Throughout his early teenage years, George* self-identified as a “raging communist”. “I was one of those really weird 13-year-olds, the kind where you really feel like they shouldn’t know this much,” he laughs down a crackly phone line, recalling a childhood spent first in East London and later in South Essex. He narrates his political coming-of-age through stories of impassioned, left-wing rants at dinner parties, but as the years passed, his beliefs shifted: first to the centre, and then to the centre-right, where he now sits.
George attributes his political transition to a number of different factors. First, there was his surroundings. “I ended up going to a grammar school for sixth form, although I wouldn’t so much say they rubbed off on me,” he explains. At the time, he was still an active Labour Party member and campaigner – in his words, it wasn’t until university that Conservative friends actively influenced his views. “Perhaps I’m a product of my environment.”
Next came Jeremy Corbyn. “I went to go and see him speak,” George remembers, “and my god, I have never been so fundamentally uninterested in one man trying to say the same thing in twelve different ways.” What began as disillusionment soon became disdain, fuelled further by widespread accusations and a subsequent investigation into antisemitism amongst the Labour Party, which George describes as his “red line”. In 2018, he left Labour for good.
This shift is unique to the now 20-year-old, but it also happens to place him within a seemingly growing cohort of young, LGBT Tories in the UK. It’s hard to pinpoint exact demographics – voting data generally doesn’t take sexuality into account– but the rise of “the LGBT right wing” has been documented over the last two years in particular.
These conversations usually centre US examples (Trump’s unexpected LGBT advocates) or far-right extremists (self-proclaimed “Dangerous Faggot” Milo Yiannopolous). As a result, they necessarily over-simplify tricky discussions and erase the complexity of LGBT issues, ignoring key questions like: who exactly are these LGBT Tories? What are their precise views and beliefs? How do they reconcile voting for a party with a comparatively terrible track record of LGBT acceptance?
First, a disclaimer: this article won’t explore the rise of the gay alt-right, which has already been discussed through the lens of fascism and niche issues like “androphilia”’. Instead, it will focus predominantly on gay men – who seem to comprise of a vast majority of young LGBT Tories – and hones in on centre-right case studies as opposed to arguably far-right groups like Turning Point UK, whose social media presence is so extreme that a mental health charity of the same name had to release a public statement. This group relies on a diverse cast of problematic “influencers” champagne socialist memes and hardline politics, which have been met with controversy – and, of course, parody.
Activists like these are unlikely to change their views, but a culture of political polarisation has left many LGBT Conservatives hiding in plain sight. As a queer 26-year-old who lived first in South Yorkshire, then in Birmingham and finally in London, I realised I had never knowingly come into contact with any LGBT Tories – which likely says as much about my own left-wing echo chamber as anything else.
Even the process of researching this article was met with various roadblocks: some subjects agreed to an interview and then disappeared; even groups like LGBT Labour and LGBT Conservatives ignored several press requests. If the aim of activism is to bridge party lines and engage with opposing views, then open and transparent dialogue is a crucial tool. Privilege and emotional labour factor into this – it’s not up to marginalised groups to “debate” their existence with their oppressors – but key conversations are being missed.
Someone who was keen to chat is Luke, a 26-year-old Tory campaigner and founder of BlueBeyond, a network of regional Tory think tanks designed to pop the London-centric bubble of politics. When Esther McVey came out against LGBT-inclusive education, Luke says a members’ poll found that more than a third identified as LGBT – a figure way higher than the national average of 2%. (A further 4.7% either refused to identify or ticked “other”).
“There is something of a renewal,” he explains during a lunch break from his banking day-job. “I think the Conservatives have been slowly building popularity amongst LGBT people for a while.” This can be attributed to factors like the LGBT Action Plan and David Cameron’s introduction of same-sex marriage (although largely voted through by Labour MPs), as well as a rise in popularity amongst young people, whom Luke says are “significantly more socially liberal.” In his experience, they’re more likely to be open to “everything from abortion to gender reassignment surgery to same-sex marriage.”
Generally speaking, it’s economic policy that drives them to the right – which explains why (as always, with some exceptions) gay Tories are largely white, cisgender, middle-class men – which reflects the Conservative demographic more generally. Luke concurs that the party’s youth wing is “significantly male”; Sam*, a 21-year-old campaigner, theorises that class is less a factor than location.
Interestingly, they both describe capitalism as positive for the LGBT community; as a system which gives visibility, creates opportunities and fosters gay communities through technology. George deconstructs this further, tying capitalism’s popularity into what he describes as a largely white gay proclivity for social mobility. “There’s this desire for self-bettering,” he continues. “I consider myself working-class in terms of background, but middle-class now…I think that [aspiration] appeals.”
Queer history lecturer Justin Bengry says that this is tied to the opportunities capitalism has afforded to some LGBT people: “Capitalism has best represented and served the interests of the most economically privileged, because that’s who it is most interested in!” He argues that white, cisgender gay men like himself are more likely to favour it because they have “benefitted immensely – I see myself now generally represented in positive and affirming ways, which wasn’t always historically the case. In terms of media representation, capitalism was happy to kill off the gays or show them as pathological at one time, but that is shifting – at least for some of us.”
He asks: if white gay men are more likely to be thriving, “who is being invisibilised? Who is not seen to be active, valued members of the LGBT community? People who are economically marginalised; women; trans people; people of colour; people with any kind of disabilities. They’re not being allowed the same visibility that I am through capitalism, and that has real consequences.”
These issues are well-documented: homelessness and poverty are rife amongst lesser-privileged LGBT people, particularly as a combination of capitalism and austerity strengthen wealth inequality. I say this to Luke, who pauses thoughtfully. “You know what? I would agree with you. The access to economic capital brings so many benefits, and obviously a lack of access brings barriers. I wouldn’t be surprised if life is more difficult on the basis of your financial standing.”
Through this lens, it’s easy to dismiss LGBT Tories voting for economic policies which contribute to marginalisation as privileged and individualistic – and, particularly on social media, many do. But the issue of rainbow capitalism has never been straightforward. Corporate sponsorship can keep NGOs afloat, and Justin even cites David Johnson’s Buying Gay, whose research shows that rural US gay communities were formed at least in part in the 1950s and 1960s by queer entrepreneurs, who sold gay paraphernalia through mail order lists when it was truly radical to do so.
“We tell the story of a queer community forming out of the good fight of activism,” he says, highlighting the bias implied by many historians’ proximity to activism. “We have to question that now – in raw numbers, the number of people who were buying gay goods at a time when it was dangerous to do so, at least in the US, is far higher, and a lot of these entrepreneurs were free-market capitalists as well as gay activists. We need to revisit these complicated relationships and ask where capitalism fits into our histories.” In other words, the link between capitalism and gay activism is contentious, but they aren’t mutually exclusive.
The distinction in definition between “right-wing” in the UK and US is also important, as Luke openly tells me he wouldn’t vote for Trump. Under his presidency, trans and gay rights continue to be revoked at breakneck speed, to the extent that even the country’s largest Republican group is reluctant to endorse him. His blatantly xenophobic immigration policies and hardline religious views would arguably place further to the right of the UK political spectrum, which prefers to embed similar views in dogwhistle policies and coded racism.
But there is still political fragmentation amongst the UK’s LGBT community, best exemplified by LGBT Labour’s famous “Never Kissed A Tory” slogan. Everyone I speak to recalls being called a “traitor” at some point or another, and Luke tells me that when a guy he was messaging on a dating app found out that he was a Tory, he bluntly responded: “I don’t date arseholes.”
Blue Beyond was also behind a recent viral video, in which young Tories described being called “wankers” and “cunts” for their beliefs. Despite being widely mocked for its tinkling piano music and sympathetic angle, the video raises a valid point: straightforward insults and piss-takes can actually push people into a political vacuum.
For LGBT Tories, stereotypes amplify this tendency to close off. Luke sounds frustrated by the cultural assumption that the LGBT community is inherently left-wing. “As a gay man, I have as much political agency as anyone else,” he says. “I should be able to come to decisions on my own.”
Sam expresses similar sentiments, clarifying that he doesn’t identify with the “LGBT community”. “I don’t feel that my sexuality connects me to other LGBT people more than it does anyone else – it just changes the gender of who I’m attracted to. Luke also specifies that “stigma around being an LGBT Tory” comes largely from within the community itself, so much so that Sam now opts out of political conversations around gay friends. “I just keep quiet and sip my drink,” he laughs.
Historically, this political stereotype can be traced back to left-wing groups like ACT UP and the Gay Liberation Front, which were unapologetically radical. Comparatively conservative alternatives, like the Mattachine Society and the free-market capitalists of Buying Gay, did exist (albeit many years before the pivotal Stonewall Riots), but they fade into the background of historical accounts when compared to the more vocal, impactful left-wing activists, who primarily instigated real sociopolitical change. In this context, the characterisation of queer people as inherently left-wing is understandable.
This assumption of left-wing views extends to minorities across the board, as Kanye West found out when he received backlash for vocally supporting Donald Trump. “They tried me because of my colour who I’m supposed to pick as the president,” he said at his recent Sunday Service. “I ain’t never made a decision based on my colour. That’s a form of slavery. Mental slavery.” Although the circumstances around his politics are complicated and controversial, it’s clear that minorities with right-wing views are still seen as anomalous.
But interestingly, George – arguably the most centrist campaigner I speak to – understands the mentality behind the “traitor” accusations leveled against LGBT Tories. “It’s inescapable that the party hasn’t been the most gay-friendly, and even now it harbours social conservatives,” he says, adding that the Tory Party had moved past its “evil party of white men” reputation since the late 1990s. “I think it will liberalise quicker on LGBT issues than others, but from [a left-wing perspective], we’re actively working with people that don’t want to believe we exist –so it makes sense!”
He rightly says that no party has a flawless track record, and argues that working to change the party from within is the most effective route. George is also critical, and lays down his breaking point – namely, Dominic Cummings’ attempts to “weaponise trans rights against Labour” by implying MPs would “force it on kids. If that’s the route the party is going to take? Count me out.”
It is true that LGBT Tories are widely mis-characterised. The rise in centre-right gay supporters can be attributed to a few key factors: the opportunities afforded to white, middle-class gay men under capitalism; the frustration at being stereotyped; hostility towards opposing views from within the LGBT community; a slow shift towards more progressive policies by Tories, coupled with the steadfast belief that joining to campaign from within is the best approach. Sexuality aside, these young men share one commonality: a disdain for Corbyn, whose hardline politics have earned him support from grassroots, youth-led movements, but also driven some young people to leave.
In other words, sexuality does play a part in this conversation – but so do arguably more important factors like race, age, class, gender and general surroundings. There’s an erasure of complexity in political discussions, especially amongst marginalised groups and especially online, where screenshots of decades-old tweets are launched like missiles and nuance is eliminated by 280-character limits. The temptation to go for blood is understandable, especially if you’re being fucked over by the policies that some campaigners fight to defend. But the reality is that campaigners need to bridge party lines in order to be truly effective. By nature, this requires difficult conversations and a willingness to engage with opposing views.
“I completely see why a culture of deplatforming exists,” says George, by way of a conclusion. “Queer people of colour, trans people, working-class people have all had a really shit time at the hands of the Conservative Party, and gay Tories play a part in that. It’s understandable to want to hold someone accountable, but personally I would love to sit down and discuss it – those conversations will always be more beneficial than just ‘traitor this, traitor that.’”
Even MPs resort to playground spats and violent language, exemplifying a political climate which feels more fractured than ever. But beliefs are always malleable; they can change over time and occasionally shift when properly challenged. By propping up a culture which favours clapbacks over nuance, we’re surely doing more harm than good.