Lesbian and gay people have often disagreed about what it means to be lesbian or gay, though wider society will not necessarily have noticed.
To put it rather crudely, some consider themselves to be “virtually normal” (as Andrew Sullivan’s 1995 book argued). By which I mean they want nothing more than equality before the law so that that they can get on with living lives which are pretty much — except in the bedroom — just like everyone else’s. Others, though, consider themselves to be outlaws: their experience of same-sex desire placing them outside of mainstream, “heteronormative” society and they (at least in the case of gay men) would never be so bourgeois as to restrict sexual activity to the bedroom.
It’s the conservatives versus the radicals: the former position is the traditional “equality” argument; the latter is the more “liberationist” one.
But this good-natured debate is as nothing compared to the division that has opened up in lesbian and gay communities following Stonewall’s 2015 decision to re-formulate homosexuality around the nebulous concept of “gender identity”. Its policy today, which it has promoted through its Diversity Champions scheme, is that biological sex is less important than self-declared “gender identity” — an inner feeling of being either man or woman, male or female, which, according to Stonewall, is an identity we all possess. It follows that biological males can be lesbians, and biological females can be gay men. To disagree is transphobic.
It has riven us like never before, and only now is society waking up to this as a slew of private and public institutions pull out of the Diversity Champions scheme. Ofcom is the latest to quit stating that taking part “poses a conflict or risk of perceived bias”.
The breadth of support Stonewall enjoyed until now was predicated on its small-c conservative agenda; lobbying for legislative equality and wider social acceptance of LGB people, and seeing legislative equality and social acceptance as linked. Its consensus-seeking agreeableness enabled buy-in from politicians of Left and Right. In particular, the issues of civil partnerships and same-sex marriage enabled socially conservative politicians to be absorbed into the equality project.
For radical liberationists, a background of legislative equality was tacitly welcome as a precondition to a more disruptive ultimate goal. On the whole, whether you wanted assimilation or a radically “queer” reshaping of society, Stonewall’s activities were largely uncontroversial among lesbian and gay people.
But the gender identity handbrake-turn fractured that consensus. Stonewall’s strategy for dealing with the fallout has been to insist that there can be “no debate”, characterising entreaties to discussion as equal to debating trans people’s very existence.
The “no debate” strategy was intended to delegitimise opponents’ views while the charity worked behind the scenes with the Government to drive through its preferred changes to the Equality Act and the Gender Recognition Act before critical voices could get a public hearing.
Today, the “no debate” shield is starting to fail. This is largely down to all those women who refused to concede that a man who claims to to “identify” as a woman counts as a woman in exactly the same way as a biological female does. Stonewall’s stance on gender identity, and the public consultation on the GRA in 2018, created some powerfully angry grassroots women’s organisations, such as Woman’s Place UK and Fair Play For Women. It also produced the LGB Alliance, founded by seasoned lesbian activists Kate Harris and Bev Jackson. (Full disclosure: I was involved in the early planning of LGBA.)
This means that there are now two lobbying charities aiming to represent lesbian and gay people. Stonewall, which argues that the policies and principles of LGB Alliance (prioritising biological sex over gender identity) are transphobic, and LGB Alliance, which argues that the policies and principles of Stonewall (prioritising gender identity over biological sex) are homophobic.
Nothing represents the extent of this schism more powerfully than the intervention of Simon Callow — a gay man who came out publicly in 1984, five years before Stonewall was founded, when gay and lesbian people were commonly hounded by the tabloid press, and when the age of consent for gay men was still 21. Earlier this week Callow pointed out Stonewall’s “strange turn to the tyrannical” regarding self-identification. And described the “extraordinarily unproductive militancy” that surrounds its current position.
As for the charity’s ideological shift, he said: “When it impinges on women’s rights, hard-won women’s rights, the right to exclusive spaces for women, away from any threat at all — I think that’s a very serious issue.”
This must be discussed, he pointed out reasonably.
But reason is in short supply. The last few years of gay and lesbian politics has turned the consensus which held for thirty years upside down. Our most reliable lobbying charity, within which most of us used to be able to see at least something of ourselves, has become radicalised and divisive, igniting and reframing that discussion which had simmered in the background but never seemed existentially important in the way that it now does, namely — what does it mean to be gay or lesbian? Who are we?
For many of us, Stonewall’s position conflicts profoundly with how we feel about our gay or lesbian nature. Let me put it bluntly; I experience sexual desire for men, not human beings of either sex who claim to identify as men. My sexual orientation is towards male bodies — and yes, that means male genitalia too. If you explore this on Twitter (and I don’t recommend it) you will encounter people minimising same-sex desire to “genital preference”, arguing that it is inherently transphobic. Stonewall has avoided endorsing this view — but it has also avoided speaking up for specifically same-sex desire.
For three decades, Stonewall was broadly representative of the majority of people for whom it lobbied. There was only occasional dissent — a minor kerfuffle over whether or not it should follow up its successful campaign for civil partnerships with lobbying for same-sex marriage, for example. But now, through the fog and noise, one thing is becoming clear; Stonewall’s legitimacy is eroding, and with it the illusion that there is one LGBT community, to which the vast majority of us affiliate.
There has been an irreversible shift.