July 12, 2023 - 10:00am

Nancy Kelley, head of the divisive charity Stonewall, announced earlier this week on Twitter that she is to step down from the role. Her post on Monday stated that while the job hasn’t “always been a pleasure”, leading Europe’s largest LGBTQIA+ organisation “has surely been a privilege”. 

To many, Stonewall has become a toxic brand: a charity representing identity politics over the interests of ordinary people who happen to have partners of the same sex. But Kelley has been publicly impervious to criticism, claiming that her organisation is the victim of a “transphobic moral panic” and an “anti-rights movement” that “is running rampant around the globe”.

Over her three years in the post, Kelley brought a smorgasbord of hitherto unrepresented identities under the organisation’s “trans umbrella”. Perhaps spokespeople from the asexual, pansexual, demisexual and allosexual communities will be sad to see her go. But it’s fair to say that many homosexuals who once turned to Stonewall for guidance are cheered by the news of her departure. 

Dennis Kavanagh, a longstanding critic of Kelley and executive director of the Gay Men’s Network, said that she had “promised dialogue and big tent politics” but instead “delivered ideological division and controversy”.

Indeed, Kelley’s tenure has been marked by a growing fracture within what the heterosexual mainstream too often sees as the “LGBT community”. The emergence of organisations like the Gay Men’s Network, lesbian group Get the L Out and charity LGB Alliance are a testament to the fact that increasing numbers of same-sex attracted people feel they are no longer represented by publicly funded groups like Stonewall.

This is because, in a move to include trans identities, sexual orientation itself has been redefined. Stonewall and other “LGBTQIA+” organisations now argue that because “transwomen are women”, some lesbians have penises. And those who disagree, according to a 2020 leaked email from Kelley to the BBC, are guilty of the equivalent of “sexual racism”. 

To push this message, Stonewall appointed a trans advisory group. Members have included Alex Drummond, a bearded man who claims to be a lesbian “expanding the bandwidth of womanhood”; and former erotic performer Morgan Page, who previous to working with Stonewall ran a controversial workshop called “Overcoming the Cotton Ceiling”. A reference to women’s underwear, the term “cotton ceiling” is used to criticise women who refuse to have sex with female-identified males because they have penises.

It was Kelley’s predecessor, Ruth Hunt (now Baroness Hunt), who lit the fuse by formally adding the T to the LGB in 2015. Hunt stepped away from the charity in 2019 and promptly picked-up a gong. The hapless Kelley was appointed in 2020 and has been picking shrapnel out of the organisation and fighting media firestorms ever since. 

Kelley could have listened to the concerns of people like Stonewall co-founders Simon Fanshawe and Matthew Parris, both of whom have warned that the focus on transgender rights has taken the organisation off course. Instead, she doubled down. Not content to compare sexual orientation to sexual racism, in an interview with the BBC Kelley argued that gender critical beliefs are akin to antisemitism.

It would be comforting to imagine that Kelley’s departure might be the end of extremist trans ideology in the UK, and that a return to common sense might follow. But the mad ideas incubated by Stonewall have now spread across the third sector and civil society. A slew of local organisations, educational charities and consultancies are still busy embedding its vision across British institutions. The damage will take decades to repair and thousands of pounds in legal fees to challenge.

It’s hard not to feel a sliver of sympathy for Kelley, a woman who enthusiastically grasped at what was a poisoned chalice. Perhaps if nothing else, her example serves as inspiration to the mediocrities across Great Britain: a sign that, in the revolving door of high-profile charity jobs, a lack of ability need not be a barrier to success.

Josephine Bartosch is a freelance writer and assistant editor at The Critic.