Stonewall is at centre of a toxic debate on trans rights and gender identity | Transgender

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Since its 1989 inception in response to a ban on the “promotion of homosexuality” by schools and councils in section 28 of the Local Government Act, Stonewall has been a part of every major struggle for LGBT rights in the UK. But in the past few weeks it has become embroiled in a toxic row.

A founding member has accused it of taking an “extremist stance”, a report accused it of giving incorrect advice on equality law and a cabinet minister was reported to be pushing for all government departments to withdraw from its Diversity Champions programme, which the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) quit last month.

Each controversy has been linked – directly or indirectly – to its position on trans rights, which critics believe is over-aggressive and seeks to shut down debate but which the charity and its defenders believe is putting it on the right side of history.

The right to change one’s legal gender was established in the UK in the 2004 Gender Recognition Act but it was only six years ago that Stonewall announced that it would work for trans equality and apologised for its past failure to do so. Its change of stance has coincided with a period in which the debate, between trans rights campaigners on one side and gender-critical feminists – who disagree with the view that gender identity should be prioritised over biological sex – on the other, has become increasingly fraught and polarised.

A year ago, in her first interview after taking over as Stonewall’s chief executive, Nancy Kelley told the Observer that following criticism of her predecessor the organisation would no longer seek to persuade its critics to accept its views on gender but would focus on “changes that make trans lives easier”.

Fast forward 12 months and Kelley and Stonewall are at the centre of a storm. Last Saturday, Matthew Parris, one of Stonewall’s 14 founders, wrote in the Times that the charity had been “cornered into an extremist stance” on the subject of trans rights. He argued that Stonewall should stay out of the issue, sticking to LGB rights without the T, which stands for trans.

Dissenters point out that LGB and T causes have long been entwined, with the trans activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson having been important figures in the gay rights scene at the time of the 1969 New York uprising from which Stonewall derived its name.

Parris’s column followed a report by a barrister for the University of Essex which found that the institution had unlawfully banned a speaker after accusations that she was transphobic.

Nancy Kelley, chief executive of Stonewall, says she is confident about Stonewall’s advice about gender identity. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

The report, by Akua Reindorf, did not suggest that the charity was directly involved in the decision to exclude Prof Jo Phoenix but said the university, being part of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions workplace inclusion programme, annually submitted its policy on supporting trans and non-binary staff to the charity, and Stonewall appeared not to have picked up on the university’s “incorrect summary of the law”.

Reindorf said the mistake was that the policy said “gender identity or trans status” are protected under the law, whereas it is only gender reassignment that is protected, and concluded that the university should consider its relationship with the campaign group. Kelley said the distinction was semantics.

Headlines focusing on Stonewall’s part in the controversy were followed by others suggesting employers were leaving the Diversity Champions programme because of disquiet over its transgender inclusion training. The Telegraph reported that six public-sector organisations had left out of about 850 members listed on Stonewall’s website, although those exits were since 2019 and none had publicly cited the issue of trans rights as motivation for leaving.

On Monday came reports that Liz Truss, the equalities minister, is urging all government departments to quit the scheme. When the EHRC left last month, the watchdog said its decision was based on cost but it was announced just days after Stonewall and other LGBTQ+ groups had used an open letter to explain their “frustration and disappointment” at the EHRC’s “recent record on LGBTQ+ people’s rights and trans people’s rights specifically”.

The letter was a response to the EHRC defending gender-critical beliefs and suggesting that they are “protected beliefs” under the Equality Act, a position the signatories said was a “kick in the teeth to trans people”.

In an interview with the BBC, Kelley attracted more opprobrium by comparing gender-critical beliefs to antisemitism.

“With all beliefs, including controversial beliefs, there is a right to express those beliefs publicly and where they’re harmful or damaging – whether it’s antisemitic beliefs, gender-critical beliefs, beliefs about disability – we have legal systems that are put in place for people who are harmed by that,” she said.

Kelley, who said Stonewall believed in freedom of speech but “not without limit”, said the comparison was apt as people were protected on the basis of their gender identity in the same way as people are on the basis of their race.

The veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was a target for some supporters of transgender rights after signing a letter in support of free speech which cited attempts to ban Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, who have both raised concerns about predatory men gaining access to women’s spaces. Nevertheless, he told the Guardian that the recent criticism of Stonewall was wide of the mark.

“Stonewall will be vindicated,” he said. “Taking a stand against the exclusion and hate crime suffered by trans people is the ethically right thing to do.

“Bans and no-platforms suppress bigoted views but don’t challenge and change them. Bad ideas are most effectively rebutted by good ideas that show why they are wrong, marshalling counter-arguments and evidence. However, there are double standards on race and trans issues. Why do many people who support the cancelling of racist speakers oppose the cancelling of those who hold similar prejudiced opinions about trans people?”

People hold placards saying Trans Fabulous and other slogans
Transgender people and their supporters protest outside Downing Street during the second Trans Pride march for equality in September 2020. Photograph: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images

On the antisemitism comparison made by Kelley, he said. “Those who deny trans people’s existence, misgender them and advocate anti-trans discrimination echo the prejudice of racists and homophobes.”

But Prof Kathleen Stock, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex who has written a book criticising theories of gender identity, said Stonewall had encouraged a definition of transphobia that was far too wide.

“Through its Diversity Champions scheme it’s disseminated this very widespread idea that an attack on the theory – or an attack on the particular interpretation – of identity is an attack on trans people. And that has really made the whole discourse incredibly toxic, given its enormous reach within national institutions,” she said.

She added that as a gay woman she had benefited from advances in equality achieved by Stonewall in the past, but it had now overreached. “They got what they wanted in terms of gay marriage and many other of their original goals so they needed a new agenda, they needed new revenue, new streams and a rationale, and they found one through what is now being called trans rights – but it is a tendentious interpretation of what trans rights are.

“Obviously I believe trans people should have absolutely every right not to be aggressed or discriminated against at work … but they got this new project and immediately the T-shirts are saying ‘trans women are women, get over it’ – that could not be more aggressive …

“They’ve come in under the guise of EDI [equality, diversity and inclusion] but they vastly overreach, in my view, into pedagogy, into research, into language control and hate crime legislation.”

Kelley said: “We’re very proud of the work we do with workplaces, schools and community organisations, to help everyone in our communities to thrive.”

She said the Diversity Champions programme was continuing to grow in numbers and she was “confident” about Stonewall’s advice with respect to gender identity, saying it had recently been reaffirmed in the high court.

The controversies engulfing Stonewall suggest that the two sides remain as far apart as ever but Tatchell urged them to focus on each other’s similarities, rather than their differences.

“All women, including trans women, are victims of misogyny, discrimination, violence and sexual assault,” he said. “This gives them a common interest in working together. Trans women are different from other women, but being a different kind of woman is perfectly valid and no reason for the toxic vilification they suffer.

“Many women’s agencies have long accepted trans women without a problem. They vet each trans woman and accept them unless there is evidence that they are a threat. This scrutiny keeps women safe and has long worked well in many women’s services.

“You cannot base trans policies on the actions of a handful of bad apples. That would be grossly unfair to the vast majority of trans women who never have, and never will, pose a threat to other women.”

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