top of page

EXCLUSIVE: Race commission head Tony Sewell says sorry for anti-gay comments

The newly appointed chair of the government’s commission on race and ethnic disparities has been forced to apologise after the Guardian unearthed controversial comments, he wrote referencing “tortured queens playing hide and seek”.

The apology from Tony Sewell came after Downing Street announced the former education charity boss would lead the commission set up in the wake of the Black Lives Matters protests.

The announcement had already sparked concerns among some black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) campaigners because Sewell has previously questioned the idea of institutional racism.

But within hours, Sewell admitted he had been “wrong and offensive” to make the disparaging comments after the former footballer Justin Fashanu disclosed, he was gay in 1990.

Then a columnist for the Voice newspaper, Sewell wrote: “We heteros are sick and tired of tortured queens playing hide and seek around their closets. Homosexuals are the greatest queer-bashers around. No other group of people are so preoccupied with making their own sexuality look dirty.”

Tony Sewell will chair a 10-member panel. Image credit: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

In a statement to the Guardian, Sewell said: “I am sorry for my comments from 30 years ago which were wrong and offensive. They do not reflect my views today nor indeed the views of modern society. I am committed to championing the cause of equality and diversity across all of our communities, including for LGBT people.”

Fashanu was the first openly gay professional footballer in the UK and the world’s first £1m black footballer. He killed himself in 1998, aged 37.

Earlier, Fashanu’s friend, the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, criticised Sewell’s remarks about the footballer.

“Tony has done great work getting young black people into university and jobs, but I am alarmed by his belief that institutional racism does not exist and by his past intemperate insults against LGBT+ people,” he said.

“Many of us saw his views as homophobic. Sewell’s hostile, prejudiced reaction when the black footballer Justin Fashanu came out as gay, caused immense distress – not only to Justin but to the whole LGBT+ community and especially to black LGBTs.

Crowds cheer and wave flags during the annual Pride London Parade which highlights issues of the gay, lesbian and transgender community, in London. Image credit LUKE MACGREGOR/ REUTERS

“They felt denigrated and outcast by what he wrote in The Voice newspaper. Unless Sewell apologises and demonstrates that he does not hold homophobic views, I cannot see how he can win the confidence of the black LGBT+ community and be an impartial head of the race commission.”

Downing Street did not respond to a request for comment from the Guardian about Sewell’s comments.

The prime minister announced the commission last month, saying there was “much more that we need to do” to tackle racial injustice.

The plan had already run into controversy when it emerged that the head of Johnson’s policy unit, Munira Mirza, who has previously criticised the concept of structural racism, had been given the job of setting up the panel.

Sewell will chair a 10-member panel that includes Maggie Aderin-Pocock, the Sky at Night presenter, and Keith Fraser, the chair of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales and a former police superintendent.

Sewell runs a charity called Generating Genius, which works with BAME children to prepare them for careers in science and technology. He carried out a review of London schools when Johnson was the capital’s mayor.

Previously he has warned against the sense of “victimhood” that he believes is engendered by the notion of institutional racism, and his appointment has sparked concerns among BAME campaigners.

Image credit The Big Give Trust

Wanda Wyporska, who heads the Equality Trust charity, said Sewell’s views were seen as somewhat niche: “If the establishment wants to get a black person to head something up and align with their thoughts, we know who those people are … And the rest of us just think, ‘Oh no, not again. Another wasted opportunity for change.’ “It’s disappointing. Not just as a black person but as executive director of the Equality Trust, I know that the structural inequalities are undeniable. If you want to say the UK is a totally meritocratic society, then you have to ask why is it that almost everybody at the top happens to be a white, middle-class man, with a few women thrown in?”

Suresh Grover, who runs the Monitoring Group, which helps victims of racial violence, said Sewell’s appointment “confirms a widely held view within the UK’s BAME communities that [the commission’s] establishment is simply paying lip service to [the] deeply entrenched systemic problem of racism that exists within state institutions. It can now be regarded as a deeply hurtful and cynical exercise that has buried all hope for any meaningful and positive change for race relations in the UK.”

Sewell contributed to a piece for the 2010 edition of Prospect magazine, which said: “What we now see in schools is children undermined by poor parenting, peer-group pressure and an inability to be responsible for their own behaviour. They are not subjects of institutional racism. They have failed their GCSEs because they did not do the homework, did not pay attention and were disrespectful to their teachers. Instead of challenging our children, we have given them the discourse of the victim – a sense that the world is against them and they cannot succeed.”

Racism by Moshey/Rebloggy

He said he was not convinced by the idea that teachers had low expectations of black boys, partly leading to them underachieving. “I believe black underachievement is due to the low expectations of school leaders, who do not want to be seen as racist and who position black boys as victims,” he said.

In a 2017 column for the Sun, Sewell hit out at the then government’s race disparity audit, which lay bare inequalities in society. “Too often we have statistics which are misused in a way which casts minorities as victims of racism and white privilege,” he wrote. “I believe it’s an attempt by the Tory party to shed its nasty party image and the prime minister [Theresa May] to place herself to the left of centre in her party.”

He claimed the report was “overly pessimistic”, adding: “I’m not denying that racism exists, but why should we think that race alone is the key factor when accessing public services? For government ministers to use emotive terms like ‘racial injustice’ without acknowledging the many underlying factors creates a false perception of victim status.”

Asked whether Sewell’s views on institutional racism were shared by No 10, Johnson’s spokesman said: “The PM’s view is that he’s asked the commission to examine inequality in the UK across the whole population and he’s very pleased to have assembled a group of talented and diverse commissioners who each bring a wealth of experience across a range of important sectors.”

Source: The Guardian


bottom of page