‘A credit to the community’ - Birmingham Pride founders look back on 25 years of Pride

Bill Gavan and Phil Oldershaw look back at how the city’s celebration of diversity grew from an idea over coffee at the Nightingale to one of the biggest Pride events in Europe

It was an August evening in 1996 when Bill Gavan and Phil Oldershaw were sitting drinking coffee and having a catch up in the legendary Nightingale Club, of which Phil was the General Manager and owner/member.

Bill himself was the owner of Subway City Club, a competitor to Phil’s business at the time. But that didn’t stop the pair envisioning exciting plans for the future of Kent Street and Lower Essex Street as they looked out onto the night sky.

They concoted plans for a huge party - for maybe 3,000 people - little did they know that at least five times this amount would turn up and two and a half decades later their party plans would have turned into one of the biggest Pride events in Europe!

How did the idea for Birmingham Pride really come about?

Phil explains: “I said ‘imagine that street filled with people partying away’.” And Bill quickly replied: “Like a big street festival?” I said: “Yes, exactly that.”

Bill said: “Let’s do it, how difficult could it be?” He went on to say: “With all our customers and yours, we could ship in some coaches from out of town too, we could possibly hit a few thousand and have one big party.”

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I replied: “Yes, just what I was thinking, that sounds amazing, do you think the council will let us close off the street?” Quickly replying with: “We’ll make them” said Gavan, to which we both laughed and started discussing what else we could do to make it special, recalls Phil.

Graham Norton with Birmingham Pride co-founder Phil Oldershaw

So, the idea of Birmingham Pride was conceived in August 1996. What did you do from there?

Phil said: “We started looking at suitable dates the following year that we thought were practical and we could work towards, the last May Bank Holiday looked good. This would give us plenty of time and hopefully good weather.”

Bill said: “It was important that we got the city on board and needed to plan meetings with the council and police etc. This was a new event, and we knew that as we were the LGBT community back then, this may be a difficult job to get the city on board.”

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Phil said: “HaHa, we created roles around our suitable skill-sets for us to work on and as part of that, Bill would lead with many of the initial meetings with the police and council. I’ll let Bill comment further.”

Bill said: “Did they f**k, that was the last thing they wanted on the streets of Birmingham back then. We were hit with many reasons why it couldn’t happen and why they didn’t want to support it.

“We gave them many reasons why we should let them have it in our small part of town, now named Southside and the ‘gay village’, and threatened to protest across the city unless they supported us.

“There was no reason why this couldn’t really happen. This was a long process, but we knew that if we could convince them to let it go ahead we would have something to be proud of, and we could make Birmingham collectively proud.”

Bill Gavan, Birmingham Pride co-founder

How did you raise the money?

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Phil said: “Aha, that was fundamentally my role, brand marketing and fundraising. We set up a plan to raise £40,000, which was our rough calculation of required costs to close the streets, staging and infrastructure in 1997.

“We spoke with venue managers and explained what we were doing, they all jumped on board. We created a marketing campaign in magazines, and in our own venues, to let our customers and the community know.

“A couple of years after launch we created the Birmingham Pride Ball, which started at The Grand Hotel and soon moved to the ICC as we quickly grew based on numbers rising to 1,200 people for a 3-course black-tie dinner, outrageous plush camp, and an extravagant show.

“This became a huge fundraiser for Pride and its official headliner launch, each year in March. A big thank you to Midlands Zone magazine for their support here too!”

Bill said: “We also started bucket collections on the doors raising money for Birmingham Pride, allowing the community to help self-fund. We were not looking for any money from the council or the police, we wanted to show them we could support ourselves, as we always had. We charged the funfair and food operators rent who were there over the weekend.

“Phil at the Nightingale Club and I at Subway City, started planning ‘late-night-extensions’ which allowed us to trade later with our licence and put a percentage of profits into the Pride pot.”

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Birmingham Pride co-founder Phil Oldershaw at a fundraising event

What did you think would make a good first Birmingham Pride?

Phil said: “Many of the things that are still going today really. A main stage with cabaret and artists, outdoor bars, music and an ambient colourful approach. A key element was it being a ‘FREE’ event for the people, no charge to attend’.

Bill said: “We needed to have funds to make things happen. We also looked at street stalls selling different goods and allowing local charities to get involved for free. Easy access food & drink on the streets was also key, as we were hoping to get over 3,000 people attending each day.

“Sweet talking our local acts, drags queens and the many high-end artists that featured often at our venues to perform for expenses. As my club was the other side of town, I also set up a bar in the area with music.”

Birmingham Pride co-founder Bill Gavan

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So, you’ve raised the money, arranged the event, advertised the date. How many came to the first Birmingham Pride in 1997?

Phil said: “Well, all I can say is that Bill and I are still a little unsure but have met somewhere in the middle.

“We didn’t measure the numbers at that point. I remember us standing in the middle of the street at the peak time of the first Birmingham Pride Saturday and saying ‘what have we created here?” as I tingled with pure excitement.”

Bill said: “It far surpassed our expectations, even though we had planned for higher numbers to arrive, just in case they did.

“Phil will tell you 12,000, I thought it was 18,000, so we meet in the middle at 15,000 for an event we were hoping to exceed over 3,000 as its first Birmingham Pride appearance.”

Birmingham Pride co-founder Phil Oldershaw

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Can you remember the atmosphere?

Phil said: “Like it was yesterday! It was electrifying, the energy was something else. People were all dressed in bright colours, as we had marketed for people to dress brightly. They were partying in the streets, laughing, dancing, kissing and showing affection in the open-air. It was amazing, incredible and history making all at once.”

Bill said: “It was exactly how it should have been. People had come from far and wide to celebrate and party in the streets, going in and out of venues for refreshments while being able to be themselves on the streets! It was a celebration of togetherness, freedom and equality, with an atmosphere I’ll never forgot.”

Birmingham Pride

Did you really run everything yourselves?

Phil said: “No, although the original conception was mine and Bill’s we certainly did not act alone.

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“At the offset, Upton Clue was a fundamental player in Birmingham Pride, often behind the scenes and later as a Chair of Birmingham Pride.

“There were many who played active parts over the years and made up from the committee we established from leaders within the ‘gay’ community, as it was known back then.

“Also the people that came together on the day, local drag queens like Tilly, artists like Sonia, sound technicians like Darren and John and many more doing their thing in whatever way they could help. Our media sponsor was Midland’s Zone Magazine.”

Bill said: “The initial meetings and idea was Phil and I, but we were certainly not the only team. We created Birmingham Pride from the beginning as a community event. This meant that people from the gay community would make the committee, depending on knowledge and diverse skillsets, to ensure everyone benefitted.

“I was the first Chair, but I was followed by incredible people such as Paul Steeples, Karen Creavin ‘our only ever female Chair’, and many more, who all added their own unique style and skills to build on the successful event.’

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You mention ’everyone benefitting’ what did you mean by this?

Phil said: “It was important from the conception that local businesses and the community felt an integral part of what happened. Although many didn’t want to necessarily run the event, they did want to have input and ensure representation was on point.”

Bill said: “One of our goals from the start was to ensure we raised money for charity, anything left over from the event would be used to set a nest egg for the following year, and to also divide up and give to local charities, we gave tens of thousands to numerous charities each year, during our time.”

Did you expect it to last this long?

Phil said: “Erm, no not really. In fact, we didn’t even think about longevity at the start, we simply wanted to create a party for the LGBTQIA+ people, as we call it now, and anyone who respected the same, giving the opportunity to express themselves with diversity and inclusion while having fun.”

Bill said: “When we created this our focus was on delivering the first, and then the second and so on.

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“Raising funds, bringing on the first sponsor who was Carlsberg and succeeding. The fact it’s lasted this long is a credit to the community and everybody that has taken their turn in being its guardian over the years.”

Birmingham Pride 2021

What do you think of Birmingham Pride 25 years on and has it changed much?

Phil said: “It would have been Pride’s 26th year but thanks to Covid we lost a year in 2020!

Although Pride is not owned by the community anymore, it is incredible to see what Lawrence Barton (Festival Director) and the team have continued to do since 2010.

“I feel very proud to have an event we conceived in 1996, delivering our first in 1997, still going strong in 2022.

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“Besides being on a larger scale in some ways, the execution is similar. However, with the added benefit of ticket sales these days, the big-name artists have become a popular thing I believe, with STEPS and Mel C as part of this year’s headline.”

Bill said: “It’s great for Birmingham and is one of the biggest festivals in the country, bringing lots of income and economic growth to the Midlands.

“It used to be the largest ‘FREE’ event in the country. Our very first ones were researched to bring in approximately £14 million each year for the local economy on that weekend alone, before we looked at the added annual marketing support and growth it generated!

“Who would have thought we created something that would have such legacy and is still going strong today.

“In the year 2000, we had approximately 100,000 people in attendance. I think as Phil mentioned, with the added income of ticket sales it allows a plusher infrastructure, as well as profits these days. It’s still a huge financial risk.”

Birmingham Pride gets underway this weekend (photo from Birmingham Pride)

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Will you be at this year’s Birmingham Pride?

Phil said: “Yes indeed, I cannot wait! Lawrence has invited me back to host the Main Stage for the community event on the Friday and I shall be hosting on the Main Stage on the Saturday too!

“It’s 25 years, and I cannot wait to raise a glass to celebrate with Bill, Lawrence and any other previous Pride contingent attending, to acknowledge such a marvellous milestone and legacy.”

Bill said: “I will do that, yes! We have travelled so far and achieved so much, helping shape equality not only in our city but for the UK and beyond. This is something to be celebrated and I too look forward to raising a glass with Phil, Lawrence and those who came before us, and those who shall come after.”

Birmingham Pride 2021 - sun shines through

What is the future of Birmingham Pride?

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Phil said: “It is what the people make it. Keep supporting and visiting and it should continue to exist.

“However, it’s vitally important not to outprice the market, keep it affordable for families and all, this is key.

“The city must make provision for events like this, affording them suitable space to deliver such an event without noise pollution concerns and other key factors.

“We also have to be careful not to segregate ourselves too much within our own LGBTQIA+ community, as I see this happening as more fractions jostle to be noticed and forget that Pride represents ‘Equality for All’.”

Bill said: “I think Pride and celebration is important. There is still stigma and prejudice in the world, we should very much keep flying the flag.

“Affordability is important, whether all the big expensive acts are required is another question as they increase ticket prices. I would love to see it continue and the community benefit from its success.”

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Birmingham Pride is taking place this weekend from Friday 23 to Sunday 25 September with a parade through the city. Celebrations in Southside’s Gay Village and Smithfield site. For more information, visit: www.birminghampride.com

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