I participated in my first LGBT Pride when I was about 22. I'd just come out, and I stood nervously on a London street with my friend, watching bright and colourful Pride floats filled with people pass. I gazed shyly at those participating, admiring how they were so comfortable and proud about who they were. I wanted to be like that. And then, unexpectedly, my friend grabbed my hand and pulled me right into the parade. For about five minutes we marched and for about five minutes I felt both terrified and overjoyed. And then the terror won, and we merged with the watching crowd again, grinning and feeling genuinely proud and empowered and part of something important.
A few years later, and a little less fearful, I signed up to participate as part of the British Government's contingent in London's Pride parade. The plan was to dress as traditional civil servants (black suits, bowler hats), and twirl rainbow umbrellas as we danced our way round the centre of London. We practised in the Treasury -- in the room with the balcony from which Churchill gave his speech declaring victory in Europe. It went off well -- though I'm not known for my dancing (or not in a good way), there was something quite remarkable about the feeling of dancing round Piccadilly Circus...
Last year, the State Department invited me to ride on their float for the D.C. parade. Because D.C. is a much smaller city, I'd anticipated it would be much less of a big deal than it is in London. But I turned out to be quite wrong -- Pride here is a real focus for the city and is impossible to miss. As I waved a rainbow flag from the State Department's float, I pondered whether the British Embassy should have a float next year. This thought cropped up a few times since then, but I was worried about how well we'd pull it off. And so I kept deferring the thought until a month ago, when I finally talked to colleagues here and we got the Ambassador's go-ahead.
To my joy, we found a partner both for the float (HSBC) and for a party afterwards (Baker and McKenzie) and things began to look promising. But events organisation is not my forte (I worry too much) and so I spent a fair bit of the subsequent two weeks imagining what might go wrong with the float, or the weather, or that no-one would come to the party.
But all these fears were entirely unfounded. A grey day with spots of rain suddenly turned into blue skies. People from across the Embassy -- and friends from the UK's Research Councils and from the British Council -- came along first to decorate and then to wave mini Union Jacks and toss shortbread from our float. I was proud and happy that so many people -- gay and straight, children and adults -- were there. Our banner looked brilliant -- "Putting the Tea into Equality" -- and the crowd of around 100,000 people loved us. As did the judges, it turns out. Perhaps it was because we played the National Anthem as we passed their table, perhaps it was because they are fond of tea, or perhaps it was because we were the first Embassy to participate in D.C.'s Pride! But whatever the reason, we were absolutely delighted to find we'd won the Harvey Milk Award for best public sector float. The party at the Brixton went equally brilliantly, with a great atmosphere, and a lot of enthusiasm from our guests for the British music, Pimms and lemonade and fish and chips.
Later that night I received an email from someone who attended our party: "I can't say enough what a lovely and important thing you and Layla did with your party tonight. You have my gratitude and my admiration." Britain is a champion of equality, and it's hard to underestimate the impact of how we champion that abroad. As for me, I feel I have come a long way since my first Pride parade. And I hope there was a nervous 22-year-old in the crowd this weekend who is feeling just a little more proud and happy with who they are, thanks to our participation.