EuroPride: thirty years of progress
To mark the thirtieth anniversary of the first EuroPride, we look back at the early years and how the event developed
Published 1 June 2022 – by Steve Taylor, Board Member of EPOA
The summer of 1992 was a time of significant change in Europe. The ink on the Maastricht Treaty was almost dry, paving the way for the foundation of the European Union. Presidents Bush and Yeltsin had declared the Cold War to be over, the break-up of Yugoslavia was underway, and the world’s focus was on the forthcoming Olympic Games in Barcelona.
In the LGBTI+ world, the fight against the epidemic of HIV and AIDS was at the forefront of people’s minds, highlighted by the tribute concert for Freddie Mercury that had taken place at Wembley in April. But for a small group of LGBTI+ activists, their efforts were focused on an event that would develop to shape LGBTI+ equality and human rights for many years to come.
The birth of an idea
Public discourse on European integration in the early 1990s focused heavily on ‘fortress Europe’, the way in which the nascent European Union sought to ease movement of people within its borders, but strictly control immigration from outside. This was a cause of concern to human rights activists, not least those concerned with the repressive regimes faced by LGBTI+ people in many European nations and beyond.
Organisers of London’s Pride event – the Lesbian & Gay Pride Organising Committee, or LAGPOC – were concerned about the way in which LGBTI+ people outside the UK were being discriminated against and so an idea was floated at a LAGPOC meeting in late 1991 to designate the 1992 Pride event as ‘Euro Pride’, signalling the support of London’s LGBTI+ community for their siblings elsewhere.
In the months that followed LAGPOC members continued the regular activities involved in organising London Pride, but also spent time writing letters and sending posters and pamphlets to the other Prides they knew about in Europe – principally in cities like Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam. This being the days before widespread use of the internet, the organisers relied on mail, with occasional – and expensive – calls and faxes. Press releases were sent by post to ‘gay media’ around the world, and articles appeared in Norway, Germany, Italy and the USA amongst others.
Although there are conflicting accounts of who came up with the name EuroPride, many attribute it to LAGPOC member Willie Molton. In a tragic sign of the times, Willie died of AIDS related illness two months before EuroPride, so he never saw the incredible result he helped to create. Indeed, the result was more than the LAGPOC members could have hoped for or envisaged.
More than 100,000 people joined the first EuroPride, with a march through the streets of central London followed by a huge concert in Brockwell Park, south London, headlined by performers including Boy George, Lily Savage and Holly Johnson. Bars from London’s ‘gay scene’ opened their own bars in the Park. HIV and sexual health organisations were present alongside merchandise stalls, LGBTI+ businesses, and a People of Colour tent – a ground-breaking move thirty years ago.
The official magazine for EuroPride 1992 was published in association with The Pink Paper, a weekly newspaper distributed in most LGBTI+ venues across the UK. Contributors include Peter Tatchell who wrote about the situation for LGBTI+ people across Europe. It’s difficult to believe now, thirty years later, but male homosexuality was still illegal in Cyprus, Estonia, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and the former Soviet Union. Romania was the only country to ban female homosexuality. It’s worth reading Peter’s article in full, on pages 8-9 of the magazine.
Visitors to the first EuroPride came from across Europe, with large groups from Germany, France, the Netherlands and Spain. In a sign of the political awareness amongst visitors, in a newsreel film (above) visitors from Norway criticise British Prime Minister John Major for his lack of action on LGBTI+ equality – it took almost another decade for a British government to start enacting major changes.
From London to Berlin and Amsterdam
At the same time that LAGPOC were organising the first EuroPride, organisers of Prides in Europe were beginning to connect at the annual conference of the International Lesbian & Gay Association – now known simply as ILGA World. Teddy Basham-Witherington, then Co-Festival Producer of LAGPOC, met with colleagues from other European Prides on the fringes of the conference, and ILGA took some interest in the first EuroPride event. The 1991 conference gave their blessing to London hosting in 1992 and Berlin in 1993.
Pride-style events in Germany are generally known as ‘Christopher Street Day’, in commemoration of Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, New York City, where the Stonewall Inn is located. CSD Berlin were ‘overwhelmed’ by the experience in London in 1992, according to organiser Hartmut Schönknecht who spoke to me for this article. And whilst the crowds were of a different scale, EuroPride in Berlin attracted crowds of 30,000, almost three times the number they had in 1992.
Amsterdam Pride were next to host, in 1994, and organiser Hans Verhoeven said that an intention was set for subsequent EuroPrides to be in an ‘easy’ western city one year, and a more difficult city in eastern or south-eastern Europe the following year. When Pride organisers met again at the ILGA conference in Helsinki in 1994, and founded the European Pride Organisers Association (EPOA), it was clear that the future focus was to use EuroPride as a powerful vehicle for advancing human rights – as well as a party and a celebration.
Sadly the three Pride organisations in London, Berlin and Amsterdam did not survive hosting EuroPride and all collapsed due to debts of varying degrees. New organisations quickly sprang up, and although there was no EuroPride in 1995, Copenhagen hosted in 1996 followed by Paris in 1997, and Stockholm in 1998.
EuroPride: a movement for the new millennium
With EPOA as the ‘owner’ of EuroPride and a growing membership of Pride organisations across western Europe, the event and the momentum behind it continued to grow. Rome Pride attended an EPOA conference and presented an idea to take EuroPride to a global level and create a ‘WorldPride’. EPOA backed the idea, then presented to a conference in New York of the international Pride network InterPride, where the idea was approved. Rome hosted the inaugural WorldPride in 2000.
EuroPride itself remained in relatively ‘safe’ western European countries in the early part of the century, visiting Vienna, Cologne, Manchester, Hamburg, Oslo, Madrid and Zurich – and returning to London and Stockholm too. But change started to come in 2005, when organisers of an ‘equality march’ in Poland were refused permission to march by the mayor of Warsaw.
The organiser of the march, Tomasz Bączkowski, brought proceedings against the Polish state at the European Court of Human Rights. Two years after the ban, the Court ruled that the Pride ban was a breach of human rights, in particular Articles 11, 13 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. For the first time, a court had ruled that participation in Pride was a fundamental right – and that judgment is still used by EPOA and others today to challenge attempted bans on Pride events.
In a huge step towards the original aims of EuroPride, Warsaw was awarded EuroPride 2010 – the first time the event had been held in a former communist country. Two years later Riga, Latvia was awarded the licence for EuroPride 2015, and this was the first EuroPride in the former Soviet Union. Both EuroPrides drew crowds far in excess of their previous events, and both Warsaw Pride and Riga Pride saw even more people attend subsequent Prides.
Intervening years have seen EuroPride return to ‘safe’ cities including Marseille and once again to Oslo, London, Amsterdam and Vienna, but the ‘safe’ nature of these cities has not diminished the ability of the EuroPride hosts to deliver powerful and impactful human rights campaigns and events. EuroPride always attracts a diverse audience of activists, civil society leaders, politicians, global leaders – as well as those who are joining predominantly for the party. After all, the success of the global Pride movement rests on its ability to blend activism with celebration and fun.
Three years ago, at the EPOA conference in Bilbao, four Pride organisations put forward bids to host EuroPride in 2022. The bids from Barcelona, Belgrade, Dublin and a joint bid from Lisbon and Porto were superb – all delivered a rich mix of human rights campaigns focusing on their own city but also globally, sitting alongside a program of interesting cultural activities and social events and parties to suit every EuroPride visitor.
In the end Belgrade Pride were victorious, taking more than 70% of the votes of EPOA members in the first round of voting. In some ways this was not surprising, given the history of Pride in Belgrade – from riots less than 20 years ago to a more peaceful Pride today with a diverse human rights program and even a Pride Centre on one of the main streets in the centre of the city. But that’s not to say that LGBTI+ people in Serbia are equal, or feel equal, or know how it is to have one’s human rights respected and valued. Sitting roughly half way down the Rainbow Europe index, there is a long way to go to achieve equality in Serbia.
EuroPride 2022 in Belgrade could be a metaphor for the development and journey of EuroPride from those early days in London in 1992. It was, as I highlighted, the year of the break-up of Yugoslavia – leading ultimately to the creation of the Republic of Serbia. That EuroPride is taking place there this year is testament to the hope and promise that EuroPride can still deliver, three decades on.
One can also reflect on the political situation in Europe in 1992 and compare it to today. European cooperation and integration was challenging and in some cases controversial. Some European nations were testing the patience and resolve of others. Civil war was tearing some nations apart. Progressive legislation in some countries was directly opposed in others. So today, as we see a stagnation and even a rolling-back of LGBTI+ equality in many countries, Pride – and EuroPride – has hardly been more relevant or important.
So as we enter ‘Pride month’ and celebrate thirty years of EuroPride, we should all take a moment to thank the pioneers of our movement who took those first difficult steps – and sent those faxes – back in 1992, paving the way for all the incredible progress since.
With thanks to all those who spoke to me in research for this piece including Clare Truscott, Teddy Basham-Witherington, Hartmut Schönknecht, Hans Verhoeven, Michael Nord, and all the former members of LAGPOC who joined the Lambeth Libraries event for LGBT History Month. All errors are my own.
Steve Taylor is a Board Member of EPOA, and Head of Secretariat at Copenhagen Pride. Views in this article do not necessarily represent those of EPOA or any other organisation.