The weekend of 24-25 September will see Birmingham Pride celebrate its 25th anniversary, one of the first major celebrations to take place since the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Although the Queen kept many views to herself, the recent Pride stamp issue commemorating 50 years of Pride in London might lead many of us to suspect that she was actually rather fond of the LGBTQ+ community.
Now a major event, Birmingham Pride had humble beginnings. Some trace its origins not to London Pride, but to the Five Days of Fun or the earlier It’s A Knockout which both traditionally took place over the August Bank Holiday. These included drag bingo, handbag throwing and even welly wanging. Unlike the Pride marches in London, these didn’t include a march or particularly much of a protest element. General merriment was the order of the day, or indeed the five days. One thing that did stand out in those days, where ’pretend family values’ were still frowned upon due to Section 28, was a strong community element where all the family was invited – including pets, especially dogs who would be dressed up to the nines for the dog shows, a firm favourite of the proceedings.
In 1997, Section 28 meant that it was illegal for the council to be involved. Even before the act came into force, one Council Leader at the time, Sir Dick Knowles, infamously said there would be a gay centre over his dead body. Thankfully by the time he died, a gay centre existed and there was no need to build one over his grave. This is now the LGBT Centre, providing many services to the community, giving an alternative to the commercial scene in the city. A visible Pride event was really important for the city and in 1997, the first Birmingham Pride was held.
One of the city’s biggest celebrations
Until the pandemic, Birmingham Pride was held in May. In the early years, it coincided with the Lord Mayor’s Parade. Public opinion was light years from how it is now – Sir Dick Knowles’s successor was no better. Theresa Stewart, often vilified by the right wing press as ’a loony leftie’ objected strongly to the rainbow flag flying in Victoria Square and ordered it to be taken down. Thankfully times have changed and Birmingham Pride is now seen as an important event, vying with the St Patrick’s Day parade as the biggest in the city’s calendar. More memories of Birmingham Pride (both good and bad!) can be found at the Gay Birmingham Remembered website.
Nowadays, Pride events happen all over the country. Along with London, Brighton and Manchester, Birmingham Pride is one of the largest of its kind in the country and provides a major tourism boost for the city.
Some might say that it’s sad that the event now has a more commercial edge and it has lost some of its community feel. Happily, this has been addressed by holding a community-focussed event on the Friday evening before Pride which takes place on the next two days. And however commercial the main event has become, it is a huge beacon for visibility and since becoming a paid-for event in 2015, has raised many thousands of pounds for community projects. For the LGBTQ+ community, memories of our first kiss might fade, but no-one ever forgets their first Pride. To witness – or be part of – a celebration of happiness and joy is simply priceless.
This year, after the parade weaves its way through the city, something it actually didn’t do in those early years, the headline act at the festival will be Steps, also celebrating their 25th anniversary as a pop group. Big names have often been a feature of Birmingham Pride – the first event even featured the late great Margarita Pracatan.
A different Pride?
Along with being held in September rather than May, there will be a few other differences. Building works around the gay village mean that the event will be held in the Smithfield area, which recently successfully hosted many Commonwealth Games events.
Another difference is that a regular face will be missing this year – the completely irreplaceable Carlos Medina who recently passed away. This post from the Tales of the Second City blog sums up why his screams of “reeeeaaaalllly” will be missed.
Sadly, bereavement is nothing new for the gay community which has lost far more than its fair share due to the AIDS pandemic, not always a feature of the Pride celebrations as it has been in Manchester. Plans are now in an advanced stage where later this year, a stunning memorial to mark the AIDS pandemic will be unveiled outside the Hippodrome Theatre. The memorial is just one of the ways that money raised during Pride is used, and perhaps in future years, the memorial will play a part during the Pride weekend.
Another difference at this year’s festival might be how the event is policed, following the backlash to Lincoln Pride where the police joined in with the Macarena. My personal memories of Birmingham Pride include my joy at seeing some policemen wearing Kylie hats whilst still keeping us safe. For me, it meant that the days of shouting “2 4 6 8, is that copper really straight?” were long gone and the police force and the LGBTQ+ community were no longer enemies. It’s too easy to forget that it’s not that long ago that gay men were persecuted and hunted down by the police. Surely no-one wants to go back to those days and it’s great to see a police force which reflects the whole community.
Birmingham Pride is an event that brings the whole city together. Of course, no member of any community is 100% safe and the police play a vital role in security, but why not have the police join in the fun when possible? It certainly adds to the atmosphere. We shouldn’t forget that the freedoms we now take so much for granted in the UK are far from universal. In Europe, even with a lesbian Prime Minister, Serbia’s hopes of hosting a peaceful march during Euro Pride have been dashed. And of course, we still have to find out what the new Home Secretary’s ‘war on woke‘ actually means for us all.
Here’s hoping Birmingham Pride 2022 will be a huge success and the police will indeed be able to join in with the celebrations and the city can once again shine as a beacon for diversity and inclusivity.
For full information of this year’s Pride, visit https://birminghampride.com/