Bike Pride! (or what the gay rights movement could teach cycling)

There’s been lots of discussion online recently about the best approach towards growing cycling for the future. Opinions have varied hugely; some believe we have to do all we can to protect existing cyclists’ rights and to look after those who currently choose to get out there by bike. Others have stressed the importance of the potential market for cycling and how we must bring about conditions which will make cycling possible for everyone, instead of hoping that anyone taking to two wheels will simply endure the current status quo. Some are focussed on commuter cyclists whilst others want more everyday widespread ridership. Some are worried about potholes, some about child safety, some fear that their local velodrome is falling apart while others still are looking for the right conditions for a long distance cycle tour.

In recent online debates about the establishment of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, there’s been somewhat of a “my way or the highway” undertone from both sides. Carlton Reid, on his bike blog believes that cycling is at risk of splintering, of its message becoming diluted, garbled or even watered down by the creation of another voice for cycling. He believes that in order to succeed, ‘cyclists’ must all pull together in the same direction.

This is where I believe cycling campaigners are missing a trick here in the UK. As my opening paragraph shows, cyclists are a diverse bunch with disparate interests, and rightly so. Some people I know who cycle do so because they believe they are helping to transition to an oil-free society. Others who I know couldn’t give two hoots about traffic reduction if it would impede on their ability to drive, and likewise there are plenty of cyclists I know who care less about their right to ride on all roads and more about creating conditions which they believe would allow their children to cycle safely from one side of town to the other. To expect all of us to work together to the same detailed aims and in the same direction is futile; no one campaign group or aim is going to please everyone on two wheels and risks alienation and inertia by attempting to do so.

If you will indulge me, I’d like to take you on a little social history lesson. Bear with me, as I am certain that similarities and lessons to be learnt will soon become apparent.

Being gay in 1960s Britain was not a particularly comfortable or attractive experience; it was not till 1967 that being gay was even decriminalised. General social attitudes were hostile, gay people were perceived as an odd minority, and if you had any kind of need of recourse to the law you were not guaranteed an even-handed experience, or even for the law to see your side of the story at all. There were, of course, just as many gay and lesbian men and women in the ‘60s as there are today, but many stayed ‘in the closet’ choosing to marry and act out straight lives because the alternative was so wholly unappealing, not to mention terrifying. Amongst gay people themselves there were those who advocated for a quieter, inconspicuous existence for fear that pushing too hard or rocking the boat might lead to harsher enforcement of anti-gay laws and a reduction in any hard won tolerances, no matter how minor those tolerances might be.

Starting to sound familiar at all?

Things came to a head in New York, where America’s gays and lesbians lead an equally unpleasant existence, in June 1969. Any gay bars or nightclubs were strictly illegal and very underground. One such bar was the Stonewall Inn. After a series of Police raids, public ‘outings’ and a general atmosphere of oppression, the gays fought back. An ill-conceived and poorly managed raid on the bar on the night of June 28th rapidly turned into a riot. Gay men and women, drag queens and transvestites took to the streets claiming ‘enough is enough’. People poured out of adjoining bars and the riot turned in to an all-out pitched battle between gay people and the Police; as news spread around the bars and street network of New York more and more people came out to join the protestors, and riots raged for several nights. For the first time in Western history gay people stood up for their rights, and literally fought for them.

The Stonewall Riots in New York lasted several nights.

Now, I’m not advocating that cyclists start a riot anytime soon - I’m not convinced that it would help our cause - but the Stonewall Riot was a ‘touch stone’ event, and what happened next is what is really interesting.

Even before the advent of the internet age, good ideas spread fast. Within six months two gay right advocacy groups had formed in the United States of America and the first ever ‘Gay Pride’ marches took place exactly one year later in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. A gay rally was held in London in June 1970, and the first Pride March in 1972. Sydney’s Mardi Gras followed in 1978. Fast-forward to today; in 2010 an estimated one million people took to the streets of London to celebrate Pride, and Mardi Gras is worth an estimated 30 million dollars to the Australian economy. In the UK nearly all legislative hurdles to LGBT equality have now been overcome. It is arguable that this would not have been possible without the Pride movement.

The first gay pride march in London

Just as in cycling, there is a broad diversity of gay people with widely differing needs. Some gay people were concerned that they were serving in the military illegally, and lobbied to change the law on that front. Others had concerns about immigration rules which discriminated against multi-national gay couples, whilst others still had worries about hospital visiting rights, wills and probate, adoption and family rights or civil partnerships. The list of hurdles that have been overcome is substantial; with successes such as adoption or immigration rights the success has only affected a small minority of gay people. If each of these ‘minorities within a minority’ had lobbied the Government alone they’d have struggled much longer in order to achieve their goals. However, by participating in Pride they could approach the law makers by demonstrating they were part of a much larger and more powerful voting block. This has been the legacy of Pride; legislative changes which affect a small amount of people but which are important none the less have been secured with the back-up of a million people in the street. Those who wanted adoption rights marched in support of those who wanted to serve openly in the military and vice versa. Solidarity won the day.

As I’ve mentioned, cycling is already represented by a number of different campaigning groups with different aims. Some people want to build more bike lanes; some people want to increase the budget for cycle training. Some of us want to see money spent on developing sports cycling; others still want to improve the lot of cycling commuters. Since the abolition of Cycling England our campaigns must each negotiate with the Government one by one. Separately they have a few thousand members here, or a few thousand members there. No one campaign group is big or powerful enough to be able to go Parliament with a consensus for cyclists. Meanwhile, our Government is busy dismantling Cycling England, dicking around with the Cycle To Work scheme, giving drivers cash for scrap cars and offering huge subsidies on electric motor. In the Courts the judiciary is still letting dangerous drivers get away with murder and our city planners are certainly not ‘thinking bike’ as they design a massively expanded M25.

Cyclist Demonstration on City Hall Square 1970s - Copenhagen
Cyclists demonstrate for better conditons for bicycle, Copenhagen City Hall square, 1970 via Copenhagenize

Whilst we all want different things for cycling, and our diversity is a strong point, when it comes to having our voices heard it is also our Achilles’ heel. It is too easy for our Government to fend off all the minority voices within cycling by getting them to fight for scraps (like the recently established Sustainable Travel Fund). Despite our diversity, however, there is one thing we all agree on and that is that the Government should ‘Put Cycling First’ in all that it does. It’s great that we have different cycling campaigns for different types of cyclists, but perhaps they could learn something from the Gay Pride movement and once a year have all types of cyclists come together to show strength in numbers and solidarity in their similarities. None of our cycling campaigns ought to claim to be the primary voice of cyclists, and neither should they dismiss those which don’t agree with their own ideals. However, I can’t help but feel that British Cycling, or the CTC or even the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain could get the Government to sit up and take notice an awful lot more if they represented not their few thousand individual members but could say they were speaking as part of the million cyclists who had recently taken to the streets...

Maybe it’s time we had a Bike Pride ride of our own? (But please, no Kylie Minogue...)


Mark W. said...

You can draw the parallel even further, Mark. While Denmark was the first country to allow same sex partnerships, the Netherlands was the first country in the world to allow same sex marriages under normal marriage law. Also very familiar countries when we look at cycling. A coincidence? I think not.

Philip Loy said...

Hi Mark. Critical Mass is cycling's equivalent 'Pride' event, although it can be a bit scrappy at times.

I've thought before about how far the analogy of cycling and other political movements can be taken, only I was thinking of the civil rights movement. Either way, prejudice, harassment, and violence are common to all.

Your point about the diversity of cycling groups is noted, but I think for the 'civil rights' model to work for cycling the movement needs to join forces with other non-cycling movements that also question the current status quo with regards to our streets and how they are designed, and which recognise the heavy toll we pay as a society. Several LCC groups for example work with Living Streets.

Mind you, that's an impressive turnout of people in the Copenhagen photo for cycling. Would you happen to know a link to the history of that event? Was there a parallel movement in much the same way that David Hembrow mentions with regards to child mortality?

ibikelondon said...

@MarkW I think I want to move to one of the Baltic states of the Netherlands!

@PhilipLoy I'm thinking of something much bigger than Critical Mass, which whilst fun is divisive by it's very nature. No, I'm thinking of something organised by all our national campaigns working togetherso that we have one day where roadies, Dutch bike riders, kids in box bikes, BMXers, tourers, sports cyclists, commuters etc etc all standing side by side together for one day.

You're quite right, of course, to draw parallels with the civil rights movement which were a direct response to very poor conditions at the time. I think the similarities are quite striking, hence this post!

Clive Chapman said...

Nail - head Mark.

I'm no cycle politico or advocate, life's too short, I'm just an old fat commuter and MTBer, but even I put my head in my hands and despair when I see some of the arguments on blogs, Twitter and Facebook. As long as there is disparate groups nothing will get done. Ever. And it's time the self appointed Guardians of cycling, took note. A one day a year coming together would get noticed by those in power.

But I'd virtually be able to guarantee after reading the cycling social media and press over the last few years that the cycling world couldn't do it.

Which is a crying shame...

Yellow Brompton said...

Last year me and the missus went along to the London Sky Ride, along with something like 80,000 others. I wonder whether, now that we ARE in an internet age, this year's events around the country could be, let's not say 'hijacked' but certainly employed, as a basis for some kind of viral or 'flashmob' sideline events or promotions. All done in a good-natured and positive/peaceful manner, obviously.
At the very least, events like this are a great place to get a message across.

ibikelondon said...

I rather like that idea @Yellow Brompton

Indeed, last year's London SkyRide was attended, according to organisers, by some 100 000 people on bikes. The congestion was epic;

This should send a clear message to both our cycling campaigns (um, people love traffic free roads!) and to the establishment, but it's all sort of wound up in this slightly commercial 'happy day out' vibe and the message gets a bit lost. I'm thinking how we could infiltrate SkyRide with some kind of political message!

Yellow Brompton said...

Just brainstormed this with Herself and here are some quick ideas :
Just like the Purple Protesters who turned up at the General Election, all it needs is to stand out from the crowd. Sky were giving out yellow hi-vis bibs. What if the 'Pride' Movement people all agreed to meet at a particular point of the ride - say corner of Green Park or Tower Hill - all wearing pink hi-vis ? No sponsor and no money in the kitty to buy a few thousand bibs on the off-chance ? So tell people where they can get a cheap blank pink/blue/purple bib, let them download the logo as a free pdf and tell them where to get iron-on printer paper... Here's 3 chords, now get a guitar and form a band....
I'm sure there's a graphic designer following your blog - might even make a good competition...
Best Wishes
Mark (another Mark)

Yellow Brompton said...

Oh, and obviously by visibly hijacking the Sky promotion, it's a rather cunning way to undermine Murdoch at the same time....

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, surely bib/hi-viz are exactly what we don't want if we want to put bikes first.

How about all in black?
Or Skeletons (probably gives the wrong impression)
Or silly hats?

ibikelondon said...

Keep the ideas coming, people!

What I'd really like to know is whether the national campaigns have ever thought about / attempted something like this before, and whether they have semi-regular meetings anyway in order to share ideas / work on similar projects? There must be so much duplication going on!

don_don said...

I'd love to take part in something like this. It seems like the right time to stand up together.

Why no Kylie though? :-(

I loves her I does..

Yellow Brompton said...

Hi - the bibs were just a suggestion - it's about differentiation more than visibility for safety. But running with my idea for a downloadable DIY version, maybe a simple plain white tee-shirt with the iron-on logo? It wouldn't offend, but would stand out. Easily bought anywhere, very cheap, so no barriers to entry and no set-up costs.
I'd keep the message cuddly, rather than militant.

wulfhound said...

The key difference though is that anybody can be a cyclist, and the best thing any of the advocacy groups can do for all of us - however they might feel about the best way to improve safety - is to get a bigger percentage of the population biking regularly. Not because it increases driver awareness, but because it increases our political clout. We're not a minority in the same sense as those defined by race, disability or sexual preferences (religion is debatable, but as an atheist I'm not qualified to comment :o))

Identifying as a community, as a group of people who in some way stand apart from the rest of society, may well prove counterproductive. Critical Mass is probably great at getting more hippies & hipsters riding but does us no favour with the more conformist end of society; suburban cycle clubs do the same for the MAMIL crowd but have little appeal to non fitness freaks - surely the most important message is "We are you". The different advocacy groups inevitably end up associated with different styles of riding, and if we want to grow the numbers it's surely the utility-cycling side of things that has most room for growth.

Yellow Brompton said...

Maybe the issue of national campaigns is the problem - they're a symptom of an old order, slow to respond, fearful of offending anyone, acting within old-fashioned budgets and within their own protected spheres of interest...

The revolutions being fought in Tunisia, Egypt etc are not about slow centralised 'committee' thinking, but about decentralised, viral, emergent action. I'm just suggesting that cyclists could use the tools, for constructive ends and using peaceful means.

@wulfhound, I agree - I do think it's important not to appear separate. Sometimes I cycle, sometimes I drive, or walk - so I try to do all of these without winding up other road users. Any campaign needs to present a tolerant stance - I was on the 2 largest student protests, and it was the tiny 'smash-it-up' minority that took all the attention away from the vast majority of peaceful constructive protesters. But all that media attention turned the general public away. I suggest a witty, positive and inclusive campaign will have the biggest influence.

ibikelondon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ibikelondon said...

I've just seen this video Tweeted by @Amsterdamized

Frindly Cycling

It's a promotion being run by the Dutch cycling campaign, Fietserbond, to promote cycle friendliness (sharing the road, if you like) With a little bit of social media nuance, lots of keen cyclists and the internet it's not hard to deliver really big good ideas with a big impact which get the general public to sit up and pay attention. *Sigh*

townmouse said...

How about t-shirts / bags saying 'honk if you support cycling'? That way all the taxis/white vans/mondeo men find they are already on our side... or at the very least can't honk.

Yellow Brompton said...

Oh yes, I love that. You are an evil genius. That's the type of witty and subversive stance that I'd like to support.

Paul Martin said...


Excellent post. We posted something along similar lines a little while ago. Your post is far more impressive!


Unknown said...

This a really inspiring post and an excellent idea. Let's do it!

While subverting the SkyRide does sound like fun, I think a separate event would have more impact. Critical Mass is a great start but we need something bigger, and more difficult to ignore, that hasn't already been bought by Sky and blundered by Boris.

The LGBT Pride marches are an example to all marginalised groups in society: cyclists even more so than others because of their connection to roads and urban space.

What sort of timescale would it take to make such a thing happen? If we picked a date, say, two months from now and started spreading the word, how many people would come out (so to speak)?

The health & safety requirements for something like the LGBT Pride march are huge, onerous, and expensive - but can they really be avoided? Could Critical Mass's "officially unorganised" grass-roots approach really work here? Would it in fact be *essential* in order to make the thing happen at all...?

ibikelondon said...

Hey @remerson and all, thanks for your comments. I've been thinking about this idea a lot recently. In order for such a protest to be deemed effective at lobbying the Government for change it needs to be a mass protest, and needs to avoid the 'lefty' connotations of something grass roots like Critical Mass. As such, if it is going to happen it has to come from our national cycling campaigns - working in unison for once - to organise it and get as broad and diverse a base of cyclists there as possible (which is kind of the whole point) Therefore, for those who are excited about the idea (which I think is super!) I'd recommend not trying to organise it yourselves or by suverting the SkyRide but lobbying the national cycle campaigns to organise it for you (and they have public liability insurance and all the rest of it) which will help to make it a really big deal. You've just got to ask them for it, that's all... Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I arrived at London Liverpool Station by train this morning to find just about every bike covered in yellow notices saying the bikes should be removed and if you dare lock your bike anywhere except an official bike stand then the bike may be removed. Now I don't bike into London so I am not affected but I was quite horified by this anti-bike stance. What made it worse was that the notice claimed bikes were a hazard because someone might walk into them! As someone whose life is threatened everyday by London drivers I found that claim really quite offensive.


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