During Prime Minister’s Questions, filling in for Rishi Sunak, the MP Dominic Raab responded to a question from Sir Chris Bryant about the late Paul O’Grady. Paying tribute to the comedian and drag performer, Sir Chris asked, “Isn’t it time we in this country celebrated our naughty, hilarious drag queens and comics of every kind who inspire us to be a better and more generous nation?”
The context of this question is a time when the far right is actively harassing drag performers, goaded by anti-queer rhetoric from the government and media. (Including, shamefully, the supposed progressive media such as the Guardian and BBC.)
In his response, Raab grossly mischaracterised Paul O’Grady’s politics and seemingly confused him with Paul Grayson. This is not, as has widely been reported, a simple mistake. It is fundamentally from the playbook of the right. In a complete inversion of reality and a textbook example of cynical co-opting, Raab said:
I also think it shows how we need greater, more rambunctious free speech, and we need to avoid the wokery and the limitations on comedy, which I’m afraid both of them would have had no time for.
The use of “woke” in this sense is a right-wing buzzword. The term originated in Black American circles to discuss structural racism, indicating someone awake to white supremacy’s realities in US culture and society. In the mouths of people like Raab, it becomes a way of dismissing the concerns of the marginalised more generally: concerns around hate speech, about racism, and general structural injustices, including the kinds of legislation (persecuting the Windrush generation, deporting refugees to Rwanda) that Raab’s party loudly champions.
The conservatives always play such deceptions. They confuse, they obfuscate, they muddy, because they have nothing else. If “woke” means anything, it had a divine avatar in Paul O’Grady, a life-long socialist, advocate for human and animal rights across the board, and viciously, magnificently anti-Conservative, anti-Tory (once even calling the Tories “bastards” on a day-time chat show).
He was also a ferocious representative and advocate of the LGBTQIA+ community, who had taken part in riots and protests against the abuses of the state throughout the 1980s, and was unafraid of utterly ridiculing the police for their victimisation of queer venues throughout the same era. During a period now when trans* people have come under vicious attack from the media and every major political party competing electorally in England, O’Grady showed a stalwart solidarity with his trans* brothers, sisters, and siblings.
Raab’s vicious party is currently musing on stripping the minimal protections still grudgingly afforded trans* people after overseeing four years of a 156 percent increase in hate crimes directed at trans* people (and increases in homophobic hate crimes more generally). Meanwhile, proving itself equally craven, Starmer’s opposition party fully backs the move to essentially exclude trans* people from public life altogether. The loss of a passionate advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights at this time is a tragedy, and the tarnishing of his legacy by one of the very ghouls attacking our community is unforgivable.
What Raab was attempting is what the right always attempts: to undermine the legacy of one who opposed everything Raab and his ilk stand for, to misappropriate one of our queer icons and make them an impotent caricature. People like Paul O’Grady terrify conservatives because they manifest everything they loathe:
Someone from the underclasses gaining a semblance of popular sway and influence but refusing to compromise themselves, remembering where they came from and what they experienced. Faced with such humanity, the only option left for conservatism is to lie and misrepresent. Tories and their apologists cannot sincerely celebrate the life of a man who was poison to their cherished dogmas.
And we in the LGBTQIA+ community, as well as anyone paying attention in the socialist movement, should be livid. The disrespect, the desecration, the cruelty. O’Grady was barely cold before a Tory came along to piss all over his life’s meaning and in the faces of all those he represented and spoke for. We must never forget such outrages, and in making a better world, one fit for humanity, there should be a reckoning for every vile act the likes of Raab have performed in service to an ideology fuelled by death and misery.
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