There is a law of nature that governs campaigning groups and charities, which is that an organisation set up to deal with a particular problem will always find a way to exist even after that problem has been addressed.
The reason is simple: by the time an issue has been solved, or almost solved, the business is at its peak. Employees’ salaries and pensions are at stake, reputations have been built and influence has been secured. And so it is that Eric Hoffer’s great insight is fulfilled: every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business and eventually degenerates into a racket.
Very few causes have degenerated into a racket so completely as the former gay-rights group known as Stonewall. When it was founded in 1989, gay rights in Britain, as across Europe, had some way to go to reach equality. Back then, there was a different age of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals, homosexuals did not have the right to marry or to have their partnerships legally recognised and, most pertinently, a Conservative government had made it impossible for young gay people to be in any way informed about their sexuality during their time at school.
There was certainly a long way to go, and Ian McKellen, Matthew Parris, Simon Fanshawe and the rest of the group’s founders faced an uphill battle for many years. But it was a battle which they helped to win.
Once most of their objectives had been achieved, though, what were Stonewall to do? There were several options in front of them. The most obvious, one might think, would have been to scale down and remain in place to deal with residual issues, such as the existence of homophobia in schools and other remaining pockets of society.
Instead Stonewall went the other way, and decided to cash in on its victory. This is, of course, unsurprising. For it is at the point at which you are victorious that you are most popular, and those who were once not by your side swiftly become your allies.
So it was with the corporate world and the machinery of government. Both the private and public sector suddenly provided Stonewall great reservoirs of cash to keep the organisation’s coffers full. Both were willing to invite Stonewall in to tell them what they could or should do better.
For instance, Stonewall had for some years been producing a list of the top employers for gay people in the UK. Yet even though the battle for equality was all but finished during the Blair and Cameron years, major companies suddenly decided that they wanted desperately to be on the list; having Stonewall’s gay stamp of approval became essential. With time, it became standard procedure for a company to invite Stonewall in to grade their commercial operations. Thus was born a relationship which was compromised from the outset and rife with vested interests.
Meanwhile, the Government became increasingly obsessed with obtaining the same gold star from Stonewall, asking the group to instruct departments what to do in their own workplaces, as well as craft policies in the wider world.
In particular, one of Stonewall’s most influential money-making programmes of recent years has been its “Diversity Champions scheme”, in which members are invited to pay a fee to Stonewall to allow the group to vet their internal policies. Among the 850 groups who have signed up are GCHQ, MI5, the Ministry of Defence, the Cabinet Office, the Department for Education and the Ministry of Justice.
Yet the degeneration of Stonewall has been evident for years; indeed, you can see it in the calibre of people involved at the top. When Stonewall started out, its leaders were prominent in the British media and public life. They were known to people who were straight, and certainly known to people who were gay.
Can the same be said today? I doubt it. In fact, I suspect if you were to visit every gay venue, you would find that fewer than one person in a hundred would be able to name Nancy Kelley as the current head of Stonewall. They would not know who she was or what she does. And that is because the group is neither at any forefront, nor any barricade. It is instead a business still running largely for the comfort of its employees.
It would be wrong, however, to assume that Stonewall is merely rich and benign. Far from it. For it is at just such a moment, when the coffers are full and the beneficiaries are content, that an organisation is liable to take a wrong turn. And that is what Stonewall has done in recent years. It says that its job is to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. But in reality, the first three letters of that acronym slipped off Stonewall’s radar at least six years ago. That was when Stonewall decided to sustain what campaigning impetus it had by arguing — along with a number of other legacy organisations — that nobody who is gay will be free until all TQ+ people have the same rights as everyone else.
And there are several problems here. Firstly, it is not clear that trans rights have any intersection (to borrow a popular term) at all with gay rights. In fact, they run very distinctly counter to them. It is, for instance, perfectly possible that boys and girls who do not conform to gender stereotypes may grow up to be happily straight or gay.
Surely a group which protected gay people would recognise that there is a need for nuance here? It would certainly not jump on the increasingly dogmatic bandwagon that claims — running against all the progress made by the gay rights movement — that such children are most likely of the opposite sex.
Yet what is worse is that rather than being open to a discussion with gay people who differ on these issues, Stonewall has decided to undermine them — and in some cases actually persecute them.
The recent case of Allison Bailey is instructive. Bailey is a criminal defence barrister, a feminist and a lesbian who, in response to Stonewall’s “trans agenda”, helped to set up the LGB Alliance. Stonewall, as a result, attempted to get Bailey into severe trouble at work, not least by helping to get her barrister’s chambers to put her under investigation because of her views on sex and gender. All of this and much more reveals the despicable bullying tactics deployed by Stonewall. It has, to put it simply, turned into an organisation that hounds gay and lesbian people who dare to disagree with them.
This week sees the group celebrate its 32nd anniversary — a landmark which nobody but its employees could possibly celebrate. Yet even they will likely do so with a sense of profound unease; in recent days, one of its founders, Matthew Parris, publicly urged Stonewall to stay out of the trans wars, while the Equality and Human Rights Commission announced that it would not be renewing its membership.
And quite right, too. No taxpayer-funded entity should be funnelling money to Stonewall. And private companies who continue to do so should be made aware that they are supporting a group which has stopped looking out for gay people and started hounding them in their workplaces instead.
So happy 32nd birthday, Stonewall. And no offence, but I hope you don’t make it to 33.