A letter to Toby Young about Pride and ‘woke corporations’

Dear Toby,

I read your column in the Spectator, about the notion that Pride has been taken over by ‘woke corporations.’ We’ve never met, and I think if we did, we’d disagree rather a lot. I don’t mind that. But your piece irked me, and I felt I had to respond.

Lurking in its midst is the vexed issue of ‘identity politics’ — worth mentioning because I think we come at it from a different angle, probably because I’m gay and you’re not. That’s not to say we all think the same way about this stuff any more than all of you do. And, I’ve no problem with anyone who isn’t gay talking about it.

I’ve been around what we might call identity politics since the late ’70s. What started with activism morphed into inquiry and comment over the last couple of decades.

Threaded through that endeavour has been my sexuality or, to put it in another way, my gay identity. Colm Toibin memorably said, ‘Today I forgot I was gay because I was too busy doing something else.’

I’d always assumed he was referring to the progress which had freed him from the daily bind of remembering, and I’m sure, at some level, that must have been true. But when I mentioned it to him at a book signing, he explained it was borne out of his antipathy to identity politics.

And to an extent, I’m with him. Taken to extremes, a focus on individual identities runs the risk that we fail to connect — losing the ties that bind us. But the way the term is bandied about doesn’t help.

I’ve certainly never wanted to be seen as a ‘gay’ anything. But two things have got in the way of my reluctance. One is that having a gay identity is thrust upon us because we grow up in what Matthew Todd has called a ‘straight jacket.’

The other is that because of the discrimination lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people continue to face, I have — for a long time — felt I had a responsibility to wear my sexuality on my sleeve, albeit as lightly as possible.

I come out even when I don’t need to because I don’t want to pull the ladder of progress up behind me.

Much of your piece focuses on the way in which identity politics has been embraced by big corporations. And here’s the thing, I’ve often had a problem with that too.

The focus of my activism in the 80s was primarily in the trade union movement. I was there organising fringe events in the background when the TUC first cracked the issue in 1985.

When the private sector started to sniff out the pink pound in earnest and became Pride sponsors more than 25 years ago, I felt quite resentful. We’d managed okay until then hadn’t we?

But as your Spectator colleague, Alex Massie, argued some years ago, the gains which ultimately emerged for us were a product of economic liberalism as well as social liberalism and indebted to the right as well as those of us on the left who blazed the trail.

You’d have some sympathy with that point of view, I guess. So when you point the finger at what the big corporations are doing now, it’s worth considering how it started. That said, I do find some of the commodification offensive. Wherever one stands on gender fluidity, branding things pink and blue feels profoundly retrograde.

But to say we’ve reached a point where the biggest problem within corporations is the fear of being labelled phobic in relation to recruitment strategies is a long way from the day to day I hear about. And if you don’t think companies should be aligning themselves with what you refer to ‘progressive orthodoxy’ I wonder what it is you think they should be doing?

Turning to the central thread of your argument — that ‘being LGBT’ (not something you can be) is now the height of respectability, I’m sorry but I just think that’s completely fanciful. Perhaps you’d like to say that, face to face, to the two women who were left battered and bloodied on the top deck of a bus on Thursday. Nobody gets beaten up BECAUSE they are straight.

If anecdote doesn’t do it for you, look at the evidence. The best measure of changing attitudes to same-sex relations is the British Social Attitudes survey which last reported on the issue in 2017. Then, 64% of respondents thought same-sex relations were not wrong at all.

That’s was a 17 percentage point increase since 2012. But it also means that 36% were not so sure, to one degree or another. Think about how that question might play out if it was about heterosexual relations and then ask if 64% is the height of respectability.

I remember being told in 1980, shortly after I first came out, that I’d done so because being gay was trendy. It was offensive nonsense then and it’s no less so now.

Lastly, what of your suggestion that you might take a leaf out of Bowra’s book? There are plenty of gay men who lived through earlier times who feel we lost something — a sense of community — as progress eroded the marginal institutions we’d built. I get that.

But straight men have never had to live a clandestine life, and nobody’s suggesting they should now. Your point about a man being more likely to get in trouble for ‘making a pass at boy rather than a girl’ doesn’t stack up.

It’s nonsense to suggest we’ve reached a stage where those you refer to as ‘white ‘cishet’ men’ can only reveal their sexual preferences in private. Rather, what Me Too has demonstrated is that the private preferences of SOME men needed to be exposed.

It isn’t being a ‘white ‘cishet’ male’ that’s ‘morally suspect.’ It’s using power inappropriately and discriminating. There’s an easy way out for men who do that. They can just stop.

One final point. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t assume this stuff is our preserve so I welcome anyone writing about it. But tone matters. If dialogue isn’t respectful, we go nowhere fast.

With best wishes,


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