Friday, 10 February 2012

On Stonewall


Posted by Sebastienne

OK, so, everyone's heard of Stonewall, right? They are the leading queer rights organisation in the UK. They're the ones who put up billboards everywhere saying "Some people are gay.. get over it!". They've been around since 1989 and have had a hand in everything from the abolition of Section 28 to the creation of Civil Partnerships.

So why, when Lashings got offered a charity gig raising money for Stonewall a few weeks ago, did we seriously consider turning it down?

Luckily, in the end, I told the organisers some of the things in this post, and they decided to change their charity of choice. But that made me realise that lots of people in the queer community don't know the truth about Stonewall, and that maybe it was worth telling you.

1. Stonewall is not a queer rights organisation.

Oh, I know, it sounds like I'm contradicting myself here. But the point is that what "everyone knows" about Stonewall is very different from what the organisation actually is.

Stonewall is an elite lobbying organisation. It exists, not to further the interests of queer people, but to serve the interests of an elite few.

You think I sound like a conspiracy theorist? How about you hear it from the chief executive, Ben Summerskill:

"Stonewall has never pretended to be a democratic member organisation. We have never said we speak for all lesbian, gay and bisexual people."

He said that in the context of justifying why Stonewall would not stand up in favour of marriage equality. No, seriously. In 2010, the UK's "leading" queer rights organisation came out against marriage equality, citing the expense.

Oh, after a while, they tried to backtrack - tried to prove that their funders (I won't say 'members' as that's clearly not how they view it) didn't prioritise marriage equality by burying it in a flawed survey under the heading "civil partnership". But the point was made.

2. Stonewall damage trans rights activism.

Stonewall are not a trans organisation. They are very pointedly LGB in their remit (except in Scotland; but most of this article is about "main" Stonewall, based in London, and with a UK-wide reach because of their engagement with government, media, and large employers). Their "Spell It Out" DVD for teachers points out that homophobic bullying affects "anyone perceived to be gender non-conforming" - but then ignores the trans issues that this raises, and chooses instead to focus on "that means homophobic bullying affects blameless straight children, too!"

Nonetheless, because of their perceived position as the UK's leading "queer rights organisation", they are often considered to "tick the LGBT box" by people who lack sufficient understanding of the issues. This means that trans people are denied a voice again and again, as Stonewall are taken to speak for them without representing them.

And this doesn't just happen implicitly, by accidental omission - sometimes, it seems like Stonewall are actively seeking it out.

"He also raised the issue of current laws requiring trans people to end their marriages to obtain gender recognition certificates. Mr Summerskill acknowledged the “terrible unfairness” of this situation but said he had been in talks with ministers and officials about amendments to the Gender Recognition Act."

There is no reason for Stonewall - an organisation who refuse to append a "T" to their remit or openly deal with trans concerns - to be in talks with ministers about legislation which only affects trans people. Just none. And actually, it goes beyond just denying trans people a voice (which is pretty egregious in itself) - I worry very deeply about Stonewall being perceived to speak for trans people, given my next point:

3. Stonewall propagate trans fail.

Repeatedly, Stonewall have hidden behind "trans people are not in our remit!" to allow them to act in ways which are actively hostile to trans people. For example, in 2008, they nominated Julie Bindel for journalist of the year. That's right, Julie Bindel, author of statements like these [TW for virulent transphobia, also biphobia]:

(on the idea of queer community) "I for one do not wish to be lumped in with an ever-increasing list of folk defined by "odd" sexual habits or characteristics. Shall we just start with A and work our way through the alphabet? A, androgynous, b, bisexual, c, cat-fancying d, devil worshipping. Where will it ever end?"

"The arrogance is staggering: having not experienced life as a "woman" until middle age, Nixon assumed "she" would be suitable to counsel women who have chosen to access a service that offers support from women who have suffered similar experiences, not from a man in a dress!"

"I argued that sex change surgery is modern-day aversion therapy treatment for homosexuals. The highest number of sex change operations take place in Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by death. Sex change surgery, therefore, renders gays and lesbians "heterosexual"."

When scores of Stonewall's supporters - many of them both trans and LGB - took issue with this nomination, we tried to persuade them to rescind it - they did not listen. In fact, many of us got personal phone calls from Ben Summerskill, who tried to persuade us to drop it by sneakily imparting the "inside information" that she had not actually won the award. Funnily enough, this did little to improve the situation. About 150 of us protested outside the awards ceremony.

More recently, Stonewall produced a video for young people which encouraged them to call their gender-non-conforming friends "trannies". This, for the record, is actually worse than not including trans perspectives at all. In case it needs stating: just because some trans people, in some communities, have chosen to reclaim this slur, does not mean that it is a good idea to encourage teenagers to use it in the classroom.

4. Stonewall don't care

During Bindelgate, as I mentioned, many of us received personal phone calls from Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill. One recipient of such a call was Lib Dem councillor Sarah Brown, who attempted to call him out on many of the issues discussed above.

"What I wasn't prepared for was for him to more-or-less agree with my point about them failing to represent the views of an increasingly large portion of queer people, and apparently not care anyway"

So, what should we do about this? Who should we be raising money for instead? Answers appreciated in the comments!


  1. I agree with everything here. If you need an alternative charity, how about the Albert Kennedy Trust? They support queer youth who are homeless or in difficult situations, through mentoring and organising lodging in the homes of trained adult volunteers. A high proportion of homeless 16-25 year olds are LGBT, and get kicked out or have an impossibly hostile home environment just during the years when they need most support and reassurance.

  2. Under serious pressure, Stonewall said that they would meet with trans activists, but then demanded that the people who might go to a meeting with them be their peers - that is to say, representatives of a national trans organization. Thus ensuring that many of the people who had been most involved in criticizing them be automatically excluded.

  3. Enlightening (if depressing) article. I'd just kind of assumed Stonewall would support trans rights, it's somewhat sad to read they don't. (Julie Bindel for Journalist of the year? Really?! I always assumed she was a troll invented to discredit feminism...) I think it's still worth appreciating the good they did in the 90s, but I guess they're not the progressive organisation they used to be.

  4. Back in the day, when Stonewall UK was founded, it was very much a "Glitterati of the Labour Party" group, who made few bones about their being all L&G - not even B, let alone T* - and as at the time I was very much a queer rights activist (being out and noisy B) many of us ignored them then. And I've seen no reason to change that view, in spite of (or because of) conversations with Ben and others in the years since. They are about presently a "G&L face of Party Politics (with a particular bias" and nothing at all to do with general LGBTQQetc rights.

  5. Thank you very much for this article and I feel really vindicated reading this. I am a black gay right activist from Africa and I have been living in the UK for over 5 years now. When I came to the UK, I got involved in the Black LGBT movement here and I was shocked when at a London LGBT City Hall meeting under Ken, I challenged Stonewall position on Abortion and Black LGBT people, I was told by their representative that their stand on "Abortion" at that time stands and that is they will be against it, and as for Black LGBT people, they are still trying to understand the situation and therefore it is not in their "Remit" (does that word sounds familiar?). Its such a shame that the LGBT community still look up to Stonewall when it comes to issues of advocacy and rights. I will support Albert Kennedy Trust or the new charity Kaleidoscope Trust that has been doing International LGBT right charity in countries where British laws criminalized homosexuality

  6. The one thing that does puzzle me is people concerned with trans equality / liberation wanting Stonewall to formally take it up as part of their agenda. They'd probably do it with the same vigour as they treat the B part of their LGB remit, which as alisonw's comment earlier reflects has been sadly laughable for at least 20 years now...

    1. Well, Stonewall are pretty influential - if a journalist wants a quote on an LGBT issue, Stonewall will be the first organisation they think of. So perhaps some people think it will be easier to persuade an already powerful organisation to use their power for good, than to try to make a good organisation more powerful?

      Does anyone know of other LGBT lobbying organisations that do better? We've mentioned a few charities on this thread, but I'm thinking specifically political lobbying groups which actually do aim to be democratic members organisations that speak for LGBT people. I'm afraid to say I haven't heard of any.....but I bet they exist!

    2. I think the Peter Tatchell Foundation and Outrage have done a great deal of LGBT lobbying - especially regarding Asylum seekers and the situation for human rights abuses abroad.

      Also Press for Change were instrumental in campaigning for the Gender Recognition Act - they're a much smaller organisation but achieved as great deal.

    3. If people are wanting an example of a good transgender organisation - Scottish Transgender Alliance has done an amazing job up here in Scotland. You should see the NHS Protocol they managed to negotiate []. They've also managed to fill some of the research gaps that get left behind by LGB organisations, regarding mental health and domestic abuse.

  7. Isn't getting annoyed at stonewall not campaigning about trans stuff the same as getting annoyed at the teenage cancer trust because they don't do anything to help older people with cancer?

    1. No, not really. And that's not what this post is doing, anyway - if you read it, you'll see that I primarily talk about the ways in which they propagate transphobia - which is something I'd criticise anybody for, but is particularly egregious on Stonewall's part because of the common public perception that they speak for all queer people.