A fair amount has been written already about Saturday’s meeting between Stonewall and 50 or so trans people. My goal in writing this is not to simply restate what’s already been said about the positivity and the options, and also the issues around diversity, but to start looking at how things are changing and may well change further.
For those of you unaware of the situation, Stonewall is one of England’s largest charities working for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. Their model is to attract corporate sponsorship and to work with those corporations in challenging homophobia. They rose in mainstream awareness last year because of the debates around same-sex marriage. They don’t look to deliver services per se, nor do they provide support for people, although they do provide materials to schools and offices. In short Stonewall has a voice which both corporate and parliament listens to – rightly or wrongly, they dominate the channel in England.
Sadly, in recent years, the relationship between Stonewall and trans people has not been great. Because of a historic decision, Stonewall had not included trans issues in their campaigns, but they had also made subsequent decisions and announcements that many trans people found offensive. It was imperative that Ruth Hunt, Stonewall’s new CEO, defused these at the beginning of Saturday’s meeting, which she did admirably, although I suspect that the apologies will need to be repeated in more public arenas. It’s also important to note that, since Ruth’s appointment, Stonewall has already decided to be a trans ally. This won’t prevent Stonewall getting things wrong in the future, nor will it mean that things for trans people are magically fixed overnight. But it’s an important and logical step for any charity campaigning on equality issues.
“Stonewall doing trans” means many different things. Stonewall’s current campaigns include the No Bystanders and the Some People Are campaigns. It’s easy to see how they could be extended to include trans people, as they have been in Scotland. After all, the people who still abuse gay people are likely to be the same people who abuse trans people – accepting that some trans people will be gay themselves. I can’t really see any objections to Stonewall’s approach here. OK, the presentation may grate with some, and there may be fears about appropriation, but the core approach of trans inclusivity for these campaigns, and others, has to be right.
I think where the angst comes for many trans campaigners is that Stonewall might swallow up their own trans-specific campaigns. After all, a campaign to reform the Gender Recognition Act or a campaign to highlight the many issues trans people are currently facing at the hands of the NHS, to name just two, are both very specific to trans and intersex people, and don’t have a lot of applicability to your standard gay or lesbian person (unless they are also trans, obviously).
There’s a difference between trans-inclusive and trans-specific campaigning – something that Ruth highlighted near the end of Saturday’s meeting. So the issue isn’t really whether Stonewall should “do trans”. It’s whether it should do trans-specific campaigning and, if it does, what that will look like.
Realistically there are a small number of trans organisations campaigning on specific issues (as opposed to providing support) – Press for Change is seen as the go-to organisation on issues of law, Trans Media Watch are the media specialists, Gendered Intelligence work on issues affecting trans youth, Mermaids on issues affecting trans children and their families, and GIRES are, amongst other areas, involved with various aspects of health care and civil service issues. There are others, as well as many local groups, but these five tend to be in the national consciousness. Each of these organisations are in various states of health, but all would appreciate better resourcing, both in terms of money and people. And each organisation could be affected by Stonewall deciding to campaign on trans issues.
There are concerns that organisations campaigning on trans issues need to have an authentic set of trans voices. This is usually interpreted as “trans organisations should be led by trans people”. Personally I don’t think this is altogether necessary – both GIRES and Mermaids have been led by cis people (related to trans people) for many years and they have both been successful and helpful – but I do agree that the messages need to be authentic. Bear in mind even the existing charities get some grief for only being seen to represent the interests of a particular section of the trans communities. So, in theory, there’s nothing to stop Stonewall taking up the relevant battles as long as the authenticity remains and we don’t end up with a “does he take sugar” approach.
The organisation I’m most familiar with is Trans Media Watch – largely because I help run it. Stonewall also do irregular media monitoring exercises and produce reports about media coverage of LGB issues. There’s a natural synergy which the two organisations are beginning to explore on an informal basis. Stonewall’s resources to undertake this kind of work, and get the subsequent reports taken seriously by people who matter, vastly exceed TMW’s resources and clout – however successful you think TMW might have already been. But TMW has media at its core, Stonewall doesn’t. If Stonewall was to start campaigning on trans media issues, would TMW remain viable, would it want to, and how would Stonewall have to change in order to render TMW redundant? Please bear in mind these are simply questions which currently have no answers. I place no value judgement on any particular set of answers, nor do I speak for TMW on this issue.
It seems to me the organisation which might have most at risk here is GIRES. They have educational materials for schools in the same way as Stonewall. They encourage people to record hate crime, as do Stonewall. They engage with policy makers, as do Stonewall. They work extensively with healthcare providers, as do Stonewall. They are looking to attract corporate sponsorship, as do Stonewall. While I’m a member of GIRES, so its future is validly my concern, I’m not a trustee of it, and do not wish to issue advice to them about what they should or should not do. Again here I’m merely raising food for thought.
Another issue for Stonewall to consider is, if it is to have authentic trans voices leading on trans-specific campaigns, where will those voices come from? The obvious place is to recruit from the existing organisations – which may well imperil those organisations further. However, a number of organisations are run on a voluntary basis, with some having people who could not afford to take a pay-cut in order to work for a charity which has much more formalised processes than they, perhaps, are used to. There are also questions about how sustainable keeping trans as a major voice within a larger organisation actually is. Saturday saw some concerns raised about what happens when Ruth moves on as CEO of Stonewall.
Let’s take a step back here. Is the survival of trans-specific campaigning organisations paramount, or is it that the work is actually progressed? In my view, and as long as the work isn’t progressed so that it will harm people, the obvious answer is the latter. So, again, in theory it’s perfectly possible for Stonewall or any other LGB organisation to undertake those trans-specific campaigns. With the increasing visibility of trans issues over the past couple of years, more and more LGB organisations are looking to incorporate trans – Stonewall is merely the highest profile one. The question becomes whether it’s actually practical for them to do it, bearing in mind the requirement for authenticity. Such organisations also need to balance whether a big issue facing a small number of people is more important than a small issue facing a big number of people. The danger is that big issues will continually be overlooked in favour of what are seen as wins for more people. After all, there are several LGB&T organisations already and, while some work well, others do simply seem to have the T tagged on with no real awareness of what that actually means.
I think it’s imperative that trans-specific organisations forge strong alliances, not only with each other, but also with other groups who can support their aims and help trans people ensure their voices are heard by those who need to hear them. Without proper support trans organisations are reliant on either goodwill or particularly pushy people, with all the associated risks of burnout.
Stonewall deciding to become a trans ally has already changed the landscape. Incorporating trans into their existing campaigns immediately extends the reach of some important messages far beyond what existing trans groups could have done. Stonewall’s decision about how much further along the trans road it wants to go may well also considerably affect the landscape, at least for the campaigning organisations. That’s where the difficult discussions will be.
I ought to add that it’s to Stonewall’s credit that they are choosing to consult (and consult widely) about this. They needn’t have done so – although the consultation is important for them also, because it should ensure that, whatever transpires and if done right, they will have a level of buy-in from affected people. It’s potentially as risky for Stonewall to go down this road as it may be for trans people, and much careful negotiation will have to take place over the next few months.
To make your voice heard by Stonewall, email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.