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50 years of pride: optimism ahead?

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Dominic Arnall

Chief Executive – Youth LGBT+ Charity, Just Like Us

There can be no doubt that the past 50 years has seen tremendous change for many of us in the LGBT+ community. Fifty years ago, when Pride started, same-sex marriage must have felt like a very long way away, as around 2,000 people took part in what has become known as the first London Pride (there were previous marches, but all much smaller).

The first Pride came only five years after same sex relationships between men were legalised in England, meaning many of those marching would have spent most of their lives fearing arrest and being arrested for loving who they loved.

Optimism at the expense of progress?

When I started working in the LGBT+ sector in 2015, things looked different. We were coming off the back of a few big wins, with the previous years bringing us civil partnerships followed by equal marriage. The 2010 Equality Act protected people from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender reassignment. Various government departments were apologising for their treatment of LGBT+ people. For the most part, the argument for equality was now supported in broad terms on every side of the house.
Looking back on that optimism, I can’t help but wonder if we spent a little too long patting ourselves on the back.

Even then, the winners – and losers – of this progress were plain to see. While parts of the LGBT+ community were benefiting from freedoms that could only be dreamt of in 1972, the picture for other groups under the LGBT+ umbrella either had not changed as much as we like to think, or was sliding backwards.

Most schools were still not acknowledging the existence of LGBT+ people, leaving young people to wonder if they were completely alone in the world. Research showed the experience of LGBT+ people of colour could still be extremely challenging and differed significantly from their white counterparts. LGBT+ people from faith communities still reported feeling isolated in faith spaces because of their LGBT+ identity and isolated in LGBT+ spaces because of their faith. Unfortunately, all these things are still true.

LGBT+ rights under attack

In 2022, LGBT+ organisations are on high alert. The abuse of trans people has become a national sport, reminding those of us of a certain age of how the press used the HIV/Aids epidemic as part of a homophobic campaign that would capitalise on the deaths of millions of people to whip up homophobia and sell newspapers. Before one denies someone their human rights, one must first deny them their humanity. Watching trans people have their humanity stripped away by the press on a weekly basis has been one of the most brutal phases of my career.

The greatest impact I have seen has been on the trans young people we (Just Like Us) support, who are all too aware they are growing up in a world that is hostile to their very existence. For them, the argument is not academic, it’s personal. Existential even.

Organisations like Just Like Us, the LGBT+ young people’s charity I’m proud to lead as Chief Executive, are still engaged in what feels like the most basic of battles – fighting for the existence of LGBT+ people to be acknowledged in schools across the UK. We believe that it’s vital for young people to grow up knowing that LGBT+ people exist and knowing that being LGBT+ shouldn’t prevent you from leading a full and happy life. Denying young people the opportunity to recognise themselves in others is peculiar in its cruelty, as it sends the message to young people that something innate and important about them is shameful and must be concealed.
Even in 2022, it is still common for our young volunteer ambassadors to say, “I thought I was the only one”. It simply cannot be right that so many LGBT+ young people grow up believing they are completely alone in this world.

Taking pride in ourselves

Though, there are positives as well as negatives, the biggest change I have seen over the past years is in the young people themselves. It is wonderful to meet LGBT+ young people for whom shame was never an option. More young people than ever before are finding the language to describe their sexual orientations and gender – and do not ask permission to do so.

Young people who have a far better understanding of themselves, their friends and of the length and breadth of our wider communities than I could have hoped to at their age (or perhaps even now).

Pride is so important to LGBT+ communities because it is the literal opposite of shame. It is a time to reject the narrative that who we are requires hiding or fixing. It is a time to walk with our shoulders back and our heads up, proud of who we are, those who came before us and those who will come after.

Dominic Arnall: Chief Executive, Just Like Us

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