This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first ever Pride rally in the UK. Influenced by the 1969 Stonewall riots in the United States, Britain’s Gay Liberation Front (GLF) took to the streets of London on 1 July 1972 to highlight the continued injustices faced by the LGBTQIA+ community.

This rally would have been seen as radical at the time, as few gay people in the UK were openly out and even fewer would have been comfortable to be so overt with their support of such an event. At the time homosexuality had only been legal in England and Wales for five years, taking until the early 80’s for the same to be true in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It’s fair to say there is reason to celebrate, we’ve come a long way in last 50 years in terms of legislation, marriage equality and equal rights but there is still much to do to recognise real equality in the UK and across the world. Put the rainbows, the glitter, and the complete and utter joyfulness of the modern-day Pride Parade to one side for one moment – we must not lose sight of the fact that it’s still illegal to identify as LGBTQIA+ in 75 countries and punishable by death in ten. Safety of LGBTQIA+ individuals in countries where it is legal is also still high on the agenda. Only a few days ago a shooting occurred at a gay bar in Oslo, Norway. If you come even closer to home on our own shores of the UK and Ireland, LGBTQIA+ hate crimes are continuing to rise, and the messages being sent by those in power are not helping the matter.  What sort of message does it send to the people of the UK when the government continues in its indecisiveness over a blanket ban on conversion therapy for all members of the community?

50 years on from the first Pride rally in the UK and we continue to have very few out gay men in football and other sports, celebrities continue to live in fear of being outed by the media, and some young members of the LGBTQIA+ community are still facing rejection by family on grounds of their sexuality.

I am who I am

Acceptance without exception is the essence of Pride month – acceptance from society, from friends and family, acceptance from work colleagues. Imagine what the world would be like for those of us who identify as LGBTQIA+ if acceptance was widespread, and a given. Actually, it might not make as much difference as you may think, as external acceptance is only part of the problem. For me, and many in the community, the hardest fight for acceptance we face is within ourselves, with our own internalised prejudice. Admitting to yourself that you are ‘gay’ can be the hardest step in the process, it can take years to come to terms with and for some it’s a barrier that they will never be able to break through.

My own journey to self-acceptance took 30 years – that’s 3 decades of my life lost on attempting to be what I though was ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’, 10,950 days of trying to blend in, 15,768,000 minutes of denying my true self, 946,080,000 seconds wasted.

Stop telling me it’s wrong

It’s not that I am a lesbian who is homophobic, far from it – I am an activist for the community and a firm believer in embracing differences. My internal struggle came from fear, fear of something I didn’t understand, of the feelings that I was experiencing and my own as yet unsubstantiated idea of how those close to me would react. I was convinced that coming out was the worst thing I could ever do, and that I would never allow myself to give into the feelings that consuming me for the same sex.

If someone had told me during that time that I could be ’cured’ of these ‘deviant’ feelings, I would have bitten their hand off. However, the fact is that being LGBTQIA+ isn’t an illness, it cannot and should not be cured, it’s also not a life choice or a passing fad. You are born that way – end of. This is why practices like conversion therapy are so damaging. This, so called, treatment prays on the vulnerable at the most confusing and painful time in their lives, reinforcing the message that difference is wrong and needs fixing. Luckily, I never had to experience this form of organised torture, I tormented myself instead. Everything was locked inside but it never went away.

I wonder also the difference being able to talk and learn about gender and sexual identities out in the open would have made. I grew up at a time when Section 28 (a series of laws that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” in England) was enacted. If I’d heard my teachers talking about LGBTQIA+ families and seen the stereotypical characteristic of normal family life challenged in children’s books – my inner turmoil may have been lessened. Imagine the power of an open discussion in the most formative years of your life, when you learn that it’s okay to be who you are and live life without prejudice. If this topic had been covered in school, children would understand early on that homosexuality is not something to be afraid of. An informed society built on this belief would no doubt have a significant impact the lives of so many.

Be the change

Looking at the younger generation I am encouraged by their openness, their ability to embrace and celebrate difference. Sexuality and gender identity are talked about and explored in the classroom as well as in television and film. I am hopeful that this generation are able to be less closeted and don’t have to be as courageous to simply be themselves.

Pride is a time to show solidarity, friendship and love but its also a time to double down on efforts to push for change where we see injustice. As we take one step forward in regard to gaining equality for underrepresented groups, we often end up taking two steps backs. It is on all of us to not be a bystander to prejudice, to role model inclusion and to be the voice for those who may not have one.

Let us play our part in making the next 50 years of Pride as glorious as the first.