It feels very fitting to be celebrating pride in New York, 50 years on from the Stonewall Uprising – the movement that is commemorated for kickstarting the fight for gay rights. I was really proud to see Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays making history with the world’s first ever Pride flight.
People should be able to be themselves and love whoever they want to love without fear. Virgin has been a staunch supporter of LGBT+ rights for decades. When I was a teenager, I set up Student Magazine and we had many people write to us to raise the issue of gay rights. It was part of the reason I set up the Student Advisory Centre, a helpline where young callers with problems could retain their anonymity and get help from the right people. I realised that many young gay people were being ostracised and wanted to meet other gay people and feel part of a community. This led me on to buying Heaven, Europe’s biggest gay nightclub, in London in 1981. Heaven was (and is) a special place for the gay community in London – it was somewhere they could openly be themselves and meet other like-minded people.
I strongly believe in making our businesses as inclusive and welcoming as possible. LGBT+ discrimination is not just bad from a human rights perspective, it’s also bad for business. Open and inclusive societies are more competitive, creative and innovative.
New York city holds a special place in my heart as it was the first city Virgin Atlantic flew to 35 years ago. Hearing about the antics onboard the Pride Flight brought back memories of the inaugural flight and how hard we celebrated – and I’m so thrilled that Virgin Atlantic has kept hold of that spirit to this day.
It’s also wonderful to see that spirit growing with one of our newer Virgin companies, Virgin Voyages. I stopped by to thank some of their First Mates for all their hard work and then headed over to Boxers in Chelsea to get up on stage and announce that Atlantis Events has chartered Scarlet Lady for an LGBTQ+ sailing next year. We then carried on our bar crawl and hopped on a Heels on Wheels glass bus to have a dance with Courtney Act, Ginger Minj, Billy Porter and Deborah Cox. The bus took us to Monster, where I jumped up on the bar and offered everyone a round of drinks on me.
I really wanted to visit the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village gay bar, where the fight for gay rights began 50 years ago. It’s important to remember that we still have a long way to go until LGBT+ rights are championed around the world. We must all come together to keep fighting for equality around the world, and business can help play a role in this fight.
Earlier this year, I signed a letter alongside 20 other global leaders highlighting what businesses can do to support a more LGBT+ inclusive world. Virgin Holidays is a great example to show how business can impact change - launching two ground-breaking initiatives to make the Caribbean region more inclusive. They have a partnership with the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association - offering diversity training to hotel employees so they can better understand and meet the needs of the LGBT+ community. Virgin is also a founding partner with Open for Business, who make the economic case for LGBT inclusion.
Conversation is one of the biggest tools we have to change hearts and minds. An example of showing how important it is to speak out and stand together is Brunei’s decision to do a U-turn and say it will not enforce the death penalty for gay sex. I also recently had lunch with the president of Ethiopia, where same-sex relations can carry a jail term of 15 years. I said to him that people are born gay and he could easily have a child, brother or sister who is gay – and I asked him if he would want them locked up for 15 years. I said gay people are some of the most talented and creative people and there are many artists, writers, creators and musicians who should be free to fulfil their potential and be themselves. I tried (and failed) to change his views, but we will keep the conversation open. We have also spoken out against Uganda, where being gay can be punishable by life in prison. Now the fight for gay rights has largely been won in Europe, America and Canada, we must do all we can to help the gay community in other parts of the world such as Africa and the Far East.
It was a beautiful end to the day to join the evening Pride flight celebrations at the One World Observatory. Looking out over the New York skyline at sunset, I felt on top of the world. It was an incredible atmosphere at the party, with aerial gymnasts pouring glasses of champagne and drag queens welcoming guests.
It was moving to hear from 80-year old Stonewall veteran, Tree Sequoia, who recalled the night of the Stonewall Uprising and how the world changed after the demonstrations. Tree still works as a bartender at the Stonewall Inn.
It’s been so wonderful to celebrate Pride in New York and to see business playing a really positive role in supporting the LGBT+ community. I’d love to see a world where all people are thriving, because of who they are, not in spite of it.