It’s a little ironic. Just weeks after David Hockney lamented the vanishing bohemian spirit of his youth and complained that gay men have become boring and conservative here I am trying to get across Oxford Street to catch the final day of his exhibition. What’s stopping me is a rainbow-coloured tide of marching, dancing, chanting, strutting, pouting humanity. Gay, lesbian, bi and transsexual. Men and women. They are out and proud and doing their bit to give London 2015 its biggest Pride march yet.
I’m standing outside John Lewis and the logistics of crossing the road to get to Hockney’s Painting and Photography show just a couple of hundred metres away at the Annely Juda Gallery in Dering Street is interesting to say the least.
I find a crossing point amid the barriers but have to wait for what appears to be the religious section of the Pride march pass by. The banners read ‘Jewish lesbians’, ‘LGBT Catholics’, ‘Gay Christians’. They’re laughing, smiling, high-fiving spectators. Strangely Su Pollard hoves into view dressed in a coat of black net and pink feathers. “Could have made an effort,” jokes one observer. “That’s the kind of thing she wears to Sainsbury’s”.
Suddenly there are football fans, including Arsenal’s Gay Gooners, some cross-dressing WAGS, a Rugby team, swimmers, roller skaters, a gay rowing club and a bunch of people in full fetish mode – rubber, leather, chains, straps, gimp-masks and a pack of obedient ‘dogs’ on chains.
There’s something rather odd about a man in leather cracking two huge bullwhips in the middle of the road outside the House of Fraser. The words ‘boring’ and ‘conservative’ do not immediately spring to mind though. Later I will note that there are indeed some Conservatives, with a big C (why does that sound rude?) taking part in the march. I spy groups of banner-waving Labour and Lib Dem LGBT groups too which of course is only right in the interests of political balance. Even in their united cause the traditional party divisions are clear. No sooner have the Labour group danced past wearing t-shirts emblazoned with a slogan that assures us that they have ‘Never Kissed a Tory’ than the Conservatives are delivering a cheeky riposte, slapping stickers onto people’s arms that read: ‘I Kissed a Tory – and I liked it’. The Lib Dems arrive with a banner that simply states: ‘Freedom From Conformity’.
I find myself thinking about the strange phenomenon I am witnessing. People from the very centre of the British establishment. Card-carrying political party members, parliamentary workers from ‘Parli-Out’, groups from just about any multi-national you choose to mention, joining with those on the absolute fringes of LGBT activism to celebrate their ‘otherness’. I suppose the whole march is a protest of sorts: a protest against intolerance, but with crowds 30,000 strong surging through central London, partying and pirouetting under the benign eye of the police, it’s difficult to see who they are protesting to. The small-minded are not in much evidence today.
However it’s worth remembering that just 64 years ago I was born into a Britain that thought it was appropriate to chemically castrate gay men and it is less than 50 years since simply engaging in a homosexual relationship could land you in prison. We’ve moved on a long way since then but sadly hate crimes against LGBT people are on the increase and I did see a furious looking elderly man wearing a ‘loud’ but very expensive looking sports jacket raise his stick and snarl at a couple of men in pink PVC skirts and tops that read ‘Anal Angels’. All this incidentally took place in Whitehall under the gaze of the monument to Earl Haig whose actions as the Field Marshal commanding allied troops during the First World War cost tens of thousands of lives. No doubt a significant minority of the soldiers sent to the Western Front 100 years ago were gay too. It’s a sobering thought that had they chosen to ‘come out’ then Haig would almost certainly have had them shot. Unless of course they were public school educated officers with friends in high places. Then they would merely have been locked up in a mental hospital until they were ‘cured’.
Climbing the stairs to the Hockney show I reflect on his words bemoaning the fact that in Britain today so many gay men want to enter into civil partnerships, get married and have children through adoption or surrogate mothers. “They want to be ordinary – they want to fit in…everywhere is so conservative,” he told a national newspaper. Hattie and I have a number of gay and lesbian friends – the vast majority lead pretty normal lives. They are not screaming queens or butch, dungaree-wearing dykes. They are just people who happen to be in same-sex relationships and I’m sure that was the case with the vast majority of the marchers yesterday. The Pride march is after all as much a carnival as a rally. People dress up, let off steam and stick two fingers up at the haters, the trolls, the champions of oppression, the bullies who preach blind prejudice. There actually aren’t too many of them out there – believe it or not this is still a very tolerant country – but they cause so much damage.
David Hockney probably wouldn’t like the fact that a very large number of yesterday’s marchers finished their day by climbing onto buses, heading out of town and, divested of their satin and tat, fishnets and face-paint, seamlessly merged back into a variety of quietly conventional suburban worlds. It’s the way it is in 2015. The bohemian 1960s world that Hockney enjoyed was only ever populated by a relatively small number of counter-culture movers and shakers.
Given the right company, a certain degree of determination and a modicum of luck, the creative core of society can still enjoy radical and unconventional lifestyles. I am not just talking about sexuality here but writers, artists, performers and pioneering talents both gay and straight in many other areas, including science and business. However, in a world where houses that were once student squats have been redeveloped into multi-million pound homes for oligarchs and bankers, the very fabric of what gave the 1960s its launch platform has been undermined. Despite this I truly believe that it is not impossible to overcome the monumental obstacle of greed that we are facing these days. I am convinced that at least some of the brightest talents can and will still make it. It gets tougher all the time but just think of us as a nation with a gradually lowering sperm count. The strongest and most potent will still thrive.