Updated: Sep 10, 2020
Announced roughly 8 weeks ago on March 24th via Twitter, Virtual Pride became a well known event in the making for the LGBTQ+ community to come together digitally during the coronavirus pandemic. However, earlier this week news was shared that one of the organisers was a prominent supporter of far-right political idols such as Toby Young & Nigel Farage who are known publically to the community as propelling homophobic rhetoric. But many commentators about the current situation in the community have stated that the organisers support for a "cleanbreak Brexit" wasn't the majority of the issue at hand. So what is the truth? In order to outline everything that has led up to this, lets set up a timeline of sorts.
Notice: All parts of this story have been corroborated and sourced from people involved in the aftermath and is simply to establish any and all factualised information. If you do have any concerns or queries please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Timeline of events: 2019
Back in January 2019 efforts began by Charles Shakespeare, Artistic Director for Colour House Children's Theatre in the London Borough of Merton, alongside his boss Peter Wallder who runs the Merton Abbey Mills where CHCT is located, for preparations to create a proposal to the local Merton Borough Council for Merton's first ever pride event. Word was sent around locally, and the proposal for the event was eventually picked up by the Merton LGBT+ Forum who then requested to discuss it further with Shakespeare.
Secretary of Merton LGBT+ Forum, Patrick Lyster-Todd stated in an email interview to myself that he provided advice to Shakespeare concerning some issues with the event which were as follows:
1)That if the event was called 'Wimbeldon Pride' (it's original name before becoming Merton Pride) that the event wouldn't get support from the London Borough of Merton, but that there was no reasons why a Wimbeldon Pride couldn't happen but it would be better to include the entirety of the borough to be more inclusive.
2) The event needed to be 'owned by the local LGBT+ community to ensure that the interests of the community were at the heart of the event to simply assure that the events governance kept on task and on history of the meaning of pride to the community.
3)The original date for the 'Wimbeldon Pride' event was a tall order, as Shakespeare originally wanted it to be held in 2019 - a solid 4 months from the proposal created for the event.
Most pride events are created/planned ahead of the June/July month a solid year in advance to allow for preparation times, proposal meetings, recruitment and so forth. But what seems interesting to me as a mere outsider to this situation looking in is that there was from what I've understood and examined of the situation, a supposed rush to get the event out there.
Patrick continued stating that he had 'heard little more for several months until around April or May when he (Shakespeare) got back in touch with me to say that 'yes, it was too soon to raise the sponsorship for the event'
According to Patrick, Shakespeare had agreed to defer till 2020 for the event, meeting with the local council leader, Councillor Stephen Alambritis, who make it clear from the outset that the council would only support the event if it became Merton Pride.
"What subsequently happened across the rest of 2019 and into 2020 is a complex story, but can be summarised by saying that the Council and the Forum insisted on there being a Merton Pride Steering Committee, which at first, Mr Shakespeare and Mr Wallder couldn't really see the need for them to become members of" Patrick explained.
"Gradually, it became increasingly clear that Merton Pride was to be an event entirely organised and managed by Mr Shakespeare and Merton Abbey Mills - with the steering committee little more than a fig-leaf"
Paraphrasing from the interview, it became clear to me from Patricks words that according to the Merton LGBT+ Forum and by extension the Borough Council, there was some considerate unease after certain events took place, included but not limited to discussions of a pride parade from Wimbeldon Centre to Merton Abbey Mills. Patrick furthered this, by stating that by their estimates - and considering an agreed £20,000 to be provided for the event from the Borough council - a parade just wasn't possible given the funding. Things apparently escalated when it all 'came to a head' as Patrick told me more about the events that followed from this at the start of 2020.
The Timeline of events: Early 2020
"The Council and Forum recieved a demand amongst other things that £18,000 of the Council's funding be paid to Merton Abbey Mills by the following week and that Merton Abbey Mills have an exclusive first refusal right to run the event for the next 5 years"
Patrick further confirmed for me that these demands weren't acceptable to both the Council and Forum. He later stipulated that there was also a sudden 'parachuted' last meeting of the Steering Committee that was made of Shakespeare & Walder and many members from both the Council and Forum.
"Our chairs at that time were Cllr Laxmi Attawar, Cabinet Member for Women and Equalities, and Ms Pinar Egincan, Chair of Merton LGBT+ Forum" Patrick stated.
Days after this last meeting, the Community Interest Company designated Merton Pride CIC was formed by Patrick, with an official website domain; ownage of the name 'Merton Pride' and exclusive and official support of both the Council and Forum following an attempted takeover of the event as previously stated.
Patrick continued, stating that any contact with Shakespeare was abandoned, and so too was Shakespeare's own idea of running Merton Pride.
"Not unexpectedly, any plans to hold a 'Merton Pride' at the Colour House Theatre and Merton Abbey Mills in 2020 was abandoned - both due to the pandemic, but also as I suspect a lack of local funding or sponsorship, and shortly afterwards we believe the same team set up Virtual Pride" Patrick concluded.
The Timeline of events: May 2020
Announced on the 24th March 2020, Virtual Pride was birthed onto the online community, giving many an ounce of hope for a way to officially celebrate the beginning of Pride Month, with the announcement including a date for the event. Though meagre in engagement to begin with, the event eventually would catapult to have speakers and performers such as Divina Di Campo, RuPaul Drag Race UK contestant and drag queen, and Linda Riley, Publisher of DIVA Magazine.
However, in the weeks following the announcement, concerns were brought to light by a Mx. C Jackson via emails to Shakespeare about some dubiously dodgy oversights, beginning 10th May 2020. In the emails, Jackson begun by asking Mr Wallder at first about the correlation between CHT & Virtual Pride, given that on the website at the time the charity number assigned in the sites footer was to Colour House Theatre who have charity status.
"...CHT does not mention LGBT equality or human rights in its charitable objects and so it is unclear how Virtual Pride 2020 contributes to their charitable aims" Jackson proclaimed.
The emails were also copied to the Fundraising Regulator, Just Giving & Unilever, one of the events key sponsors. In reply to Jackson's concerns, Shakespeare was forwarded the email by his colleague Wallder, and begun his reply as follows:
"Virtual Pride is being organised by the team who were working on the first ever Merton Pride in South London, to take place this summer. Merton Pride was due to be made into a CIC (Community Interest Company) a few weeks after we went into lockdown, meaning this was never never finalised and will now go on hold until 2021 when we produce our first event.
The Merton Pride Team is based out of Colour House Children's Theatre which is a registered charity. When our sponsors came on board and built the website they decided it would be best to include a charity at the bottom of the website and this was decided to be Colour House Children's Theatre as the leading team are based there. This was a mistake and has now been changed on the website and there is now no mention of the theatre."
Shakespeare continued addressing Jackson's question concerning 'what percentage of funds donated to Virtual Pride will be donated to LGBTQ+ organisations' to which Shakespeare replied:
"As now clearly stated on the website all money raised will be split equally between the Pride organisations taking part in Virtual Pride. These include Bristol Pride, Cumbria Pride, Merton Pride, Norwich Pride and Weston-super-Mare Pride."
Jackson continued on in the email later to request confirmation if any money would be taken by CHT, with Shakespeare offering a laissez-faire response 'Answer Above' without insinuating too much as to neither confirm or deny that CHT would in fact be taking funding.
Jackson also requested information if any individual would recieve pay for their involved, to which Shakespeare noted:
"The sponsorship money for Virtual Pride is covering the expensive costs of web video hosting. The production crew (unavoidable costs) will be paid expenses for their time from the small amount of remaining sponsorship money. But, as clearly stated from day one, all money raised will go to the Pride organisations above"
In a seperate email reply to Bradley Birkholz, an LGBTQ+ activist & YouTuber (who we will address soon) scheduled originally to take part in the event, Shakespeare himself confirmed a breakdown of the sponsorship with Superdrug, suggesting to Birkholz that £1,500 of the sponsorship money would be paid directly to himself and Mr Wallder, irreversably forgetting his prior statement evidenced above that the event was made up of "LGBTQ+ volunteers" who were seemingly unpaid as all the money involved outside of funding and costs would be going directly to the event, and money raised to the charities stated above.
The breakdown of the sponsorship money was as follows from Shakespeare's own reply to Birkholz:
"Our breakdown for the £4,000 pounds was: