Walking with pride

Chair of York Pride Greg Stephenson talks to about the LGBT image

All photos credit to My Big Day Event Photography

All photos credit to My Big Day Event Photography

This Saturday, the streets of York will play host to York Pride. An anticipated crowd of over 1000 people will come together to celebrate the city’s LGBT community. An annual event recognised for over two decades, York Pride began as a humble gathering of a mere two dozen people, but over the years has gone from strength to strength; it currently boasts the largest Pride gathering in North Yorkshire. The event is the culmination of a week of festivities designed to entertain with a line-up of various music and comedy acts. But it is also to raise awareness of important issues with which the LGBT community continue to struggle.

I asked Greg Stephenson, Chairman of York Pride, how he would advertise the event to somebody who doesn’t identify as LGBT and who hadn’t considered attending it this weekend. He emphasised the inclusive nature of the event, explaining, “York Pride is for anyone who would like to attend and show their support for the LGBT community. It’s a great family friendly celebration of LGBT culture and diversity. We have a great line-up this year with something for everyone.”

“I think society as a whole is much more promiscuous”

In the past, events such as York Pride have been perceived as exclusively for the gay community to celebrate their sexual orientation away from heterosexual dominance. However, today’s “something for everyone” notion at the heart of the event’s ethos suggests that such occasions have transcended this straight-gay binary and evolved into something that is universally inclusive of all sexual preferences.

In a society that is increasingly exploring the spectrum of sexuality in both the media and day-to-day conversation, is it now considered as boring and old-fashioned to be reluctant to associate with, whether personally or through others, non-heterosexual identities?

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I asked Greg about various celebrities who strive to make their image more exciting and ‘racy’ by involving themselves in public displays of bisexual curiosity. For example Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry’s recently papped intimate kiss at a concert in Los Angeles. In a recent survey, 54 per cent of heterosexual women between the ages of 18 and 24 say they’ve kissed another girl. That number drops to 43 percent for women aged between 25 and 34. Whilst it seems that as years go by, young women less frequently equate kissing other women to identifying as bisexual, thereal so exists a cultural phenomenon of young women, including celebrities, going through what they recognise as a ‘bisexual phase’.

Greg agrees that treating such activity as a ‘phase’ is more damaging than the sporadic encounters that 43 per cent of us claim to engage in. “This is definitely wrong and harmful” he asserted, “if celebs are lying about being bisexual when they are not just to be trendy they should be ashamed.”

“Older generations can struggle with their LGBT identity”

I suggested that such normalisation of having sexual experiences with both men and women could be translated by young people as a celebratory and supportive act. Greg explained, however, that it is important to define superficial sexual performance such as these risqué stunts away from genuine sexual identity: “I think it’s a bit of a mockery of those who do identify as bisexual.”

We went on to discuss public perceptions of homosexual relationships within the complex web of today’s ‘sexed up’ society. Greg told me, “I think society as a whole is much more promiscuous, with dating websites and apps widely available.”

Statistics such as the fact that one in three married couples now meet online demonstrate a reformation within the dating world. However, more modern apps such as Tinder and Grindr allow people to find others of their sexual preference to meet up with, often with the sole aim of having sex by the end of the night.

Stories of sexual encounters that have come as a result of a ‘match’ are increasingly less surprising. Experimental sex is now the key focus of interest and discussion amongst younger generations due to increased sexual promiscuity. The act itself is no longer seen as newsworthy.

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I discussed with Greg whether he thought that increasing sexual openness in general was fundamental to the simultaneously increasing acceptance of the LGBT community. He addressed the way in which this boost in sexual activity of those who don’t identify as LGBT has antiquated a common preconception about gay relationships, “are the gay community more promiscuous?… I’m sure someone will do a study one day and I’d be interested to read the results!”

Greg explained how he believes that these new and open attitudes towards sex do positively affect the experiences of young people who identify as LGBT, yet those of “older generations can struggle with their LGBT identity, some of which have kept their identity hidden their whole lives.” He also suggested that those only educated about straight, monogamous and un-experimental sexual relationships can find it hard to embrace today’s more explicit approach towards sex.

Therefore, one of the key themes of this year’s York Pride is to address the problems faced by this age group. Greg expanded on this point, saying, “on the other side of the coin, there are those that have lived being open about their LGBT identity, yet struggle to continue to be open when they get to the stage of needing residential care.” He maintained that education is a principal focus of York Pride, and that while we might be heavily exposed to sex, we receive very little formal education about both its physical and emotional aspects.

“If celebs are lying about being bisexual when they are not just to be trendy they should be ashamed”

Greg asserted, “I personally think better sex education is needed in schools not just for the LGBT community but for everyone. Certainly from my experiences, no references at all were made to same sex relationships or trans-relationships.”

We discussed how, for many people who still feel uncomfortable with LGBT relationships, it is the physical side rather than the romantic that they take issue with. So, then, is educating children about LGBT sex in the same way and at the same age that schools normally provide sex-education the way to encourage further accommodation of LGBT sexuality? Greg believes that this would help to tackle homophobic and transphobic bullying within the education system, another of the focuses of this year’s Pride.

We went on to the question of whether film and television can be positive educational tools in regards to their presentation of LGBT characters. I proposed that from my own experience, television shows such as ‘Glee’ and ‘Sex & the City’ present gay men as typically white, cultured and camp, and that surely this representation advocates an unrepresentative stereotype.

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Greg agreed to an extent, but added, “in recent years I think this has started to change. Off the top of my head, I can think of Aaron on ‘Emmerdale’ and Stephen Brendan on Hollyoaks’who aren’t stereotypically ‘camp’ or ‘cultured’. I think the variety in LGBT characters appearing on our screens is great.” He acknowledged that whatever stereotypes that film and television present, there are real people who live up to them. As long as “this is balanced out and the LGBT community is fairly represented in a diverse way,” then such stereotypes are not a damaging concept.

This opened up the question as to whether programmes should seek to use LGBT actors to play such roles. The director of multi-award winning film, Dallas Buyers Club, was recently criticised for casting Jared Leto to play a transsexual character, rather than electing a transsexual actor. Though Greg told me that he hadn’t been aware of this controversy when I asked him about it, he did speak about the current transgender storyline on Hollyoaks in which Blessing Chambers revealed she was born a man. “Her storyline is moving and emotional and is being well portrayed by the actress playing the role. I would imagine, as with any acting role, that plenty of research is key. I know that Modupe Adeyeye, the actor who plays Blessing has worked closely with various charities, including ‘All About Trans’ to ensure she does the role justice.” Greg added how important he thought it was that actors should not be discriminated against in terms of being considered for a role based upon their sexuality. This also applies to straight actors auditioning for LGBT roles.

Recent media coverage of stories such as the aforementioned girl-on-girl kisses, Dallas Buyers Club and Austrian drag singer and Eurovision winner, Conchita Wurst, has elevated questions and issues surrounding LGBT sexuality to a high profile level.

“I personally think better sex education is needed in schools”

I asked Greg whether such glamorisations have caused events such as York Pride to become less political and less centred on everyday issues. “I think it’s very easy for Pride events to lose all sense of purpose and just become a big party,” he said, “York Pride has always ensured it has a serious theme to it. This has helped us to ensure that people have a good time but still remember why the Pride movement was born. It always helps us to remember those less fortunate than ourselves who aren’t able to be freely openly LGBT.”

In 2011, York Pride featured speeches and a balloon release to honour the memory of David Kato, a Ugandan gay rights activist who studied in York and was murdered in his own country because of his sexuality.

From speaking to Greg, it’s clear that striking the balance between having a celebratory day of entertainment, as well as encouraging the crowds to engage in more serious aspects and messages of the event is deceptively challenging. However, Greg and the other unpaid volunteers who coordinate York Pride seem to be hitting the nail on the head when it comes to ensuring that this is achieved.

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I asked Greg which element of York Pride he is most excited about: “The Parade is my personal favourite part of the day. It’s great to see the LGBT community, along with our straight allies, coming together to celebrate how far equal rights have come. But it’s also great to raise awareness of LGBT issues that still exist both here and abroad.”

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