Businesses, charities, and high-profile individuals have told VICE World News they are pulling out of the UK government’s upcoming “global LGBT equality conference” because of the government’s poor record on LGBTQ rights.
Major companies such as BP and OVO Energy that were approached to sponsor the “Safe To Be Me: Global Equality Conference” are now refusing to sign up, leaving organisers with massive funding gaps just three months away from the event.
Meanwhile people involved in organising the conference have told VICE World News they hope it will be cancelled because of how “toxic” organising it is becoming.
“We’re less than three months away, and we have no speakers, no sponsorship, no budget. It’s a mess,” one staff member who wasn’t authorised to speak publicly told VICE World News.
They added: “I wish they would just cancel it, but the government has too much pride for that. Usually for events of the size they’re aiming for, we would’ve had all of this sorted 6 to 12 months ago, so I have no idea how it’s all going to come together so last-minute.”
An employee at a major UK bank threatened to quit their job if bosses went ahead with sponsoring the conference with upwards of £100,000. After months of internal discussions, the investment bank has now declined the government’s invitation following the staff push back.
VICE World News has previously uncovered a number of stories relating to the current Conservative government, which the UK’s leading LGBTQ organisations have called “concerning.” The UK’s Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch – whose department is responsible for delivering the conference – was caught calling trans women “men” in a leaked recording. Badenoch and Liz Truss – foreign secretary and minister for women and equalities – have both gone on to make several “gender critical” public statements. On Tuesday evening, hours before one of his own MPs came out as trans, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a joke about trans people in the opening of a speech.
Another person involved in planning who wasn’t authorised to speak publicly said, “This conference is a pinkwashing exercise, nothing more.”
The three-day Safe To Be Me conference is scheduled to begin in London on the 29th of June, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of London’s first official pride marches.
Google did not respond to requests for comment but is understood to still be in talks to sponsor the event. However, Vodafone, BP, Virgin Media, NBC Universal, OVO Energy and several other organisations have now refused to be involved.
Alessandro Storer, Inclusion and Diversity Lead at OVO said, “We are of course concerned by the poor track record the government has in relation to trans and gender inclusive issues, and stand in solidarity with our Trans and non binary folks and their allies.”
He added: “This is why as a company we are not supporting and will not be attending the Safe To Be Me conference later this year, which many see largely as a PR exercise by the government, with very little meaningful action or commitment to back it up."
Asked how the conference would be funded without this investment, one person involved in organising Safe To Be Me said, “Maybe the Middle East.”
The organiser, who wasn’t authorised to speak publicly, added, “People who need to pinkwash their poor treatment of LGBTQ people will probably put up the money, just to look good and get in bed with the British government. The government will stump up the shortfall.”
A sponsorship website launched earlier this year invites corporate organisations to apply.
While the government website says the team is “predominantly looking for offers of monetary sponsorship with a minimum £100,000 contribution”, VICE World News has been told that zero sponsors have currently signed up to be involved, and the event organisers are struggling to sign anyone up to putting their name alongside the government.
In return for the £100,000 sponsorship, the government is offering an “announcement” of the sponsorship agreement across government social media channels, involvement in “relevant media moments” to amplify the announcement, as well as an ability to be called an “Official Partner” and use the conference branding in future marketing campaigns.
VICE World News understands that protests and boycotts are planned by several LGBTQ charities, who have specifically asked the government to do more for LGBTQ people before they agree to help with the conference.
“Ministers have told us that if we don’t show up, the LGB Alliance will take our space instead,” a person at one group involved told VICE World News on the condition of anonymity as they want to continue working on the conference. The LGB Alliance has previously called transitioning “horrifying”.
They continued: “I don't think businesses should get involved because it’s all just window dressing. How can the UK lecture other countries about LGBTQ rights if they can’t fix things for their own communities? It's been so shoddily arranged and organised. A massive lack of preparation. I think there's a sense of panic within the Government Equalities Office.”
“One of the big problems they've got is that they've used this conference as a tool for actually doing something about LGBTQ rights. Whenever they've been challenged on specific points, they’ve talked about the conference, in place of actually doing something that makes a difference.”
Last year, Mike Freer was brought in as another Equalities Minister, but although his track record of support for the LGBTQ community is clear, his presence has not lessened the attack on trans rights from his party, or sped up a four-year-old promise to ban conversion therapy.
Originally the conference was planned for May 2020 but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Organisers at the time said privately that it was “a blessing in disguise” because things were not in place.
VICE World News asked the government a number of questions including whether any sponsors have actually signed up, whether any speakers or budgets have been sorted, and whether the conference could be postponed. In response the government said it had already secured enough internal funding for the conference to definitely go ahead.
A government spokesperson said: "The UK government is fully committed to advancing LGBT+ rights and delivering an inclusive event where everyone can feel safe. We know that in many places around the world, LGBT+ people do not have protections from violence and discrimination, the conference is seeking to address this so that we can create a world where everyone feels safe to be themselves.”
They continued: "In recent years, within the UK, we have taken great strides on LGBT+ rights, including modernising the process of applying for a Gender Recognition Certification, extending same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland, and delivering global projects to defend the rights of LGBT+ people."