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'London doesn't thrive in spite of its diversity, but because of it', says Paris Lees

Written by
Time Out London contributor

Like many Londoners, I was devastated when I woke up on June 24 and found that Britain had voted for Brexit. It’s bad news for me, London and the people I love. An hour later I was on the DLR, looking at a woman in her fifties reading the Express with a huge grin on her face. I wanted to scream. Two young women sat beside her, staring at their phones, mortified. There it was: Divided Britain. On the DLR.

Later that morning, at the park, I saw another young woman taking pictures of birds. I said they were beautiful and she agreed. She sounded like she was from Eastern Europe. I wanted to throw my arms around her and tell her that London is her home too, but I just smiled and walked on.

In that moment, I was proud to be a Londoner. We’re not xenophobic in London, I tell myself. Not like the rest of England. But this metropolitan smugness is part of the problem. I don’t have a solution for this cultural chasm. I’m part of it.

Like many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, for me London has been a refuge from the prejudices of my youth. I left my hometown for this city precisely to escape closed minds. Can you blame me for wanting to forget a place that bullied me for being me?

Sadly, I’m not the only one who forgot about that town, and others like it. Growing up, my hometown was hopeless. We weren’t fancy like Londoners were. No one asked our opinions, praised us or made us feel like we mattered. It’s easy to be cosmopolitan and open-minded when you’re doing well for yourself in a big, vibrant city, but not so much if you feel worthless, isolated and ignored.

I would look down on the rest of the country if I thought it would help. It won’t. All we can do is celebrate our values in London, which is great precisely because we welcome diversity. Yes, that includes Europeans, but also people like me from small towns in England. We are London too. My housemate is from Devon. My boyfriend is from Glasgow. London is not separate from Europe or Britain. London needs England like a heart needs a body, and that need runs both ways.

Humans have some tough choices to make if we are to survive on this planet. Unless we come together and tackle urgent global problems like population growth and climate change, we face destruction. As one person, I’m not sure what I can do, but I’m going to start by being generally kinder. Imagine if all of us did. Call me a dreamer if you like but I’d rather be idealistic than accept the alternative: living in a world of increasing intolerance, violence and paranoia.

Hate crimes have risen following the referendum as open bigotry enjoys a grotesque renaissance. Not just in ‘small towns’. In London, too, as we saw with the racist graffiti attack at Hammersmith’s Polish Centre. We have to challenge such hatred and show the world that London doesn’t thrive in spite of its diversity but because of it. If Londoners really are so clever, let’s find a way to celebrate our inclusiveness without excluding the rest of Britain. Can we inspire our friends in England without patronising them? It’s worth trying. Together.

Want more ranting and raving? Read Nell Frizzell's on why Victoria coach station is awful and perfect in equal measure

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