Yesterday I was working from home on my research. In the early afternoon, I was ready for a break and decided to go for a swim in my local lido to clear my head. I usually start with a long dive through the lane and then swim breaststroke for a while because I love the feeling of my body being fully immersed in the water. When I eventually switched to backstroke, I looked up and noticed the usual backstroke flags at the beginning and end of the lanes had been replaced with cute little pride flags.

For the next half hour, I started and ended every lane swimming underneath these colourful rainbow lines. I noticed they had chosen progress flags. I thought about pride and swimming and the effect of having pride flags literally in the pool, in a space that is so physical, a space that can be so liberating and at the same time so inaccessible to many people with bodies that do not conform to a very narrow set of expectations.

I thought about the work that I would go back to after my swim break. About how much of it revolves around shame: My research on sexual violence and stigma. My therapeutic work with trauma survivors and LGBTQ+ clients. And I remembered the phrase I had written down ten years ago, as a mission, when I just got started with doing survivor activism: To turn shame into pride.

Back then, my idea of turning shame into pride was in part inspired by an intuitive knowledge, a sense of possibility that I knew from my lived experience was there, and in part an attempt to manifest this possibility that I knew we needed in order to live in this world. Swimming underneath the rainbow flags on my work break yesterday, I realised just how much my work is not just about shame but also about pride, and how much I have learned in the last ten years about this process of moving from one to the other.

So, how can we do it, turning shame into pride? I can’t offer a quick fix manual to follow, but I can share some steps and principles that I have seen in my own experience and work with fellow survivors and queer people again and again. I hope you find this helpful, no matter where you are in this process at the moment:

Name the shame

Shame is sneaky. By that I mean it usually sneaks into our minds and bodies unnoticed. This happens because shame is connected to practices of shaming, and a lot of these are so normalised and practised collectively that we might not even notice them. Yes, sometimes shame is dished out openly and directly, but more often it can hide in silences, in what is talked about and what isn’t, in tacit norms, reactions and responses, the way people look at you or don’t look at you.

So, an important first step can be noticing, naming, and acknowledging the presence of shame in our experience. This can be painful, but also liberating: In naming shame, we can step back and separate it from ourselves. We move from ‘I am essentially wrong the way I am’ to ‘there is an aspect of my identity and experience that I feel some shame around’.

Question the shame

Once you notice the shame, I would encourage you to start questioning the hell out of it: What am I ashamed of and why? Where does it come from? Who has told us to hide our bodies and experiences and desires and who benefits from this? What happens when I suspend the feeling of shame even just for a moment? How does that feel? If all the shame was magically taken away, what would I do differently now? What happens when we embrace the parts of ourselves that have had shame attached to them? What happens when we go out into the world and embrace these in others too?

Shame often has a long history, reaching back far into our own lives and beyond. To question is a very powerful tool we can use when we are up against something that can feel so natural and solid. I really like how queer feminist scholar Sara Ahmed writes about the experience of being excluded, of not fitting in, as a starting point for noticing systematic oppression. When the world asks us what is wrong with us, she encourages us to shift this to asking what is wrong for us.

Embrace and share

Well, not the shame, although it can be helpful to actually talk about feeling shame with others who might relate and understand. What I am talking about here is embracing and sharing the very thing that you are feeling shame around. And I deliberately say that you are feeling, not have been, because in my experience this step is essential in transforming shame which means we need to do this while we are still very much feeling it.

We don’t have to immediately share it with the world. We can start in small and quiet ways. Let’s take the example of someone embracing their bisexuality: You can do this for yourself by allowing yourself to notice your attraction to people of different genders, by reading books about the topic, or by watching films that feature bi characters (just make sure to tell me if you find any good ones please!). You can share this with others by talking to a friend you trust, or with a therapist who is specialised in supporting bi people. You can attend a social where you can meet others, or a bi pride event. And of course, if you feel like it, you can go all out, announce it to everyone in your life, start flirting with that cutie you have been vibing with for a while now, and cover your body in the bi pride colours to dance in the streets this summer.

Embracing and sharing is a spectrum, just check-in with yourself and see what feels good and safe for you right now. I wish I could tell you that the shame is only in your head and it will be fine. But the shame is very much in the world around us, in the minds of people around us, and it might sadly not be all fine. Fears over discrimination and violence are real and we need to acknowledge this. But in my experience we can usually find some ways to embrace and share our authentic selves that feel both liberating and safe enough.


Every year I see many statements reaffirming that pride is a protest, not (just) a celebration. For me, both are inextricably linked. Rather than a celebration of society’s increasing acceptance, I understand pride as celebrating the insistence of queer life to persist and take up space despite the ongoing stigmatisation. This is how celebration becomes part of resistance: We don’t wait for others to tell us that we are OK, we just get out there and embrace ourselves and each other. We don’t wait for normative systems to grant us access and rights, we organise together to fight for this.

In both my work and personal experience, I have found this step of celebration important in transforming shame. There is an embodied quality that hit me at the first London Pride after the lockdowns, when I suddenly realised how much I had missed and needed this experience of dancing without any holding back surrounded by a sea of queer people. So, if you can, I would encourage you to seek out physical spaces of celebration. It does not have to involve hundreds of people and loud music, it can be an art exhibition, a book launch, a poetry reading, a picnic in the park, a hike, a life drawing session, and so many other creative things our communities come up with to create space for people with diverse access needs. This might include embodied celebration that happens online – through pictures and videos and voice there are lots of ways for us to connect with people who share our experience. And sometimes we can make a start by appreciating in others what we are still struggling to accept about ourselves.

At the core, pride is noticing what we have been told to be ashamed of, turning around and deciding to celebrate it.

What are you celebrating this June? Happy pride month!