August 30, 2021 - 11:03am

The religious wars went up a notch this weekend at Manchester Pride, with footage emerging of Alexander Bramham, a gay man, being hounded out of the parade. His crime? Wearing a t-shirt disavowing political alliance between gay and transgender people.

For anyone who’s been asleep or on a desert island for the last few years, a quick recap. The gay rights movement has seen rapid expansion beyond lesbian, gay and bisexual issues to a seemingly-endless array of new identities.

I’ve argued before that the ever-expanding Pride remit is now less about gay rights than a utopian dream, of the radical unchaining of all desire. This dream has, over the same period, garnered increasingly pseudo-religious overtones, complete with feast months (February and June), syncretic fusions with existing faiths, and an increasingly adversarial attitude to political expression of competing religious worldviews.

In turn, this has prompted claims from some lesbian, gay and bi people that replacing gay rights campaigning with a more ‘inclusive’ approach creates insuperable conflicts. Historically, a core argument for gay rights activism was that same-sex attraction must be de-stigmatised because for a minority it’s simply innate. But this is difficult to square with an updated, ‘inclusive’ movement that claims sexual orientation is based not in bodies but ‘gender’.

Some protest that encouraging gay people to unlearn their ‘genital preferences’ so as to include trans people in the range of potential sexual partners is in practice indistinguishable from efforts to ‘cure’ gay and lesbian people by convincing them their orientation is a choice.

Last year, to coordinate these objections, the LGB Alliance was founded by several veteran gay rights activists with links to Stonewall and the 1970s Gay Liberation Front. The reason Bramham was mobbed at Manchester Pride was that he was wearing a t-shirt bearing the LGB Alliance logo.

To my eye, it’s a mistake to see this as an intramural dispute within minority rights politics. The mob’s fury only makes sense in the wider context of the rainbow flag’s transformation from political to religious symbol.

Political campaigns can make room for compromise: evangelical faiths, not so much. Donning an ‘LGB Alliance’ t-shirt to attend a Pride march is, in practice, like going to Catholic Mass wearing a t-shirt rejecting the doctrine of transubstantiation. No wonder Bramham was hounded out.

We can expect more of this because the theology is still contested. What is desire, and what if anything are people owed purely for desiring it? Should there be any limits whatsoever to desire? Is desire a matter of bodies, souls, or both? Who should enforce its freedom, and how?

If the rainbow flag increasingly represents a pseudo-religious allegiance to the sanctity of identity and desire, these are important doctrinal questions. It’s my suspicion that we’re barely into the foothills of these disputes. And much like the religious conflicts of old, we can’t rely on them remaining civil forever.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.