If ever there was a lost, screwed-up gay kid who would have benefited from the existence of an organisation like Stonewall in his childhood, it was me. Bullied, lonely, and lacking any knowledge about what it meant to be gay, but feeling a vague, dark sense that the lives I saw around me were not the same as mine — I didn’t have words to describe what I felt. At around the age of 13 I retreated into myself and was taken to a child psychologist, but I refused to speak.
I was 18 when the infamous Section 28 became law in May 1988, prohibiting the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality by local authorities. I don’t know where all this promotion was taking place but it wasn’t at my Cleethorpes comprehensive, which had covered sex education in one baffling, strictly science-only lesson. Homosexuality wasn’t mentioned, let alone advertised.
In 1989, Stonewall was founded and, thanks in large part to its careful, determined work, British society began to change for the better. Life became gradually easier and happier for lesbians, bisexuals and gay men. It was a slow process.
Fast-forward to 2006. I am 35, the artistic director of Queer Up North International Festival, and I have commissioned an educational theatre production addressing the issue of homophobic bullying in secondary schools. Stonewall is co-producing the project and I have been spending hours on the phone to teachers up and down the country, trying to persuade them to let Queer Up North and Stonewall into their schools.
The calumny that LGBT people are a risk to children is alive and well, and I don’t want what I write here to give succour to those who perpetuate it. But here’s the thing: the Stonewall of today is not the Stonewall I so admired a decade ago. If I were on the phone to those teachers today, I’d advise them not to have Stonewall in their schools.
The government also appears to have spotted that something is wrong. It has issued guidance prohibiting schools from working with external organisations that “reinforce damaging stereotypes, for instance by suggesting that children might be a different gender based on their personality and interests or the clothes they prefer to wear”. The government doesn’t say which organisations it has in mind, but several established LGBT organisations — including Stonewall — produce materials that would appear to fall foul of the new rules.
The original Stonewall proceeded from a premise which gradually found support across the political spectrum: that the experience of same-sex desire is morally neutral and therefore not a just basis for discrimination. Stonewall’s campaigns to equalise the age of consent, overturn the ban on gays and lesbians in the military, and secure civil partnerships and equal marriage, all gathered social and political support on this basis.
But since beginning to campaign on trans issues in 2015, Stonewall has faced more complex, specialised questions than in its first 26 years, during which it campaigned solely on matters relating to sexual orientation.
The foundational proposition of modern trans politics is that sex — boundaried, binary, and stubbornly unchangeable — should be replaced with the more malleable concept of ‘gender identity’ — the belief that we all have an innate, irreducible (and unverifiable) sense of our gender, unrelated to biological sex.
The marginalisation of sex in trans activism sits uneasily with the centrality of sex to lesbian and gay activism. I’m a gay man which means I experience sexual desire for male bodies — not for people who ‘identify as’ men (who could be male or female). But the solidarity between LGB and T people has tended to mean more to us than any underlying conceptual frictions; Queer Up North had this solidarity at its heart and trans artists and performers were central to the work we did.
But when Stonewall decided to campaign on trans issues as well as sexual orientation issues, these conceptual frictions had to be resolved into a coherent policy platform. Stonewall’s response to these complexities was to adopt wholly the precepts of trans politics; the de-emphasis of sex and the promotion of innate gender identity. This has led to some contorted positions with damaging real-world effects.
For example, it has led Stonewall to reconfigure homosexual desire. This is not immediately apparent from Stonewall’s glossary, which, for example, describes a lesbian as a woman who is attracted to other women. But the glossary doesn’t offer a definition of ‘woman’ because Stonewall is keen to dodge the implications of its replacement of biological sex with self-reported gender identity — namely that a woman is a person of either sex who ‘identifies’ as a woman.
It follows inexorably that lesbians must now accept that — to use the phrase beloved of trans activists and their woke allies — “some women have penises”. You don’t have to know much about lesbianism to appreciate that the absence of penis is fundamental to the concept. When a group of lesbians protested at London’s Pride parade in 2018, Stonewall showed them no sympathy. This issue is causing distress and anger for many people, including young women just finding their feet in the lesbian community.
Its new policy platform has also led Stonewall to look both ways on the issue of gender stereotypes. On the one hand, Stonewall produces excellent materials encouraging young people to explore their lives beyond the boundaries of gendered expectations. On the other, its promotion of gender identity reinforces those same gender stereotypes; a biological male who reports having the gender identity ‘woman’ cannot explain the claim without gender stereotypes. This is not a problem within the specific domain of trans politics, but Stonewall now claims that everyone has a gender identity, and therefore everyone identifies, in some way, with gender stereotypes. While Stonewall continues to make this claim it will continue to be on the wrong side of the government’s new schools guidance.
Having adopted such radical, far-reaching new policies, rather than seek to persuade wider society of their value, Stonewall has sought to silence opposition and enforce submission by labelling heretics — such as women who want to retain the sex-based rights secured by the 2010 Equality Act, and lesbians who reject the concept of the ‘female penis’ — as ‘transphobic’, placing them on the same moral level as racists.
A substantial, and increasing, number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people have had enough of Stonewall’s dogmatism. The founding in 2019 of the LGB Alliance, a grassroots, lesbian-led lobbying group which rejects gender identity, is responding to the demand for alternative thinking.
Stonewall’s brand is powerful — but brands are illusory, and Stonewall’s masks the socially divisive and damaging effects of its current policies. Politicians, schools, NGOs and major corporations routinely subcontract their judgment on LGBT issues to Stonewall, persuaded that whatever Stonewall says is ‘best practice’ must be right. But they should learn to be more cautious, because the new Stonewall is a vastly different organisation from the one which gradually earned their trust.