This Sunday, Hastings will see its first Pride Festival take place. It stems from Hastings Youth Council’s Pride event held last year, with a procession in the morning and events on The Oval during the day. The theme of the event will be ‘1967, The Summer of Love’ – the year when homosexuality was decriminalised. That was only 50 years ago, well within my lifetime. It seems astonishing now that society ever legislated against people’s sexual preferences, and sought to criminalise them for behaviour that presented no threat to anyone. In those days, all sorts of prejudices were legal, routine and encouraged: prejudice against LGBT people, minority ethnic communities, and women.
Acts of astonishing cruelty were sanctioned, leading to the premature loss of some of our greatest intellects. Alan Turing, the mathematician and code-breaker who spent his childhood here in Hastings, was subjected to a form of chemical castration after being prosecuted for offences related to his homosexuality, which led to his suicide in 1952. Turing was arguably our greatest war hero, one of the few people of whom it can be said that the war could not have been won without him. But he died in obscurity and ignominy, simply because his lifestyle offended the authorities.
Change came with the Wolfenden Report, which recommended that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence”, and led to the Labour government in 1967 passing the Sexual Offences Act, legalising “homosexual acts between two men aged over 21, in private”. Even so, there was still an establishment reluctance to be seen to condone homosexuality, with Home Secretary Roy Jenkins saying: “Those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of shame all their lives”.
However, this was a case of where progressive legislation eventually led to a change in public opinion. There have been setbacks, such as the Thatcher government’s notorious section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which forbade councils and schools from ‘promoting homosexuality’ (repealed in 2000). But overall, public opinion, legislation, and the views of establishment bodies have come to recognise the rights of individuals to freedom of expression and association.
So we’ve come a long way in the last 50 years, and it’s wonderful that Pride events everywhere allow everyone to celebrate diversity, and be proud of their sexuality, their ethnicity, their gender, their origins, and their culture. But prejudice and intolerance have not gone away, even though the law and wider society have accepted diversity, and condemn discrimination. Hate crimes are increasing, particularly against disabled people. We must continue to fight for a world where no-one feels threatened because of their sexuality, ethnicity, disability, or lifestyle choices. We all have a right to live the way we want and need to, if that doesn’t threaten or oppress others.
It’s important that we all support events that celebrate sexual and cultural diversity, and make it clear that prejudice and hatred are not acceptable, and will not be tolerated. So this August Bank Holiday, at Hastings’ first Pride festival, we’ll all be joining in the events and entertainment to emphasise that everyone has the right to be who they are, and be proud of it. But most of all, it’s about having fun - in the end, this is another festival in Hastings’ packed calendar that we can all enjoy.