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Stonewall falls apart

Stonewall’s failings – its money-spinning schemes, its misrepresentation of the law, its petulant response to criticism – will have come as a shock to many used to seeing the charity as a benign advocate for lesbian and gay rights, says Kim Thomas.

The right thing for Stonewall to do would be to show a little humility, admit its errors and promise to learn and do better…

For the LGBT+ charity Stonewall, the past few weeks have been nightmarish. The problems began in mid-May with an independent report into decisions by staff at the University of Essex to cancel speaking invitations to two feminist academics, Professor Jo Phoenix and Professor Rosa Freedman. The report, by Akua Reindorf, a barrister specialising in equalities law, found that the decisions breached the university’s own freedom of speech policy, its duties under the Education Act (1986), its regulatory obligations and its duties under charity law.  

Reindorf was particularly scathing about Stonewall’s role in the university’s failings. The university’s policy on trans inclusion – which it had drawn up on advice from Stonewall – was “misleading,” she wrote, and “states the law as Stonewall would prefer it to be, rather than the law as it is.” She recommended that the university should “give careful and thorough consideration to the relative benefits and disbenefits of its relationship with Stonewall” and consider that “this relationship appears to have given University members the impression that gender critical academics can legitimately be excluded from the institution.”

Essex’s spectacular breach of its regulatory and statutory obligations derived, in no small part, from its membership of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme. More than 850 organisations are (or were, until recently) members of this programme. Running in tandem with Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index, the scheme charges employers an annual sum (minimum £2,500) to have their LGBT+ inclusion policies reviewed by the charity, a discount on LGBT+ training and the right to use the Diversity Champion logo on promotional materials. 

The revelation that Stonewall was peddling inaccurate legal advice exposed the charity to public scrutiny it had hitherto largely avoided. Since Reindorf’s report, organisations such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Dorset Police, Channel 4 and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) have all announced their departure from the scheme. The Telegraph quoted an MoJ source as saying: “We really shouldn’t be paying thousands of pounds for controversial advice about pronouns and gender-neutral spaces.” Most significantly, the equalities minister Liz Truss urged government departments to quit the scheme. 

People previously unfamiliar with Stonewall’s tactics began expressing alarm at discovering the reality of what it gets up to, such as urging those who want a place on its Workplace Equality Index to replace the word “mother” in their maternity leave policies with “parent who has given birth”. The Welsh government has obediently renamed its “New & Expectant Mothers Policy” as “Policy for Pregnant or Nursing Employees”.   

Meanwhile, Simon Fanshawe and Matthew Parris, two of Stonewall’s co-founders in 1989, accused it of losing its way, with Parris saying that many gay men are now “embarrassed” by the organisation. 

Those of us who hoped that Stonewall might respond to criticism with an acknowledgement of its mistakes and a promise to do better have been disappointed. The charity initially mocked critical reports in the press with a tweet saying “U OK hun?”, and CEO Nancy Kelley compared gender-critical beliefs (that is, beliefs that biological sex is more important than an inner sense of gender identity) with antisemitism. Asked to explain its views by Radio 4’s Today programme, Stonewall refused to take part. Instead, the pro-Stonewall stance was put forward by Pink News editor Ben Cohen, in an embarrassingly poor performance that will no doubt be used by media trainers as an example of how not to do an interview.

Stonewall’s failings – its money-spinning schemes, its misrepresentation of the law, its petulant response to criticism – will have come as a shock to many used to seeing the charity as a benign advocate for lesbian and gay rights. Yet critics such as the Safe Schools Alliance, Transgender Trend, Woman’s Place UK and the LGB Alliance (LGBA) have been sounding the alarm bell for years. In particular, they have drawn attention to Stonewall’s habitual misrepresentation of the law, in which it has claimed both that “gender identity” is protected under the Equality Act (it isn’t – the protected characteristic is “gender reassignment”) and that organisations are legally obliged to allow trans people to use the facilities (changing rooms, dormitories, toilets and so on) of the sex with which they identify, even if they have not transitioned legally or medically. Girl Guiding UK, one of many youth organisations advised by Stonewall, allows boys who identify as girls to share overnight accommodation with biological females. In hospitals, writes the former CEO of an NHS trust, “female patients no longer have access to single sex accommodation in wards or bathrooms” with the result that they “are exposed to the distress and dangers of sharing private space with men who are strangers, at a time when they are vulnerable.”

While misrepresenting the law to employers, Stonewall has at the same time campaigned to change the law in line with its own erroneous characterisation of it. You almost admire the chutzpah. As the employment and discrimination lawyer Naomi Cunningham wrote in February this year: “…every single public body that is signed up to the Stonewall Champions scheme or makes a submission to the Workplace Equality Index is laying itself open to potential judicial review.”

Perhaps the greatest irony of Stonewall’s zealous, one-sided approach to trans rights is its betrayal of the very people it was set up to support: gays and lesbians. In Stonewall’s definition, homosexuality is about same-gender, not same-sex attraction: in other words, if you are a lesbian, you must consider trans women (men who identify as women) as sexual partners, and if you are a gay man, you must consider trans men as sexual partners. If you refuse, then you’re a bigot. This has had particularly severe repercussions for lesbians, who now find that lesbian dating apps are filled with biological men “identifying” as women. When a group of lesbians protested about this at a Pride march, they were denounced by Stonewall as “transphobic”. Stonewall’s hostility towards lesbians is such that it also faces a legal action by black lesbian barrister Allison Bailey, who says that Stonewall pressured her employer to “investigate” her, in retribution for her role in founding LGBA. 

At this stage, the right thing for Stonewall to do would be to show a little humility, admit its errors and promise to learn and do better. There is absolutely no sign, however, of it doing anything other than digging its heels in and claiming it’s all the media’s fault. Like the captain who steered the Titanic into an iceberg, Stonewall’s obstinate refusal to change course could lead to its own demise – and it will have no one to blame but itself.  

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Kim Thomas

Kim Thomas has been a freelance journalist for more than 20 years, writing for national newspapers and magazines on topics such as technology, education and health care.

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