After decades of keeping the LGBT+ community a secret, the town I live in is having it’s first Pride. Organised by the Orchard Theatre in partnership with Dartford Borough Council, the event is much needed, and long overdue.
I live about twenty minutes away from the tiny village I spent much of my childhood in, Horton Kirby. Just a little drive from Dartford, Horton Kirby was somewhere that I absolutely hated living. There was nothing to do, and so the fascination was gossip. Everybody wanted to know everybody’s business, and as someone harbouring a deep, dark secret, this made it the worst place in the world to live.
Casting my mind back to my childhood, when I’d spend the weekends and summer holidays listening to mixtapes full of ballads in Dartford park, tormented by the secret that lived inside my soul, I often wonder what that lonely, torn up teenager would think about Pride happening just a stones throw away from the place she used to haunt.
Every Pride month, there’s a lot of discourse about Pride having roots in protest, and Dartford, along with the rest of Kent is no stranger to LGBT+ related protests.
It all begins with the familiar tale of Section 28, a piece of legislation that banned the promotion of homosexuality, introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in the 1980’s. The damage of the legislation to LGBT+ youth was clear from the outset, with LGBT+ kids facing bullying, mental health challenges and years of struggle with accepting themselves, which is why the legislation was repealed by Tony Blair’s Labour government at the turn of the millennium.
It was a turning point for the LGBT+ community in the UK, and represented, the beginning of the state making up for the harm caused, at last, for the LGBT+ community, unless of course, they lived in Kent.
In the early 2000’s, the Conservative controlled Kent County Council voted to introduce legislation that mimicked Section 28 and banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools managed and controlled by the local authority. The legislation insisted that children should be taught that homosexuality was not equal to heterosexuality, and that teachers should not allow children access to material or information that could give children the idea that homosexuality was positive or even normal.
Council leader at the time, Sandy Bruce-Lockhart said: “What we are saying is that we want to give reassurance to parents in Kent that the county council will not spend taxpayers’ money on purchasing material which intentionally promotes homosexuality. That is a bad use of money.” It was framed as a money issue, but the council’s actions over the next few years made it clear that it was a homophobia issue.
He later repeated this justification for the legislation in a letter to the president of The Queer Youth Alliance, David Henry, adding that the council would encourage children to lead a healthy, fulfilling and meaningful life in which they respect themselves, but for LGBT+ children who were unable to find the answers to the burning questions about themselves, that was difficult to do.
Sandy Bruce-Lockhart went on to be celebrated for his contributions to politics, being made a Knight Bachelor on the New Year’s Honours List and being given a life peerage. The students that suffered under the legislation he introduced have not been so fortunate.
In 2004, the legislation was amended, now stating that heterosexual marriage was the only firm foundations for society. This was in place and having a profound and damaging effect on LGBT+ students until the Equality Act of 2010 was introduced by the UK government.
Protests began at council buildings in 2004, with older members of the LGBT+ community, including the chair of Canterbury Labour Paul Prentice joining student groups to raise their voices against the damaging legislation. I have been going to protests since I could walk, but I was not at any of the protests by LGBT+ groups against our council.
At first, I didn’t know the legislation was in place, and I wouldn’t find out until I was about sixteen. When I did, I was still far too deep in my shame spiral to actually do anything about it, but there were people, turning up to council buildings and town halls repeatedly throughout the 2000’s to stand up for kids like me, because they knew the damage that was being done in those schools.
Part of me, after years of indoctrination believed that the councillors must have been right. They were hiding homosexuality from us, because it was wrong. At the time, same sex marriage was still illegal, and there were very few visible LGBT+ role models, and barely any lesbian representation, beyond fetishised porn clips that the boys swapped with each other on their phones. Gay and Lesbian were still used as pejoratives, and the one girl I knew that came out as a lesbian was relentlessly bullied while teachers looked the other way.
There was no way for me to come out, amidst all that. Knowing about the legislation didn’t make it go away, and it didn’t erase the damage that it had already done.
Things have changed in Dartford, but things have also stayed the same. We have a gay bar now, The Huffler’s Arms, which is a wonderful and inclusive space (with amazing drinks deals!), but we also have Winners’ Chapel, just a few minutes away that was exposed for conducting gay conversion therapy by ITV News in 2018 and has claimed that gay people are controlled by the devil. They give out leaflets on the road that leads to Dartford’s one and only gay bar regularly, and it’s hard to believe that their decision to leaflet there is a coincidence.
Council buildings fly the Pride flag in February and June but Conservative councillors are not willing to acknowledge or truly make amends for their party’s antagonistic history with the local LGBT+ community.
Kent County Council’s LGBT toolkit mentions Section 28 several times but does not acknowledge the council’s own part in continuing the legislation for a decade after it was originally repealed by the UK government.
Dartford is now having its first ever Pride, and they’ve gone all in, with a three day calendar of events, featuring performances from Drag Race UK stars Baga Chipz and River Medway, as well as Pop Idol star Gareth Gates and ITV’s Starstruck finalist Keeley Smith. Teenage me would not have been able to believe it. Adult me can’t really believe it either.
The main Pride event on Saturday July 2nd unfortunately does clash with the much bigger London Pride event, just a quick train away in the capital, but the events on other dates shouldn’t run into the same issues, and as a whole, the events happening is significant.
This is a town, still struggling to accept parts of itself. I am a woman, still struggling to accept parts of myself. After decades of trying to change myself, and present an acceptable image, it is only in the last few years that I have accepted that I am a Lesbian, and that there’s nothing I can, or even should do about it (beyond seeking a wife for the end of the world), so the town that I call home, finally showing up for me is an emotional moment.
Would I have hidden myself for so long if the legislation had not been in place? While other factors were part of my decision (see yesterday’s poem for details, and stan my amazing mother for being an accepting icon), I do still believe the legislation was the largest aspect, and I have spent a long time imagining how different my life would be, if I’d gone through puberty and discovered my sole attraction to women while going to school in another part of England.
I have reconnected with people that I went to school with, that are, like me, late bloomers, and have spent a long time trying to run away from who they were, primarily due to years of our schools having no choice but to hide the truth of our normality from us. We are normal. There is nothing wrong with us, but in our formative years, we were made to feel like freaks and deviants. There is a lot of pain, and a lot of anger, and I wish I knew when that would fade.
My hope is that the first Dartford Pride will be a success, and will continue year after year. I hope that it will help heal the divisions between the LGBT+ community and a local authority that played a part in sowing the seeds of self hatred in so many of us, but it’s important to be honest about the power of Pride, and how it has its limits.
Finally being able to be myself, openly, while I sip drinks and watch our home county hero River Medway is nice, and I’ll enjoy myself, as I’m sure others will, but Dartford Borough Council, along with other councils across Kent has a long way to go if they ever hope to repair the damage of their shameful homophobic history.