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BE WHO YOU ARE (FOR A LIMITED TIME ONLY): REFLECTIONS ON PRIDEMONTH

Fionn McFadden


CW: Homophobia, Transphobia, Violence, Murder

NB that, for the purposes of this article, the terms ‘queer’ and ‘LGBTQI+’ are used

interchangeably to refer to the collective LGBTQI+ community.



I am gay.


An unsurprising fact to my friends (because I do not shut up about it) or to my family, who

arguably should have known when I was choreographing routines to Lady Gaga and The

Sugarbabes in the living room aged five. I guess they just didn’t like to presume.


Nevertheless, an important sentence for me to write. A year ago my fingers would have

trembled as I did so. Now I can bash that proclamation out as proudly and fervently as I say

it. Not as a part of my personality, but part of who I am nonetheless. Part of my identity.


This is a development that would have been unthinkable to little thirteen year old Fiónn, as

he trembled inside of his closet. A development, nonetheless, which I hope would dearly

comfort him to know, which would have made those tumultuous years a little bit easier.


As I now sit in this position, I wonder from where this confidence and acceptance has come.

The obvious answer, as for many queer people, is university, which often serves as a place of

not only freedom, but of building community, being the first time many will have interacted

with such a significant number of fellow LGBTQI+ people. This is indeed true for me - my

first year at Oxford has certainly been the one where I have felt the most comfortable and

proud of my sexuality. It’s the first place outside of home I’ve ever felt comfortable using

the label ‘gay’ to describe it, to the extent that I’ve written satirical articles about it for the

whole university to see. There are few spaces there I feel uncomfortable to let my sexuality

gush out in all its colours. Significantly, there are no spaces where I wouldn’t want to let my

sexuality gush out. Where I wouldn’t care what was said by whichever irrelevant, insecure,

ignorant homophobe decided to crawl out of the gutter.


This is a stark contrast to the colourless, cramped and intolerant corridors of my Catholic

secondary school, where slurs such as fag were shot around like poisonous blow darts, where

the administration didn’t care if you were homophobically bullied as long as your top

button was done up, and where an integral part of the Religious Education curriculum

forced queer students like myself to not only come to terms with, but justify ongoing,

institutional and social Catholic discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, some of

whom were experiencing such traumatic discrimination from their own family members.

The feeling of sitting in a Year 10 RE class and watch heterosexual, cisgender men and

women debate whether you should have a right to marry, or even love who you love, is so

hurtful, ostracising and damaging that it almost transcends comprehensible emotional

description. It is a numbness that is grounded in an awareness that to some, your identity is

still so inherently illegitimate it merits their approval.


So how does this dichotomy exist? Why are so many queer individuals in ‘modern, civilised

and advanced’ Western societies, like the UK, forced to modify and change their identity,

only to assimilate into and survive heteronormative spaces? And, most importantly to the

central theme of this article, how is this still happening when an entire month is dedicated

to celebrate a supposed acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community by society?


These has been at the forefront of my mind during my first pride month where I have been

‘out’ to everyone I have met. In answering the question it is important to establish the

origins of Pride Month, as it is in here that its significance to the queer community lies.


The month of June, dedicated to LGBTQ+ Pride, most often labelled ‘Gay Pride’ originated

in the USA as a commemoration to the Stonewall Riots of 1969, seen as the traditional

genesis of the gay rights movement in the USA, and at large, the Western world. It is crucial

to note, however, that Stonewall was certainly not the first uprising orchestrated by

LGBTQ+ individuals against police harassment and legal persecution. Earlier uprisings, such

as the Cooper Do-nuts Riot in 1959 in Los Angeles, and the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in

1966 in San Francisco, were both indeed smaller than Stonewall, but shared similarities,

particularly that they were largely organised by transgender women, who bore (and

continue to bear) the brunt of the discrimination inflicted upon the LGBTQ+ community,

not only by the state and its agents but too within the community itself.


The events at Stonewall can be briefly summarised as follows. The ‘Public Morals Squad’ of

the NYPD raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in the Greenwich Village of Manhattan, an

area with a historically high LGBTQ+ population, the morning of the 28 th June 1969.

Patrons of the Stonewall, as well as other LGBTQ+ bars in Greenwich, and neighbourhood people fought back when the police became violent. This prompted an eruption in tensions

between the residents of Greenwich and the NYPD which prompted further demonstrations,

along with the syndication of activists protesting for the right to live freely with regards to

their sexual orientation, without fear of being arrested. Precisely one year after the

uprising, the first gay pride marches took place in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San

Francisco to commemorate the activism at Stonewall. Such marches began to take place

annually and triggered the creation of gay rights groups in the USA and beyond.


Stonewall and its consequences for the fight for queer liberations are owed largely to two

key figures: gay liberation activist and self-identified drag queen Marsha P Johnson (1945-

1992), and gay liberation and transgender rights activist, and community worker Sylvia

Rivera (1951-2002). Two transgender women of colour who were both prominent figures in

the Gay Liberation Front (of which Johnson was a founding member) and co-founded the

Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR)- dedicated to helping homeless young

drag queens, gay youth and transgender women.


A knowledge of pride’s origins is fundamental to understanding any discussion of the

month today, and most importantly, how the month can be constructed to not only

highlight the visibility of and help LGBTQ+ individuals, but to honour the origins of the

queer liberation movement, and those like Marsha P Johnson. Those who sacrificed their

lives for literally bare minimum: legal legitimisation of LGBTQ+’s individuals right to existence, which in several jurisdictions to this day such as Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and

Uganda, remains a distant hope for campaigners in fear of their lives for simply being who

they are. 71 countries criminalise existence as an LGBTQ+ individual. 71 jurisdictions in

which a state of human existence is met with capital punishment.


The significance of such meaning is thus bolstered by its historical proximity.

Notwithstanding those aforementioned states where LGBTQI+ activity remains illegal and

punishable by death or life imprisonment, in Western countries queer ‘liberation’ from a

purely legal perspective is younger than many realise, or care to realise. The events at

Stonewall are a mere six months younger than my dad - whilst the Sexual Offences Act

1967, which partially decriminalised male homosexuality in England and Wales, came into

effect four months before my mum was born. Hardly history. Pride’s importance is therefore

partially grounded in the fact that so many queer individuals alive today experienced, or at

least remember, so many key events and tragedies in the fight for equal rights. The

harrowing events of the AIDS epidemic, the legal suffocation under section 28, the callous

and cowardly murder of LGBTQI+ individuals such as Matthew Shepard, are not only fresh

memories but have formed part of their development and lived experiences as queer

individuals.


I think to the events of LGBTQI+ history in the UK that I have lived through at the age of

eighteen. Many are indeed positive. The repeal of the oppressive s.28 in 2003, the passing of

the Equality Act 2010, the legalisation of same sex marriage in England, Scotland and Wales

in 2014, and in my familial homeland of Northern Ireland in 2020. But underpinning this

façade of legal acceptance remains abject political and cultural intolerance, manifesting in

hostile political culture, damaging legislation and violent outbursts, both endangering the

lives of queer people. Governmental rejection of reform to the Gender Recognition Act

2004. Rampant transphobia by prominent individuals in both major parties, such as David

Davies (Conservative) and Rosie Duffield (Labour). The recent spate of homophobic attacks

in Liverpool that have hospitalised many gay men, leaving them fearing for their lives. Even

today as I write this (19/07/2021), I have just opened Instagram to see a GayTimes report on

a gay British holidaymaker in Barcelona having his jaw shattered by a hammer in a

suspected homophobic attack. This comes just weeks after Samuel Luíz, a 24-year-old

nursing student, was beaten to death in a homophobic attack in the Spanish city of A

Coruña, which sparked outrage in Spain and across the world under the banner of the

campaign #JusticiaParaSamuel (Justice for Samuel). The last words he allegedly heard before his death were: Te mataré, marincón. I’ll kill you, faggot.


Hearing about events like that makes me realise why my mum is always so insistent to send

her a text when I get home from a night out at uni. Makes me realise my subconscious

tendency to ensure I walk home in a group, or if I must by myself, to carry my keys between

my fingers. Tragically, Pride fosters a unique sense of solidarity between older and younger

queer individuals - united in our lived experiences of continual discrimination, fear, and

secrecy, all whilst the culturally and politically heteronormative hegemony feigns that so

much progress has been made. Whilst there is no doubt that LGBTQI+ rights have

significantly improved since Stonewall, Pride nevertheless serves as a salient reminder that

the fight for true queer liberation is far from over.


And therein lies the problem with the corporatisation of Pride. Big businesses latching on to

the trend, coaxing us in with rainbow laden social media accounts and deals on T-Shirts

proudly boasting ‘BE YOURSELF’, fashioned in sweatshops by underpaid child workers in

countries where homosexuality receives the death penalty. The corporate domination of

Pride has obfuscated all historical and cultural significance of it, to the extent that the

month of June has almost joined November and December in the league of holidays with

vacuous and rampant consumerism as their Sweet Design. It does, as aforementioned,

propagate that idea that as a civilised, Western society, we have reached the apex of quality

of life for the LGBTQI+ community. That we must be grateful to the kind capitalists draining

pockets in the name of a fight in which they have never partaken, and historically in which

they have taken the opposite side, refusing to organically cultivate safe spaces for queer

workers until forced to do so by an inconvenienced legislature. Aybike Ceren Kahveci put it

best in her June 2021 article for the Kings’ Business Review entitled Unpacking the

Corporatisation of Pride:


We owe this domination [of the Corporate Pride] to the earlier progress of Western politics in catching up with queer and trans rights, setting itself as the status quo of equality regarding sexuality though it has a long way to go in order to truly serve the interests of queer and trans people, specifically those of colour. This status quo harms both the West and the rest of the world, as while it adopts the modern cloak of equality, it stops further progress by rainbow-washing and creating the illusion that ‘all is fine’.


This brings me to my final thoughts. The corporate ‘broad-brushstroke’ approach that is

forced down our throats every June is not only insensitive and insulting per se, but is so in

its total erasure of the history of queer struggle and the ongoing, entrenched problems

faced by queer individuals from others outside and inside of the LGBTQI+ community:

transphobia, racism, declining mental health and high suicide rates, to name just a few.

Putting a Pride flag in the store of a chain owned by a CEO who gives millions each year to

homophobic politicians and organisations, oddly enough is not going to cut it. This

insulting and damaging madness has to end here.


I am nauseated and exhausted seeing my identity being treated as a commodity by those

who have in the past, and continue to, seek to destroy it. And I say this from a position of

overwhelming privilege as a white, cisgender, middle-class gay man who has grown up in

the most loving and accepting family possible, surrounded by heterosexual friends both at

home and at university, who go out of their way to ensure that I feel comfortable and

accepted in every situation. Yes, it’s the bare minimum, but for that, to them, I am eternally

grateful.


I am not grateful to the person I see posting a Pride infographic when they stood by in

school and watched their friends call me a bender. I am not grateful to the person who

commoditises their ‘gay best friend’ for a three second appearance in some TikTok about

musical theatre. I am grateful least of all to those who, in fact, fail to acknowledge Pride

month’s existence in a cloud of heteronormative ignorance.


I have had people like this ask me advice on how to be a better queer ally. And to them I

have two simple words: do better. It is not for LGBTQI+ individuals suffering under, interalia, the suffocation of heteronormativity to teach you basic human decency, that most

normal people can learn at a very young age. Discrimination against the queer community is

taught and learned out of pre-meditated and targeted ‘beliefs’. Your beliefs are irrelevant to

my right to exist free from persecution as a queer individual. To quote the great drag

entertainer Davina de Campo: Your belief is a belief. My existence is a reality.


So next Pride, do better. Read up on queer history. Pay attention to your LGBTQI+ friends

and how they respond in certain social situations. Call out any forms of discrimination

when you see it with the fire of 1000 suns. Because we are always watching, remembering

what was done in these situations. What side of history do you want to be on?


Photo by Karl Bewick on Unsplash


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