'History is for interfering with': Five LGBTQ+ activists share their story

For the last thirty years, the charity Stonewall has been at the forefront of championing and protecting LGBTQ+ rights. 

From lowering the age of consent for gay men to legalising same-sex marriage, the group has spent the last three decades making vital change for the LGBTQ+ community. 

But, despite many hard-fought wins, the battle is still far from over. 

Here, as we celebrate 50 years of Pride, Metro.co.uk speaks to activists spanning the last five decades who have pushed for progress, to find out how they achieved it – and what more still needs to be done. 


We wore drag because it was more provocative than just wearing a Gay Liberation badge

Stuart Feather, 82, was a key activist in the Gay Liberation Front during the 1970s. He attended the first ever Pride march half a century ago and has joined them every year since.

The 1970s was a colourful time; it was a celebratory and sociable. We’d just had the summer of love, there were new drugs like acid and LSD around and the late 60s felt really good – .they were technicolour.

 In July 1972, I was in the first ever Gay Pride march, which was organised by the Gay Liberation Front. There were between 750 and 1,000 of us. We met up in Trafalgar Square and went to Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner and then held a big party in the park. It was a great occasion.

The police were very heavy, of course. There were so many of them that it was hard for people to see us. But when we got to Marble Arch we held a mass kiss-in that really upset them. The police all disappeared after that.

We were all dressed up to the nines and there were lots of placards and slogans being shouted – it was great fun. People gave us the thumbs up and we could hear a little bit of applause here and there. But there were also some in the crowd who were parodying us by flapping their wrists – we just shouted instructions back, about how to do it properly. 

There were these little groups who were really offended though. They asked why were we wearing women’s clothes, and we’d reply: ‘Why aren’t you wearing women’s clothes?’ We wore drag because it was more provocative than wearing a badge that said ‘Gay Liberation’.

We weren’t imitating women or padding our breasts out; we just wanted to be men in frocks so that we could be seen. We wanted to be confrontational.

It was really important to us because we needed an end to the way we’d been treated by society. I was bit older, in my thirties, when the GLF started, so for the first 15 years of my sex life, I’d been criminalised.

We older ones were a bit more neurotic about it than the younger people. We were trying to liberate ourselves from that neurosis. That was a personal struggle as much as it was a struggle against the system.

By 1973, the Gay Liberation Front had collapsed. People were trying to prop it up, but it was miserable with all the different ideologies that were in play. It was a very sad time; really upsetting. I was quite depressed as it had been so important to my life. The revolution seemed to evaporate into the air. Lots of things happened as a result though; new bookshops, newspapers and support groups that changed people’s thinking completely. We changed society in this country.

I always go on the Pride parade every year. We’re all very unhappy with the way Pride has been commodified and highjacked by big businesses. It’s gross. You see great big adverts and the joy drains out of it.

This year we’ll be holding the 50th Pride March across London following the same route we did in 1972. I won’t be wearing heels this time though, as I can’t walk in them at my age – but I’ll probably put on a bit of lippy.


I came out to my grandmother when she saw me on TV, hanging off the back of a lorry yelling “What Margaret Thatcher needs is a good woman”

Lisa Power, 67, founded Stonewall in the 1980s and is a prominent LGBTQ+ activist. 

The 80s were my gay activist awakening.

From joining the Gay Switchboard support phoneline at Christmas 1979 to founding Stonewall ia decade later, there was a seismic shift in lesbian and gay – I use the label of the time – activism across the decade, from earnest naivety to a revolution of people across all walks of life determined to gain legal and social equality.

Young people watching ‘Its A Sin’ last year were shocked at the prejudice we faced.

The 70s saw us raise our heads above the parapet of public recognition and the 80s was the backlash; lesbians and gay men were relentlessly attacked and caricatured by media and politicians, falsely accused of corrupting children and having a ‘homosexual agenda’, just as trans people are nowadays. 

AIDS didn’t help matters, running rampant through the gay community with little targeted Government help at first.

Answering the phones on Switchboard, I heard the fears and struggles. We all lost friends to the virus. All the difficulties and injustices made me more determined to stand up for our right to exist on an equal basis with everyone else.

Pride became more important than ever as we determinedly inched towards greater social visibility. We marched wearing badges, shouting slogans and carrying banners.

In 1980 there was a pitched battle with police at London Pride when they arrested a queen from Brixton on false grounds; by 1985 our Lesbian Strength march was supervised by a closeted but definitely dike-y Sergeant shouting “Come along girls, keep up”.

London Pride that year had the striking miners, a drag queen sailing down the Thames on a barge and the Beverley Sisters singing harmony.

Despite major protest marches already that year against the first anti-gay Government legislation in a century, in 1988 Pride was bigger than ever. We came together as a community under attack when Section 28 of the Local Government Act labelled us “pretend families” and tried to silence support for us.

I came out to my grandmother when she saw me on TV, hanging off the back of a lorry yelling ‘What Margaret Thatcher needs is a good woman’. Next time we met, she handed me a glass of Asti Spumante – the eighties alternative to Prosecco – and grinned.

But all the marching and protesting in the world couldn’t stop a Government with a massive majority from passing any law they liked – sound familiar? Our community came together in horror at this law but was unable to stop it.

Some of us began to realise we had to make better allies across Parliament and the straight world; even a radical activist like me could see we needed pragmatic coalition.

So, when actors Ian McKellen and Michael Cashman came calling, saying ‘we need some sensible lesbians’, I was happy to join them and 11 others in creating Stonewall to lobby Parliament and fight for our legal and social equality.

And over the decades, Stonewall did that – but that’s someone else’s story. I am proud of the group now as I was then – it defends the people who need it and sadly, still upsets all the right people too. And Switchboard, my start in the world of activism, is still there patiently answering calls and, nowadays, texts and emails.

I was privileged to be in the right place at the right time to help make a difference. To anyone else who wants to make a difference, I would say; history is for interfering with, so get out there and do it.


We wanted to show that we were just like any other young couple in love – not criminals

Will Parry, 54, is an LGBTQ+ activist and was part of the original court case to equalise the age of consent in the UK.

Even though homosexuality had been decriminalised in 1967, when I was in growing up the age of consent for gay men was 21.

As the Government was refusing to address the issue, Stonewall wanted to take a test case to Europe to fight it. They placed an ad in the gay press asking for people to join their cause, and when my boyfriend at the time, Hugo Greenhalgh and I saw it, we decided to sign up.

As Hugo was 19 and I was 24, we were breaking the law and we just wanted to illustrate the absurdity of it, by bringing the matter to public attention. It was during the HIV epidemic, when there was so much toxic media coverage around gay men, who were often laid out to seem like a threat. 

We wanted to show that we were just like any other young couple in love, and that we were being discriminated against. And we wanted to reassure people; we needed parents to see us on the news and for them to say ‘They could be my kids.’

There was a real climate of fear and prejudice at the time, and if you were walking down Old Compton Street in Soho you might hold hands, but elsewhere you could be shouted at. Queer bashings were common and Hugo and I were attacked in a park in Edinburgh. We ended up in hospital, but no bones were broken.

On another occasion, we were on Radio 4 when there was a call by a conservative Christian campaigner for our arrest live on air. The police officer who was there declined to do so but a letter was written to the Crown Prosecution Service calling for us to be investigated.

We were interviewed by the police and that’s when things became very real because we had admitted to committing a crime. Had we been convicted we would we would have been sex offenders. We were advised by our solicitors to say we were ‘in a loving consensual relationship’ when questioned, but I thought, ‘what is the point in doing this if we weren’t open about the truth?’

So I admitted that we were in a sexual relationship. 

There was a point where I thought I might go to prison but in the end, very sensibly, the CPS decided a prosecution would not be in the public interest.

The European Court case was used by Stonewall as leverage to attempt to change the law domestically and the MP Edwina Currie submitted an amendment calling for equality into the 1994 Criminal Justice Bill.

Thousands of gay people and supporters gathered outside Parliament for the vote. When Hugo ran out of the building shouting “We’ve lost (the age) 16…18 has won!” it triggered an upsurge in the crowd – there was huge anger.

A couple of people actually breached parliament and pushed their way into central lobby. It was incredibly exciting, very moving and something that I was very, very proud to be part of. It felt like a loss and it made me very angry. We were still being treated as second class citizens.

Hugo and I are not together anymore but we remain very good friends. Looking back now, I do feel a sense of personal achievement –  Hugo and I were just two of many people and organisations fighting for equality, and along with many other activists, Stonewall’s campaign changed history. Finally, in 2001 the age of consent was equalised.

Things have changed beyond all recognition in this country now. Not that there’s still not work to do, but things really have moved on.


I still get chills thinking about the day same sex marriage was finally legalised

Colin Macfarlane, 45, Director of Stonewall Scotland and Northern Ireland, was part of the fight for same-sex marriage.

The turn of the century for me felt like a hopeful time. I came out in 1997 to friends and then later to my mum. My school days had been quite difficult, and I went to secondary school just as Section 28 was kicking in. 

I was one of the lucky ones. I didn’t really experience too much LGBTQI+ bullying in school. There was there was the usual sort of playground ‘banter’, being called ‘p**f’ and ‘f****t’. But I’m a resilient old boot and that emboldened me to do more to challenge that bullying.

I know those that didn’t make it. They they had such a dark time in school and it had such a negative impact on their mental health that they took their own lives. We know that is the impact for homophobia, transphobia, biphobia for some. Mental health outcomes for LGBTQ+ people are quite bad, compared to the heterosexual community.

I’ve always been attracted to work that can help effect change. When I started working at the Scottish Parliament in 2000, I could still have been sacked for being gay. But the Labour Government had been voted in and it felt like a time of optimism. We’d just had 18 years of Tory Government who weren’t really at the vanguard of LGBTQI+ equality and it felt like change was in the air.

LGBTQI+ people began to be featured in the media more. We had programmes like Queer as Folk and Sugar Rush and other groundbreaking dramas that were reflecting our lives in a way that hadn’t really being seen before. Our community was beginning to appear in soap operas – and they were characters who were proud of who they were. They weren’t just tortured souls.

George Michael – even though he was outed – really embraced it with the Outside video. It was an absolute genius two fingers up to his detractors. He wanted you to know that ‘I’m here and I’m queer. And I’m going to be me.’

For me it was a time of progress, which was seen in the changes around equality laws; LGBTQI+ people could serve in the Armed Forces for the first time, we had civil partnership legislation in 2004 and that year we had the Gender Recognition Act which allows trans men and women who fulfil certain requirements to change the sex listed on their birth certificate. 

Stonewall: #TakePride

Metro.co.uk is proud to share these stories in collaboration with Stonewall’s #TakePride campaign.

This summer, the charity are encouraging Britons to take meaningful action and champion LGBTQ+ people.

Find out more about how you can get involved here.

It felt as though political parties and institutions were beginning to understand that LGBTQI+ plus people exist, that we were citizens and a part of society and that we should be treated with dignity and respect.

There was still some homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, so it wasn’t all brilliant, but I do think there was a growing acceptance. I think people were feeling that they could be themselves and come out. I was one of those. It felt like a more sunny day.

I started as Director of Stonewall Scotland and Northern Ireland in 2011 and one of the most special moments in my career was the final vote for equal marriage in 2014. 

The irony is, that after all those years of campaigning, I still haven’t found my husband.

I’ve gone on dates, and some people, when you tell them what you do, have said: ‘Mate, that’s really gay.’ And then the conversation stops. Their eyes glaze over. But when I look back to the vote, and remember the absolute emotion, how the gallery just cheered, MPs were clapping and people were crying and hugging, I still get chills.


As a trans person you have to fight for everything – it’s exhausting

Shash Appan, 25, is co-founder Trans Aid Cymru and a prominent LGBTQ+ activist.

Recent years have been tumultuous for trans people. There has been some progress, but trans people still find it really difficult to acquire basic human rights; medication, housing, work.

Representation has been a problem. Growing up, it used to be that transphobia was part and parcel of British TV; there were constant jokes about men in drag. I remember one show – There’s Something about Miriam – in which six men competed for the love of Miriam, a young Mexican woman. They didn’t know she was trans and in the final episode it was revealed. The men sued the creators of the programme.

Shows like this just reinforced the stigma faced by trans people; we’re treated as circus attractions, and that still hasn’t really changed.

Section 28 took a long time to filter through, especially in education. Going through secondary school at that time was tough and you could feel very alone.

There were no staff members to support us, there was nowhere to report transphobic or homophobic bullying. Stonewall posters on the wall were ripped down. I left with very poor grades, despite being predicted to do well.

Coming out in 2016 was a really difficult experience. I was taken to India for two years where I had to see a psychiatrist and was put on anti-psychotics.

In conversion therapy you’re made to perform as the current gender you are; so you’re not allowed to even transition with clothing or makeup. It was emotional torture and I ended up feeling very depressed. I was also left struggling with complex PTSD and fibromyalgia – which can be linked to stress.

Then when I came back to the UK alone, I was effectively homeless.

Since then I’ve experienced street harassment if I try to express myself. It’s very isolating and there is constant anxiety – even when doing everyday things.

When I went to a swimming event for trans people the other day – the first time I had been to a pool since I came out – it was wonderful. I didn’t have to have the fear about which changing room or toilet I should use. But it reinforces how much trans people can’t do that cis people take for granted.

The way we are talked about now is how gay and lesbians were spoken about in the eighties. Like we’re dangerous, a threat.

Trans people are stigmatised as villains, or used as pawns in rainbow capitalism. Companies publicise themselves as trans allies, but then when you look at their HR polices, most have no explicit protections for trans people. It feels like they don’t really care about us; they just want more trans consumers, which is a big ask as trans people generally don’t have a lot of capital.

We’re not exactly big money makers in a world which discriminates against us.

That’s why it was so important for me to co-found Trans Aid Cymru, a mutual aid organistion for trans people in Wales. We provide grants, a meal share and other services in order to help our community.

It feels like it’s even harder to be trans now than it was in the past. Which is frightening, as even then we had so little.

As a trans person you have to fight for everything, for every incremental change. It’s exhausting. I don’t feel optimistic at the moment. It feels scary. It is hard to feel safe as a trans person in the UK today.

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