BBC participants in Manchester Pride parade with gold letter balloons spelling out 'PRIDE'

Manchester Pride is often criticised for being commercialised and being more of a party than a protest. But it can be both, as Gary Roberts discovered at the 2022 Pride weekend.

It’s a truism that success and popularity can often stifle the very raison d’être of an event or location. Think of your favourite borough, once populated by bohemian independent shops and cafes, that, due to the commercial osmosis of estate agents and restaurant chains, morphs into a carbon copy of every other affluent urban locality. Or perhaps, a music festival that forsakes its original cult status to balloon into a monetary-driven Goliath that tramples over its founding idealistic origins.

Manchester Pride has in recent years faced such accusations of losing its waysuccumbing to commercial temptation and forgetting the very community that nurtured its growth and adaption from the humble beginnings of the mid-1980s (the event has changed names from the ‘Manchester Mardi Gras’ in the 90s to ‘Gayfest’ in 2000 and 2001 before settling as Manchester Pride).

In addition, Manchester Pride, which became a registered charity in 2007, has been charged with putting profits before protest and ignoring the defining message from the LGBTQ+ community that the event was tasked to represent. As the event spread beyond the Village, it has faced criticism that money was being spent on attracting and staging big named artists and that the funds were not being returned to support the very community that had ignited its existence. 

Mark Fletcher, CEO at Manchester Pride since 2014, has faced a petition and calls for his resignation in recent years following a BBC investigation into the finances of the event. 

However, Mr Fletcher promised a more community-driven line-up this year,

 “We know that there has been an enthusiasm for the festival to become even more community-focused and we believe that the three stages in our Gay Village Party will provide a wide variety of artists that will relate directly to our Manchester LGBTQ+ community.” 

Mr Fletcher, perhaps in answer to his critics and offering an olive branch, adds,

“Conflict within and outside of our communities is rife and we are calling on our LGBTQ+ communities and allies around Greater Manchester to join in and support us as we March for Peace.”

Pride commenced on Thursday with a human rights forum in Sackville Gardens and Superbia held a series of arts and culture events, as part of Manchester Pride, across the city from Wednesday 24 until Sunday 28 August:

“Superbia supports and platforms local queer artists, offering them vital paid work and a platform to showcase their projects and talents. We’re really excited to bring the events to life and celebrate the rich history, diversity and talent that Manchester has to offer.”

For most attendees, however, the event starts on the Friday night and by the time the acts started appearing on the three major stages, ‘Cabaret, Mancunity and Alan Turing’ it was already becoming difficult to navigate between them, due to the crowds, for anyone wishing to flit between the three venues.

At the Cabaret stage ‘House of Fire’ followed by Patrick Saint James entertained the crowd before Duncan James appeared in full drag for a set including an adept rendition of ‘My Way’ which was well received.

Saturday saw the Parade wind through the streets of Manchester. The theme this year being ‘March for Peace’, emphasising the importance of peace in a world where all LGBTQ+ people are free to live and love without prejudice. From my own sporadic attendance since the 90s, covering and attending the parade, recent years seem to have seen a proliferation of corporate representation who pay the Commercial Parade Entry Fee. This appears to have led to a loss of some of the character and individualistic attire worn by those taking part, but it still offers a great opportunity for members of the LGBTQ+ community to proudly show why the community is a vibrant and integral part of the city of Manchester. 

Saturday night saw an even more packed Village with navigation between the three main stages slowing to a snail’s pace in the connecting streets. However, the thronged crowd submitted to being serenaded by the many performers outside the Village’s pubs as they waited patiently to progress to each venue. 

Rozalla “Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good)” followed Asian Cabaret acts including Jason Kwan, Tequila Thirst and Lilly SnatchDragon on the Cabaret stage. Whilst Girls Aloud’s Nadine Coyle performed on the Alan Turing, Mancunity was taken over late evening by Black Pride Manchester.

Sunday saw another sunshine-blessed day, which must have come as some relief to the organisers, as again the streets became clogged with revellers, as the party continued, with indoor venues already at capacity. Queues for toilets snaked across Sackville Gardens with waiting times stretching to the tens of minutes or more. Although the argument has been made, and perhaps won, that the event should maintain its heart and destination in the Village, any growth in future attendance can surely only be achieved by allowing expansion to encompass a larger geographical area.

Spice Girl Mel C took to the Alan Turing stage, following Bimini from RuPaul’s Drag Race, but unfortunately many attendees could not access Sackville Gardens which had, by then, reached capacity. Earlier the crowd had enjoyed ‘Pups’ being schooled in Ginny Lemon’s Dog show.

Those who managed to enter the packed gardens enjoyed a mixture of Melanie’s solo songs interspersed with Spice Girls classics. Angie Brown and Lucy Spraggan were the final sets on the Cabaret and Mancunity stages. By the time Sunday night drew to a close, those that had made it into the Alan Turing stage seemed happy. A footnote to the Pride organisers; the single plastic-strewn park seemed a little archaic when most public gatherings now employ reusable and returnable ‘glasses’.

Monday, always the more subdued day of Manchester Pride, as hangovers were nursed, saw thoughts and the focus return to the true origins of the event. The Candlelight Vigil held in Sackville Gardens was, as always, at capacity. Speeches were made telling heart-wrenching cruelty shown to members of the LGBTQ+ community. The British government came in for specific criticism for its callous burden of proof requirements for refugees arriving in the UK to ‘prove’ their own sexuality as grounds for the persecution they had suffered in their home country. The moment of silent reflection, lit by candles, was a poignant testimony to the resilience of those gathered and those they missed.  

As Mark Fletcher says,

“Community is at the heart of everything we do at Manchester Pride, and it’s important for us to close the event with a moment of reflection as Sackville Gardens is transformed into a sea of flickering candles to remember those we have lost to HIV/AIDS and unite us in the worldwide fight against the epidemic”.

Whether Manchester Pride matches its celebration and entertainment credentials with its future charitable obligations will and should be closely watched by the LGBTQ+ community and the associated charities. Future attendance numbers may require an expansion of the site but this will require a close consultation with the LGBTQ+ community, as well as the council and the businesses concerned, in order for harmony to be restored. However, at least as a spectacle and a beacon of hope, which will be much needed in the upcoming months throughout the wider city, Manchester Pride appears to be returning to its roots.

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All images: Gary Roberts

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  • Gary Roberts

    A photojournalist and writer who covers conservation and social issues worldwide. Founder of Education background includes BSc Zoology at Leeds University and an MSc at The University of Manchester in International development poverty, conflict and reconstruction. Gary studied and later taught photojournalism at Speos Photographic institute. His work has involved numerous conservation and social justice groups including The Fairtrade foundation, Oxfam, ABRU Animal Behaviour Research Unit, SOS Lynx, Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, TANAPA, and APOPO. Publications include UK National and International Press.

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