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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Paul O’Grady was one of the kindest and fiercest human beings I ever had as a friend. He was supportive and encouraging and when I was doing the circuit of pubs in London we were regularly on stage together. You see I was Lilly’s stalker. It started when I first met Paul as Lilly in the Royal Oak Hammersmith one Sunday night when Lilly was doing her thing. I was a socialist feminist with a history of having been a rad fem one so drag was definitely not my thing. I went for lunch and was going to leave but a female friend told me if I missed Lilly I would never forgive myself. Mumbling what I now know was “She is going to love you” as she walked to the bar. I had a massive bag my dad had bought me for Uni. It was the colour of pucked-up putty” Lilly named it” and was about 80cns by 80cms and had a long across-the-body handle. I gave it to someone leafleting at Kings Cross once and never saw it again. It was hideous but blow me it did the job. So there I was sitting at the front light blue baggy rolled-up jeans white T-shirt rolled up sleeves, are you getting the picture? Monkey boots rainbow laces cropped hair and glasses round, Thinking to myself “I am not laughing” and “If I hear one fecking fish joke I will kill him”. The PP bag was on the floor in front of me when the music came on and Then in walked what I could only describe as the most sparkly drag act I had ever seen. Massive white hair eyelashes like a giraffe and legs to match. Twinset and tight skirt. with pearls. Very ordinary if were not for the fact they were bloody lurex. She would have been ripped to shreds in a world cup VIP section by the WAGS for a look at the fingernails. Then she opened her gob and I was in love. The first words out were irreverent about Thatcher the most wonderfully colourful adjectives regarding Norman Tebbet and Anne Widdicombe would have been fuscia had she been there to hear her nickname. All of this is delivered in a broad deep sandpapered by nicotine scouse accent. There ensued 20 minutes of my life where I laughed so much my ribs hurt. Then one of the guys going to the loo tripped over the bag… Like a rattlesnake seeing a mouse she whipped round and said “Oi you is that with you? I said it was ready to be flayed alive for nearly killing some poor lad. but no my fate was far worse. “Bring it up here and gis a look” I did what I was told. “Do you use this for shoplifting luv? Me “No not yet but it’s an idea though” Well she leaned back on one side waggled her shoulders and mimicked a very posh London accent repeating my words. I replied “I don’t actually speak like that” Again the shoulders the mimicry but added “do n’tcha” at the end. By this time the bar was silent everyone is looking at me with their eyes saying “RRRRRRUUUUUUUUNNNNN!!!!!” But they did not know me and I can’t run it was not in me. Everyone got a fight or flight response and I did too but I just was never able to switch mine on so my standard operating procedure when faced with a comic on a stage is !Go with the flow” It’s been like that since my parents took me to St Leonard’s on sea when I was 6 and I became part of the ventriloquist show. Back to the show. Lilly asked what was in the bag because she didn’t want to take anything personal of mine out of posh voice again “Like Lady’s accouterment” only pronounced accutreemont. I said, “No your all right I don’t bleed again until next Wednesday and I was going home early so no clean drawers either”. This kind of back-and-forth went on for about 15 minutes until I said could I have a private word we went to the side of the stage where I whispered to Paul I needed the loo and Lilly made a huge scene by calling me a “dirty slut and telling me to get out” which I did at the side exit only for everyone to see me go to the ladies when I did and roar laughing. After they finished Paul asked for me and then took loads of my posters and leaflets and said he would drop them on his rounds and at work at Camden Council. I was delighted and very grateful. He also gave me his number at home to let him know about fundraisers. He came to many of them and I appeared at a lot of his pub gigs. He was generous to a fault and gave the most lovely hugs. But above all, he was a fighter for any underdog, kid or adult and his hate of the Tories was renowned. He would say to me after taking leaflets and posters ” Give ’em here kid I’ll stick ’em up cos they’re bloody Tories in here and they won’t dare rip ’em down if I do it. He did it and he was right they never touched them. I saw them up months later. Life moved on I went to Uni he got famous but I always saw the same person on TV that had an Irish and a fag with her stalker and talked cats and dogs and how to rid us of Tories permenantly.