Discussions with a stone wall

Britain’s main gay rights organisation is risking its own future by adopting gender self-ID as its new cause

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“Get The L Out” protest at last year’s London Pride (©Pam Isherwood)

In 2010, Ben Summerskill, the chief executive of Stonewall, Britain’s biggest gay-rights group, said that the organisation took “no view” on whether same-sex marriage should be legalised. Set up in 1989 to lobby against “Section 28” of the Local Government Act, which barred the “promotion” of same-sex relationships, it was wildly out of step with the gay population as a whole. After a survey later that year showed that 98% wanted the right to marry, it apologised and reversed its position. Now it is under even heavier fire—and the lateness of its conversion to gay marriage is part of the reason.

In its regret at spending so long on the wrong side of history, Stonewall has sought to be a leader in what it sees as the next great civil-rights cause: transgender rights. A growing number of gay people think that was a big mistake. Its adoption of “gender self-identification”—a key demand of transactivists—means it no longer represents the interests of same-sex-attracted people, they say. Last October a group that includes some of Stonewall’s founders and early supporters called on it to recognise that there are a range of valid viewpoints about sex and gender; and to acknowledge the conflict of interests between transgenderism and women’s rights. A year later, it shows no signs of budging. So the group is now planning to found a new organisation, provisionally called the Lesbian and Gay Alliance, to carry forward Stonewall’s original mission.

When gay marriage became law in 2014, Stonewall faced a challenge faced by many campaigning charities. All its big tasks had been achieved. The age of consent had been equalised, and Section 28 was no more. Stonewall could have downsized, and focused on fighting the lingering remnants of homophobia. Instead, under a new chief executive, Ruth Hunt, it started a new, high-profile campaign, adding a “T” to Stonewall’s “LGB” and apologising for its tardiness in doing so.

The Gender Recognition Act of 2004, which had allowed people diagnosed with gender dysphoria (severe distress with one’s sexed body) to change their legal sex, was barely a decade old. But already transactivists were campaigning to replace it by “gender self-identification”—allowing the sex recorded on birth certificates to be changed on demand. This accorded with the post-modernist doctrine, developed in university gender-studies departments, that what makes individuals men or women is not their biology, but their “gender identity”—something between an internal essence, knowable only to its possessor, and stereotypically masculine or feminine appearance and behaviour.

Stonewall went all in for gender self-ID. Its online glossary now describes biological sex as “assigned at birth” (presumably by a midwife with a Hogwarts-style Sorting Hat). “Gay” and “lesbian” now mean same-gender, not same-sex, attraction. “Transphobia” is the “fear or dislike of someone based on the fact that they are trans, including the denial/refusal to accept their gender identity”. At a stroke, anyone who declares themselves exclusively attracted to people of the same sex has become a bigot.

The push for gender self-ID has gone further in most other English-speaking countries than in Britain. It is federal law in Canada, and state law in much of America. Australia, Ireland and New Zealand have versions, too. But in Britain a vigorous feminist movement has rallied in opposition. The government has just let it be known that gender self-ID has been kicked into the long grass. Stonewall, however, has proceeded as if it was already law.

Little of its lobbying or publicity now concerns gay or lesbian rights. Instead it focuses on two things: dismantling women-only spaces and services; and attacking people who describe themselves as exclusively same-sex-oriented—especially if they are women.

In 2015 Stonewall lobbied the government to replace “sex” with “gender identity” in the Equality Act of 2010. This act lists nine “protected characteristics”, including religious belief, age and “gender reassignment” (presenting, or seeking to present, yourself as a member of the opposite sex). Discriminating on the basis of these characteristics is unlawful. It also argued for the removal of the “single-sex exemptions” that make it permissible in some circumstances to provide facilities for just one sex. Had Stonewall succeeded, it would have become illegal to restrict any space or service—including changing rooms, hospital wards or rape-crisis centres—to just one sex.

‘Mixed-sex facilities make many women less comfortable and safe, and leave some religious women with no option but to self-exclude

That change never happened, but Stonewall acts as if it did. For example in September Jeffrey Ingold, its head of media, wrote a series of tweets claiming that the Equality Act required all women-only facilities to admit trans women (that is, males who self-identify as women). People who have attended Stonewall’s diversity-training courses say that its trainers routinely make similar claims. In fact, the Act says that even the few thousand trans women who have legally changed their sex can be excluded, if that is “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. Trans women who have not used the Gender Recognition Act to change their legal sex are still legally men, though they have the protected characteristic of gender reassignment. Their exclusion from women’s provision is therefore allowed.

The Equality Act also requires due regard to be given to the rights of female people and those with religious beliefs. Stonewall’s recommendations ignore all that. Mixed-sex facilities make many women feel less comfortable and safe, and leave some religious women, including conservative Muslims and Orthodox Jews, with no option but to self-exclude. Since both sex and religious belief are protected characteristics under the Equality Act, companies that listen to Stonewall risk claims of discrimination.

A business that wishes to signal its progressive credentials can seek to become a Stonewall “Diversity Champion”, thus demonstrating that it is “fully trans-inclusive”. The main step Stonewall will recommend is to make toilets and changing facilities “gender-neutral”. Never mind that this usually means simply changing signs on doors, thus making all the toilets accessible to men and forcing women to share the space that was previously theirs, at the same time as they are unlikely to use formerly-male facilities with urinals.

The original Stonewall built single-issue coalitions, even with religious groups that regarded homosexuality as perverse and sinful but could be persuaded to support equality of minorities before the law. “Instead of charging at people and calling them homophobic, we addressed genuine concerns,” says Simon Fanshawe, one of Stonewall’s co-founders. Transactivists are characterising genuine anxiety as phobia, he says. “If you have stubble and are claiming to be a woman, women who are frightened of men are going to be frightened of you. That’s not prejudice; it’s reality. I don’t know what the answer is yet. But I’m certain it will not be found by calling people scum.”

It is perhaps Stonewall’s abandonment of same-sex attracted women that is most remarkable. Redefining orientation to refer to gender, not sex, affects everyone in theory; in practice,  lesbians bear the brunt. Most high-profile trans advocates are trans women oriented towards women—in other words, heterosexual males who, as trans women, describe themselves as lesbians. An estimated 90 per cent never undergo gender-reassignment surgery.

Stonewall puts these trans women’s insistence that they be accepted as lesbians ahead of the sexual boundaries of females who assert same-sex orientation. (For some reason, gay men come under much less pressure to accept female-bodied partners.) At last year’s London Pride “Get the L Out”, a small group of women calling for lesbians to abandon “LGBT” movements like Stonewall, forced its way to the front, waving banners reading “Transactivism erases lesbians” and “lesbian equals female homosexual”. In a statement, Ms Hunt called the women “transphobic” and said they were spreading “myths and lies”. At this year’s Lancaster Pride, women waved banners reading “Lesbians don’t have penises” and “Pro woman not anti-trans”. They were hemmed in and threatened by a larger group, mainly of males (gender identity unknown). “Thank you! The right instinct”, tweeted Jan Gooding, the chair of Stonewall’s board, in response. An organisation that for decades fought against homophobic bullying now actively encourages it.

“As soon as Stonewall switched to defining orientation as referring to gender identity it gave up on its mission,” says Bev Jackson. In 1970 she was a maths student at the London School of Economics. She attended the first meeting of the Gay Liberation Front that year—the only lesbian, along with 19 gay men. The harmful impact of trans lobbying has galvanised her to re-enter a battle she thought had been won long ago. “In my day you would have straight blokes wanting to have sex with lesbians, because let’s face it, straight blokes have always found lesbians titillating,” she says. “But now you have blokes identifying as women and wanting to have sex with lesbians. That’s actually worse because lesbians no longer have any organisation standing up for them.”