Sarah Cheverton meets Dave Lee-Baxtable and finds out how a small group of local people came together to bring LGBT Pride back to Portsmouth after more than fifteen years.
I meet Dave Lee-Baxtable in a small café in Gosport called Harvey’s. It’s early March 2015, and Dave is fitting in our interview on his way to work.
He’s a regular at Harvey’s and the staff greet him warmly. My tape recorder on the table raises no eyebrows, but Dave’s well known here. For the last four months he has been busy working as a part of an enthusiastic band of volunteers to bring an LGBT Pride March back to Portsmouth, for the first time in over fifteen years.
‘The first Pride in the city was held over fifteen years ago,’ Dave tells me, ‘and was organised by a local lady called Roisin and her husband Dave. We owe them a massive debt, they were the original pioneers who set the ball rolling.’
Later, Dave emails me a short history of Portsmouth Pride, which began as Solent and Southsea Pride on Castle Field in 1999. Pride events resurfaced for a few years in Portsmouth after that, then all fell silent until a local organisation inspired Dave to think about bringing the event back to Portsmouth again.
‘The woman who gave me the inspiration to start Pride up again is called Maureen.
She and her husband, and one other person – all straight people – set up an organisation here in Gosport that helps older gay people. They faced a lot of ridicule and a lot of abuse at first.
‘The organisation is called Chatterbox and, although Maureen has now stepped down, it’s still going.
‘I became a member and through being part of the group there, I came up with the idea of re-starting Portsmouth Pride. They gave me the inspiration for it.
‘Maureen is a very unassuming lady, she prefers to be in the background but she really inspires me in the way she’s done things and the things she’s achieved. We plan to dedicate the first Pride to her, simply because we all know the difference she’s made to gay people in the area.
‘If I hadn’t met Maureen when I did, when I came out as gay, I don’t think I would have come as far as I have. Maureen gave me the confidence to be what I am now, to be bold and maybe a bit over the top at times! She’s supported me at times when I thought I couldn’t make it through.
‘We’ve made her our Honorary Ambassador to acknowledge everything she’s done for the LGBT community in the local area.’
After becoming a member of Chatterbox, Dave and some others from the group decided to speak to people in Portsmouth and Gosport about their attitudes to the LGBT community.
‘The Chatterbox members and I decided to do some filming to gauge local public opinion about being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
‘We spoke to quite a cross-section of the community in Portsmouth and Gosport and we couldn’t believe the level of support there was for the LGBT community and the idea of doing a Pride event again.’
This experience prompted Dave to explore the idea of relaunching Portsmouth Pride.
‘I thought it was a silly dream at first, but then I went to the Council and said “We want to do a Pride March, how do we go about it?”
‘I met Craig Willcock of the Council’s Events team, and he went on to become the Deputy Chair of the Pride Committee.
‘He told us the things we needed to do to apply for the march to take place and we did them. Then I set up a Facebook page and that’s when I knew we were onto something.
‘The first post we put on the Facebook page reached eighty-five people. That was it. Now our posts reach 5,345 people – so we’ve come a long way since then!’
Once the group had approval for a Pride march, they set about looking for sponsorship and support to cover the costs not both the march and an event afterwards.
‘We’ve had so much support from local businesses, it’s been unbelievable. The first sponsor we got was Grosvenor’s Casino. They were very generous to us and paid for our insurance. We couldn’t have done the march without that.
‘We spoke to the Spinnaker Tower and they got involved. They’ve signed up to the 2016 Pride already, because we don’t plan for it to stop here! It’s going to go on. Wightlink signed up are advertising us on the ferry and on the Isle of Wight. They’re also providing all our banners. A local hypnotherapist, Mary Burgess, has also offered to pay for our flags.
‘I’ve been overwhelmed by the support. I believe that even five years ago, we couldn’t have done this. It wouldn’t have worked.’
Dave thinks the level of support he and the volunteers have received for Portsmouth Pride reflects greater understanding of LGBT people in the wider community.
‘Attitudes have certainly changed over time towards gay people in every way.’
Despite this change, the LGBT community still faces challenges.
‘The transgender community still have a very hard time. One of the things we’re very keen to do is highlight that at our Pride.
‘The whole aim of this Pride is to be family-focused. Of course it’s an LGBT event, but we want it to be open to the whole community. We want to bring the importance of equality and diversity to everyone.
‘That’s why we’re really pleased to be starting and ending the march in Victoria Park, so it’s open to everyone. After the march is over, there’s going to an entertainment showcase in the park.’
The Pride showcase will include live musical acts including local act, Blokezone, and up to fifty stalls representing local and national organisations that support and promote LGBT rights.
‘We’ve linked up with an organisation called Broken Rainbows that works with gay people who are experiencing domestic violence. A lot of people think that’s something that only happens in straight relationships, but it’s not, it happens to gay people too.
‘Portsmouth Football Club have been big supporters, they’ll be there on the day. We’re also working with them to create an LGBT Forum group for gay supporters of the club. That will be chaired by one of our committee members. We’ve even had interest from other national football clubs about that idea.’
Portsmouth Pride has also attracted the support of local politicians and national LGBT activists.
‘One of the things we’re really excited about is that Peter Tatchell is coming to Pride as a speaker. Steven Hayward from the TUC is coming to talk to us. Penny Mordaunt MP will be there, and the Lord Mayor. We’re also very excited that Lewis Hancox from Channel 4’s My Transsexual Summer is coming and bringing some of his friends.
‘We’re busy planning the acts at the moment. I can’t reveal too much, but it’s going to be amazing. It’s a logistical nightmare with only one stage, but Ricky Palmer – who was one of the first to come forward and volunteer – is organising it. The entertainment is going to be brilliant.’
Dave makes it clear that while he is known as the public face of Portsmouth Pride, the hard work is undertaken by a group of about fifty volunteers working with him.
‘The Pride team are the most wonderful people I’ve ever worked with. Nobody there has got a big head, it’s not about any one person. I might be the chair, but I couldn’t have done it by myself. We’re a team and everybody is working for one aim, to get this Pride up and running.
‘Everyone involved is a volunteer. Everybody involved has either got a full time or part time job. They give their time unconditionally. I don’t know the amount of man hours we’ve all put in. They’re tireless. It’s a real team.’
It’s clear during our interview that Pride is currently dominating Dave’s life, but he’s already thinking about his next project once Pride is over.
‘One of the things I’m really interested in right now is becoming a school champion for the younger LGBT community. Recently Peter Tatchell has gone into schools and spoken to young people in exactly this way and I’m really inspired by that.
‘I’d like to do work in schools to make sure there are places for young people to go if they’re struggling with their sexual identity, somewhere they can come along to and get information, talk to someone, meet other people who feel the same.
‘We don’t have anything like that in Portsmouth or Hampshire right now.
‘At the moment in Hampshire, if anyone wanted to go into schools and speak about local issues, I’ve been informed that they would need to write to every school individually and get permission to do that. That’s a lot of work! What I’d like to see is a job – voluntary or paid – for an officer to do this across schools in Portsmouth and Hampshire, so there’s a specialist resource for young people available to them that isn’t now.’
The idea for this came to Dave as a result of the Chatterbox video in which people were asked about their attitudes to the LGBT community.
‘We spoke to young people from local schools who were suffering from homophobic bullying and bullying more generally.
‘We also spoke to young people who told us, “Whether we agree with it or not, we do think there should be an LGBT officer based in Hampshire. Then if there’s an issue in a school connected to LGBT abuse or homophobia, there’d be someone who could come in and support with that.”
‘What we heard over and over again was that local young people didn’t feel they had anyone to go to and talk to about LGBT issues or identity.’
In his youth, Dave experienced homophobia and bullying and, as a result, firmly believes that there should be support for young people available in schools today.
‘When I was young, I was bullied. It was very different when I was 16 and coming out was very, very hard. But I’ve seen the changes over time. I think young people now have an easier time with it because there’s more social acceptance, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
‘I think it’s my own experiences as a younger man that make me feel so passionate about that. There should be someone that the younger LGBT community can speak to.’
Homophobia and prejudice towards the LGBT community, Dave thinks, is down to a lack of understanding that people are essentially the same, regardless of their sexuality.
‘People have got this perception of what a gay person is. If you get away from those perceptions and just look at the person in front of you, you realise they’re the same as you. In my role as chair, I meet transgender people, asexual people, bisexual people, gay people. There’s no difference, we’re just people!
‘We’re all the same. Life is far easier when you think of it like that!
‘I get very angry about homophobia – the treatment of gay people in Russia for instance, I think is disgusting. It really upsets me, the lack of basic decent human respect for people’s lives.
‘I’ve been married for two years now and we have the same lives as anyone else, the same ups and downs anyone else faces in their marriage. LGBT people are exactly the same as anyone else.’
It’s this message that Dave hopes Portsmouth Pride will deliver.
‘The support has been overwhelming.
‘We’ve heard a few comments here and there, like “I think it’s disgraceful, my children won’t be able to go in the park,” that sort of thing. But what I emphasise when I hear that is that you don’t have to be gay to go on the March – everyone’s welcome!
‘It’s going to be a great day and I think this Pride could have a massive impact for the whole community.’
And this, Dave tells me as we prepare to leave Harvey’s, is only the beginning for Portsmouth Pride.
‘The vision is that next year we have Pride on Southsea Common and we make it a 2 day Pride Festival. We would love that. It might not be me as Chair, but you’re definitely going to see us again next year!
‘Our dream is that one day, maybe, Portsmouth Pride will be as well known – maybe even better known – than Brighton. We’ll see.’
I ask him what he’d say to other people who have a dream about changing their community.
‘What I’d say to people is don’t ever give up on your dreams. I had a dream and now it’s becoming a reality. Long after I’ve gone, I hope the dream will continue.
‘I’d love to think that in 10 years’ time, I’ll be sitting at Pride in my wheelchair and I can say, “I started that. And now look at it.”’
Portsmouth Pride takes place at Victoria Park on Saturday 20th June 2015. The event kicks off with a march – the Pride Parade – through Commercial Road that is open to everyone. After the Parade, the entertainment will begin in Victoria Park. This is a ticketed event and at the time of writing tickets are completely sold out.
Photography by Sarah Cheverton.