This time last year, I couldn’t think of any reason why I’d be visiting the Isle of Wight in 2017. And yet, this weekend, I’ll make my third trip of the year.
It’s amazing how much can happen in a year. In a couple of weeks, it’ll be exactly a year since a columnist on the Isle of Wight County Press began her weekly column in the paper with: ‘Pencils poised on your new diaries, everybody, and get ready for July 15, the undoubted highlight on the Island’s 2017 schedule of exciting events’.
She was referring to the very early plans for the Isle of Wight – that island just off the south coast, close to Southampton and Portsmouth – to have its first LGBTI Pride event. The problem was that the rest of her article was bigoted, homophobic, and railed against people having sex with lampposts. Yes, really.
There was predictable, but reassuring, outrage. Reassuring because we’re always told that the Isle of Wight is a retirement home, where even Jacob Rees Mogg might find a home for some of his Victorian views. I blogged for HuffPost UKattacking the columnist, Charlotte Hofton, and her diatribe made the national news. And whilst the editor of the County Press emailed me to say that she was devastated that she might be thought of as a bigot or a homophobe, she quit before her next column was due.
On reflection, that’s a shame. I accept that her column was often tongue-in-cheek and a bit, well, edgy. The problem is that the LGBTI community – especially in places like the Isle of Wight – has got sick and tired of that tongue being in that cheek. I would have much preferred her to stay with the paper, offer an apology and move on, including a visit to Isle of Wight Pride itself.
Nevertheless, Hofton’s intro was quite right – Isle of Wight Pride was an undoubted highlight on the Island’s 2017 schedule of exciting events. I was moved to tears on more than one occasion at Pride, and it was truly incredible to see the Island’s community – LGBTI and straight allies – come together in such a show of solidarity and support for love, inclusion and difference. It also came less than two months after the homophobic local MP, Andrew Turner, had quit after telling college students that homosexuality was dangerous to society – and so just less than two months since the Isle of Wight Pride organisers organised a ‘Dangerous to Society’ club night to celebrate their dangerousness and depravity.
I blogged about the first Isle of Wight Pride for HuffPost UK back in July. Such was the impact of the event that the organisers – who number just a handful of committee members – felt buoyed enough to bid to host UK Pride in 2018. UK Pride is rather like EuroPride and WorldPride – it is awarded to one Pride in the UK each year to highlight and give focus to smaller Prides that would normally struggle to get the attention of the bigger, more established Prides. And at the UK Pride Organisers Network conference in Blackpool last month, they pulled it off, beating impressive competition from Pride Cymru in Wales, Liverpool Pride, and Exeter Pride.
On the A34 heading back from a mind blowing 4 days which started at and ended with ! — Isle Of Wight Pride (@IWPride)
That shows not just the power of Pride as a movement, but also the culture shift that Isle of Wight Pride has created in one small part of the UK. They had the support of the new MP – the eminently more enlightened Bob Seeley – and countless local businesses together with the tourist board, proud to celebrate the fact that theirs is the only Pride in the UK held on a beach. They showed that the Island’s LGBTI community, who hitherto had pretty much no outlet for coming together that didn’t involve a trip to Portsmouth or Southampton, could celebrate, party, march and stand up for human rights without people having sex with lampposts or the sky falling in.
So this weekend, my third trip to the Island in less than ten months, is for Isle of Wight Pride’s Gala Dinner, to celebrate their successes, raise money for National AIDS Trust – as we approach World AIDS Day on 1st December – and to look ahead to their hosting UK Pride in July next year. That might me my fourth trip there in 18 months … or I might be back beforehand. Either way, put Saturday 21st July in your diary for a UK Pride to remember.