A sustained campaign against the LGBT rights charity Stonewall has been fuelled by anti-trans campaigners.
Stonewall has long represented the mainstream of the LGBT movement. It is a charity which since 2001 has provided a “Diversity Champions” scheme of support for businesses and organisations on workplace bullying and LGBT inclusive policies. 900 organisations are members of the scheme.
Many of the policies it advocates have become standard-issue corporate equality, and it is now much easier for LGB people to be out at work and protected from losing their jobs or discrimination. Yet official statistics show that one in eight trans employees has been assaulted by other staff or customers while at work. A 2021 survey for totaljobs indicated that 65 per cent of trans employees hide their identity at work.
A podcast by BBC journalist Stephen Nolan and then a tabloid-like exposé article on the BBC’s website sought to cast Stonewall as having an undue and pernicious influence that went beyond its remit as a charity. Those are part of a sustained campaign to place the LGB Alliance, founded in 2019, as the alternative to Stonewall.
Stonewall started including trans rights in its programme only in 2015. Its own account is that it was slow to take the issue up. Since then, however, there has been a growing wave of dissent and criticism from former Stonewall supporters, including Times columnist and ex Tory MP Matthew Parris, who was one of the founders of Stonewall, claiming that Stonewall has become part of a “trans rights extremist” network of organisations. The LGB Alliance wants more than a return to the pre-2015 Stonewall (silence on trans rights). It claims that “all the LGBTQ+ groups around the country are now essentially homophobic”.
The campaign to attack Diversity Champions is also about Stonewall’s funding. Through the scheme organisations pay for the training, advice and other activities that are part of the buy-in to the scheme. Ofcom, Channel 4, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have already pulled out of the scheme. On 10 November the BBC announced it would leave the scheme. Tim Davie, the Director General, said the BBC would never be “impartial on human rights”. But, he said, there is a debate about trans rights, unlike on gay rights or climate change, and if the BBC is part of the scheme it will fail to be “impartial on public policy debates”.
Vice News quotes a BBC staff member, before the decision was announced, saying that they believe the BBC aims to be “impartial on LGBTQ lives”. The desired “neutrality” or “impartiality” seems to be a tacit siding with trans-sceptic campaigners. Within the same 12 months, the BBC has announced that its workers should not attend Pride marches if they will get involved in “politicised or contested issues”. These days most Pride marches are increasingly corporate and anti-political, so the most visible area of controversy is trans rights.
Nolan’s suggestion in the podcast is that Stonewall exerts undue influence and is in effect “lobbying” for something pernicious. Stonewall’s lobbying in fact consists of providing advice on equality policies. Stonewall was indeed reported as having provided incorrect advice to Essex University on the Equality Act (but it contests that), and possible mistakes have been pounced upon by the trans-sceptic campaigners.
Most of the evidence presented by those wishing to undermine Stonewall is flimsy. They say that since the proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act were announced in 2018. Stonewall’s reports and press releases have featured the words “trans” and “transgender” far more than “Lesbian”, “Gay”, or “Bisexual”. It is hardly surprising that during a period where major legislation affecting trans and non-binary people was being considered, while same-sex marriage has been legal since 2014 and is now little challenged, that Stonewall’s attention turned to the new issues.
Speaking to the i newspaper, the human rights, LGBT, and socialist activist Peter Tatchell said: “Stonewall has the support and confidence of the vast majority of LGBT+ people. Even if people criticise some aspects of Stonewall’s policies, overwhelmingly it does positive work and has transformed LGBT+ people’s lives for the better.
“Its Diversity Champions programme has helped massively reduce workplace discrimination, harassment and invisibility of LGBT+ employees. Creating inclusive, safe employment opportunities is a wholly commendable achievement by Stonewall. It is helping fulfil the law of the land — the Equality Act.
“The current hue and cry against Stonewall has a whiff of conscious or subconscious bias. Similar criticism would not dare be made about organisations challenging racism and antisemitism. This dispute is a manufactured culture war that is doing the whole LGBT+ community great harm. We feel under attack.”
There have been numerous attempted court cases and reviews (which have failed) against public sector bodies including the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) relating to their inclusion in Diversity Champions which have failed. In the first four months of 2021 alone, public sector bodies were flooded with more than 900 cut-and-paste Freedom of Information requests about their work with Stonewall.
Stonewall was founded as a charity in 1989, out of the opposition to the Thatcher government’s “Section 28” legislation to ban supposed “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities. Until very recently, it looked set to become very much the establishment authority on LGBT equality. Now it faces perhaps its most significant backlash yet.
While remaining critical of the limits of “corporate” equality policies, it is right for the left to resist the attacks on Stonewall. They can only serve as a lever to roll back and undermine trans rights.
Especially in workplace equality.