Why Town Mayor was barred from LGBT+ event

Last Sunday’s Hastings Pride festival was billed as a major event in the town’s calendar – the more so because of cancellation not only of the 2020 event but also of the Brighton & Hove Pride weekend which should have taken place earlier in August. The sun shone obligingly; the costumes were colourful; the crowds were large, if not overflowing; the music line-up, themed on the 1980s and including drag artists and cabaret performers, was pitched to the target audience. Hastings Pride (HP), joint organisers with the Hastings & Rother Rainbow Alliance, promised to deliver “our biggest and best yet”.

Among the credited sponsors of the event was Hastings Borough Council; and the town’s mayor, as its formal representative, was due to officiate in the parade.

But behind the scenes an ideological battle had been raging for several weeks. Back in May, following the local borough council elections, a new mayor and deputy mayor were elected, both from the ranks of the majority Labour councillors. The local party met in advance, picked Cllr James Bacon for the main post and Cllr Ruby Cox as deputy, and instructed its body of councillors to vote accordingly in the council chamber.  Cllr Bacon was duly elected unanimously by the full 32-strong council, including Conservative and Green opposition; Cllr Cox received 31 votes, but with one abstention lodged by a newly elected Labour councillor Claire Carr.

CREDIT: Alexandra Whatley

“Transphobic posts”

Cllr Carr gave no public explanation for her abstention either in the council chamber or in the immediate aftermath. However, it soon emerged that her refusal to endorse Cllr Cox arose from what the Rainbow Alliance have described as “concerns over harmful trans-phobic posts” which the deputy had “shared on social media”. 

The Alliance say that they had “ongoing concerns about transphobia” within the local Labour party as well, and that they tried, with HP, to engage with the council to resolve them. Cllr Judy Rogers, a former mayor and current cabinet member, eventually responded, telling them that Cllr Cox had agreed to issue “a public apology”.

The apology, when it came, was framed in terms that Cllr Cox  “did not understand the complexities of the issues surrounding trans rights” in her previous sharing of a media post. This wasn’t enough for her critics. They demanded that she “acknowledge that trans men are men and trans women are women, and should be treated as such”. Cllr Cox is said to have refused.

Labour party statement

The Hastings & Rye constituency Labour party in the meantime issued a statement: “It is Labour Party policy to support trans rights, and we stand in solidarity with the trans community. The party backs self-identification and reform of the Equality Act and as a local party we will continue working to further that aim.”

Nevertheless the Alliance and Hastings Pride maintained their stance that no-one from the mayor’s office, and no councillors who voted for Ms Cox (which is all of them bar Cllr Carr), would be welcome in an official capacity at the Pride event. 

Chair of the Alliance trustees Gary Rolfe, who is also founder and facilitator of its “trans non-binary group”, said that Cllr Cox’s stance was in breach of Labour party policy (though he is not himself a member) and that council leaders were “colluding with her views”. He argues that the party “should not allow her to hold a prestigious position in the community”. She should resign forthwith and, if not, she should be disciplined by the party.

Support for Cllr Cox

Cllr Cox herself has made no public statement. However, others have used social media – in particular through the Mumsnet website – to post messages supportive of her, branding the Alliance’s demands of her as bullying and intimidation and criticising her councillor colleagues for failing to back her. Comparisons are made with Salem witch-hunts and Mao’s China, while questions are raised as to how representative the Alliance and HP are of LGBT+ people in general. One trenchant post asked “How have we got to a stage where groups like this can demand of elected representatives that they must make a statement of belief in a quasi-religious doctrine?”

Another post which gained approval states: “Pride is there to run a festival essentially. Not develop political policy and implement it.”

Several councillors including Cllr Bacon did in fact attend the Pride event on Sunday in a private capacity, and the party leadership may be hoping that the issue will fade in topicality now it has taken place. Clearly the Alliance intend otherwise. Their spokesperson Chrissy Brand said: “We will celebrate Hastings Pride on Sunday. However, the local campaign to ensure basic human rights for a vulnerable part of our LGBTQIA+ community will now ramp up. We will not rest until those that are elected to serve the people show support to some of the most vulnerable.” 

Asked how Cllr Cox could be forced to resign from her position of deputy mayor if she will not do so voluntarily, Cllr Carr made it clear that she expects the Labour leadership to take disciplinary action.

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