This article was first published by the British Association for Local History, 5th June 2022. Our thanks to the author, Jack Shoulder, and the BLAH for permission to reproduce.
2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the first ever Pride March in the UK.
On 1st July 1972, 700 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and queer people took to the streets of London to combat the forced invisibility faced by queer people; being out and proud was not seen as the norm in society at this time, whereas today, it is much more common for LGBTQIA+ people to be open about their true selves. Pride, as we know it began as a protest, and has its roots in a riot in 1969 outside the Stonewall Tavern in New York.
Today, we are used to seeing Pride marches and parades all over the UK, with many major cities and towns boasting an event during the summer. Usually this will be a parade which leads into a celebration which can feel more like a festival than a call for equality. The largest Pride events outside of London are in Manchester, which held its first Pride in 1985, and Brighton which held its first event in October 1972. Both Manchester and Brighton are known for having large LGBTQ+ populations.
In this article I am going to explore the origins of Pride events in Bristol, the largest city in the South-West of England. The histories of regional Pride events are under-researched in comparison to our understanding of comparable events in Brighton, London and Manchester. Although it took many UK cities longer to stage Pride events, we can see in archival photographs that there were banners carried by groups from around the country at Pride in London. Marching as part of London Pride was seen by many LGBTQ activists at the time as a way of affirming their place as part of a wider movement, and a way to be visible and represent their local LGBTQ community when a local event wasn’t possible.
Bristol Gay Festival
During the 1970s Bristol had an active LGBT community. This can be seen through a variety of voluntary organisations that were set up to support the community, like a switchboard to provide help and advice, a gay women’s magazine and even a festival which would become the origins of Pride in Bristol.
The first of these festivals, known as Bristol Gay Festival rather than the more familiar moniker of Pride, was held in 1977. Bristol Gay Festival was one of the earliest queer regional events outside of London, and it consisted of social events and film screenings at the Arnolfini, a local contemporary art gallery, and Bristol Arts Centre. It was brought together by Dale Wakefield who was a local activist and organiser. The festival stands out in comparison to the marches in London and Brighton that had taken place in previous years. Although it was not the disruptive declaration of identity that the marches were, the festival was still very focused on the LGBTQIA community and having its voice heard.
The first Bristol Gay Festival was organised as a fundraiser to help Gay News, the nationally published newspaper for LGBTQIA people, in its legal battle against morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse. Mary had accused the publication of blasphemy, following its publication of the poem The Love that Dares to Speak its Name by James Kirkup. The paper was found guilty of blasphemous libel, but the case sparked a discussion around press censorship.
According to an oral history collected for Revealing Stories, an exhibition created jointly by local Bristol history group OutStories Bristol and MShed museum, the plans for the first festival were to be even bigger, one of the organisers recalls that:
“We wanted to have a big party event and at the time the Corn Exchange was still a meeting hall. Its now got market stalls, but then it was a nice sized hall for our purpose and we could have run a disco or a party or had a band. So we applied – I did this for the group – I applied to the City Council to use the Corn Exchange. And it ended up being debated by the City Council because people objected to ‘those people’ hiring the Corn Exchange. It didn’t happen because actually time had run out, and in truth we were probably over-reaching.”
Despite the event being seen as a success by the LGBTQ community and the organisations involved, plans for a follow up event faced opposition from Conservative councillors and members of the local clergy. Labour and Liberal councillors faced down this opposition, and refused to censor events, pointing out that LGBTQ people paid their taxes like everyone else. Organisers expressed their “appreciation of the City Councillors who stood up to the anti-gay lobby in protecting our right to use a public building.”
Bristol Gay Festival was an early example of a regional LGBTQIA event, and can be seen as a prototype for Prides outside of London. It ran semi- regularly, with subsequent events running from 1978- 82 with a later event in 1985.
Pride in the South-West
The history of Pride events in Bristol gets complicated as we move into the later 1980s and the 1990s. From 1974 to 1996, Bristol was part of the county of Avon, which also included Bath and North East Somerset, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire. After the Bristol Gay Festival in 1985, the LGBTQIA celebration became known as Avon Pride, to reflect the wider geography involved. In 1988, Avon Pride first marched through Bristol’s city centre.
Although marches are considered an intrinsic part of Pride events, to begin with, they weren’t necessarily well-attended. Peter Tatchell, an LGBTQIA activist who was at the first Pride in London, reflected that “Many of my friends were too scared to march. They thought everyone would be arrested.” Fear of homophobic abuse would certainly deter people from participating. A contributor to the OutStories oral history remembers:
“I think it would have been a winter event: winter Pride ‘93? […] at the Student Union on Queen’s Road, Bristol University Student Union […] we had about 25 people come. It wasn’t huge (laughs) but it really motivated us as a team. […] and within six months we had this event at the Watershed. Only about 500 people came on the march, which I think I’m right in saying was the first L G – whatever march of its type in Bristol […] I don’t know how many people came to the event that night at the Watershed in June of ‘93 but I think we estimated a couple of thousand people came through the doors. They had to shut the doors, they ran out of alcohol”.
Prides happen in the summer to commemorate the events of Stonewall in 1969, although the warmer weather does encourage the crowds! When using oral histories, it’s important to bear in mind that some misremembering does happen. The contributor also focuses on the presence of Lesbian and Gay people at the events, and the flippant ‘whatever’ erases the contribution and presence of bi and trans people from the event.
Pride in Bristol in the 1990s
With the county of Avon being abolished in the mid-1990s, we see another name change occur in the branding of Pride celebrations in Bristol. From 1994, the event became Pride West. There were Pride West events in 1994-96, 1999 and a final event in 2001. The 1995 event was particularly noteworthy as the Lord Mayor of Bristol, Joan Barbara McLaren, opened the festivities. This was the first time a civic leader had opened a Pride event in the UK. Despite this clear support from the local authority, there were no Pride events in 1997 and 1998 due to unsuccessful funding applications to Avon County and Bristol City Councils.
Bristol Pride today
After 2001, there was not a Pride in Bristol until 2010, when a dedicated Pride organisation was established. The current organisation is the longest running Pride organisation in Bristol, as it has been running events consistently for over a decade. Bristol Pride works throughout the year, not just during the summer, lobbying local decision makers to consider the interests of the LGBTQIA community and running events for LGBT History Month, IDAHOBIT day and World AIDS Awareness day.
In 2016 Bristol held its first Trans Pride festival, known as Trans Pride South West, with its first Trans Pride march in Bristol in 2019. Trans Prides are vital in the face of growing transphobia in the UK. The first Trans Pride was held in Brighton in 2013 and London followed with an event in 2019.
Gay West by Robert Howes: https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/Gay-West-by-Robert-Howes/9781906236755
Know Your Place, Bristol, ‘LGBT Life’: https://maps.bristol.gov.uk/kyp/?layer=LGBT+life
Gay News Blasphemy Trial: http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/july/11/newsid_2499000/2499721.stm
History of Pride in London: https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/london-pride-london-lgbt-history-gay-rights
Peter Tatchell’s memories of the first Pride in the UK: https://www.petertatchellfoundation.org/memories-of-britains-first-lgbt-pride-in-1972
This republished article has corrected the date of the first Trans Pride Festival in Bristol (2016, not 2021).
Jack Shoulder is a writer, researcher and educator. He specialises in researching and sharing LGBTQIA histories and has worked on this with the V&A, the British Museum and Towner Art Gallery through devising and delivering tours exploring these histories through the museums’ collections. Jack has also developed educational resources for schools, exploring complex and complicated histories connected to our key historical sites. Jack continues to be an advocate for LGBTQIA representation and visibility in the heritage sector.