THIS is my reflection at the Post-Pride Chillout Service in the Lady Chapel of Liverpool Cathedral to mark the end of Liverpool Pride on Sunday 29th July 2018:
The death of Michael Causer was Liverpool’s Stonewall moment.
Ten years ago this week, Michael Causer from Merseyside lay unconscious in hospital following a brutal homophobic attack. Tonight, I am reflecting on his story and his legacy, and how it became the catalyst for what we now know and celebrate as Liverpool Pride.
This is his story (2 minutes):
Michael’s story was first told to me by Sgt Tracy O’Hara, the Chair of the Merseyside Police Gay and Lesbian Support Network. She called me to arrange to meet the LGBT youth group I was running at the time, to hear their concerns, reassure them and encourage them to report any hate incidents or crimes they might experience.
Before Michael’s death, concern for the safety of LGBT people in Liverpool had been raised by the Stormbreak Report, published in 2006, which surveyed more than 200 LGBT people about their perceived levels of safety in the city. More than half feared being victims of hate crime, and three in five had experienced hate crime, though only two out of five had reported it to the police. These figures were significantly higher than a similar survey in London at the time.
LGBT people commonly did not feel safe even in the Stanley Street area where most of the ‘scene’ venues were found, due to the higher incidence of attacks in or around LGBT friendly venues.
Some of the local LGBT community interviewed (especially younger people) did not plan to remain in Liverpool long term, on account of the perceived lack of safety within the city. Others had already moved outside Liverpool following experiences of hate crime.
The report noted that ‘safety’ is more than the absence of fear of abuse or attack – it is about LGBT people wanting simply to be able to feel ‘normal’ and not to have to feel that any contact with the general public is a potential ordeal.
One of the first outcomes of the Stormbreak Report was the establishment of the Liverpool LGBT Network, of which I was a founder member. Following community consultation, the network voted that establishing a permanent Pride in the city would be one of its key priorities.
Pride was not new to Liverpool – In June 1979, the first recorded Pride event was a week-long festival in remembrance of New York’s Stonewall riots, which took place in June 1969 following a series of police raids on the Stonewall Inn, a rare place where trans and queer people felt safe. This ‘Stonewall moment’ is considered to be the birth of the LGBT rights movement as we know it today.
In the early 90s, there were four Pride events in Liverpool, but the community struggled to sustain them without the full support of the Council and the police, against the background of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which stated that a local authority
‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality’
‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.
By 2008, our year as European Capital of Culture, Liverpool was the largest British city not to have its own Pride event. The City Council and Police met the new LGBT Network to discuss Pride, but some in the Council did not see the need for a march. One council officer remarked that the city was ‘all marched out’ because of the number of other events, like Brouhaha and Brasilica – as if a carnival parade were just the same as a Pride march.
Then Michael died following that brutal homophobic attack, and our community was shocked to the core. The fears of the Stormbreak Report had come true – not in the city centre, but at a house party in Huyton. Where were we to be safe?
The outpouring of grief and anger following Michael’s murder led to plans for a march and three minute’s silence in Michael’s memory, which evolved into the annual vigil for Michael and all victims of hate crime on his anniversary in Temple Square at the heart of the gay quarter. This vigil is taking place again on his tenth anniversary.
That grief and anger found expression here in Liverpool Cathedral, when Justin Welby, who was the Dean at the time, and is now Archbishop of Canterbury, led a memorial service for Michael here in November 2008.
At the same time, the LGBT Network started a fund in Michael’s memory to support his family with funeral and legal expenses, which became the Foundation that bears his name, aiming to educate, accommodate and motivate:
- educate about LGBT awareness to challenge prejudice,
- accommodate LGBT young people who are over-represented in the population of young homeless people, by creating safe homes for them, and
- motivate everyone to make a positive difference for LGBT young people.
When the trial of Michael’s attackers in February 2009 ended with the failure of the judge to recognise the homophobic nature of the attacks, and the acquittal of the ringleader, Michael’s family and the LGBT community felt justice for Michael had not been served – even police officers involved were shocked at the outcome – and the LGBT Network organised a protest outside Liverpool Crown Court.
In October 2009, when gay trainee police officer James Parkes was left fighting for his life after an attack by 20 teenagers in the heart of the scene on Stanley Street, 2500 people attended a candle-lit vigil at the site of the attack, and the next month a student organised a March Against Homophobia, attended by 1500 people and led by Michael Causer’s family. Clearly our community was not ‘all marched out’!
So, while Liverpool Pride as we now know it had begun to emerge before Michael’s death, the high-profile homophobic attacks on Michael and James galvanised the city, brought diverse people and organisations together and caused a major shift in attitudes.
The Presidents of Churches Together in the Merseyside Region (the leaders of the Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, United Reformed and Salvation Army churches, issued a statement affirming a commitment
‘to work with others to build a community where all can have their place of belonging, feel welcome and live in safety.’
In August 2010, Michael Causer’s parents led more than 3,000 people in the first Liverpool Pride march.
In November 2011, the Council was the first UK city officially to recognise its LGBT district, by investing in the regeneration of the Stanley Street Quarter and marking its street signs with rainbows.
In 2012 the city gained international recognition by becoming the world’s first to mark International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia with a programme of free events. The city now marks IDAHO every year by flying the rainbow flag from prominent city landmarks.
Also in 2012, Warren and I became the first couple to register a civil partnership in a place of worship in the UK, at Ullet Road Unitarian Church. The same church was the scene of a same-sex wedding in the 2014 Christmas special of the Merseyside teatime soap opera Hollyoaks!
So what about LGBT people’s experience of safety in Liverpool now?
Just last week a local paper reported an apparent increase in hate crime motivated by transphobia and homophobia, but the Home Office believes these rises are due to improved reporting, not genuine increases in hate crime. So, while we celebrate the growth in confidence in our community to report hate crime, there is still work to be done. The latest research by Stonewall shows four in five anti-LGBT hate crimes go unreported nationally, with younger people particularly reluctant to go to the police.
So what difference does Pride make? Why do we campaign, march, and celebrate who we are in this way?
The word ‘Pride’ can be problematic for some, especially in faith communities – the Old Testament Book of Proverbs says:
Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall (Proverbs 16:18).
From the fourth century AD, early Christians began to speak of seven virtues, and seven ‘deadly sins’, of which Pride was considered by some to be the most serious! Given that LGBT people hear more than enough from some people of faith about our supposed sinfulness simply because of who we are, regardless of how we live, why choose a term so bound up with that language?
Pride, for us, does not mean the deadly sin – the desire to be more important or attractive than others, failure to acknowledge the good work of others, or excessive love of self above others and God. Something’s been lost in translation. The English word ‘pride’ comes from the Old French for ‘brave or valiant’ – when the native Anglo-Saxons heard the Norman invaders apply the term to themselves, the Anglo-Saxons took it to mean superior, arrogant, the kind of selfish ‘pride’ we are warned against.
But Pride for the LGBT community is the opposite of shame – a brave, valiant affirmation of oneself in what can sometimes be a hostile environment. It is not about being more important, but about campaigning for equality and celebrating the diversity of human identity, sexuality and gender.
At the start I mentioned the youth group I ran at the time of Michael’s death. From 2005-2015 I was the coordinator of GYRO, the longest running LGBT youth group in the UK, based in Liverpool. When I delivered LGBT Awareness workshops in schools, I would share Michael’s story and ask why his attackers, aged 18 and 19, would think it OK to attack another young man. Stonewall’s research into LGBT young people’s experience in schools shows that if a school is prepared to say homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying is wrong, LGBT young people are 60% less likely to experience prejudice, bullying and hate crime. Early intervention in education could literally have saved Michael’s life.
In my LGBT awareness sessions, I often played the song I am what I am sung by John Barrowman as the students gathered. They were usually surprised to learn who sang it – the action hero from Doctor Who and Torchwood who happens to be married to a man, and also looks amazing in a sequinned dress! It helped to challenge any stereotypes they may have had.
I usually drew attention to the lyrics in the song:
It’s my world that I want to have a little pride in,
My world, and it’s not a place I have to hide in.
Why do some LGBT people feel they have to hide?
Hiding for some is for fear of rejection for revealing their identity as something different from what family, community, church or society expects of them.
Which brings me to today’s reading from St Paul’s letter to the Christians at Ephesus in Turkey (Ephesians Chapter 3, verses 14-21). It was one of the readings the Church suggested to be read at services today, which is providential as it has resonated deeply with me around my sense of identity for many years:
This is why I kneel before the Father. Every ethnic group in heaven or on earth is recognized by him. I ask that he will strengthen you in your inner selves from the riches of his glory through the Spirit. I ask that Christ will live in your hearts through faith. As a result of having strong roots in love, I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers. I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God.
Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us; glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus for all generations, forever and always. Amen.
I first discovered this reading more than twenty years ago when I was a trainee Roman Catholic priest. I was living in fear and trying to be something I wasn’t. I thought I was praying for my ‘inner self’ to grow strong so I could suppress my sexuality and be a celibate priest. God had other ideas – I have learned to accept myself and enable others to do the same by learning to live in love, not fear.
As Open Table has grown from one community in Liverpool to fifteen across the northwest and beyond, with two more starting in Chester and Widnes this summer, I have begun to share this reading as a prayer for these communities – a reminder that it’s not our own kingdom we’re building, and that those six people who met in Liverpool in June 2008 to create a safe sacred space for LGBT+ Christians had no idea we were starting a movement that would ‘do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine.’ We could never have imagined that, ten years on, more than 100 Christians would march at Liverpool Pride, led by the Chair of the Methodist District and the Bishop of Liverpool.
That reading is also my prayer for Michael’s parents, and for all of us who long for a little more of that brave, valiant spirit of Pride in our lives, more than just once a year.
Michael’s parents Marie and Mike Causer, a typical working-class couple from Whiston in Merseyside, never imagined they would come to this Cathedral to mourn their son ten years ago. They never imagined walking in Liverpool Pride without him. But out of their heartbreak came a passion for justice for all LGBT young people, and a movement which has made Liverpool a safer, more proud and diverse place for all of us.