Liverpool Pride Interview: “We want people to remember why we’re on the streets”

By Shaun Ponsonby
Mon 23 July, 2018

Kicking off a week-long celebration of Liverpool Pride, Shaun Ponsonby talks to Pride’s Joan Burnett about changing attitudes, visibility and the importance of remembering Michael Causer.  

There are so many important events on Liverpool’s cultural calendar, from the sunkissed joy of Africa Oye to the all-encompassing LIMF.

Right in the middle of it all comes Liverpool Pride.

Of all the official Pride events in the UK, Liverpool’s is one of the youngest, the first one taking place in 2010 in response to the murder of Michael Causer in a disgusting homophobic attack.

But just because we didn’t have an official Pride until 2010 doesn’t mean that Liverpool’s LGBTQ+ community hadn’t stood in solidarity. Several “unofficial” events took place in the 80s and 90s. The final of these was 1995’s Mersey Pride event which was staged at Pownall Square.

For 2018, Liverpool Pride is returning to this area, an important part of their roots, with Tithebarn Street hosting the main stage.

We’ve never felt that Pride is taken quite as seriously as all those other cultural festivals by a large portion of the city’s many cultural voices, which is appalling when you consider the deep implications of Pride.

So, this year, Planet Slop are making a concerted effort to give Pride the coverage it deserves.

Throughout the week, we will be speaking to several of the city’s leading Queer voices, and what better way to start than by talking to Liverpool Pride themselves?

So we spoke to Liverpool Pride trustee Joan Burnett about the history of Pride, visibility for trans people in the LGBTQ+ community, and the importance of remembering Michael Causer.

?Check out the first edition of  Queenstion Time with Liverpool Pride headliner Courtney Act?

Planet Slop: It’s almost ten years of Liverpool Pride, isn’t it?

Joan Burnett: It is nine years of Liverpool Pride, and ten years since Michael Causer died.

PS: It’s funny, because the other side of it is that it’s only been nine years.

JB: Well…it is and it isn’t! [Laughs]

PS: Well, officially, anyway!

JB: Officially, our first was 2010, and we were set up because of the reaction to the murder of Michael Causer. He was a young gay man, who was brutally attacked at a house party with people he thought were his friends, and just left in the street. Then the people in the house called the services and said “Oh, we found somebody who has been attacked in the street”. And when the emergency services got there, they realised that wasn’t actually what had happened. Then Michael died a few weeks after that on the 2nd August 2008.

One of the people who was involved actually admitted guilt and jailed for murder, the other was acquitted. But when the judge was summing up for the murder trial, he said that it wasn’t a homophobic crime. Well, actually the police, the crown prosecution service, everybody involved in it felt it was a homophobic crime.

So, there was a big reaction to that, both from our own community, but also from Liverpool City Council, who then funded something called the LGBT Network, which did research among LGBT people on Merseyside to ask how life could be better for us. The first thing they said was that there needs to be a Pride in Liverpool, and at that point there hadn’t been a Pride since 1995. So, there were some in the 90s, and in the 80s…

PS: Were they funded by the council as well?

JB: No. They were totally independent. The Pride organisation was set up at the end of 2009. Liverpool City Council part funded the first Pride – and we do still get funding from them, but it certainly doesn’t pay for the full event.

So we come out of a really terrible thing. We come out of the death of a young man, and also the attack on James Parks in 2009. He was an off-duty policeman who was attacked and was very badly injured, but survived, thank God.  There was an anti-homophobia march set up by the community in 2009, and then finally the first official Liverpool Pride in 2010.

PS: And you’re still very close to the Michael Causer Foundation, aren’t you?

JB: Yes, we’ve been talking to them and his family all year, because we feel very strongly that we have to mark the anniversary. Ten years is a long time to be without somebody, and there’s an upcoming generation of people who might not know that story, and may not understand why Liverpool Pride is the way it is.

That’s why we’re a campaigning Pride. We’re joyous, we’re a huge party, we have a fantastic time, but the heart of our Pride is the campaign against homophobia, transphobia, biphobia. And actually, against racism, and disablism, and misogyny, and xenophobia, ageism. All those things. When people are partying, we want them to remember why we’re on the streets.

PS: You mentioned that ten years is a long time to be without someone, but I also feel like in those ten years, things have changed so much. When I hear young people talking about these issues now, it’s so different to when I was in school 10-15 years ago – and obviously much of that was under Section 28. So, why do you think we’ve come so far in the last decade?

JB: I think activists have changed a great deal. And by activists, I mean all kinds of people. When you think of who we’ve had in government, it’s interesting. The pre-2010 government were very LGBT friendly, and really the post-2010 government haven’t been able to backtrack on that. As a charity, we’re not party political, but I think the voices that are out there right now are so much more diverse.

When I go and talk to young people, the attitudes particularly around issues of gender and trans people is really refreshing, that there’s a generation coming up that doesn’t see gender as a straightjacket. I would say the biggest cultural change has come from within the family. People more often than not don’t have to wait to come out until after they’ve left home. There is a dark side, there are families who don’t accept people. The Michael Causer Foundation works with young people who have had to leave home because of homophobia or transphobia. But there is definitely a generational thing.

PS: It’s nice to see, isn’t it?

JB: Yeah, it’s really encouraging.

PS: Since we’re on that subject, there was an incident at London Pride a few weeks ago, where a group of lesbians were protesting against trans women. How do you feel about seeing people from our community not feeling comfortable at Pride, which should really be the ultimate safe space?

JB: The official Liverpool Pride answer is that we want to protect everyone who is at our Pride. Everyone is allowed a point of view, we’re a free country, people are allowed to speak freely. What they’re not allowed to do is promote hate speech, and they’re not allowed to bully other people. So, we’ll be protecting everybody and everybody is welcome.

But my personal answer is that as a lesbian, I am upset that people feel that trans identity can erase their own identity in any way. I don’t feel like that. I’d really like to support the trans people that I know and love. There are all kinds of activism, and people may say “Yeah, but we want to raise this issue about lesbian identity”, but trans identity doesn’t erase lesbian identity.

But, I think what they have done is positive in one way, though the action itself was shameful. It has got people talking, just not in the way that they thought! [Laughs]

PS: It was such a horrible thing to see. 

JB: I would like to say to our trans friends that you are at the heart of what we do. People might not have made the connection, but our brochure this year, our whole image and brand is based on the trans colours; pale blue, white and pink, and we wanted to put trans issues at the very centre of what we’re doing. There is still a lot of prejudice out there, even within the LGBT community.

PS: I guess it does kinda raise a question about visibility within the queer community generally. We’ve spoken about this a bit already, but trans people, or people of colour, do get a bit sidelined…

JB: Absolutely.

PS: I guess it’s like life in general, there’s a hierarchy, and lo and behold! The white man is on top! And then somewhere near the bottom is the black, trans lesbian. So how do you make sure everybody does feel welcome, and not fall into that trap?

JB: By the time this goes out, we’ll have already had our week here in Tate Exchange, and our whole week is looking at issues around inclusivity. We are acutely aware as an organisation that we could be more diverse – we want people to know that you can come and apply to be on our board. Our volunteers are drawn from all sections of society, and we want our Pride to be inclusive and to visibly show support. So we’re proud to have Queen Zee as one of our main acts, for more than trans visibility; to show the different ways of being Queer. I think Prides can become very homogeneous. We want everybody to find something that they will like. We’ve got the fantastic Sophie Ellis-Bextor – and it’s amazing to have somebody like that…

PS: And Courtney Act, one of the biggest Drag stars in the world!  

JB: Yes! Courtney Act! And there’s other stages. There’s an acoustic stage, a cabaret stage. So hopefully these are covering as many identities as we can. It’s not perfect. We’re working towards next year, which is our tenth Pride, and we really want to make that the most inclusive to date, really. We don’t feel like we’ll ever get to a point where it’s inclusive enough. We don’t want to get complacent.

Queen Zee at Sound City – photo by Graham Smillie

PS: How do you balance the two things? Because obviously you need to be unashamedly Queer and fully embrace that aspect of Queer culture, but at the same time you need to make sure everybody is visible with the more niche stuff.

JB: I think it’s really important to remember the campaign thing. We’re not just about LGBT+ people. About 35% of the people who come to Liverpool Pride don’t identify as LGBT. So we’re talking about the wider society in Liverpool. Everyone is welcome at Pride, hence our theme this year, All Together Now. We don’t bash you, you don’t bash us.

PS: I feel like I’ve had to have this conversation over and over again, where I’m almost having to justify the existence of Pride to people, and I’m not even directly involved, so you must have had that annoying conversation so often?

JB: There is a very direct answer, especially to the “Straight Pride” thing, which is: when you’re being threatened every day, just because of who you are, then you can have a Pride. But we’re the people being oppressed. And actually, one of the things we’ve bigged up over the last few years is straight allies. There’s a huge majority who never get heard; the non-homophobic or transphobic heterosexual person. Where’s their voice? And people say, “Well, heterosexual voices are heard all the time“. But if you listen to coverage, it’s quite oppositional. So something like BBC interviews, they will have an LGBT person, and then just a complete homophobe. So we’re about that too. “Look at all these people who support us – why don’t you?” We don’t live in a Queer bubble.

PS: Just to talk about Pride as an event, especially because of the march, and it’s a massive free event in the middle of town, I imagine it’s so much harder to organise…

JB: The march is anarchy! [Laughs] We organise the march, but we are not the march – it’s the people of Merseyside, whoever turns up. All we do is make it safe. 8,000 people marched last year. London Pride limited their march to 30,000 people this year. That’s a city of 11 million people, we’re a region of one and a half million, and we can produce an 8,000-strong march. So, it’s not just us, we organise everything around that to make it happen, and it’s very expensive!

PS: I can imagine!

JB: So if people want that to continue, they are going to have to donate [click here to donate to Liverpool Pride]. It’s the part that doesn’t make money, and it’s not about making money, but we need support to help make it happen. Because I think it’s the most important part of the day.

PS: In terms of organising the whole event, when does that process start?

JB: We’ve already started planning next year.

PS: Wow, OK. So it’s a whole year of planning?

JB: For the march, we kinda know what we’re doing. And we have lovely James License –he’s also our licensee, weirdly! [Laughs] He’s been with us since the beginning and organising the march since year three, so he has six years’ experience in doing this, so he’s trusted by the authorities.

PS: I asked Andrew, who does the Queenstion Time series on Planet Slop, if he had any questions for you, and he came up with a really interesting one.

JB: Oooh, good!

PS: You can’t really run away from the fact that there is inevitably a more sexualised side of Pride, but at the same time we’re talking about how everybody is welcome at Pride. So how do you balance those two things out? I’m especially thinking of a sort of family friendly thing.

JB: Well, I don’t see sex as dirty. Obviously, we safeguard young people, and we make sure there are certain things that don’t happen. In fact, in the community section one year, we did have something very adult next to something aimed at young people. We moved it, and we’re a bit more aware of that now. But actually, people’s sexuality should be celebrated and open.

If it was, perhaps horrible words like “slag” would go away. I hate that word, in fact I always thinks it’s an acronym for “Sexually Liberated And Gorgeous”. In the UK, I think we have a strange set of taboos around nudity and images of sexuality that are actually not part of other cultures. When people from mainland Europe come to the UK, they’re quite surprised by our attitude to male nudity in particular. I happen to work in an art gallery, and I know whenever we have an image of male nudity, that will be the thing that will be complained about.

Personally, I’m very liberal about that, and I think if Britain was a little more liberal and comfortable with sexuality it wouldn’t be such an issue. But we do have safeguarding officers on duty, and obviously if you’re bringing people under 18, look after their welfare. I think there’s a difference between the free expression of sexuality and sexualising things. Hopefully we’re on the correct side of that divide! [Laughs]

PS: I wanna say that I think this is one of the strongest line-ups that you’ve had.

JB: Oh, thank you!

PS: How do you get the line-ups together?

JB: We have two fantastic guys – David and Graham – who put together the stage programme this year. They listened to me whinge about Queen Zee every day, at every meeting until they booked them. I think they were a bit concerned about what they’d be like on stage…

PS: Electric!

JB: They’ll be absolutely amazing! And if you like young David Bowie, you’ll like Queen Zee, it’ll be fine!

PS: Is that who you are most looking forward to seeing?

JB: Yeah, in a sense. I don’t always get to see the main stage, because we’re working. But I’ll probably take a little break while they’re on because I really want to see how wild the crowd goes. If they don’t already know them, they’ll love them.

PS: I think they’re unprecedented in the city.

JB: I do too.

PS: You’ve got the cast of Kinky Boots as well, right?

JB: We have! Kinky Boots, Lots Holloway, Rogue Minouge, Swedish Drag Queens – don’t quite know what’s going to happen with them! I think they’re a bit anarchistic! We’ve got all kinds of people, and two other stages – that’s kind of our secret weapon. And, of course, on the main stage House of Suarez; one of the most important cultural organisations in the city for dance and equality. I think the work that House of Suarez does around inclusion is not even properly recognised with the city and people need to see what they’ve got on offer.

PS: Obviously the music and the main day is the focus, but there’s other stuff going on over the whole weekend…

JB: We’ve got stuff right across the city on Sunday, so please come to The Bluecoat from midday onwards. We’ve got the amazing Dance Dynamix, and they have co-ordinated what can only be described as a dance explosion – it’s like mini-Pride [laughs]. At the Liverpool Museum, Queer Collective will be doing coming out stories, really interesting story sharing event. International Slavery Museum are doing workshops and talks around Civil Rights, Walker Art Gallery have lots of arts activities for young people. But our hub is The Bluecoat.

PS: And one last question, and then I’ll let you get on with all the millions stuff you still have to do! If you had to describe Pride in three words, what would they be?

JB: Passion. Friendship. Campaign. Actually, I probably should have said “All Together Now” seeing as it’s our theme! [Laughs]


Liverpool Pride takes place on Saturday 28th and Sunday 29th July. Visit liverpoolpride.co.uk for more details. Click here to donate to Liverpool Pride.

Lead Image: Graham Smillie