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9 June 2021updated 01 Jun 2022 3:07pm

Fifteen years on from my first Pride march, it is bittersweet to see how much has changed

It’s odd to see a side to your identity, which once seemed so excruciatingly counter-cultural, be subsumed by the mainstream.

By Rachel Cunliffe

It was a tweet from the Conservative Party that did it: “As Pride Month begins, we celebrate the positive contributions made to the UK every day by the LGBT+ community.” June was here, marking 15 years since I first grabbed some face-paint and a fake ID and snuck out to Pride.

I can track the milestones of my teenage years through memories of London’s annual gay street party. The time I was co-opted to be on the Youth At Pride float and it poured with rain all day until my cardboard sign (“Some People Are Bi – Get Over It”) disintegrated into soggy pulp. The time I paraded past Ian McKellen and waved so enthusiastically he took pity on my cringeworthy fangirling and blew me a kiss. The time a girl I had maybe-sorta been dating played on one of the fringe stages and I went backstage and had my first taste of vodka.

I’ve attended other Prides: from Manchester, which saw the entire city welcome a multinational bacchanalia that featured Dannii Minogue and two-thirds of Atomic Kitten raving in a carpark, to Guernsey, where people smeared glitter on their cheekbones and filed dutifully from the church towards the island’s only high street.

But it was somewhere in the labyrinth of Soho streets, pavement drenched in cheap beer and pulsing with the beat of two dozen different sound systems, that I found my adolescent alter ego year after year: a girl I barely knew who had the confidence to tie rainbow ribbons in her hair and dance wildly with strangers to “All The Things She Said”.

If that sounds like a cliché, that’s because it was. Back then, the faux-lesbian Russian pop duo t.A.T.u. was the pinnacle of sapphic culture, as least for profoundly uncool teenagers like me with no one to introduce them to Sinéad O’Connor or the Indigo Girls. 

It was the same with television. Aside from Ross’s ex-wife Carol and her comically awful partner Susan in a handful of Friends episodes, the only lesbians on TV came from the cult hit The L Word. In the early days of YouTube, I obsessively made it through bootlegs of all six seasons in grainy, six-minute segments that loaded agonisingly slowly. I knew the lives of these over-polished, over-sexed LA women so intimately I could recite their love triangles and ex-girlfriends by heart.

[see also: Russell T Davies’s It’s a Sin is about the Aids crisis – and much more]

I don’t know when I realised quite how much had changed. Maybe it was in 2013, with the release of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, a show about women whose central characters were embroiled in a passionately dysfunctional lesbian romance. Or maybe it was earlier, when a lead on Grey’s Anatomy started questioning her sexuality, becoming one of the first bisexual characters to regularly appear on network TV.

Now, such a plot point wouldn’t even merit a mention in a review. The global entertainment landscape is full of queer female roles whose sexuality is just another character trait: Andréa Martel in Call My Agent, Joanne Davidson in Line of Duty, Bill Potts in Doctor Who. Sexually curious adolescent girls no longer need to trawl the internet for representation; nor (in the UK at least) do they wonder any more if they’ll ever be able to get married.

The atmosphere of Pride Month has changed too. As political progress has been made, trans rights, environmentalism and anti-capitalism have become more prominent issues than the traditional headline campaigns for equal marriage and workplace protection. 

There are more corporate brands present at the celebrations than there were 15 years ago, familiar logos doused in technicolour for June; more families bringing children as well as dogs to the parades; and yes, more straight people. It doesn’t feel quite as provocative or dangerous now. There’s something bittersweet about seeing a side to your identity, which once seemed so excruciatingly counter-cultural, be subsumed by the mainstream, so that even your local supermarket wants to tell you how much it accepts you.

But I’m still proud – proud of how far we’ve come, from a Tory party that, a decade and a half ago, was still debating the repeal of Section 28 to one that now broadcasts its celebration of the LGBT+ community.

I looked up the traditional 15th anniversary gift. Crystal: the ultimate material for casting rainbows.

[see also: Why the Vatican’s refusal to bless same-sex marriage reveals it is placing its future in Africa]

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This article appears in the 09 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Covid cover-up?