Small town
boys and girls

Smaller local Pride celebrations are giving LGBT people the chance to break down barriers in towns across the north

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On the terrace at the back of the town hall in Hebden Bridge a woman with a guitar sings The Doors’ Light My Fire, sheltering from the showers beneath a gazebo. Children and adults are having their faces painted, there’s a barbeque on the go, a contest for local dogs is about to take place and later on there’s a bake-off competition.

This could be any village fete or town carnival, but here the rainbow pride flags are flying and enjoying it all are Tony Swettenham, his partner David Sharman and their miniature schnauzer Sprocket. “It’s nice to see this going on here because when we moved here, although we knew it was a diverse area, we didn’t really know of anything going on,” says Swettenham. “This offers up a lot more opportunities for local gay people.”

“We can do a lot of cultural things that bigger prides couldn’t get away with.”

This afternoon of entertainment is part of Happy Valley Pride, a week-long event in the West Yorkshire town that also includes an art exhibition, a talk by Peter Tatchell – former member of the Gay Liberation Front and direct action group Outrage – a music night at the Trades Club and a picnic in the park. It’s one of many smaller, local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) prides that don’t attract the big-name sponsors and thousands of drunken revellers that big city prides do. As well as Hebden Bridge, Wigan and Burnley both hosted pride events for the first time this year. There are also pride events in towns such as Wakefield and Rotherham, while planning is well underway in Bolton for its second pride, which this year takes to the streets at the end of September. The longer established Cumbrian pride takes place on 17 September.

Many of these smaller prides are not-for-profit businesses and are a world away from the commercialised events of places like Manchester and London. It’s a difference that Mike Stephens, co-founder and chair of Happy Valley Pride, is aware of, since he also sits on the board of Manchester Pride. There’s a place for both kind of events, he feels, but says: “Big prides can be focused on a core demographic, which I think they have to be in some respects, but it’s often gay men, 18 to 25 and a lot of what goes on is centred on that group. The core audience here is very different, a lot more diverse, and that excites me. It’s not just gay men who go clubbing every Friday night – we can do a lot of creative and cultural things here that bigger prides couldn’t get away with.”

Mark Geary, co-founder of Bolton Pride, also recognises the differences between the local event and its mammoth near-neighbour. “There’s a hierarchy of prides, with London at the top obviously, and then ones like Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow, but they are all businesses with teams of employees. Manchester Pride has a chief executive, for example, who takes a wage.”

Both Happy Valley and Bolton Pride are run by small teams of volunteers. They are also both concerned with establishing events that are accessible to the wider straight community, as Geary explains. “It’s all about the awareness that there is an LGBT community here who want to be a part of the town.”

Speaking at Happy Valley Pride, activist Peter Tatchell agrees. “It’s really important that people know that LGBT communities are everywhere and we make a such a substantial contribution to towns and villages all over the UK. It’s also especially vital for the wider local community to get involved. Pride celebrations need to be a celebration of LGBT communities, but they need to be open to everyone. It’s an important way of breaking down barriers and building support.”

Those barriers may have broken down in bohemian Hebden Bridge, often referred to as the lesbian capital of the north, but other towns and villages around the Calder Valley aren’t necessarily as accepting of LGBT people, even in today’s more tolerant times. “We live in a place called Mirfield and it was very anti-gay there until recently,” says KD Lauridsen, who is enjoying the afternoon at the town hall. “I think I was one of the first people to come out there.”

“Growing up in small towns and villages can be very hard,” adds her partner Amanda. She thinks that older generations in these small communities are particularly resistant to embracing the new reality of acceptance, and hopes that events like Happy Valley Pride demonstrate to the older generation “how things really should be”.

The reaction to the last year’s first Bolton Pride, set up in response to a rise in reported homophobic hate crime, wasn’t all positive, says Geary. “When we first started we put a press release out in the local paper and the comments we received were horrendous.”

Those reactions aside, Bolton Pride was a huge success, in part thanks to the big names who lent it their support. “I woke up one day with an email from Sir Ian McKellen’s PA saying Sir Ian would like to be involved. We were like: “What?” He’s a local lad and he came to us, which was a massive boost.”

More than 2,500 people came to Bolton Pride but funding is still an issue. “Money is tight,” admits Geary. “Last year we didn’t make any money at all and ended up funding small bits ourselves to ensure it could continue.”

But thanks to further support from local businesses and the council, Bolton Pride is expanding this year. Alongside a diversity awards dinner and a candlelight vigil to remember those affected by hate crime, there’s a stage on the steps of Bolton Town Hall and a parade through the streets planned. Geary is keen to manage expectations, however. “One of the downsides of prides like this is that you do get compared to big prides. That’s a big thing to live up to. But from day one we were clear that we are not going to try and compete. And as long as we know that, that’s all that matters.”

The Bolton Pride parade won’t be like the Manchester one, he says, with open-top trucks blasting out music and men in various states of undress. This parade will stick to the core aim of the Bolton Pride festival, combating hate crime and promoting the reporting of it, and offering LGBT people the opportunity to come out and be visible within their own communities.

“It’s about walking through Bolton town centre, closing roads on a Saturday afternoon. You can’t get more visible than that really,” says Geary.

That visibility is important, agrees Swettenham in Hebden Bridge, where a parade is already being planned for next year’s event. Thinking about the recent incident in a Sainsbury’s Local store in London, where two gay men were ejected from the shop for holding hands, Swettenham reflects that events like these can help reassure others who are on the verge of coming out. “For people who are just starting to think about their own sexuality, and coming out for the first time, when they hear about things like [the Sainsbury’s incident] well, that’s why we still need things like this, to know you are not alone. Not isolated. And you are not going to have people with pitchforks running after you when you come out.”

Bolton Pride (boltonpride.com) is on 23-25 Sept. For information about Happy Valley Pride, visit happyvalleypride.com


Don’t hate, get happy

Both Happy Valley Pride in Hebden Bridge and Bolton Pride were sparked into life in response to concerns about homophobia.

“Our organisation started based on a piece of graffiti that was on the side of a building in the town centre last year,” says Mike Stephens, co-founder and chair of Happy Valley Pride. “It was up there for months. I was slightly shocked and outraged that something like that could happen in Hebden, where there is a large LGBT community.

“When I moved here it was like you lived in this bubble – there’s no homophobia, everything’s lovely. And it is like that in some respects. But there are still people here who are homophobic and you’ll get that in any community.”

The graffiti, which said, in large scrawled letters, “Joe is a gay”, may not seem particularly offensive, but it’s the message behind it that spurred on Stephens and his friends to establish Happy Valley Pride. They even turned the graffiti into a piece of community artwork, which was then put on display at the inaugural pride event.

The experiences of Kim Blackburn, a former youth worker, who recently transitioned from male to female, underlines the need for events like this to help confront abuse. “I have a café on the park in Hebden Bridge, which I started about five years ago when I was living male,” says Blackburn. “One morning I came to work and somebody had graffitied across the whole of the front of the café: ‘Kim is a gay c-word.’

Happy Valley Pride Kim Blackburn
Kim Blackburn in front of the artwork created from the homophobc graffiti that kickstarted Happy Valley Pride

“It was a bit of a shocker. I’d already started on the hormones and had just decided to come out, so someone had obviously noticed something and thought: ‘We’ll try and shame this person.’ I didn’t show it, but it set me back inside because it had taken me a lot of years to come out as myself.”

Blackburn, who used to work with young people in Hebden Bridge’s Calder Holmes Park before launching the café there, is helping to organise a picnic in the park for this year’s Happy Valley Pride event.

Bolton Pride was set up after Greater Manchester Police said reports of homophobia had risen 135 per cent in 12 months. Nationally there was a 22 per cent rise in reported homophobic hate crime in 2014-2015.

There’s little research into what is behind these rises, but more open displays of sexuality may be one factor, alongside an increase in reporting. Indeed, after last year’s Bolton Pride there was a further rise in reporting in the town, which to co-founder Mark Geary is a positive sign.

“Those crimes would still have happened but they wouldn’t have been reported, so by doing this we’re ensuring that people do report hate crime incidents. Will Bolton Pride stop hate crime? Probably not. But it will promote the reporting of hate crime, which is a good thing.”

Geary sounds a note of caution about getting too complacent in this era of tolerance and partial equality. “I went to a bar for a meeting in the run-up to the first Bolton Pride event and one guy said: ‘What do we need a pride for these days?’ And I was like: ‘I’ve just walked from the train station in my pride hoodie and someone called me a faggot so, you know, that’s one reason.’”


Peter Tatchell: ‘work to be done’

Back in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, pride events were not so much celebrations as demonstrations. They were all about the politics, marching through the city streets demanding equality. With a series of successful changes in the law, and a shift in public attitudes over the last few years, is there a need for Pride events at all? Speaking at Happy Valley Pride, Peter Tatchell, veteran of the LGBT equality movement, insists there is.

“I haven’t given up the campaigning because there’s still work to be done,” Tatchell says. “For example, despite last year’s referendum in favour of it, gay marriage in Northern Ireland remains banned.”

That work also includes supporting LGBT refugees fleeing persecution in their own countries who are usually refused asylum here on first application. “It is only through support from organisations such as my own Peter Tatchell Foundation, or the Lesbian and Gay Immigration group, that they eventually, mostly, gain asylum status,” says Tatchell

Then there are some day-to-day inequalities that still exist in law, such as the differences in pension rights between gay and straight people, where a same-sex partner of someone with a pension dating back decades can only claim that pension back to 2005, or in some cases 1988, meaning they miss out on potentially decades of contributions that their straight counterparts would receive.

Happy Valley Pride Peter Tatchell

Tatchell is particularly frustrated about the lack of change in sex and relationship education in schools. “In most schools sex and relationship education is very poor and does not include LGBT issues. We know that half of all young LGBT people are bullied in the classroom or playground and a third of all LGBT people have been a victim of a hate crime.

“Despite recommendations from the Education Select Committee the government still refuses to make sex and relationship education mandatory in schools, and refuses to make it inclusive of LGBT issues.” Which, he says, means young LGBT people continue to feel isolated, while the lack of education breeds ignorance that can lead to bullying.

He also insists that the struggle for LGBT rights should be taught in schools “in the same way that schools teach the histories of working class people, women, BME communities and so on”.

He says: “We should never forget that up until 1999. Britain had by volume the largest number of anti-gay laws of any country in the world, some of those dating back centuries. Here we are 17 years later and Britain has some of the best laws of anywhere in the world. It’s been a hugely rapid and successful law reform campaign. In fact, the fastest and most successful law reform campaign in British history. That is a huge tribute to the commitment of LGBT people and most importantly our straight friends and allies. We collectively made that happen.”

But the fact that there is still sanctioned inequality in parts of the law continues to feed his desire to keep up the fight. “Nearly all the LGBT equality laws have qualified exemptions for religious organisations,” he says. “Not just in places of worship, but in schools, hospitals, nursing homes and shelters for the homeless. They are allowed by law to discriminate against people if it can be demonstrated that it is necessary to maintain their – and I quote – ‘religious ethos’. No other institution in the country has such an exemption. I strongly oppose discrimination against people of faith. But I don’t see why they should be able to discriminate against me because I happen to be gay.”

UPDATE, 14 June 2019: This article has been amended to remove mention of someone who was experiencing homophobia in their home town

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