arts and design

Remembering the 1981 day London’s Gay Pride relocated to Huddersfield


“There was a rumour going round that there was a march and everyone just literally went up town to look and stare,” remembers the artist Ajamu X – and he was one of them.

It’s fair to say that neither Ajamu, then 17 and not yet out, nor Huddersfield itself had ever seen anything like it: up to 2,000 gay rights campaigners on a full-scale Pride march through the town centre, holding hands, kissing, larking about and singing chants like: “Two, four, six, eight … is that copper really straight?”

“You did get a real sense the people watching were really hit by it,” says Peter Scott-Presland, who was on the march 41 years ago. “You got some if-looks-could-kill, you got people who were really fine and [gave it the] thumbs up, but mostly it was bemusement, I think.”

The marchers came from all over the UK and the events of 4 July 1981 deserve to be seen, says playwright Stephen M Hornby, as a watershed moment in British gay history. It was nothing less than “the UK’s first national Gay Pride”, he says, and it was in Huddersfield.

Pride marchers prepare their banners on stony ground in Huddersfield
Huddersfield Pride marchers ready their banners in 1981. Photograph: Tim Bolton-Maggs, CHE

Next month Hornby and Ajamu X will open a new theatre production and portrait exhibition titled The Day the World Came to Huddersfield, shining a light on a remarkable day.

The marchers came to Huddersfield because of a police campaign against the town’s popular gay venue, the Gemini club.

The club had enjoyed good relations with police until a new senior officer arrived declaring he was “going to make Huddersfield a homosexual-free zone”, says Hornby.

The club became a target and was repeatedly pulled up on minor technicalities in a bid to get the licence revoked.

A number of men were arrested for gross indecency and had address books taken from them. “They start mapping who the gay men are in the town and doing things like turning up at their workplaces and outing them,” says Hornby.

The harassment made headlines in Gay News and a decision was made to move the annual Pride march, held in London since 1972, to Huddersfield.

“To my mind, it is the first proper test of how much political power an organised gay movement has in this country,” says Hornby. “The great thing is that they win. The police back down. The homophobic little core are reassigned. The police change their attitude back completely to what it was before.”

“It is a terrific victory and I think it demonstrated to the gay movement that they could have real political power … they took on West Yorkshire police and they won.”

A seated crowd at the 1981 Pride march in Huddersfield, including one nearly naked man in head feathers and fur boots
A crowd at the 1981 Pride march in Huddersfield. Photograph: Tim Bolton-Maggs, CHE.

The day’s success brought a realisation that Pride could be more than a mass coming out.

“There’s the political empowerment of taking on a police force and winning and there’s the awareness that this is a thing that can work elsewhere. It doesn’t need to be London. From that point onwards you see other Prides stutter into different forms of life around the country.

“It is a really important watershed moment for Pride where it reinvents itself on two fronts.”

Scott-Presland, who was there with his gay theatre group Consenting Adults in Public, recalls the huge arguments there had been about whether it should not be in London.

When the coaches arrived on waste ground near a gasworks on a freezing day in July, all their southern metropolitan prejudices were seemingly confirmed, he says. But then “people soon started arriving from other towns in Yorkshire, from Liverpool, from Manchester and so on, and you gradually got the sense that actually this was something big, this was something important”.

A woman with microphone at a makeshift podium at the 1981 Huddersfield Pride march.
Speakers at the 1981 Huddersfield Pride march. Photograph: Tim Bolton-Maggs, CHE

Hornby’s theatre company, Inkbrew Productions, has commissioned 10 monologues to capture the story of the day. They will be performed on 2 July in a free street recreation of the march followed by full staged performances in Huddersfield and Salford.

Ajamu X has taken 20 portraits of people who were on the march and people who are in the LGBTQ+ community in the town today. It runs at Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre from 9 July to 9 September.

One of his favourite portraits is of local legend John Addy, known by some as Mary Poppers, after running the Gemini and went on to become the biggest producer of poppers in Europe.

Addy ill-advisedly drove his pink Rolls-Royce to the 1981 Pride march, which didn’t go down well with his more politically motivated fellow marchers.

Four decades later, Ajamu worried the Addy he met wouldn’t be the same John Addy he remembered from his teens.

“But the next minute he had that smile, right? And that is the John I remember. He had green nail varnish on and it was beautiful and there were tears.”



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