Josephine Bartosch

The limits of Stonewall’s tolerance | 31 July 2018

The limits of Stonewall's tolerance | 31 July 2018
Text settings

‘Acceptance without exception’ is the aspirational slogan emblazoned across the website, merchandise and literature of Stonewall, the UK’s largest LGBT charity.  The problem is that there are exceptions. Those who are not accepted include those who refuse to believe that a person can change their sex simply by saying: ‘I identify as.’

The fractious nature of the LGBT alliance – and Stonewall's intolerance for dissenting voices within the community – is becoming increasingly clear. At this year's London Pride, a group of protestors from ‘Get the ‘L’ Out’ made their feelings known by marching to the front of the parade with banners, including one reading ‘Transactivism Erases Lesbians.’ The actions of this small group of lesbians drew a furious response from Stonewall. Instead of listening to the concerns of the women protesting, or acknowledging that there is a discussion to be had on this subject, Stonewall simply stuck to its line that transwomen are women, dismissing any deviation from this as 'transphobic'. Stonewall's chief executive Ruth Hunt said that the lesbians involved in the protest 'have deserted the fight for LGBT equality' and 'have no place at Pride'. So much for ‘Acceptance without exception’.

Thankfully, Hunt's outrage that there are other perspectives on transgender identities is not shared by all of those originally involved in setting up Stonewall. Simon Fanshawe, one of the co-founders of the charity, argues that Stonewall has ‘a historic responsibility to enable calm reasoned debate’. It is hard to see how Hunt's response meets that test. Fanshawe says he fears that voices – including those of transgender people, some of whom prefer to describe themselves as ‘transsexual’ – are in danger of being drowned out by the reaction of the likes of Stonewall. He says:

‘Some transgender people are proud to identify themselves as ‘transmen’ and ‘transwomen,’ not simply as ‘men’ and ‘women’ and they feel marginalised by the language and ideology that seeks to diminish this difference. I do not wish to invalidate anyone’s experience, but by not acknowledging there is a debate to be had Stonewall are failing in their duty to LGBT communities to enable self-determination for all trans people.’

So why are alternative voices being ignored? A brief glance at the Stonewall Trans Advisory Group perhaps offers an answer: those who were born male appear to outnumber females by about two to one (a similar ratio to MPs in the House of Commons). Do those who sit on the advisory group have to hold the view that stated gender identity takes precedence over biological sex? It would seem so. Take Alex Drummond, for example, a transwoman who claims to be ‘widening the bandwidth of how to be a woman’ by sporting a full beard alongside the accoutrements of femininity (skirts and make-up). It is not transphobic to suggest that someone with a male body who wears female clothes has no place identifying as a lesbian; it is simply a different perspective.

In an interview in the Guardian in 2014, Hunt said: 'I am not interested in being the thought police.' Yet four years on, lesbians who fail to accept male bodied transwomen like Drummond as women are demonised by Hunt as apparently ‘working against' the LGBT community.

So what explains the change in thinking? In 2015, Ruth Hunt announced that Stonewall would make its campaigns trans-inclusive; she later said that, for transgender people: “it’s their turn now. They really, really need us.” But at what price has this focus on the T in LGBT actually come?

A cynic might suggest that Hunt's new found focus was an attempt to make the organisation seem relevant again in the wake of the vote to allow same sex marriage. If so, this is a strategy that appears to be paying off: Stonewall's funding has increased dramatically in recent years, from £4.33m in 2013, to £7.24m in 2017, according to data from Open Charities.

But what is all this money being spent on? Britain is finally catching-up with the legal changes LGBT individuals and organisations have spent decades campaigning for. It's true that prejudice against lesbians and gays does still exist but it is no longer sanctioned by the state. So with at least some of the battle won, the fights are increasingly becoming internal. As a result, the rainbow is beginning to fracture. Despite the attempts to dismiss them as something of a fringe group, 'Get The L out's protest at this year’s Pride actually reflects a deeper malaise in the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities. There is a desperate need for reasoned debate in order to allow all sides to have their say. Unfortunately, the response of Stonewall has been to shout louder and smear those who do not toe the trendy identity politics line. By championing the rights of male-bodied lesbians, Stonewall are abandoning the very people they should exist to support and making a mockery of the struggles we still face. It is somewhat depressing that, in 2018, the views of lesbians, bisexual people and gay men are being cast aside by the very organisation that claims to push for ‘acceptance without exception.’

Josephine Bartosch is director of the campaign group Critical Sisters