Wa­heed Alli



Gay rights cham­pion, fash­ion en­tre­pre­neur, tele­vi­sion pro­ducer, Mem­ber of the UK’s House Of Lords, Left-wing mul­ti­mil­lion­aire, out gay Mus­lim… Sit­ting op­po­site cor­re­spon­dent Tim Benzie to know ex­actly where to be­gin. >>

In the UK, Baron Alli is not nearly as well-known as he should be, given his as­ton­ish­ing ré­sumé and the na­tion’s ob­ses­sion with celebrity. For a gen­er­a­tion, he’s been at the fore­front of gay rights in the UK – he should be men­tioned in the same breath as Peter Tatchell.

The first openly gay peer in the House Of Lords, Baron Alli was ap­pointed by then-Prime Min­is­ter Tony Blair in 1998, as part of a clique known as “Tony’s Cronies”. Alli cam­paigned to over­turn Sec­tion 28, leg­is­la­tion en­acted in 1986 dur­ing Mar­garet Thatcher’s gov­er­nance to pre­vent the “pro­mo­tion of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity”. (As a shock­ing point of ref­er­ence, young read­ers, sim­i­lar laws were in­tro­duced in Rus­sia last year). Alli then fought to equalise the age of con­sent, re­move dis­crim­i­na­tion in em­ploy­ment and he won the fight for gay mar­riage.

When the gay mar­riage law passed through the House Of Commons, there were at­tempts to scup­per the leg­is­la­tion by pro­vid­ing amend­ments, most no­tably to dis­tin­guish be­tween same-sex and op­po­site-sex mar­riage. Baron Alli was cool, de­ter­mined and com­pletely de­light­ful. Dur­ing one de­bate, with the campily named (but not so in­clined) Lord Dear, Lord Alli said, “I am a lit­tle con­fused about what Lord Dear has in mind when talk­ing about tra­di­tional mar­riage. Mar­riage not just pre­dates Chris­tian­ity, but is found in many dif­fer­ent cul­tures and tra­di­tions and, as has been said, in many dif­fer­ent forms. As an aside, the no­ble Lord may be in­ter­ested to know that in an­cient Rome, Em­peror Nero was mar­ried to a man – a fine tra­di­tion, in my view, but per­haps not what the no­ble Lord had in mind.”

When the bill fi­nally passed, the cheers of ac­tivists and sup­port­ers out­side could be heard in­side the House. The crowd in­cluded yours truly, so it feels par­tic­u­larly spe­cial to be din­ing with some­one who helped make it pos­si­ble. Yet his po­lit­i­cal life is only part of the story, which in­cludes com­ing out as a gay Mus­lim, pro­duc­ing ground-break­ing TV (in­clud­ing the first Sur­vivor), found­ing fash­ion web­sites (Asos.com) and mak­ing a name (and for­tune) for him­self in fi­nance when he was only in his twen­ties.

With gay mar­riages now able to com­mence in the UK, we start with the fu­ture. Are we near­ing the end of the jour­ney for gay rights in the UK at least? Is get­ting gay mar­ried in a church the next hur­dle? This par­tic­u­lar bat­tle is one of the few that Baron Alli has lost. He puts down the menu. “That was a jour­ney. Are we at the end of it? No. I think you’re right about the churches. The churches op­posed civil part­ner­ships in 2006, par­tic­u­larly the Church Of Eng­land. When gay mar­riage came along, they said no, we’re for civil part­ner­ships.

“And I thought, well, be­fore the idea of gay mar­riage came along, none of you were for civil part­ner­ships. So I said this to the Church: if you are so for civil part­ner­ships – where is the liturgy? Where are the bless­ings for the civil part­ner­ships in your Church? Why aren’t civil part­ner­ships al­lowed in your re­li­gious build­ings? Don’t tell me you’re for it, be­cause you’re not.

“So the work we have to do is to get them to ac­cept civil part­ner­ships in the Church Of Eng­land and then move into gay mar­riage. Whereas the United Re­form Church, the Quak­ers, the lib­eral Jews, they’ll go straight to gay mar­riage. And I love them for it.”

It’s ex­cit­ing to hear a politi­cian speak openly about his re­la­tion­ship with re­li­gious or­gan­i­sa­tions and how they might be changed. Baron Alli oc­cu­pies a par­tic­u­larly in­cen­di­ary pub­lic po­si­tion as the first openly gay peer and one of very few openly gay Mus­lims in UK pub­lic life. I’m cu­ri­ous to know whether he thinks Is­lam could move to­wards a long-lost tra­di­tion of ijti­had (a prac­tice of schol­arly ques­tion­ing and de­bate) and away from fun­da­men­tal­ism. But he po­litely de­clines to com­ment.

It’s un­der­stand­able, but it’s a shame. Through­out the in­ter­view Baron Alli will prove an ar­tic­u­late critic of the dan­gers of re­li­gious in­ter­ven­tion in civil laws and praises the UK for its sep­a­ra­tion of church and state. Ex­am­ples will be raised of ex­cesses in other coun­tries – but no men­tion of Is­lamic states in which gay men and les­bians can legally be ex­e­cuted. In re­sponse to the ques­tion: “What can we do for our Mus­lim broth­ers and sis­ters,” he sim­ply replies, “Be fab­u­lous.”

Per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, Alli in­sists that, “the state has made the changes, the churches haven’t.” It seems clear that, by and large, the state is where he is pre­pared to fight his bat­tles. “The state says you can have gays in the mil­i­tary now, but you still won’t have a gay bishop. They won’t have a woman bishop.” He rolls his eyes. “The same ar­gu­ments that keep women out are the same ar­gu­ments that keep out gay men. And you and I know they have gay bish­ops. They have gay clergy. They just won’t al­low them to be open, of­fi­cially. Or they’ll al­low them to be open but not of­fi­cially. It’s so hyp­o­crit­i­cal.”

What about the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion Down Un­der? His work life is in the UK, but Baron Alli has bought a home in Syd­ney and vis­its of­ten, demon­strat­ing a pas­sion­ate, in­formed in­ter­est. Was he sur­prised that the erst­while La­bor leader in Aus­tralia did not sup­port gay mar­riage, while it was pushed into law in the UK by David Cameron, a Con­ser­va­tive Prime Min­is­ter? Are the days when gay ac­tivists had to look to the Left now over?

“Tony Blair changed that dy­namic in this coun­try. He made the cen­tre ground broad enough to en­com­pass the Con­ser­va­tives, and the Labour and the lib­eral par­ties. And that’s what you have to do.”

He is, not sur­pris­ingly, glow­ing about Tony Blair. Re­gard­less of any sub­se­quent tar­nish­ing to the Prime Min­is­ter’s place in his­tory, Alli cites his proud­est po­lit­i­cal mo­ment as be­ing all about Blair. “In 1998 we were do­ing >>

It was my first speech in the House Of Lords. I stood up and I talked about what it was like to be gay – I was the first openly gay peer. It was slightly nervewrack­ing.

>> the equal­i­sa­tion of the age of con­sent and it was my first speech in the House Of Lords. And I stood up and I talked about what it was like to be gay – I was the first openly gay peer. It was slightly nerve-wrack­ing.

“I fin­ished my speech and sat down and I thought I’d changed the minds of people. We voted and I couldn’t yet tell how the sys­tem worked. I was so new. I didn’t re­alise we’d lost the vote. When the Lord Chan­cel­lor stood up and said these are the re­sults and we lost, I felt phys­i­cally sick. The leader of the House Of Lords was a woman called Baroness Mar­garet Jay and she stood up and said, ‘My Lords, my right hon­or­able friend the Prime Min­is­ter has in­structed me to in­form this House that for only the sec­ond time this century, will he in­voke the Par­lia­ment Act to en­sure safe pas­sage of this bill on the statute books.’

“And I sat back and thought ‘okay, one per­son can make a dif­fer­ence in pol­i­tics’. He [Tony Blair] didn’t have to do that. He could have done what Clin­ton did and backed away from gays in the mil­i­tary. Said ‘I’ve ful­filled my man­i­festo prom­ise, I gave a vote in par­lia­ment’.

“And in that one mo­ment I’m proud­est of him. It said to all the people on the other side, it said to ev­ery­body – I’m gonna do this and it is a po­lit­i­cal con­vic­tion, not po­lit­i­cal pos­tur­ing. That made people un­der­stand he was se­ri­ous. It made ev­ery­one else in the Labour move­ment brave. And that is the thing I’m proud­est of.”

A brave Labour move­ment? At the time, yes. It’s some­thing that seems only a dream in Aus­tralia. Then Alli, de­spite his com­mit­ted Leftie cre­den­tials, of­fers an as­ton­ish­ing en­dorse­ment. “I look at Aus­tralian pol­i­tics – the great hope has to be Mal­colm Turn­bull. It has to be. Here’s some­body that is of the Right, who demon­strates so clearly that the val­ues of equal­ity don’t be­long just to the Left, but sit slap bang in the cen­tre. When you had Ju­lia Gil­lard [for­mer Aus­tralian Prime Min­is­ter] who wouldn’t vote for gay mar­riage and you have Mal­colm Turn­bull who will, well, that’s what we need. Of course al­ways us on the Left, we have to do the heavy lift­ing. And the Right are a bit like the Amer­i­cans in the war – they come in last and take the glory. But we have to let them do that.”

Of cur­rent Aus­tralian PM, Tony Ab­bott, he adopts an hi­lar­i­ous pity­ing tone. Ab­bott is “a prod­uct of his gen­er­a­tion” and “the eas­i­est way for the Aus­tralian La­bor Party to win is to keep him in there.” Yet he’s equally scathing of the ALP. “Di­vided par­ties get thrown out. It’s a les­son. Love or loathe Kevin Rudd, he di­vided a party that made it im­pos­si­ble for Ju­lia to gov­ern. The big loser wasn’t Kevin Rudd or Ju­lia Gil­lard: it was the La­bor Party. With any po­lit­i­cal party – the more you talk about your­selves, the less likely you are to be elected.”

For Alli, the road to vic­tory means you need to do more lis­ten­ing to the people’s con­cerns, and that means it’s not pos­si­ble to skip over im­mi­gra­tion. “I don’t un­der­stand how so much time is spent dis­cussing 6,000 people a year. Re­ally? Six thou­sand people a year?” The jour­ney also in­volves some­thing he ad­mits is “a hor­ri­ble thing” Aus­tralians will have to face. “To win this bat­tle, we’re go­ing to have change his [Ab­bott’s] mind. Not just to force him, we have to change his mind. That’s the vic­tory.”

So we’ve sorted out the UK and Aus­tralia and it’s time for the main course. What about the rest of the world? Given the mas­sively in­creased aware­ness of gay rights abuses glob­ally, what should in­di­vid­ual gay men and les­bians be do­ing? “There are two things,” he says. “We have to fix our own coun­tries. And then we have to sup­port other gay men and les­bians in those coun­tries. I think there is a spe­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity on the gay com­mu­nity to start be­ing less do­mes­ti­cally fo­cused. With Rus­sia and In­dia – these are not good things, and we need to be much more united. “For the first time we are en­gaged in a con­ver­sa­tion, much more than I’ve ever known be­fore. People are talk­ing about Rus­sia. And what hap­pened in In­dia. And where you can get mar­ried in the United States. Sud­denly there’s a di­a­logue again and it’s not just about your own coun­try.”

Yes, but what can we do? “You have to make your voices heard more. Which means more money, more cam­paign­ing, more can­vass­ing and more demon­stra­tions. It means broad­en­ing out be­yond just our cau­cus group. It means hav­ing a pow­er­ful lob­by­ing group. And then it’s the re­spon­si­bil­ity of, I think, po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, gay po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, to get to­gether and start work­ing on in­ter­na­tional stuff. There’s an al­liance that needs to be built but it’s not there yet.”

Larry Kramer once said that one of the things that has ham­pered gay rights glob­ally is the lack of a sin­gu­lar leader, al­though he has re­fused to ac­cept any such man­tle him­self. This re­mains true – the film Milk might have brought one par­tic­u­lar Amer­i­can hero to a global au­di­ence, but we don’t have a fig­ure­head with the his­tor­i­cal clout of a Mal­colm X or a Betty Friedan. Is hav­ing a leader still nec­es­sary? “You need lead­er­ship and you need a plan. And for that there is prob­a­bly a need for a leader. The prob­lem is it’s a com­pli­cated thing. You know, our move­ment dis­si­pates when we’ve got what we want. We come to­gether for a rea­son. When the rea­son dis­ap­pears we’re right back to where we are.”

Alli is quite the art­ful dodger. He’s a mes­meris­ing mix of charm and eli­sion, of forth­right claims and opaque par­ries. He’s clearly an ex­pe­ri­enced politi­cian, al­though when he be­gan his ca­reer he freely ad­mits he had lit­tle idea what he was do­ing.

It’s this bright-eyed enthusiasm and lack of fear that saw him thrive in the City of Lon­don in the 1980s, work­ing >>

We have to sup­port gay men and les­bians in those coun­tries. I think there’s a spe­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity on the gay com­mu­nity to start be­ing less do­mes­ti­cally fo­cused. Baron Alli on Aus­tralian pol­i­tics: “Mal­colm Turn­bull… is some­body of the Right, who demon­strates that the val­ues of equal­ity don’t be­long just to the Left.”

>> his way up from ju­nior re­searcher on a fi­nance mag­a­zine (earn­ing £40 a week) to a ca­reer in in­vest­ment bank­ing, in what was surely a largely ma­cho en­vi­ron­ment. Was it tough? “The City in­sti­tu­tions were ter­ri­bly ho­mo­pho­bic then. Less so now. There were no gay CEOs of FTSE 100 com­pa­nies, there were no gay boards of di­rec­tor, there was no openly gay per­son in busi­ness. You couldn’t find them.”

That was up high – but on the ground level? “When I was in my twen­ties I avoided the sub­ject. And we all know how to do it very ef­fec­tively, with­out ly­ing. But un­der­neath, there’d be re­sent­ment and fear of be­ing dis­crim­i­nated against,” he says, ad­mit­ting that in the early years, com­ing out might have stunted his ca­reer pro­gres­sion. “So one of the laws I changed was the em­ploy­ment law. In this coun­try you could be fired for be­ing gay, up un­til 1999. I mean on no other grounds – just for be­ing gay. And I man­aged to change the law – ex­cept for the Church. You can still be fired from the Church, with­out any re­course, for be­ing gay. Which I think is scan­dalous.”

Tele­vi­sion was the next big ca­reer move, a sec­tor that was some­what less ho­mo­pho­bic. Alli laughs. “It’s quite hard to be straight in tele­vi­sion. I mean it’s just the gayest place in the world.” With his busi­ness part­ner and then boyfriend Char­lie Parsons, Alli was at the coal­face of Bri­tish tele­vi­sion. Parsons and Alli formed Planet 24 Pro­duc­tions in 1992 with Sir Bob Geldof and cre­ated shows such as the beloved The Big Break­fast and The Word.

It’s hard to de­scribe the im­pact of these shows in the UK, but The Big Break­fast was wa­ter-cooler morn­ing tele­vi­sion that in­cluded a bed on which host­ess Paula Yates would con­duct in­ter­views, such as her flirty first con­tact with Michael Hutchence. The Word proved al­most as scan­dalous, a late night chat show with a seg­ment aimed at people who proved they would do any­thing to be on tele­vi­sion – such as lick­ing the sweat off fat people.

Parsons and Alli also made tele­vi­sion that much gayer by in­tro­duc­ing the world to gay nud­ist Richard Hatch, who went on to win the first US sea­son of Sur­vivor. Yes, they de­vised the show from a for­mat they ini­tially tri­aled in Swe­den. How on earth did they come up with it? “We did a doc­u­men­tary putting four celebri­ties on an is­land for a week with­out any of their com­forts. And it was so amaz­ing to watch. It had those pol­i­tics and it was play­ful, too. It was ac­ces­si­ble. So we thought – could you struc­ture the game, but make it real? And Char­lie came up with 16 people, desert is­land, mil­lion dol­lars. Ge­nius.

“I like tele­vi­sion. I like mak­ing it, I like com­ing up with the ideas. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been able to work in the three businesses and be very suc­cess­ful in each of them. I like pol­i­tics and be­ing able to change things, but I like watch­ing tele­vi­sion and I like shop­ping.”

I go to lots of coun­tries that I love vis­it­ing, but I could be in prison for 25 years for hav­ing gay sex. I can have life im­pris­on­ment in In­dia for oral sex!

The cou­ple split af­ter twenty years, but re­main close. They own houses to­gether and Char­lie has since founded Char­lie Parsons Cre­ative, a bou­tique in­vest­ment com­pany whose port­fo­lio in­cludes Gay­dar. Alli has kept up his TV in­ter­ests, cur­rently man­ag­ing Paul O’Grady (aka drag per­son­al­ity Lily Sav­age) and head­ing up chil­dren’s TV pro­duc­tion com­pany Sil­ver Gate Me­dia. From 2003 to 2011 he was chair­man of me­dia com­pany Cho­rion, which held the broad­cast rights to the works of Enid Bly­ton and Agatha Christie. It’s ex­cit­ing to meet an­other avid Christie fan/nerd and we’re soon com­par­ing notes.

His favourite Poirot is David Suchet, his pre­ferred Marple is Joan Hick­son. The best books are those that take Poirot out of his com­fort zone, like Mur­der In Me­sopotamia, but he also adores the Marple mys­tery 4:50 From Padding­ton. When I con­fess that my prized pos­ses­sion as a 12-year-old was The Agatha Christie Who’s Who, he laughs. “You bought the Who’s Who – I bought the com­pany!” We laugh, and it echoes across the so­cioe­co­nomic chasm that has formed be­tween us.

It hadn’t been for­got­ten that Baron Alli is bonkers wealthy. His many projects in­clude the re­cent sale of half his stock in the fash­ion web­site Asos.com (for what is es­ti­mated at £15m) and he’s cur­rently set­ting up an equiv­a­lent site in In­dia, called Koovs. So far, he says, the re­sults have been “spec­tac­u­larly suc­cess­ful”.

He of­fers an apologetic smile across the chasm and continues. “I re­gret sell­ing it [the rights to Agatha Christie], but only for sen­ti­men­tal rea­sons. As a re­sult of the com­pany I have a se­lec­tion of first edi­tions and they’re lovely to read. As my treat over Christ­mas I’ll read The Ad­ven­tures Of The Christ­mas Pud­ding [a collection of Poirot short sto­ries].” It’s a tremen­dously Bri­tish im­age: Alli dressed as he is now (im­mac­u­lately in a suit and tie with a touch of tweed) sat by a fire­place read­ing sto­ries from a Christie first edi­tion. De­spite be­ing Is­lamic, he loves Christ­mas and cel­e­brates it with his en­tire fam­ily.

It can’t al­ways have been this rosy. Was com­ing out dif­fi­cult? “I’m afraid mine was trauma-free, partly be­cause I felt so in­de­pen­dent. My fa­ther left my mother when I was 16. So I had to go out and work. So al­ready I was put in a po­si­tion where I was in­de­pen­dent. And my home life was dif­fer­ent, so I could be who I wanted to be.”

In­clud­ing, for many months of the year, a vis­i­tor to Aus­tralia, where he has bought a house. Why Aus­tralia? “Syd­ney’s one of the most beau­ti­ful cities in the world. I mean – the qual­ity of life is ex­tra­or­di­nary. They do fin­ish work at a de­cent time, they do have an evening, they do so­cialise. And you don’t need a huge amount of money to have a great life.

As this point I must have blanched. With the strong Aus­tralian dol­lar, trips Down Un­der from the UK are far from cheap. Rents, property prices and gro­ceries make Oz an ex­pen­sive place to live and visit. A BBC re­port on the Aus­tralian price of a lime ($2.25 each) in Fe­bru­ary 2013 has be­come the stuff of leg­end among ex-pats.

None of this is vo­calised, but Alli gets the mes­sage from my as­ton­ished face. “Al­though I do have a huge amount of money,” he says, then mocks him­self. “He says, ‘Of course you can do any­thing you like!’”

We laugh again, and he continues. “There is an equal­ity to so­cial­is­ing in Syd­ney. Go­ing to the beach is go­ing to the beach. There isn’t an exclusive pri­vate beach that you want to go to – you want to go to the beach that ev­ery­one >>

>> else goes to. There’s a sense of col­lec­tive life. I think it has great cul­ture. I love the new MCA [Mu­seum Of Con­tem­po­rary Art]. There’s a con­fi­dence to the city which I re­ally like. The food is amaz­ing. You walk along the wharf at Wool­loomooloo and every­where you go there’s great food at ev­ery price range. It’s got all of those things, but the most beau­ti­ful men in the world.”

It’s time for the bill, and Alli pro­duces a Gold Amex swiftly and dis­creetly. They know him well – he lives just around the cor­ner. With houses all over the world and fre­quent trips to New York and In­dia, he still calls the UK home. “My rights are more en­trenched here. There is a cul­ture of people be­ing dif­fer­ent and that dif­fer­ence be­ing cel­e­brated, ac­cepted, tol­er­ated by some, and re­li­gion doesn’t in­vade pol­i­tics in the way in which it can – partly, I sus­pect, be­cause of the Ref­or­ma­tion and Henry VIII.

“You can have the Arch­bishop Of Can­ter­bury ar­gue against gay mar­riage and his words are lis­tened to but Par­lia­ment doesn’t feel bound by them. He isn’t preach­ing from the pul­pit and af­ter­wards he can come out of that de­bate and say to the Gen­eral Synod, we have much to learn from the de­bates in the House Of Lords. We need to change. It’s a dif­fer­ent place.”

So back to the fu­ture – glob­ally, are things look­ing bet­ter or worse for gay people? “I’m gen­er­ally a per­son whose glass is half-full, not half-empty so yeah, I am hope­ful. If we stick to­gether, lock in the changes that we’ve made and use our net­works to help those who can’t help them­selves. “I go to lots of coun­tries that I love vis­it­ing, but I re­alise that I could be in prison for 25 years for hav­ing gay sex. I can have life im­pris­on­ment in In­dia for oral sex – male or fe­male! You look at those ex­tremes, in democ­ra­cies and civilised so­ci­eties, and you think I’d rather be here.”

It’s time to leave. Alli is about to head off to the House Of Lords, and 2014 will see him jet-set­ting fre­quently for busi­ness and plea­sure. This in­cludes to New York where he’ll see his new beau, Ben, a de­signer.

From March 2014 gay mar­riages will start be­ing held in the UK for the first time. It’s a pow­er­ful legacy. Does he see him­self get­ting mar­ried one day? He shoots me a look of ab­so­lute hor­ror. I didn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean with his very new boyfriend, but the dam­age is done. There’s noth­ing quite like the English when they’re aghast.

Thank­fully, he’s a gen­tle­man. He smiles, shakes my hand and says, “Oh no. It’s not on the hori­zon.” Then he’s gone: a charm­ing and be­wil­der­ing icon­o­clast and one of the best sup­port­ers we have.

I like pol­i­tics and be­ing able to change things, but I like watch­ing tele­vi­sion, I like mak­ing it, I like com­ing up with the ideas. And I like shop­ping.

A worldly trav­eller who also loves his home com­forts, Baron Alli prizes his collection of Agatha

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