Brighton Pride: What has been going on?


This month, for the first time in its 19-year history, Brighton Pride’s visitors will be met not just by drag queens and the jaw clenching thud of funky house, but by wire fences and ticket booths. Some, of course, will see this as a sign of the times. With the economy flat-lining and a government seemingly hell-bent on auctioning off anything not nailed down, is it really that surprising someone finally put a price on Pride?

That someone is Pride in Brighton & Hove, the registered charity responsible since 2004 for the city’s parade and Preston Park event. Back in February, their board of trustees made what was always going to be a difficult announcement: Brighton Pride, they said, had grown too large to be sustained as a free festival. Its growing popularity had seen visitor numbers swell year on year, to the point where the event had become a sprawling event that choked the city for two days and sent council officers screaming through the streets like extras in a Japanese B-movie.


Last year, an estimated 160,000 revellers descended on the city, over 80,000 of them to the park. There were concerns over safety, and feedback that over-crowding had spoiled the day for some. The statutory authorities – the council and emergency services – put their foot down. They gave notice that, from 2011, Preston Park would have to be fenced off, and Pride in Brighton & Hove responded with a ticketing strategy they claimed would secure the event’s future.

The resulting outcry was as heated as it was predictable. Ticket prices had been set at £12.50, although local residents were eligible for an ‘early bird’ rate of £8.50. Those who waited until the day would be faced not only by potentially long queues but also a formidable price-tag of £17.50. Brighton’s LGBT community could not understand why the price had been set so high in the first year. Elsewhere in the UK, festival-goers balked at yet more expense, on top of already hefty travel and hotel bills. Reports began to emerge of slow ticket sales, and the rumour mill cranked into 24/7 production. Even gay rights activist Peter Tatchell waded in to the melée, telling BBC Sussex that Brighton Pride had ‘become increasingly commercialised’ and that its organisers had ‘lost sight of what Pride is about’.

In a bid to get to the bottom of this tangled situation, I take a train south to the city that was my home for seven years. If London is the UK’s New York, Brighton is its San Francisco. By turns rakish, cosmopolitan, and free-spirited, it is a city of sitar-players and hennaed hippies, of lesbian glass-blowers and pensioners with fluorescent beards. The people of Brighton believe in free love, free speech, a free Tibet. Small wonder, then, that the monetising of what was previously the largest free Pride event in Europe has ruffled a few boas.

One such critic is Stephen Richards, otherwise known on the circuit as Lola Lasagne. A stalwart of the Brighton drag scene, Richards has performed at Preston Park since 1997, going on to run the cabaret tent as an unpaid volunteer from 2002 – 2007. Last year, he boycotted the event. This year, he will do the same. In a cavernous gay bar on Brighton’s seafront, I ask what prompted this dramatic change of heart.

‘A lot of people believe,’ he tells me, ‘as I do, that Pride are ignoring the Brighton community. People feel that they have been shunted aside for their local Pride. They’re losing the message of what Pride should be about.’

Which is? ‘The event should not be ticketed. It should not be charged.’ Richards shakes his head. ‘Pride should be there for everybody, and I feel that’s been taken away. I know countless people who just wanted to go and sit in the park and be with other like-minded people, and they can’t do that now because it’s going to cost them £12.50. That’s a lot of money to pay just to sit in a public park.’

Richards raises an important point. For all that the organisers will point to the live stage (the latest line-up includes X Factor poppets Alexandra Burke and Joe McElderry) and 8,000-capacity dance tent as offering value for money, there will be a proportion of regular Pride attendees who have little interest in either. I’m curious where they will go on 13 August.

Elsewhere in Kemptown, Brighton’s tiny, down-at-heel gay village, I am introduced to 20-year-old lesbian Rosie. Rosie, who only works part time, confirms that she and her friends have effectively been priced out of attending Preston Park this year. ‘Normally I would have spent the day in the park having drinks and food with friends,’ she says. ‘Instead, I’ll be watching the parade, then heading to the beach and later on into Kemptown. I’m just worried that, because of the high prices in the park, everyone will be thinking the same and there’ll be a huge build up of people in the Kemptown area.’

Another local, David, has overheard our conversation. ‘It’s ridiculous that everyone is slagging off Pride,’ he interjects. ‘It is one of the best days of the year and it’s been running at a loss forever. It can’t carry on the way it has been. To not support Pride and all that it stands for is a disappointment and I expected a lot more from the community.’

David’s friend Emma tries to find a middle ground: ‘Look, I think we were all up for it being ticketed because we all want Pride to continue. If they’d have charged £5 or even £10, there wouldn’t be so much of a problem, but £17.50 is too much to pay. I still want to support Pride, but there should have been more consultation with what people in Brighton & Hove want.’

With apparently no one able to agree, I decide to pay a call to Judith Manson, Festival Director of Pride in Brighton & Hove, at the charity’s offices, a small cluster of rooms in the eaves of a lofty townhouse. Noticeboards bristle with community flyers. Safe sex posters peel from the walls. If this is an organisation that exists only to line its own pockets, as some of the more outlandish rumours would have us believe, I can exclusively report no ill-gotten gains have been blown on interior design.

Dressed in the Brighton fashion of purple lipstick with matching braids, Manson has worked for Pride since 2004. When she speaks, her Sunderland accent is firm, her eyes unwavering. This is a woman who passionately believes in every word she says.

‘Going from a free event to a ticketed event was not a decision that Pride took lightly,’ she tells me. ‘It was following a great deal of consultation with all walks of life, from people at the event, to the emergency services, community groups that are involved, sponsors, you name it. We did a lot of consultation last year.’

This seems as good a time as any to let Manson in on my own unofficial consultation. Many of the locals I’ve met so far have expressed concerns about this year’s event; that ticket prices have been set too high, that parts of the city will become over-crowded as a result, and – perhaps most worryingly of all – that Pride in Brighton & Hove is out of touch with what the local LGBT community actually wants. What can she say to reassure them?

On their pricing structure, Manson says she believes £12.50 is a fair charge. ‘This event costs close to half a million pounds to put on,’ she says. ‘If we could have kept the tickets at £5, we would have kept the tickets at £5, but it financially just doesn’t pay for itself. We’re a not-for-profit charity, so this is not about commercialising the event; it’s not about putting loads of money in the Pride bank account. It’s about raising money for local community groups.’

Let’s talk about these community groups, then. Last year, bucket collections at Preston Park raised a record £20,000 for Pride in Brighton & Hove. However, with that meaning an average contribution of 25p per head, it’s safe to say some people were digging deeper than others. This year, charitable aims are much more integral to Pride’s strategy. They hope to ring-fence at least £40,000 for local LGBT groups from ticket sales, and have already given away £13,000 worth of free tickets to local charities. On this score, the organisers have a right to be unapologetic. ‘If we’d kept tickets at £5, there would have been absolutely no chance of us raising money for community groups,’ Manson says.

Even so, not everyone on a low income will qualify for a freebie. What about Rosie, and her concerns about over-crowding elsewhere? Manson is keen to stress: ‘We can only take responsibility for the areas we’re responsible for’. However, with Pride in Brighton & Hove now also organising the weekend street parties in Kemptown, she agrees it is an issue for consideration.

‘With all of the emergency services meetings we’ve had since January,’ she says, ‘we’ve talked about what is going to be the impact to the city. We know that over 88,000 people came through the train station last year for Pride. We have a capacity of 51,000 at Preston Park, so we know there are going to be more people in the city than there are at the park. The police and council are putting in measures where they need to. If there is over-crowding of any particular area, the police will deal with it as they would do any other busy Saturday night or New Year’s Eve.’

When I bring up Peter Tatchell’s comments that Pride has become too commercialised, Manson positively bristles. ‘We are fighting very hard not to let this event go to a commercial operator,’ she states firmly. ‘If Pride in Brighton & Hove, the charity, were not running this event, I guarantee it would be a commercial event. I can’t stress how hard we’re fighting for that not to happen. We are a not-for-profit charity. Any money that we make over and above our running costs will go back out to the community. How can that be a commercialised event?’

At the end of my day on the south coast, a picture is beginning to emerge in my mind; of an embattled organisation fighting for its future, a gay community minus the unity, and the widening gulf between them. What is clear is that both sides have real affection for Brighton Pride and desperately want it to continue. Even Stephen Richards, the most critical voice I’ve encountered, confessed he is ‘gutted’ he can’t be there on the Saturday. ‘I don’t support the way it’s run at the minute,’ he told me, ‘but I do support Pride. I believe Pride is really, really important, but I just can’t do it. And that’s horrible.’

So far as Judith Manson is concerned, though, the charity’s door will remain open to all local LGBT people. ‘We can only do it with the support of the community,’ she said. Her message to them? ‘Become a trustee! Become a member! Become a volunteer! Get involved! Don’t knock something until you’ve tried it!’

As my train pulls out under bright blue skies, and I leave behind this bizarre bubble of a city, I realise I have two wishes: one is that the sun will shine on August 13th; the other that – although Brighton’s pier may have burned years ago – Brighton Pride’s bridges with the community have not.

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