Pride: The gesture politics hijack
By Felix Alvarez
Contrary to the repeatedly inflated claims last year, the 2022 Pride event was most emphatically not the first in Gibraltar. A fact that didn’t go unnoticed by many of you.
The honour goes to the unofficial event organised by ERG and friends on Saturday 15th June 2013. It comprised of a humble small daytime march followed by an evening LGBT DJ-type event in Ocean Village. A year later, it took off officially: the Picardo government provided support and resources to lift the event to a higher level. And that took place on Saturday 12th July 2014. It wasn’t ‘gay pride’. We didn’t want it to be. LGBT people had to form an integral part of our small society, not a ghetto.
For us, it had to be inclusive not in words, but in fact. Gibraltar need not simply copy/paste other experiences tailored to the conditions of huge cities; ERG has always trod with caution on the road to advances. A policy and vision, in good part, thanks to which the incidence of homophobic crime has historically remained low. We continue to urge prudence and wisdom.
Government in its early years promised to root out endemic discriminations and injustices. In this vein of inclusivity, this now was ‘Gibraltar Pride’, people from across the board highlighting their visibility. And it was the first time the slogan ‘We Are One’ (later to be happily borrowed by the Mayoralty) saw the light of day locally in this context. The event consisted of a prominent march met by the Chief Minister, the Minister for Equality, and the Government generally. This was followed by music and dancing, and later a show by one of the UK’s most well-known disabled comediennes. Not the sort of thing that never existed!
In effect, last year’s ‘first ever Pride event in Gibraltar’ was actually the third.
The problem with gestures is they can too readily lack substance. But, unfortunately, substance-less is flavour of the political decade. And when decision leaders refuse to take counsel, seduced by the allure of approval, there will always be consequences down the line. Creeping in between the cracks of Equality, for example, racism will quietly slither in to repetitively swell the statistics. Until one day it becomes convenient to acknowledge reality – at last, but too late.
The genetic origins of what has now become an ‘event’ was the deep, hot anger of a crowd on June 28th 1969. Police harassment on an insidious scale had been a fact of life the mixed outlaw community of gay, bisex and trans people who frequented the Stonewall Inn in New York had lived with. But they’d had enough. The riots went on for five days. And another slice of western social history was born; a history engendered of one place yet with international resonance. Sexual minorities had lived in the sewers of city nights everywhere for longer than anyone could remember. Global and historic oppression was a painful fact; and still persists in too many countries.
It took a few years for what was to be known as the ‘gay liberation’ movement to migrate over to London. On Saturday 1st July 1972 I was still a frightened undergraduate, with one year to go for my finals, when the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), organised the first daring Pride March in London. By the following year I was a fully committed GLF-er, and the second historic Pride March was where I started to cut my teeth; not as a leader, but as a follower. I had much to learn, and leading was never in my thoughts. I worked in the background, with community groups of all kinds and issues, first in social work, and then in the more grassroots-committed community work of the 70s.
Pride in the first years was both euphoric and frightening. The liberation of a new generation finding a voice. A voice that heard itself in the thoughts of Eldridge Cleaver’s ‘Soul on Ice’ (the Black Panthers stood in solidarity with the embryonic gay movement almost from the word go). As we made our way from London’s Embankment down central London and eventually to Hyde Park for a well-earned picnic, we were outnumbered by police officers. Because the danger was real: fascist supporters of the National Front followed us, throwing whatever they could in our direction to cause us harm (bottles were a favourite). Threats of violence were real. It was no frolic. It took guts. There were incidents after the end of the march: individuals pursued by violent ultras across London streets in ways reminiscent of 1930s Berlin. As I say, this was no frolic.
Today it’s good that it can be.
That people can find in Pride an opportunity to celebrate change whilst acknowledging the inadequacy of injustices and refusing to simply accept them hits the mark. Pride is solidarity, and it cannot look the other way.
For fundamental to Pride as it exploded onto the streets of Western capitals was that no one was willing to stand alone and for ourselves uniquely. Our solidarity with the women’s movement, the anti-racist coalitions, the cry for economic justice of workers in the trades unions, was more than just a strategy to garner support from throughout the British polity. It was a genuine understanding that much in the world still had to change. We were, after all, the children of a time that only a smattering of years prior had worn flowers in their still flourishing hair.
And yet it was also fun, provocative, transgressive, a natural for graphically captivating media attention amid our laughter.
In the same way that real friendship is dwindling today in favour of online ‘friending’; and just as investing in a real presence is increasingly substituted for the shadow of one, so indeed gesture politics eviscerates the genuine to convert it into its superficial mirror image. And image of course, as Andy Warhol wordlessly explained, is the name of an empty game.
Ultimately, to pretend that Equality and Justice are thus served is mere taxidermy.
There can be no righteous action that looks the other way when the disadvantages of poverty and disability continue to exist in wealthy Gibraltar. Mayors, Chief Ministers, Opposition politicians and worthy representatives regale what is paraded before them as ‘social advance’ while a veil is drawn over the realities in our midst. After many years and promises, neither the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities nor legislation outlawing Conversion Therapy are yet in place. What’s more, poverty in Gibraltar, in the eyes of the Administration, is not acknowledged.
And all the time (and quite apart from the presence of poverty within our people) men who sleep on the streets come rain or shine, find no shelter or refuge: there’s no specific provision for them available. (Men as such have a harder time of it attracting public empathy). Of no fixed abode and often, but not inevitably, not officially resident, they are at the mercy of the circumstances of good and bad weather and of dodging the many health hazards their life situation presents. They don’t qualify, of course, for our official concern. But that is not the code by which a decent country can flourish.
ERG/AOP, in teamwork with others in the community, aims to tackle that lack of moral concern. A concern less a reflection of lack of generosity (Gibraltar has an open hand for charity) but in finding the structural response other than through chronic avoidance. Charity, as important and of good faith as it is, is not the forever answer; but it does become the forever excuse for inaction.
And so we come to Pride today, as representatives of all kinds line up to physically appear but not actually be there. Warhol saw it coming: colourful but empty images.
It’s much more demanding to respond. It requires much more of us. Justice is not for some, but for all.
It would be easy to point to the Chief Minister, or his Administration. But CMs and Administrations come and go. They stay for shorter or longer periods, but like all things in life, they too must pass.
What remains is us.
Us first as people and only afterwards as a People. Us as moral seekers; us not just for ourselves.
There is no dignity in any lesser partying. And that is why, as happened last year, ERG/AOP will not participate in Pride 2023.
Not while Government refuses to recognise the existence of poverty in Gibraltar (a quick glance at the number of poverty-dedicated charities on the Rock is more than enough proof of need). Not until there are solutions on the table for those in hardship and poverty in our community. Not until there are solutions on the table for the disabled through the UN Convention.
Not while not even a smidgen of political willingness is shown in these regards. This isn’t a war between ideologies. It’s a war between obstinacy, hard-heartedness and the Spirit that moves us to do better for our fellow human beings.
We cannot be proud of where we’re at; and no number of rainbows, loud noise, music and exposure can overcome the facts. Yearly street partying with all the accompanying spin for which resources are quietly reserved cannot change the unpalatable facts below our feet. Whether funding for the event (money available that is otherwise claimed to be non-existent) comes from Government or private sector sources is not the point. Because the responsibility isn’t just ‘theirs’. It’s ours.
And playing the lyre is not an option.
Felix Alvarez is chair of the Equality Rights Group/Action on Poverty.