I was tweeting a bit about this earlier, but I need a larger canvas (and preferably one I own).
I’ve had it with Stonewall. Stonewall are a charity here in Britain that campaign for lesbian, gay and bisexual equality. Which is a good thing. Unfortunately, they say and do stupid things fairly often.
The first issue with Stonewall is they fail on trans issues. Now, to be fair to them, their constitutional remit is only to deal with lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) issues rather than issues affecting the trans community. In a “different strokes for different folks” way, I can sort of appreciate this. There are issues which affect LGB people primarily that don’t necessarily affect trans people so much and there are trans issues that are unique to people in that community.
But the reality of the situation is that while Stonewall don’t deal with trans issues, trans people are widely regarded to be part of the community of people who affiliate under the ever widening umbrella. Trans people are members of the community whether Stonewall like it or not.
Maybe it would be okay for Stonewall to not be trans-inclusive if they were at least respectful of trans people. But they aren’t. Stonewall distribute a short anti-homophobia film called Fit. According to Natacha Kennedy the film
does not actually include any trans children or young people, preferring instead to talk about trans people indirectly. In the film the term “tranny” is said to be “short for transgender”. If Stonewall had consulted a couple of trans people they would have been left in no doubt that “tranny” is not short for transgender. It is the insult menacingly hurled at us in the street, along with thinly veiled threats. This rather wooden, one-dimensional portrayal of transgender people contrasts with the film’s rich, deep and varied portrayal of LGB children.
This is pretty basic stuff. It doesn’t exactly take a genius to work out that putting out a film that uses the word “tranny” earnestly to refer to transgender people is fucking stupid.
Imagine if the shoe were on the other foot: a transgender rights campaign were to distribute a video with the intention that is intended to be used in schools to fight transphobia and it briefly and in passing noted that “shitstabber” was a perfectly fine term to use for gay men. There’d be outrage. But when Stonewall fuck over trans people? Eh.
There are other examples of Stonewall sucking at trans-related issues like them giving awards to transphobic journalists.
I’d like to say “all of which would be fine but”, but I can’t. It’s not fine that they suck at handling trans issues. It’s fucking ludicrous that in 2014, the main gay rights charity and lobbying group still hasn’t come to grips with the fact that transgender people exist.
Instead then, I’ll say: what has kept me from going from critical to all-out condemnatory on Stonewall is that they do some good work on LGB issues. They may suck at trans issues, but at least they are fighting for LGB people. And as one of them, I should be happy that they are doing that, right?
Well, here’s the thing: they suck at that too.
Where do we start? How about a nice little minor issue like… they didn’t support same-sex marriage.
Yes. Britain’s leading gay rights campaigning charity didn’t think getting gay people the legal right to get married was something worth fighting for.
It took Stonewall an exceptionally long time to get on board with supporting the campaign. The hard work was done by dozens of other groups and individuals like the grassroots C4EM, by Peter Tatchell’s Foundation and many more.
Why is this? Very cynical people have suggested that it might have something to do with the way that former Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill is very much affiliated with the Labour Party, and Labour introduced civil partnerships, and it was the Coalition that was going to push marriage. Stonewall’s unwillingness to support the campaign for marriage rights gave a helpful card to the anti-gay folk to basically say “well, even Stonewall are against it”. The institutional power of Stonewall makes it so plenty of politicians think Stonewall represents the interests of LGB(and T?) people.
In a campaign to increase rights and respect for LGBT people, partisanship shouldn’t get in the way. We shouldn’t have a situation where the party bringing in the legislation that is going to benefit the cause of equality is a reason for or against it. You can not like the Conservative Party all you like—and I’ve got my own personal list of reasons—but you have to give the Coalition their dues for passing the marriage bill.
Except, according to Stonewall, you should congratulate them for the passage of the marriage bill. After it came into effect, Stonewall were tweeting and posting about how wonderful they’d been in getting it passed. The chutzpah of it was truly spectacular.
There have been other things. A particular bugbear of mine is Stonewall’s campaign with mobile company O2. Stonewall released a guide to protecting LGB teenagers on the interwebs with O2. In this, it told parents of said teenagers to report their own children to the police if they found evidence on their child’s phone they had been sexting. Just think about that: your parents find not only that you’ve been gay sexting but have you carted off to the cop shop for it.
Worst. Coming out. Ever.
And to do it with O2 of all companies—the same O2 that block the Wikipedia articles on “gay”, “lesbian” and “transgender” in the filter category LIFESTYLES. When Pat Robertson attacks the “gay lifestyle”, we laugh at him. When O2 categorise being gay as a “lifestyle”, Stonewall partner with them on a project to tell scared parents to have their gay kids arrested for sexting. Absolutely ridiculous.
And this week, the new acting chief exec at Stonewall, Ruth Hunt gave us very good reasons to think that nothing over at Stonewall Towers has changed. We can thank an editorial—improbably published on the Telegraph website of all places—titled Why Stonewall isn’t joining the Dorchester boycott.
The Dorchester boycott, incidentally, is a boycott of Dorchester Hotels which are owned by the Sultan of Brunei. This is as a response to Brunei’s imposition of harsh sharia-based law including stoning of gay people.
In the piece, Hunt has this corker of a sentence:
We’re renowned for our pragmatism and our belief that talking is usually more effective than protests - however satisfying protests may be, in the short term they’re often most rewarding to the individuals taking part.
It struck me: here’s where Stonewall is getting it so wrong.
The reason Stonewall is called Stonewall is precisely because its historical namesake didn’t follow this tactic.
If Stonewall the charity had been at the riots at the Stonewall Inn, they’d be trying to talk calmly to the police rather than taking off their stilettos and beating the cops around the head with them. The thing which started the modern gay rights movement wasn’t people being respectful and not making a fuss, it was brave and courageous people standing up and taking a risk. It was people with nothing left to lose risking being beaten up by cops or homophobic thugs or both.
As it was with the Stonewall rioters and the Gay Liberationists in the sixties and seventies, so it was with the courageous activists in the eighties and early nineties who—with nothing left to lose—set up ACT-UP and Queer Nation and fought for action on HIV/AIDS. What got anti-retrovirals into the hands of people dying with AIDS? Groups like ACT-UP acting up rather than just chit-chatting.
The reason we can live outside the closet and not be chemically castrated by the state, treated under barbaric reparative therapy regimes and chucked in jail for gross indecency is because courageous people protested, fought the police, and marched with pride rather than hid in fear. If we’d all followed Ruth Hunt’s advice, there would be no modern gay rights movement.
Ruth Hunt runs a charity named after a riot and she doesn’t believe in protest. She’s either ignorant of the very basics of the history of the movement she—by dint of her position—now helps lead, or she’s suffering some extraordinary cognitive dissonance.
I get not liking protests. I don’t like protests. I’ve been to a small number and… they’re not for me. I’m a writer not a fighter. My idea of political activism is poring over a long boring policy document and unpicking the gnarly details, the crazy assumptions and the fallacious reasoning. I’m so much better at pedantic philosophical wonkery than I am at placards and shouting. I’m not a “radical queer” by any stretch of the imagination: I don’t think we need a revolution.
But even to a liberal wonky type like me, Hunt’s response to the Brunei/Dorchester boycott shows Stonewall to be so mediocre and so inadequate to their mission, I can’t help but say “enough”.
Stonewall don’t speak for me or a lot of other LGB people I know, let alone T. We need a new national LGBT (and, yes, fully trans-inclusive) campaigning group. It doesn’t have to be radical. It doesn’t have to “kick the shit out of the system”, as Vito Russo put it. But it needs to have enough courage in its convictions to stand up for the people it claims to represent, and have enough vision to see beyond partisan hackery and beyond the self-interest of being nice to your corporate backers to what it is worth standing up for.
It needs to reflexively and institutionally know that transphobia is harmful and wrong and to act in a way that matches this. It needs to not have to be told that Internet censorship will harm young LGBT people seeking anonymous help on the internet. It needs to not have to think about it when presented with the opportunity of getting same-sex marriage. It needs to be fit for purpose because Stonewall isn’t.
We can do better than this. If we care about improving the lives of LGBT people around the world, we have to collectively do better than Stonewall.