Updated: Sep 10
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:
- £1,500 Video Hosting (£840 + VAT to Vimeo and up to £500 for streaming on our website.)
- £700 to our editor for creating the 10 hour video
- £200 Social Media Marketing Budget (to this point we had spent our own money on this)
- £100 Web Domains / Google GDrive extra space / Other small online costs (to this point we had spent our own money on this)
- £1500 to me and my colleague. (£750 each for eight weeks work = £93.75 per week = £18.75 per day = £2.08 per hour for a 9 hour day.) "
Finalising their last reply to Jackson, Shakespeare went into detail discussing the implications of his prior support for known homophobes Farage and Toby Young, a columnist from the Spectator , a considerate right-wing magazine.
"As previously stated, we (Virtual Pride) are a team of LGBT+ people and allies passionate about the LGBT+ community and trying to do a very good thing in these very difficult times.
Although I refer to us as 'we', I am Charles Shakespeare currently writing this email on behalf of the team.My political persuasion or taste in award-winning comedians featured havilly on Netflix is not any of your business and may I remind you that whilst you can believe in someone's cause, you might not agree with everything they say. "
While this can be true, there is a level of cognitive dissonance in supporting someone who knowingly and actively hurts the community you supposedly belong to. Shakespeare even makes mention of him being attacked on Twitter for this, claiming that people had a problem that he 'appeared' straight, which was later confirmed to be accurate by Shakespeare himself.
This hit the heat when Linda Riley, previously mentioned was alerted to Shakespeare's political support for Farage & Young, emailing them their resignation as a key speaker for Virtual Pride. Out of a clear frustration with acts and speakers cancelling, Shakespeare addressed Riley's email by simply labelling them a 'political bigot' simply for resigning due to his political views. Any outspoken person and ally for the LGBTQ+ community would know of course, the damage the likes of Farage and Young have actively done to the community, specifically those belonging to ethnic backgrounds and religious minorities as well. Posting to Twitter, Riley made mention publically calling out Shakespeare's attempts to label Riley as such, and stating in a hashtag that she was #proudtobeapoliticalbigot jokingly in defence of those who have been hurt by Shakespeare's support for open homophobic views.
This led to an increased amount of drops from the event, leading many to drop the event of their calendars; resignations of performers and artists and many of the supposed supporters of the event coming out to call out Shakespeare. In particular, one of the presenters, Grant Bickell went public on Twitter with his own resignation from the event, stating that it was because of the recent information that had been made public.
When questioning Bickell about the event, he gave me a very detailed statement that was as follows:
"Charlie approached me about hosting virtual pride 2 months ago. I was only ever brought on board as a host from my portfolio of presenting experience. No payments for my work were ever discussed as I was told everyone was doing this on a voluntary basis. I was never part of the steering committee as Charlie Shakespeare as quoted. I had no decision making influence. The only conversations had were about the broadcasting side of the event. I was told by Charlie that he asked me to host the event being a gay man and he could not host as he is a straight man."
He continued, stating further that the key reasoning for his resignation was to do with the information concerning how Shakespeare and Wallder were both taking money while not engaging actively as part of the production team.
"I asked Charlie to step down and apologise publicly which he refused. So I took the decision to walk away, shortly after the event was axed. It is clear this was a money making scheme and sponsorship funds and donations were being used for personal gain. All this is based on written fact. I’m just sorry for the everyone who has been caught up on this. But the LGBTQI community should not be used and abused for financial gain"
This all came together after Birkholz on May 15th published the following tweet stating their frustrations with people politicising why he and many others had resigned from taking part in Virtual Pride.
In their video, titled 'The Pride That Never Was: Virtual Pride 2020, Controversy & Conspiracy', Birkholz illustrated a lot of the information presiding in this article, including their own personal feelings about outwardly being lied to and concerning a lot of the misinformation about his own resignation.
Talking to Birkholz, he stated that this was about more than the narrative Shakespeare had pushed out via Virtual Pride's statement suggesting that this was all about his views on Brexit and Farage/Young.
"One of my motivations for making the video was that I was so angry seeing Virtual Pride's statement and all the tweets from conservative gays blaming this on cancel culture and the politically intolerant left, when that was just one small reason and most of the story was conveniently omitted. Not to mention we were more angry at this guy's incredibly hateful, and ironically politically intolerant tweets about liberals, than the fact that the'd 'liked some Brexit tweets' as the narrative suggestions."
Birkholz also confirmed that their resignation wasn't because of Riley's 'poltically bigoted' tweet about her own interaction with Shakespeare.
"It wasn't, contrary to popular belief, because of Linda's tweets. All the press has gone after Linda, but she was very justifiably sharing her personal mistreatment at the hands of Charlie, and myself and many other performers really pulled out because of C Jackson's emails."
"When Charlie, the organiser, got in touch with me, I was like, who is this guy? He has literally no reputation in the LGBT+ world, no track record, no obvious affiliation with our community. It seemed so strange. But it wasn't until C Jackson revealed a lot of the sketchiness behind the scenes that I was like oh Christ, I need to pull out of this thing."
A day later, Birkholz returned to Twitter to inform people that he had become a recent victim of legal action from Shakespeare after having reported the video to YouTube and claiming the video was deflamatory, despite having been given a right to reply with Birkholz stating that he'd 'share his response'.
Under the Defamation Act 2013 (up to date today, 18th May 2020), reporters are able to claim the defence of being truth, honest opinion or that the story was in public interest. In claims of pursuing legal action towards Birkholz, Shakespeare in an email threatening the legal action stated that he would be discussing it with his legal team on Monday (today) and would follow suit with action. At present, Birkholz has only heard further threats of negative comments along the lines of 'how do you sleep at night' from Shakespeare, insinuating that as most evidenced by Shakespeare's run in to the Mail on Sunday with a very different story to the one Shakespeare has stated in his prior statements.
In the article, Shakespeare suggested to the Mail that 'every penny raised would have gone to Pride charities, with all production costs covered by £4,000 of sponsorship from major brands, including Lynx deodorant and Vaseline'.
"'There has been a massive smear campaign to get us cancelled. They were determined to find something, anything, to put pressure on performers to back out" Shakespeare commented.
"'As soon as Linda Riley sent that tweet, performers started dropping out like flies. Artists were contacting us apologising but said that they worried about getting gigs in the future. They were coming under pressure to pull out.' "
But as we've discovered prior to this, this simply isn't true. Many performers had heard or seen the information circuling long before Riley tweeted about Shakespeare's comments to her - something Shakespeare himself even noted in his emails to Jackson back on the 10th May 2020 that Riley was still a prominent part of the event's lineup, meaning that her tweet alone couldn't of been the scapegoating factor Shakespeare wishes it could be.
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