Belfast Telegraph

National Trust volunteers who refused to give in to bullying are the real heroes of Pride debacle

The charity’s U-turn over workers having to wear badges is a victory for tolerance, writes Nelson McCausland.

Last week we saw a victory for diversity, inclusivity and tolerance.

That victory came when the National Trust withdrew its demand for volunteers at one of its properties in England to wear a “gay pride” badge, with the Trust logo superimposed on a “gay pride” flag and a lanyard in the “gay pride” colours.

This happened at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk and, initially, the volunteers — many of whom are elderly — were told that they must wear the emblems while they were at work.

Some of them objected to this instruction and refused to wear the badges.

The instruction to the volunteers was part of the National Trust’s year-long Prejudice and Pride programme to explore LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) heritage.

Felbrigg Hall was handed over to the National Trust in 1969 by the historian Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer. Now the National Trust and some researchers claim that he was homosexual and have taken it upon themselves to ‘out’ him, an action that had been criticised by some of his relatives, who say he would not have wanted that.

The story appeared in the national media and there was widespread criticism of the National Trust, even from some gay activists. Meanwhile, the volunteers were told that if they refused to wear the symbols they would not be allowed face-to-face interaction with the public.

That outrageous demand that volunteers must wear the symbols, the attempts to justify it and then the withdrawal of the demand, raised a lot of questions and provided lessons we would do well to learn.

I write this as someone who visits a lot of National Trust properties across the United Kingdom, and I was appalled by the way in which the Trust initially treated these volunteers, some of whom were very distressed by the issue.

Volunteering is something that should be valued and encouraged and volunteers should not be subjected to the sort of disrespect, coercion and humiliation we saw from the National Trust.

Thirty volunteers at Felbrigg refused to wear the “gay pride” badge and they deserve credit for standing by their convictions in spite of the bullying attitude of the National Trust.

Annabel Smith, the Trust’s head of volunteering and participation development, tried to justify its stance by saying that volunteers sign up to the organisation’s “founding principles” of promoting equality of opportunity and inclusion.

However, since the National Trust was founded in 1895 and the National Trust Act was passed in 1907, I doubt if we will find much of that contemporary terminology in any of the founding documents.

It is true that the motto of the National Trust is ‘For ever, for everyone’, but that refers to the preservation of historic buildings and beautiful landscapes.

Moreover, does the ‘everyone’ not include those volunteers who do not wish to wear a “gay pride” badge? Or do they not count?

There was also an attempt to argue that there was a homosexual element in some of the family stories associated with its properties, but all family stories are fairly complex and that doesn’t explain either the overall Trust initiative, or what happened at Felbrigg.

I suspect that different volunteers will have had different reasons for refusing to wear the badges, but whatever their reasons they should be commended for their stand.

Moreover, their stand will hopefully make it easier for others who may find themselves in similar situations.

Those volunteers are the real heroes of the story. It is easy to go with the flow, but it takes courage to stand up to an organisation as powerful as the National Trust.

We need more of that courage today — especially in the face of a tidal wave of intolerance by the so-called liberal-Left, who are so often illiberal and intolerant.

In the end the National Trust backed down and said that the badges were “optional”.

This was a victory for diversity, inclusivity and tolerance. It was also an important public recognition that across society there are a variety of views on LGBTQ issues and how they should be handled.

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