“it’s about saying to everybody that this city belongs to everyone” — tom doyle, leeds prideBack
Jennifer Lee O'Brien
Tom Doyle was terrified.
It was the first Saturday of August, back in 2006; the eve of Leeds’ very first Pride. Tom had invited everyone he could think of — colleagues, friends, friends of friends. It was like being sixteen again, throwing a party, thinking that no one would come.
Tom had been asked by the organisers of Hyde Out, an LGB&T event in Woodhouse, to take it over; they’d been getting a bit burnt out, and it was time to try something new. He thought it was time to bring Pride to Leeds city-centre; it needed to be something that would really showcase the city’s commitment to its LGB&T community, and align Leeds with other international celebrations of gay rights.
Leeds needed its own Pride. And Tom thought that Leeds really wanted its own Pride.
But maybe he hadn’t done enough. Maybe he hadn’t promoted enough. He’d never put something on like this before, and even with a small team beside him, it was hard to know if they were going to get it right. You want the first one to be good; you want it to have an impact, to be remembered. You want the first to make way for a second.
So on the eve of the first Pride in Leeds, Tom Doyle was terrified. Maybe no one would enjoy it. Maybe no one would come.
The next day, at the Civic Hall, there was no stage, and no big lineup, but there were two hundred people there to celebrate Leeds’ diverse LGB&T community and hear Gay Abandon, a local gay choir, singing on the steps of one of the city’s most important buildings. There were speeches to inaugurate the event, and Tom tells us about the flat-back trucks arriving — four or five, if he remembers right — and the performers, activists, and supporters who danced and cheered and made their way on lorries and by foot from Millennium Square to New Briggate to bring Leeds its first-ever Pride parade.
“We didn’t tell the police at the time; we didn’t tell anyone. We just did it. We didn’t even know we had to tell anyone,” Tom says, before adding quickly, “Obviously, now health and safety is always a priority.”
It has been almost nine years since that first night before Leeds’ first Pride. Tom Doyle still gets a little nervous before the big day — with over 30,000 people to accommodate and entertain at one of the city’s biggest events of the year there’s still some pressure to get it right. But with nine years behind them, Tom and his team have earned the confidence to speak loud enough for Pride so that it keeps happening — always for free — because, for people in Leeds, it needs to.
“I remember my first gay pride, when I was 17,” says Tom. “I remember it really well. I come from the youngest of nine kids, and a working class family, and it was such a massive event in my life that I want that for everyone else as well.
“We’re in a time of austerity and everyone is looking to make savings, but I think we’re really clear that this city has to back Pride. We generate over two million quid in a day in the city, based on economic analysis, and to make that work and for that benefit to happen, the city has got to invest into it. We can’t make it sustainable alone.” Tom pauses before adding, “and nor should we have to.”
We’re sitting with Tom at the Leeds office of Yorkshire MESMAC, in Blayds Yard. One of the largest and oldest sexual health organisations in the country, Yorkshire MESMAC was initiated in the 1990s as a grassroots approach to HIV prevention and sexual health promotion for gay and bisexual men, and men who have sex with men. Tom was doing voluntary work in Nottingham and working as an actor when he was hired to help set up the organisation in Leeds; twenty-five years later, he is now the Chief Executive of Yorkshire MESMAC, which has expanded to offices in Leeds, Bradford, York, Wakefield, and most recently, Hull.
“It’s evolved majorly since it started,” Tom says. “It was very grassroots at the time, and it was really hard. We got a lot of prejudice, both from the general public and from other professionals who were wary. I think around that time more money was being spent on training bin men about HIV then gay men. It was a really difficult time, but I was young and naive — looking back I think it was extraordinary that we managed to do it. We’re now a lot wider. We’re LGB&T as an organisation and we’re not just about HIV anymore; it’s wider sexual health, mental health, and we have a large project around child sex exploitation for men and boys which is the only one of its kind in the country.
“Of course, there’s still HIV stigma,” he adds. “It’s one of the biggest barriers we have to people getting HIV tests. It’s getting better but we’ve still got a long way to go.”
Tom is a person whose work has changed lives for the better; he is also a person whose modesty and personal convictions have enabled him to side-step out of a spotlight that he sincerely deserves.
We ask him how he, the Chairman of Leeds Pride and Chief Executive of one of the most important organisations in Yorkshire, has managed to evade the press and accolades we expected when we first Googled his name. Surely ‘Tom Doyle Leeds’ should be getting some seriously organic SEO.
“I think the biggest thing to say is there’s a team, and we couldn’t do it without that team,” he replies quickly, deflecting our implied praise. “There are five directors who do a lot of heavy lifting and planning for Pride. We’re also really lucky because the local gay scene works all year round to raise money for us to put on the event.”
Tom’s experience in grassroots activism has allowed him to approach Pride with a careful and comprehensive belief in its political foundations, and allowed him to explore its complex potential as a medium for positive change in the city. This year’s event slogan, ‘your city, your pride’, reflects his role as the facilitator of a day that belongs to everyone.
“I think one thing as a Pride committee that we’re really concerned about is that people come because of Pride, rather than because Kylie’s playing or something,” Tom says. “It’s about the LGB&T community, and it’s about getting local people involved.
“About £40,000 a year is raised through the venues. People get to feel like they’re a part of it throughout the year, and they feel really invested in it,” Tom says.
“Pride is a contested area because people have different needs and different wants, and make different demands of it. Our job is to try and contain that and strike what we think is the best balance.”
The committee achieves this balance between the two stages. The parade starts up in Millennium Square, with local acts and speeches, which include activists, Leeds politicians and the West Yorkshire police. As the crowd moves down to Lower Briggate, the experience becomes more celebratory — with bigger headliners on their second stage and a street party in Leeds’ gay quarter.
“The parade itself is the most important bit of the day for me,” says Tom. “It’s about saying to everybody that this city belongs to everyone — that everyone has the right to walk down the street free from discrimination.
“From our point of view, the notion of 30,000 people dancing and celebrating LGB&T contribution in the city is a political act in itself,” Tom says. “I think politics can
be fun in that sense.
“One of the criticisms of Pride in Leeds is that it’s very city centre, very boozy, very young; I don’t necessarily agree with that, but I can see why some people might think it. So we’re really keen that people have satellite events that aren’t controlled by Leeds Pride. If people put on their own events we can cross-populate, cross- pollinate, and cross-promote them. I think for us, the next step with Pride is to have a weekend and have an arts festival around it. It’s important that Pride continues to get a bit bigger and more diverse, because it will mean more people will come and those people will have more choices. We’re really keen to have the whole city involved.”
We ask Tom what he’d like to see for Leeds Pride’s tenth anniversary next year. “We’d like just about every shop to have a rainbow flag in its window, something very visible,” he says. “I think the notion of having a rainbow running through the city is a lovely idea.
“Every year we get young people messaging us on things like Facebook saying it’s been the best day of their life, that it’s helped them come out. They’ve brought their parents and their parents have seen a different side to LGB&T life – they can see this vibrant and supportive community.
“Last year I got a letter from a man who was 72, who still didn’t feel able to go in the parade, but he was able to stand in town and watch. He’s never been able to come out to anyone in his whole life, so it was really affirming that in his lifetime, in his city, he’d just seen all these people celebrating LGB&T rights.”
Tom pauses. We wonder how often, since that first nervous night before the first Pride, Tom can have found time to pause like this, and reflect. “It’s really moving,” he says, “and it’s really amazing.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 26