June 2, 2023

How are you spending Pride month? I myself am gearing up to run the second annual Viner Award. A kind of Golden Raspberry for corporate wokery, it’s awarded via a public Twitter poll to the company or institution that most beclowns itself in the season of alphabet sanctimony. 

Last year’s contenders included the bank Halifax, which told customers to close their accounts if they disagreed with staff being asked to wear pronoun badges, and the Natural History Museum, which decided it was progressive to liken homosexuals to self-cloning lizards. The winner, though, was Nottingham City Council, which celebrated Pride by banning the lesbian activist Julie Bindel from giving a talk on violence against women, her “crime” (entirely unrelated to her talk) being her belief that humans can’t change sex.

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Setting up the award — it’s named after Guardian editor Kath Viner, who knows a thing or two about trashing a treasured brand by pandering to gender extremists — was my way of giving vent to the frustrations that many lesbians and gay men of the old-fashioned sort feel at this time of year. Pride used to be a riot, an opportunity to commemorate our achievements since the Stonewall Inn uprising, and shout about the equalities we still had to fight for. Now it’s a bloated month of pinkwashed flummery, of re-imagined company logos, empty sloganeering and corporate parade float sponsorships — and it’s a drag. 

The only fighting lesbians and gays do these days is among ourselves. Some people don’t think the T belongs with the LGB — Get Over It! If only we could. Those of us who insist that the trans movement can be homophobic, because it encourages young people to think they were born in the wrong sex if they are gay or lesbian, have found ourselves marginalised. Told by Pride organisers that we will be thrown out — in the name of inclusion, obviously — if we dare show up to the season’s events, we have little option but to snark from the sidelines. If we haven’t already been blocked by them on Twitter. 

When I worked on the London paper Capital Gay in the Nineties, a colleague used to call Pride “all our birthdays and Christmases rolled into one”. Back then, it was one day of the year, not an entire season. I have in front of me the last edition I edited of that paper, from June 1995, which reported on a march of 75,000 lesbians and gay men through central London, followed by a party with a record turnout of 200,000 people at Victoria Park. In the previous year, we had achieved the first legislative victory on our long path to legal equality, when MPs had reduced the age of consent for gay men from 21 to 18; but politicians had voted against reducing it to 16, in line with the heterosexual age of consent, reinforcing our status as second-class citizens in the eyes of the law.

Getting together in a park was a way of feeling that, for one day only, we had just as much right as anyone else to be ourselves in the capital. Nowadays, we no longer need that kind of refuge, because life no longer treats us so cruelly. That’s why today’s Pride, to me, feels so overblown and excessive.

On one level, of course, I’m old and jaded, which may explain my cultural cringe at the BBC’s new boy-meets-boy reality show, I Kissed a Boy. To me, all that hand-flapping and “yaas kween” campery harks uncomfortably back to the Seventies model of male homosexuality on TV, as personified by Larry Grayson and John Inman. Not for the first time, I notice the irony of the generation that believes it is reinventing gender taking such ready refuge in regressive stereotypes.

Meanwhile, the fashion world has decided to portray our lives as a circus freak-show. Consider Calvin Klein’s last Pride campaign, which features a bearded, hairy-chested, plus-sized female model wearing a sports bra over the breasts that she hasn’t yet got round to removing. In another age, Calvin Klein put a topless Mark Wahlberg on giant billboards around the world, and gay men convinced ourselves we, too, could be Marky Mark if we bought Y-fronts.

How did we get here? A decade ago, it wasn’t obvious what the future of Pride should be. The wide array of discriminatory laws had been dismantled, culminating with the legalisation of same-sex marriage. We had achieved everything we’d asked for, and prejudice seemed to fall away, too. Now, surely, we just had to get on with our lives.

At the time, I had a naive idea that we could progress on South Africa’s “truth and reconciliation” model. Having achieved equality, we could afford to be magnanimous about those who had opposed us along the way. Homophobia had been so widespread that there was no point in bearing grudges over past slights. We simply had to embrace the chance to play the full role in civil society that had previously been denied us. And, having won our own campaigns, perhaps we could now turn our attention abroad — to help stop young Iranian gay men being hanged or thrown off rooftops by the state, or the corrective rape of lesbians in Cameroon and elsewhere. Maybe also try to help lesbian and gay communities shrug off UK-inherited anti-gay laws in many Commonwealth countries?

But charities need problems to address, lobbyists need grievances, media publishers need to grow their demographic. In 2015, the lobby group Stonewall — which had surpassed even its own expectations in the effectiveness of its campaigning — extended its remit to campaign on trans issues as well as LGB ones. (It’s a development I satirise in my novel The End of the World is Flat, when a charity set up to correct minor map-making anomalies embarks on a campaign of fully fledged flat-earthery.)

Until that point, the trans movement had been entirely separate, both culturally and politically. As a gay journalist reporting on political developments over two decades, I never met any trans campaigners. But after the passing of the Gender Recognition Act 2004, a merger of the two movements took place, and the rainbow establishment set about pretending that the two camps had already been one.

This new movement, a cuckoo in the nest of the campaign for lesbian and gay rights, suddenly had a whole menu full of demands and an agenda that would end up trying to redefine language, reorganise public toilets and changing rooms, kibosh women’s sport and take control of HR departments. At its most baleful, it would try to root out wrong-thinking heretics — such as the think tank consultant Maya Forstater — from every walk of life.

This year, however, it feels like the tide is turning. Only last week, when British cycling authorities announced that male-bodied riders will henceforth have to compete in their own sex class, the overreaction from the UK’s most prominent trans cyclist made as many headlines as the decision itself. Emily Bridges — who used to compete as a male at junior level — announced that British Cycling’s new policy was “a violent act” which furthered “genocide”. At a less elite level, the news that the women’s record in sport-for-all Parkrun races belongs to a male-bodied trans runner has furthered the impression that men who say they’re women — and retain the physical benefits conferred by male puberty — are snatching prizes unfairly.

And there’s further evidence that sanity may soon prevail. Last month, Baroness Falkner, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, faced down a palace coup by transactivist staff members. And by keeping her cool in the face of hostility at the Oxford Union on Tuesday, Kathleen Stock has made her antagonists look like a bunch of entitled brats. As Sall Grover, an Australian businesswoman taken to court by transactivists for creating a female-only social media network, observed earlier this week: “It certainly does feel like we’re 90 seconds to midnight for everyone admitting ‘the Terfs were right’.”

With a bit of luck, then, the corporate world won’t be quite so quick to listen to those in their ranks who insist on pursuing marketing campaigns that don’t tally with their actual audiences. One day, the stock price collapses at Bud Light, Target and Gillette, following their various LGBT backfires, will be taught at business schools as cautionary tales.  

Meanwhile, just look at the rest of the world. Only this week, Uganda rubber-stamped a new law establishing the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality. And in Turkey, a newly re-elected President Erdogan railed throughout his campaign against “LGBT” people — although, once again, the main target seems to be homosexuality, with his interior minister denouncing same-sex relationships and accusing gay people of bestiality.

This, surely, is the stuff that matters. It’s the stuff we once used to care about, before a fragile generation started treating polite disagreement as “genocide” and our rebranded community acquired a reputation for cry-bully tantrums. One day, I hope, the gender wars will end and we can return to those more proportionate values.