A brief history of Pride in Walsall
For those who don’t know you, can you briefly introduce yourself and explain your role as part of the Walsall Pride management group?
Myself Zach Humpage, Matthew Higgins, Matthew Harper, and Christine Harper form Walsall Pride. Walsall Pride is a charity, we donate, we work many hours throughout the year for free between ourselves to put on the event that fundamentally revolves around the main event in August, Bank Holiday weekend held in Walsall Arboretum.
The roles and responsibilities between ourselves change annually depending on workload. Fundamental organisation of the pride event on the day is done between myself, Matthew and Matthew. Matt Higgins steers the group, looking back on what we’ve done in previous years, how we can improve things, and the infrastructure that is required for the event. Matt Harper works very closely with the council and legal services to ensure that everything that we do ticks the boxes with the council and also, we work along with SAG, the safety advisory group, to ensure that the everything is in line with laws and regulations.
I work very closely with the entertainment, the actual building of the pride and the dismantling of it. It’s very hard to list every single role and responsibility, we all take different jobs on.
The Lion is now over 30 years old, making it Walsall’s original and most successful LGBTQ+ bar. Can you talk about its history and story?
The Lion Bar, formerly known as The Golden Lion, opened in 1988. The owner Eric Cooke, still the owner of the venue, opened it in 1988 as a community gay venue for the people of Walsall. At the time, it was the only gay venue and still to this day is the only exclusive gay venue within our town. The Lion has seen many changes over the years, come 1991, it changed massively as it was converted into a nightclub. So, it still had its traditional lounge bar but the main room areas that were used for discos saw a large investment and it was converted into a nightclub. It is now fundamentally one of the oldest gay venues in the UK maintaining its original owner.
The physical building hasn’t changed much except growing a bit in size but it has seen many refurbishments over the years and probably saw its largest investment during the coronavirus when the venue was fully refurbished to a state-of-the-art venue that it is today; securing its future for many more years to come. I’ve been the general manager of the venue for 25 years now and between myself, the team, and Eric we steer the venue through its day-to-day challenges in delivering what we believe is one of the most accepting, open venues for all, for the community of Walsall. We are a venue that is steered, owned, managed and directed towards the gay community, however, we are open for all. It is a safe space for our community. We’re very strict with our door policies and it is one of the only locked-door premise within the town. It’s very old fashioned in a way but if it’s not broken you don’t change things. You’re always greeted by either a member of staff, security or simply ring the bell to get in. We always make sure all guests are vetted to ensure that they know where they’re coming to and they respect the values of other people within the venue, to ensure and that the venue is as safe as it can be for our community.
We include all members of our community, and outside of our community as well. We open our doors to members of the local community for many different events, and they love our safe space, our community values, and this is something that we’ve worked very hard on over the years to ensure that we do have one of the safest spaces within the community for all people to use and enjoy.
Over the years, we’ve navigated challenges of coronavirus, and things going on around the world. We’ve introduced different things over the years; cabaret is always forefront of entertainment in the venue, along with DJs. We have ladies’ nights, we do many events over Halloween and Christmas. We play national sports on screens, and we like to give our community everything that they could find elsewhere but for them in the own community venue; a venue that people are very proud to feel safe within.
Last year, Walsall pride celebrated its (delayed) tenth anniversary, could you tell us what Walsall Pride was like in the early days and how you think it’s changed over the years?
I approached Walsall Council, a good 15 years ago, wanting to do a pride event within our town and at that time – its got to be the early 2000s – it was something our council did not want to engage with. Myself and a couple of friends who wanted to put something together were very disappointed that they didn’t see it as a need, and at the time but there were not many prides in the UK. The big cities had prides (London, Birmingham, Manchester, Brighton) but the little towns, there was the odd one starting to pop up, but they were very few and far between. We left it a couple of years, three or fours years I think, and we spoke again with the council in regards to pride, their attitude changed massively. I think, they saw for themselves that it was something that the council wanted to be seen to be involved with, that they knew the right people were in place to do that, and it was a originally put together by two women – Helen and Sharon – in its first year. Nowadays though there is a very good connection between the council and the LGBTQ+ community. It’s important to know that the council are behind the community.
Walsall Pride originally started out in outside Walsall Art Gallery with a very small community event with a little stage, entertainment on and a few community stalls, and it was a space where ourselves as a community could publicly be who we are. We could be vibrant, we could wear our bright colours, we could dance to our type of music, and watch entertainment in the open. It was met with very mixed reviews. There was derogatory comments, people were very surprised that it was allowed to happen in our town. I think back then, even though it was only ten, twelve years ago, it was still seen by some as inappropriate to be having these types of events out in the public in the middle of our town centre. Their attitude was along the lines of ‘we don’t care what they do as long as they do it behind closed doors’, and we wanted to change that philosophy.
So, the early years of pride were very hard. Prides did happen around the country but in our town it was very hard to deliver that first event on a Saturday afternoon in our town centre.
Things slowly became easier. People actually embraced it, they got behind it, and even to this day now we have lots of volunteers, lots of people that want to be part of our pride, want to show support for Walsall, and simply just be a part of Walsall Pride.
Walsall Pride was always hosted by the art gallery in the square but its not a large area and we struggled with keeping health and safety in check. We were having good entertainment that attracted large crowds, we didn’t have the space for all the information stalls, charities that wanted to be involved, so we sat down looking for new spaces. Ultimately, we wanted to move the event to Walsall Arboretum which is a beautiful space within our borough, which would give us much more prospect to grow in the next ten years. So, the decision was made, we took the jump, and we moved Walsall Pride to Walsall Arboretum last year, in 2022.
What do you think we can learn from the history of Prides like Walsall Pride?
There’s a lot of things that can be learnt, I think this was mentioned a bit in the last question, that people’s attitudes have changed immensely over the years, not necessarily just on a national level but on a regional level too.
What does pride mean to you?
It’s a time where we can go out and be ourselves, we don’t have to be afraid, we can celebrate our diversity, our equality, ourselves in a way that is individual to every one of us. It’s a celebration of all the things that have been achieved by members of parliament, councillors, community groups, that have fought and enabled us to share our sexuality, share our true selves. Pride is a celebration but its not just a celebration, we still have challenges. There’s always things we still have to fight for even in this day and age.
People should be aware of the past and the struggles that we’ve had, and the struggles that are to be had in years to come.
What would you like to see for the future of Walsall Pride? With regard to the event itself and the social cohesion it helps to further in the town.
The future of Walsall pride is very bright. The Arboretum is a beautiful, great space within our town that we should all be really proud of. It allows us to open the doors to make our pride bigger, more colourful, and also to put more events on for different parts of the community. So now we have more space we can have more knowledge and information from other charities that can come along and educate people, talk to people etc. More services can be advertised such as sexual and mental health.
We now have space for families to bring their dog, a blanket, bring a picnic along, sit on the grass, enjoy the weather, and enjoy shows; we have the space to do that now.
There’s a couple of other things we’re doing this year too. We’re doing charity fundraising events in different venues, brining people together for example for the talent contest. We’re also doing a free picnic in the park a month before pride around the band stands in the arboretum, which is another great event for families to enjoy the day on a much smaller scale; an event for the community in the lead up to the main pride.
The foundation for the future of Walsall pride is very bright, our new home is the biggest key that opens doors to space for different groups of people within the community, and a lot of this will be a result of asking the community over the next twelve months to find out what they would like to see from Walsall Pride. This is a consultation that is ongoing that will give us an insight on what direction pride will go in in the future.
If there’s ever a member of the community that would like to be a part of Walsall Pride, its community, its group, whether for fundraising, volunteering, or simply an idea of something they would like to see happen in our town – a service or a need – they can raise a voice. It can be done confidentially, with an email or a phone call. Anything from social housing, bullying, mental health, there are lot of people who are here for the community. People might not know where they are, they may be frightened of approaching someone but if people want to get involved or if they’re worried about something, the resource is there to help them in whatever way we can.
Walsall Pride will be held on August Bank Holiday Saturday, and tickets are available online now: Home | Walsall Pride | LGBTQ+
(Images by Fox & Squirrel Photography & Kristof Photography)