Just before I head off on my summer holiday, I wanted to come back and discuss the upcoming Brighton and Hove LGBT Pride festival, which will be taking place on Saturday 13th August. I recently asked you for feedback on the decision this year to charge for entry. Thanks to all who contributed, although I wasn't ready for either the volume of responses or the polarized views I received! Whilst it was evenly-balanced, it was hard not to detect an underlying anger amongst some that the principle of free entry had been undermined.
LGBT Pride in the city has been a politically charged issue for many years, which isn't surprising considering the impact our particular festival has on the community. The weekend itself brings hundreds of thousands of people into the city, spending a vast amount of money with local businesses, both within and without the Preston Park party itself. As a result, the successful governance and running of the festival is monitored by many interested parties across the city, not necessarily just those known for their LGBT rights advocacy.
Unsurprisingly, the cost for running pride continues to rise. In the last year or two a great deal of concern has been raised by the statutory authorities and the Fire Service about public safety at the park event, as attendee numbers have steadily grown. Without agreement to fence the park (at a cost of around £100,000), it was made plain that licenses might not be granted this year. Alongside this additional cost, clean-up costs and community policing are needed to preserve the quality of Preston Park, tackle anti-social behaviour and under-age drinking over the weekend. For the last two years, Pride has operated at a significant loss, meaning that profits haven't been available to plow back into local LGBT organisations, who are now operating in a harsh financial climate and desperate for support.
On a personal note, I'll be honest and say that charging for Pride is something I have always been exceptionally uncomfortable with. During the mid-1990s living in London, I have vivid memories of Pride being the centrepoint of my yearly calendar, a chance to show some visible political muscle against rampant homophobia and a place where we could come together to party, regardless of whether we could afford to pay. When financial problems meant our celebration was taken over and business brought in to run the event, transforming it into a ticketed "Mardi Gras" with a "parade" through central London instead of a march, I walked away aghast. Regardless of the gains we've made legally over the years, I believe more strongly than ever that there is a political element to our experience of being LGBT that we risk losing when commercial realities come to bear in guiding these community events.
Paradoxically though, I find myself angry that in spite of nearly 100 volunteers collecting donations with buckets last year, that it translated to approximately 13p donated per attendee. This means that a majority of people enjoying Pride didn't pay a contribution towards the running costs of the festival last year. I wonder how many of these are amongst those people who are railing against the introduction of a charge. Retaining a "free" festival can only work with contributions from the Council, the businesses who will make a profit out of their participation and from a community prepared to back up their wish for Pride to continue with practical support. Sponsorship monies are declining, especially for local businesses squeezed hard by the recession. The new Green Council, as I've written about elsewhere, is struggling with a diminished central Government grant and needs to prioritise public services for the elderly, vulnerable and children. That they are still contributing a donation, providing soft loans to Pride and stepping in to cover some of the costs of running the St James St after-Pride street party is to be welcomed.
More so than ever at this time of tightened belts, we need as a community (and as a city) to take individual responsibility for making sure Pride remains viable and reflective of it's values of inclusion, campaigning spirit and celebration of diversity. This isn't just in financial terms. In the new climate of the "big society", we need to accept that if we want to retain public goods, it will mean giving our time and political support to protect them.
This isn't to say the new system is perfect. I can already see a number of elements that could be improved upon:
- We need clearer mechanisms to ensure that the low-paid, disabled and students are able to access reduced admissions similar to under-18s and to communicate the ticketing system more clearly.
- A more robust approach is needed to ensure that those businesses (especially the gay bars) who benefit from the festival and the post-Pride drinks in St James St contribute a fairer amount financially and play a role in managing the event.
- After criticisms from the local community, we need to bring a plurality of different voices to the management of Pride, allowing individuals from the black and ethnic minority, youth and disabled LGBT groups more influence in the planning of future events. We must ensure that the voices of private profit do not dominate and that prices are kept as low as possible.
- We need a public demonstration that raising a profit for Brighton & Hove Pride means investment in our struggling community groups all year round, not just fattened the wallets of businesses. The benefits of buying a ticket need to be underlined.
Some voices are calling for a boycott of this year's Brighton & Hove Pride and calling for an alternative celebration on the beach. Whilst I would never argue with someone exercising choice, if anything is going to kill Pride and the benefits it brings to the city, it will be significant numbers staying away. As somebody who has happily contributed a significant donation to the buckets at Brighton Pride for the last 13 years, I'm saddened that it has come to mandatory ticketing - but I will be there on the day, ticket in hand to show my support in Pride's efforts to invest in the essential work being quietly undertaken by community LGBT organisations all year round. I hope I will see some of you there, either passing by the Green Party stall or in the dance-tents.