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5 July 2019

The Travellers making history at Pride

Forty-seven years after London’s first Pride parade, a new group will officially be taking part for the first time – and they’ve got big plans. 

By Indra Warnes

Tomorrow, when 30,000 people take part in London’s annual Pride parade, somewhere among the masses will be a comparatively tiny group of around 30 people making history. For the first time of any UK Pride event, LGBT+ Travellers will be officially represented.  

Asked why this representation for the community has taken 47 years, Tyler, the group’s driving force, laughs. “Well, we’re spread all throughout the country, obviously. It’s not like there’s a big enough community anywhere like there is for other groups. So it’s hard to get anything together.”

There have been previous attempts at forming an LGBT+ Traveller organisation before, admits Tyler, a charity youth worker who asks to be referred to only by his first name, but they’ve all been very piecemeal.

“You know, something exists for a little while, and it doesn’t really grow into anything, and it goes away. Everything’s been done for very softly, softly; very slowly,” he says. “And I just got a bit sick of it.”

So the 27-year-old, a Showman with some Romani heritage, filled out the application, paid the registration fee, and called on fellow Travellers – be they Gypsies, Roma, New-Age Travellers, Showmen, Boatmen or Scottish and Irish Travellers – to join him.

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Bringing Travellers together at Pride was never the end goal, though. Tyler is hoping that a central group of ten or so individuals might go out together after the parade, and discuss what they want the group to be, and do, in the future.

Ultimately, its aim is to help future generations of LGBT+ Travellers.

“When I was a kid, I could find out something about mainstream gay people, but all of those it-gets-better messages, they were really nice and lovely but I always thought, well, they would for you, because you’re not a Traveller,” he explains, “and you never knew that it applied to you.”

When I ask him about what it was like to grow up LGBT in Traveller community, Tyler says that as a teenager he decided not to come out to his parents until he had left home.

“When I was younger, I certainly didn’t know anyone that was LGBT. Well, I probably did, but I didn’t know. I just felt like it was something that was only ever talked about as a bit of a joke, you know, the punchlines of jokes around the pub were someone being gay.

“The message was sort of always ‘oh, it’s not going to be alright’,” he explains. “So although I didn’t think it was going to be a horrible reaction [from my parents], I thought well, if worse, comes to worse, which did still seem like a possibility, I wanted to wait until I knew that I was alright, myself, and I didn’t have to rely on them.”

Although in Tyler’s case there was “a bit of shock and it wasn’t a totally smooth transition,” he admits that “it wasn’t everything I feared it would be”. But he is keen to stress that there is no single experience of coming out as a Traveller, because there is neither one experience of what it’s like to be a Traveller, nor one attitude from Travellers on being LGBT.

“I mean, what are white people like?” he says, sounding slightly exasperated. “The shorthand version is that being a Traveller is a being a bit like everybody else was about 60 years ago. There’s a lot of respect for older people, and a real sense of community, and you look out after another,” he explains. “And being able to work with your hands is very important and you’ll often to go down the pub after night at work, that kind of thing; there’s a community.

“But at the same time, 60 years ago, it was a bit more homophobic, it was a bit more sort of sexist. But equally 60 years ago, there were people who were completely LGBT-friendly. Yeah, it was a bit less common, yes, anti-gay sentiment [among Travellers] is more common – but it’s not to be taken as a given, and these things are always taken as givens.”

These assumptions made about Travellers are an understandable source of annoyance for Tyler. “The image is of either a huge blight on society, or crystal balls and tarot cards.

“It’s either this kind of ludicrous, romantic stereotype of the free wandering Gypsy, so you know, like, wouldn’t it be lovely to run away with the funfair? Or it’s kind of just thieves and illiterate and ‘we don’t want them anywhere near as they’re always going to cause trouble’.”

That the wider public has such a confused idea of what it means to be a Traveller can make it even harder to come out as LGBT. “If you feel like you can’t really be true to yourself; that either in the gay community you’ve got to hide because of racism, or in the Traveller community you feel like where you are might be particularly homophobic, those kinds of splits can really be damaging”, Tyler says.

Although he would like the group to be able to offer counselling to Travellers struggling with this, the solution perhaps lies in educating others, something Tyler hopes the group will also be able to do in the future. “It’s interesting, because it’s one of the few groups where you have to spend at least 15 minutes describing who they are. So if you were doing kind of cultural awareness training for Jews, I wouldn’t have to tell you who Jews were, you know?”

It’s clear by the end of our chat that there’s a lot the group hopes to achieve – before it’s even had a first meeting. By Tyler’s own admission, tomorrow’s Pride will be “a nice way to get people together, have a bit of a party, walk down the road together”. But it could also be the start of something much bigger.

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