In the last week, and in my capacity as the publisher of DIVA magazine, I have been unfairly represented in the Daily Mail, The Sun, The Express and Breitbart regarding DIVA pulling support for Virtual Pride, an event set up by Charlie Shakespeare, an ‘ally’ who had previously tried to run Merton Pride from the Colour House Children’s Theatre.

With boring predictability, much was made of the fact that I was appointed a diversity adviser to the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. While this is true, the portrayal of me as a far-left Corbynista is entirely inaccurate.

Since we first hit the news stands back in 1994, DIVA has always supported Pride. Over the years we’ve partnered the big, stand-out events like London, Manchester and Brighton as well as offering significant support to smaller Prides including Reading and the Isle of Wight. What’s more, we were the driving force behind moving the Women’s Stage at Pride in London from the event periphery to Leicester Square, helping to attract support and sponsorship from some of the world’s biggest companies for Pride in London . 

Of course, the pandemic has put the kibosh on Pride celebrations across the globe, and it’s for this reason that, when DIVA was asked to partner with an event called Virtual Pride, we were happy to lend our support. We even invited a representative of Virtual Pride to appear on a discussion panel during Lesbian Visibility Week to help raise their profile.

It was then that things started to unravel.

In the first instance, we had been informed that Stonewall had endorsed the event. When this was queried, Neil McDonald, Stonewall’s Executive Officer wrote:

“I’ve checked in with our teams and we have no involvement with the upcoming Virtual Pride.”

As you might expect, this did not augur well and was just the start of a series of worrying inconsistencies.

We had been advised that a representative of LGBT Switchboard was on the event’s steering group. On further investigation, Switchboard confirmed that this was not the case. 

Virtual Pride claimed that funds would be donated to the Colour House Children’s Theatre Charity, with the theatre’s charity number even appearing on Virtual Pride’s website. When this was queried with Mr Shakespeare, his written reply was: 

“This was a mistake and has now been changed on the website and there is now no mention of the theatre.” 

At the same time, Mr Shakespeare confirmed he was being paid for his work on Pride. This is not a crime but when all the artists were donating their time and work for free he could, perhaps, have been clearer about his motives.

DIVA and I have been organising events for two decades and this involves dealing with sponsors, partners and charities. It would be invidious for me to claim that mistakes never happen, but it stretches credulity to breaking point to accept that the inclusion of Stonewall, Switchboard and Colour House were simple errors. Believe me, even the most straightforward arrangements involve some level of written correspondence, acquisition of marketing materials such as logos as well as signed, formal agreements. 

It then came to my attention that Mr Shakespeare had previously supported comments on social media by Nigel Farage and Toby Young. This, for me, was the last straw and I withdrew DIVA’s support without delay. Predictably, Mr Shakespeare took this as an attack on free speech, referring in one email to a “smear campaign” and also branding me a “political bigot”. This was leapt on by certain members of the right wing press. 

I should now make it clear why I believe that Mr Shakespeare’s support for Nigel Farage and Toby Young was a deal breaker for me, and the reason is not that I refuse to work with people whose political views differ from my own. In fact, at Pride in London I hosted an event with both Penny Mordaunt, a Conservative government minister at the time, and her shadow, Dawn Butler. I am, after all, a strong advocate for diversity, and that includes diversity of opinion, but we all have to draw the line somewhere.

As you will know, Nigel Farage is not a fan of immigrants and asylum seekers. In fact, he’s built a career out of stirring up hatred against these most marginalised of groups. Many LGBTQ+ people, including lesbians, flee to the United Kingdom in fear of their lives: assault, murder and the sickening horror of “corrective rape” are sadly par for the course in some part of the world. I cannot and will not do business with someone who supports a politician who wants to close our borders to people like this. 

I am from a family of illegal immigrants and know first hand the hard life immigrants face in the UK, despite the oft-repeated right-wing mantra that coming to Britain is some sort of extended holiday. Mr Farage has also made frequent derogatory statements against our trans siblings.

Toby Young, you may recall, has claimed that he would “dress as a lesbian” (whatever that means) in order to trick women in gay bars into kissing him. What’s more, he once closed a magazine – The Modern Review – because two of his writers were having a lesbian affair. Frankly, anyone who supports Mr Young cannot and will never receive the backing of DIVA Magazine.

In the same way that Mr Shakespeare pleads for freedom of speech and is now boasting of being a protagonist of Daily Mail stories smearing me and DIVA magazine, I too have freedom to refuse to allow my magazine the stigma of being associated with an event being run by someone who supports bigots who, in turn, stand against our community, particularly those of BAME heritage.

Once many of the artists and speakers withdrew their support, Mr Shakespeare’s claims that they were pressurised to pull out by me are laughable. Rather, our community stood together against exploitation of our community, of the artists and of the good names of charities who were ultimately not involved. And while I welcome allies who themselves are not LGBTQ+ but who support our community, it is always important to be aware of those who jump on the bandwagon without any knowledge of or empathy for the history and struggles  of the LGBTQ+ community.

This is not a story of the militant left stopping a right-wing led event, more a story of the LGBTQ+ community standing together in solidarity to stop an event organised by someone outside our community with no knowledge of our history, aspirations and – as has been evidenced here – solidarity. I sincerely hope that Mr Shakespeare will not make the same mistake again.

This article first appeared in DIVA magazine.

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