On Virgin Atlantic’s inaugural Pride Flight, Andrew Doherty partied with drag queens and LGBT+ activists before exploring New York’s gay history and World Pride celebrations.
"You are the dancing queen, young and sweet, only seventeen,” shrieks Good Morning Britain entertainment editor Richard Arnold, eyes closed, arms in the air. The Abba hit has gone down a storm and celebrity DJ Jodie Harsh knows it. Meanwhile, Strictly Come Dancing heartthrob AJ Pritchard has managed to find enough space for a boogie and, beside him, Gogglebox star and TV presenter Scarlett Moffatt has joined in the fun.
No, this isn’t the VIP section of Ibiza’s Pacha nightclub. I’m more than 30,000 feet in the air, squeezed into an Airbus A330’s bar area onboard Virgin Atlantic’s inaugural Pride Flight from Heathrow to New York.
As Spice Up Your Life begins to play, I take a moment to survey the madness around me – passengers adorned with glitter forming conga lines in the aisles, rainbow flags draped over chairs and out of overhead lockers, and the glamorous crew taking everything in their stride.
Virgin’s inaugural Pride Flight marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, when New York’s LGBT+ community fought back against sustained police brutality and a political system denying them their rights. Virgin Atlantic boss Richard Branson has pledged that the Pride Flight will become an annual event, potentially visiting a new location each year.
Also onboard was Stonewall Inn bartender Tree Sequoia, who joined the Stonewall fight on 28 June 1969, angered by the mistreatment of the gay community by New York’s authorities.
“I was 30 years old on the day of the rebellion and I’ve just turned 80 years young,” he tells me with a grin. “It’s amazing that Virgin Atlantic has done this. America can be seen as being backwards with certain things, but we’ve come a long way. In 1969 I had no rights, now I have all the rights in the world that I want. But it’s up to the next generation to continue [the fight]. They are the future.”
In between the inter-seat speed dating, raucous bingo sessions and sing-a-long sessions with X Factor finalist Saara Aalto, I manage to catch up with Mark Anderson, global LGBT lead for the Virgin Group.
“We’ve no concrete plans for next year’s Pride Flight yet – however, this year’s sold out within 24 hours, which indicates there is huge consumer demand. It’s likely we’ll run something similar on another route in 2020, and travel agents will be the first to know.”
He adds that inclusivity is integral to the Virgin Group’s ethos. “We talk about being the most-loved travel company, and a key part of that is allowing everybody to be themselves. This has to start within Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays – we can’t create amazing experiences for people if we don’t feel that inside ourselves.
“This [Pride Flight] is just another milestone on a journey that we’re on as a company. It has captured the imagination of the public.”
Anderson is right – there isn’t a single person in their seat. Even a family with two young children who accidentally booked themselves on the flight are bopping along to It's Raining Men.
And despite my fellow revellers almost drinking the plane dry just over halfway into the six-hour flight, spirits remain high until we land at Newark, exhausted and exhilarated.
Following a much-needed night’s sleep at the AKA Wall Street hotel, I’m ready to explore the LGBT+ history of Greenwich Village with NYC & Company and Oscar Wilde Tours. Founded by the enigmatic Professor Andrew Lear, and named after the 19th-century writer and gay icon, the company offers LGBT-focused historical itineraries in New York, Amsterdam, Greece and Italy.
Today, I’m joining him on a two-hour walking tour of the Village (from £28pp), where the gay liberation movement began during the Stonewall riots. Located in 53 Christopher Street, The Inn, which originally opened in 1930, became a gay hot spot when it was bought by members of the mafia in 1966. However, police raids were common and persistent clashes with its patrons led to the uprising.
“Imagine the mafia running a gay bar,” laughs Lear. “Of course, the glasses were dirty, and people were overcharged. But New York’s gay population didn’t have many places to go in the 1960s and had to make do.”
The next few hours are spent learning about the Village’s many famous gay and bisexual residents, including former first lady of the United States Eleanor Roosevelt and movie star Marlon Brando, who often came to visit his sister. Finally, we reach Washington Place, the location of New York City’s first Pride March which took place in 1970.
My first time in New York, and so far its been a colourful cocktail of sights, sounds and drag queens! From delving into the LGBT history of the Village with @oscarwildetours - to the amazing @virginatlantic #PrideFlight party at @OneWorldNYC - we haven't stopped #Pride2019 pic.twitter.com/tOe7USrvQU— Andrew_TTG (@Andrew_TTG)
My first time in New York, and so far its been a colourful cocktail of sights, sounds and drag queens! From delving into the LGBT history of the Village with @oscarwildetours - to the amazing @virginatlantic #PrideFlight party at @OneWorldNYC - we haven't stopped #Pride2019 pic.twitter.com/tOe7USrvQU— Andrew_TTG (@Andrew_TTG) June 30, 2019
“The parade, which was named the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, started with only a handful of people,” explains Lear. “However, by the time it reached Herald Square, the organisers turned around to see thousands of supporters following them.”
It’s only at the World Pride celebrations the following day that the significance of that historical moment hits home. Looking out on throngs of partygoers embracing, dancing and laughing, I’m thankful that in these politically dark times some things have changed for the better. I have to agree with what Tree said on the flight; it’s up to the next generation to keep up the fight for equality.
Book it: Gold Medal offers a three-night New York city break, staying at the AKA Wall Street in a Premium Studio with Virgin Atlantic flights from £689pp. Price is valid for travel between 13 January and 17 February 2020.
Since signing the UN’s new LGBTI Standards of Conduct for Business in 2017, Virgin has been making efforts to eliminate discrimination for employees and clients alike.
LGBT-friendly Caribbean: Virgin Holidays has partnered with the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) to offer diversity training to hotel employees to better understand the needs of LGBT clients. The company also supports Open for Business in the region – which puts forward an economic case for LGBT inclusion. As a result, the CHTA has agreed to establish a working group to address LGBT+ issues in the region.
Looking after employees: This year, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays launched the “Be Yourself” programme to encourage staff to “bring their true selves to work”.
Marketing magic: The company has made a concerted effort to represent LGBT+ people in its marketing, with same-sex couples featuring in TV ads and holiday promotions.