JILLY BOYCE KAY
Last night I saw Pride, the film about London-based lesbian and gay activists who supported a Welsh mining community under vicious attack from a Tory government in the 1980s. Throughout the screening, if I wasn’t laughing, then I was crying; I cried for the car journey home; I watched the trailer again online, and laughed and cried some more. There was something so unexpected and joyous about the bringing together, in a mainstream film, of what are so often figured as two separate histories on two very different political trajectories: that of lesbian and gay liberation, and that of Trade Unions and workers’ rights.
The film follows a group of men and women as they form a group called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM); we see their initial difficulty in getting the National Union of Mineworkers to accept their support, forcing them to sidestep the union and contact a mining community directly; and then the friendship that develops between the queers and the Welsh mining town in spite of dissent – both in the form of homophobia among some miners, and incredulity among some gay people that they should be asked to support conservative communities that had seemingly been so hostile to their own rights and freedoms. The deepness of the friendship, and the sincerity and unexpectedness of the solidarity that develops between the two groups is genuinely heart-warming. And it really happened!
Discussing the film as I left the cinema with my friend, the overriding sense we had was how come we didn’t know about this? How come these histories are so hidden from view, even to those – like us – who are actively engaged in researching the gender and sexual politics of this period, or are members of the Labour Party? (At the end of the film we learn how, partly due to a block vote from the National Union of Mineworkers, the Labour Party passed a motion to support equal rights for gays and lesbians at their conference in 1985.) Having a story about left-wing politics told in such an appealing, funny, and feel-good way made me feel very optimistic; how often are Trade Unions, striking workers and LGBTQ people represented so sympathetically, variously, and non-stereotypically in other media contexts?
As with feminism, the importance of left-wing, socialist politics as a founding context for gay liberation from the 1960s onwards is often erased, elided or forgotten. Instead, the language of women’s, lesbian and gay liberation is selectively co-opted into individual success narratives: empower yourself, better yourself, be true to yourself. As Laurie Penny argues in her most recent book, while initiatives such as It Gets Better are undeniably valuable in many ways, they are essentially neoliberal parables, locating the route to “betterness” through individual escape from backward communities. What Pride does is immensely important, I think, because it shows how – through hard, political work, patience and tolerance – it is both possible and valuable to change things not just for yourself, but – dare I say it – for a better society. Identity politics and redistributive politics, liberty and equality, are here shown to be not irreconcilable political forces pulling in different directions, but synthesised and united in solidarity in the face of a common enemy.
And yet, whilst Pride does offer the possibility of a more nuanced configuration of social and political movements in popular memory, it leaves feminism as a casualty, cast out from any position of legitimacy within this new formation. Annoyingly, and I think rather lazily, feminism is figured in the film as the irrational spanner in the political works, senselessly unpicking the newly formed seams of comradeship based on their own flimsy claims of exclusion. For example, as LGSM discuss the urgent question of how to raise money for a much-needed new bus for the mining community, a feminist in the group apparently finds this a fitting time to demand a discussion about female subordination within LGSM. We have seen no evidence to support this accusation in the film, and so it is figured as a ludicrous distraction from the ‘real’ cause. Some feminists go on to form a ‘breakaway’ group, Lesbians Against Pit Closures, who are thereafter only a peripheral and rather frivolous presence in the film (and yet this documentary made by LGSM paints a rather less ridiculous picture of this group and the reasons for their decision to form it).
More legitimised in the film are the Welsh women organising to support the strike, and especially Sian James (played by Jessica Gunning), the articulate and organisationally brilliant wife of a miner, whose own political learning during the process eventually led to her becoming an MP in 2005. At one point in the film, women in the workers’ club in Dulais break into a moving collective rendition of the protest song ‘Bread and Roses’. Their singing expresses their solidarity, commitment and love for their community, and as they sing, something like a look of surprise and recognition flickers across the faces of the visiting lesbian feminists: it implies, I think, that they suddenly and unexpectedly witness ‘true’ and ‘authentic’ feminism in a place they thought it could not exist. In many ways this continues the theme of unexpected solidarities across class and sexual lines, but given the film’s wider context in which lesbian feminism and separatism are figured as somewhat ridiculous, if not harmful to the wider cause, it seems that their veganistic, alternative and ‘radical’ feminism is somehow ‘lesser’ than the organic strength of the Welsh women, whose power as women has grown in a more harmonious solidarity with their menfolk and the Union. In any case, the film somehow does not quite manage to incorporate feminism into its otherwise expansive vision of cross-movement unity.
And yet. Even though the perennial marginalisation of second-wave feminism as a movement of secondary importance is always disappointing and deeply irksome, I am still in love with this film. It takes motifs from recent history that have been so thoroughly demonised, so consistently positioned as retrograde and anachronistic – trade union banners, political protest songs, the words ‘solidarity’ and ‘socialism’ – and re-makes them as symbols of political progress, as expressions of legitimate resistance against a hated and ruthless enemy. What’s not to love?