That is just as well because on the equivalent day last year, it bucketed down mercilessly from dawn to dusk. The weather was important because I together with Sam Mercer and Alex Bloom from the Bar Council were taking part in the Pride parade in central London and, if the weather refused to co-operate, we were going to get very wet. We were with a group of lawyers from the Bar, the solicitors’ profession and CILEx and we were celebrating the contribution made by “legal heroes” to the fight for equal rights, whatever one’s sexual orientation. To that end, we all had purple T-shirts and a banner, which we carried, in turns, throughout the parade.
Before I say more about the parade, I want to pay tribute to those who were our legal heroes. Everyone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) has to face, even today, a great deal of prejudice from unthinking and insensitive bigots. It says a very great deal for how far we have come when I tell you that, when I was a young man, it was still illegal to engage in homosexual activity. It was not until 27 July 1967 that the Sexual Offences Act 1967 received the Royal Assent and homosexual acts between consenting adults became legal in England and Wales. As a footnote, it was not until 1980 that the same reform occurred in Scotland and it was as late as 1982 that it was de-criminalised in Northern Ireland. It is now legal in England and Wales for same-sex couples to marry and London’s Pride took place the day after the Supreme Court of the USA made same-sex marriage legal across the United States. What a pity it is that same-sex marriage remains unattainable in Northern Ireland, but the US decision undoubtedly contributed to the fantastic atmosphere at this year’s event.
Having said we have come a very long way in those 48 years, we should never forget the torment and humiliation that gay people had to suffer in the days before legalisation. The case of Oscar Wilde is one of the tragic inevitability of events after the Marquis of Queensberry left his card for Wilde at the latter’s club, the Albermarle, upon which Queensberry had scrawled “ponce and somdomite” (sic). Wilde’s failed private prosecution against Queensberry for criminal libel followed and, after that failed, Wilde’s himself was tried for sexual offences and suffered imprisonment. But it also demonstrates very vividly the terrible burden of risk and the ever present possibility of ruin suffered by gay people at that time.
But you don’t have to have been born in Victorian England to have suffered in the LGBT cause. As I have said, we were wearing purple tops with pro-LGBT messages picked out in white lettering. Since it was a glorious day I decided to walk to the start of the parade at Baker Street. I had just passed the offices of the Bar Council when a group of young men were coming the other way. They were strung out across the pavement. Now, High Holborn is a street I have walked up and down many hundreds of times of the day, including in the early hours of the morning. I have never felt remotely intimidated in the past but, as this group approached, and as they appeared to be staring at the slogans on the T-shirt, in what appeared to me a rather menacing way, my heart started to beat faster and I don’t mind admitting that I felt vulnerable and somewhat scared. As it happens, the group of men walked past without incident and I was able to get on unhindered. That experience, however brief and insignificant, gave me a flavour, at least, of what sort of things gay people have to put up with, day in and day out, even in today’s society. It emphasised the courage that is required to live a life true to one’s own in-built sexuality.
But on to happier recollections. I arrived early and took the excellent opportunity this afforded to have a really good look around at the participants in the parade. To say that there were some colourful and uncommon sights would be something of an understatement. The real joy of it, though, was that on that very special day, people from walks of life that in everyday society many people would find unusual, were able, within the safety of Pride, simply to be themselves without the risk of judgment or opprobrium. It was their one chance of the year to be able to say to a very large group of the public: “This is how I am and I am proud of it.”
And the marvellous thing is that on either side of the parade, the pavements of the West End were packed with people cheering and applauding. I have never before been in a place in which there was such an atmosphere of joyful tolerance and respect. And they even cheered us for being lawyers, a most unusual circumstance. It was, for me at least, a most moving occasion and one I shall never forget.
Another feature of the parade that I think is very important was the very large number of organisations who have no special connection with the LGBT community, represented in the parade. Their presence was a way of expressing their support for all people within that community. I think it matters so much because as a wider cross section of society expresses support, the more being LGBT becomes an accepted and everyday feature of human society.
So, thank you to everyone who made me so welcome at Pride. Thank you to our “legal heroes” who, by their courage and determination have made the UK a safer and better place in which to live. Society at large, but the Bar in particular, owes you a great debt of gratitude for all you have done.
Alistair MacDonald QC, Chairman of the Bar