As we enter the LGBT+ Pride season I look back to the very early days of Pride.


I attended my first march in the late 1970s, approximately 500 of us assembled at Marble Arch in London and surrounded by about 1,000 police who marched in a phalanx on either side of us we proceeded along Oxford Street and the chanting went up: "Two, four, six, eight, is that copper really straight", "We're here, we're queer and we're not going shopping" – though quite a few of us did disappear as we passed Selfridges.

In the aftermath of the legislative attack on the LGBT community by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1988, the numbers swelled. We were out, we were proud, and we were angry. And so thereafter every year our Pride March in London became bigger, grander, glitzier and, as we began to achieve equality, happier.

But those early days were the best for me – the stalwarts were always out in force and standing tall amongst them was Paul O’Grady. His alter ego Lily Savage regaled us from the tea tents, the afternoon discos and the main stage.

In my study I have a photo so faded some cannot fathom why it still hangs on the wall; but it epitomises love, courage, unflinching dedication and, sadly, loss. There in the photo is Paul as Lily along with his partner Brendan Murphy, and my late husband Paul Cottingham; all of them sadly gone. It was taken backstage when Pride was at Stockwell Park in South London, and you can tell that outrageousness and mischief were afoot.

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Left to right, Paul Cottingham, Brendan Murphy, and Paul O'Grady as Lily Savage.
Left to right: Paul Cottingham, Brendan Murphy, and Paul O'Grady as Lily Savage. Courtesy of Lord Michael Cashman

Savage, as I always called Paul O’Grady, was always there on the road to equality. He joined us on the protest marches, he was there doing the benefits for the AIDS hospices when being HIV+ was a death sentence.

He joined us as we campaigned for an equal age of consent, he stood up to the police when they famously raided the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in pink marigold gloves – to prevent themselves ‘catching AIDS’ – and he was there when we launched Stonewall to campaign for LGBT equality. Unlike many a celebrity he didn’t just talk about social change, he rolled up his sleeves and got his hands dirty fighting for it.

Out there on the Pride stage or at the Palladium or the Royal Albert Hall, he made us scream with laughter and at the same time reminded us who the bloody enemy was.

Paul O'Grady
Paul O'Grady (1955-2023). Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

His message was, have a good time, enjoy yourself, never be shamed by the opinion of others and stand up to the bigots.

Pride continues but it’s the pioneers I always remember; those who had the courage to risk, to be amongst the first to step up and be counted.

Paul O’Grady was amongst that group and that photograph reminds me that without those who went before we can never celebrate what we have now and what we must once again defend.

His body rests in a small English churchyard but his spirit runs wild in all that is good and decent and fun.

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