Jonny Best

Silent Film Musician

What's gone wrong with Stonewall

In 1989, Stonewall was founded. Named after the legendary 1969 New York riot, Stonewall focused initially on opposing Margaret Thatcher’s hated Section 28 and went on to win several important legislative equality battles for lesbian, gay and bisexual people in the UK. Issues on which it campaigned successfully include the equal age of consent, civil partnerships, adoption and (after initial reluctance from its then CEO, Ben Summerskill) equal marriage. By any standard, Stonewall has made a huge, positive difference to the lives of many people and to British society as a whole.

But the Stonewall I pay tribute to is not the Stonewall of today.

Since the 2014 appointment of its current CEO, Ruth Hunt, Stonewall has alienated large numbers of lesbian, gay and bisexual people, as well as many transsexuals and heterosexual allies. Today, February 21st 2019, Ruth Hunt announced her resignation after five years at the helm. Her successor will inherit a very different Stonewall to the one she took over five years ago — a Stonewall that is losing support and is under fire from people who were until recently among its champions.

The board of trustees, led by Jan Gooding, will soon begin the process of appointing of a new Chief Executive. It is vital that they take the opportunity presented by Hunt’s exit to pause, listen to a wide range of voices, and reassess Stonewall’s direction.

For the first twenty-six years of its existence Stonewall acted solely for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. In 2015, Ruth Hunt announced that Stonewall would now be ‘trans inclusive’. In order to understand the trouble Stonewall is in today it’s important to understand why, for more than two and a half decades and the tenures of three chief executives, Stonewall acted solely for lesbians, gays and bisexuals.

The acronym LGBT was first used in the mid-1980s, acknowledging an alliance between lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people — but this alliance was never a quartet of equals. Bisexual people were often marginalised in LGBT culture, gay men’s interests dominated those of lesbians, and the T was at the bottom of the pile, frequently seeming no more than an afterthought. The inequality within the LGBT alliance was a source of frustration and resentment to many.

Between the LGB on the one hand, and the T on the other, however, was not so much a tension as a fault line. Lesbian, gay and bisexual are all sexual orientations — the terms denote the material reality of specific types of sexual attraction. LGB politics and activism is based on the principle that sexual attraction is not a just basis for discrimination. The yoking of the L, G and B is therefore straightforward.

The T is a bit different. Trans is not a sexual orientation and being trans is nothing to do with sexual attraction. What trans people do share with many lesbian, gay and bisexual people is a difficult relationship with conventional gender expectations, including experiences of bullying and marginalisation. It is these common experiences which are the basis of the LGBT alliance.

When the LGBT acronym was popularised in the 1990s nobody talked about gender much. Today, we seem never to shut up about it — and it is Stonewall’s approach to gender which is the cause of the organisation’s current failures.

Modern trans politics — and Stonewall’s trans policies — are centred on the concept of ‘gender identity’. Gender identity is the belief that we all have an innate sense of our own gender — that being a man or a woman is somehow deeply felt and part of our irreducible core. Trans people, according to this doctrine, have a gender identity which does not match their sex — a male who claims to have a female gender identity is a woman, and vice versa.

But there is a problem with this understanding of gender and many people (including me) reject it. To understand why, it’s helpful to remember that when we talk about gender we’re simply talking about sex stereotypes. Conventional binary gender divides us unto men and women, based on our biological sex. The categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are each attached to a series of social expectations, with ‘man’ hierarchically atop ‘woman’. ‘Masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are the names we give to each collection of stereotypical characteristics. Men are aggressive, women submissive. Men build, women nurture. Men dress one way, women another. Gender’s strangulating tentacles get everywhererestricting lives and twisting relationships. Gender, as it exists today, is not a good thing.

‘Gender identity’ takes these sex stereotypes and turns them inwards. Rather than seeing gender as something external to us, influencing and shaping us against our will, a gender identity is, its proponents argue, within us. What this means in practice is this: I’m a man not because of my biological sex, but because I identify with the sex stereotypes associated with being a man. A woman is a woman not because of her sex but because she identifies with the sex stereotypes associated with ‘woman’. It’s not hard to see why so many people (and not only feminists) refute the concept of gender identity as sexist and regressive.

Of course, those who believe in the concept of gender identity have a right to their view and to pursue a politics which arises from it. The problem with Stonewall’s trans policies is that they do not respect the freedom to reject belief in gender identity. In fact, modern transgenderism — as practiced by Stonewall — demands we all understand ourselves in line with trans ideology and pursues legislative change predicated on the existence of gender identity.

The root of Stonewall’s failure over the last five years is its endorsement of gender identity and its attempt to coerce society into accepting it. In order to see clearly the line that Stonewall has crossed, compare its definitions of homophobia and transphobia:

Homophobia is:

The fear or dislike of someone, based on prejudice or negative attitudes, beliefs or views about lesbian, gay or bi people.

Transphobia is:

The fear or dislike of someone based on the fact they are trans, including the denial/refusal to accept their gender identity.

Stonewall has written and promoted a definition of ‘transphobia’ which categorises anybody who resists belief in an idea as transphobic. Feminists who wish to uphold their understanding of gender as an oppressive, hierarchical system of sex stereotyping are labelled transphobic. At a stroke, every second wave feminist is a bigot — as Germaine Greer and Jenni Murrayhave both discovered.

This is not a progressive or even a constructive politics.

Stonewall’s new found enthusiasm for gender is all-encompassing. The Stonewall glossary redefines homosexuality as:

…someone who has an emotional romantic and/or sexual orientation towards someone of the same gender.

Did you see what happened there? Same-sex attraction has become same-gender attraction.

This might seem academic, but take a moment to reflect on what it means in the context of Stonewall’s affirmation of gender identity. Stonewall is asserting that lesbians are attracted to anyone with a female gender identity, whether that person is biologically male or female.

This turns gay and lesbian desire into transphobia. I’m a gay man — I’m attracted to male bodies — not people performing male gender roles. And, yes, that means I like male genitalia. (I really like it). Trans activists argue that my sex-focused homosexuality is transphobic. I’ve seen trans activists compare non-trans inclusive gay desire to racism and describe gay sexuality as ‘genital hang-ups’.

If you’re a reasonable person who is at all new to this you’ll probably be thinking, ‘hang on — that all sounds a bit unlikely.’ Yes, it does. But it’s true. Many lesbians have found themselves under pressure to accept male-bodied trans women as sexual partners. If you doubt me, google ‘cotton ceiling’ and prepare for a trip down the rabbit hole of gender madness…

Stonewall’s all-in enthusiasm for transgender ideology has led it to behave in some unfortunate ways.

I do not know whether the LGBT alliance can be saved. More and more people — especially lesbians — are giving up on it. But I do know that if it is to be saved, Stonewall’s role will be vital. The issues which complicate the relationships between lesbian and gay people and trans people need to be examined and discussed, free from accusations of transphobia. Stonewall’s trans inclusivity cannot be at the cost of delegitimising lesbian and gay sexualities or ignoring the safety and specific needs of women and girls. An LGBT alliance which demands ideological submission is not worth preserving.