rebellion and resistance, and it is a heritage of campaigning well worth commemorating. Those stories which have been sanitised and co-opted by the powers that be are often the ones that remind marginalised communities of how much power there is in resistance. Remembering those who fought for the rights we have today not only does justice to those who have paved the way for liberation in the past, they remind us of the power we have to change the future.


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