The departure of Ben Summerskill from Stonewall has renewed the age-old discussion about the relationship Stonewall has with trans folk. This is partially because the acting Chief Executive, Ruth Hunt, is known to be more trans-friendly but also due to an article written by Sarah Brown for Pink News. I’ve seen a few responses to this from the gay community, some of which are in the comments to the Pink News post – such as one person saying including the T in Stonewall would be “like having a blind man in a deaf support group“. The letter that Sarah published from a “Mr. W” is a good summary of the issues as seen from a gay cis (i.e. non-trans) male standpoint, so I’ll use that as a framework.
Firstly, who are Stonewall in this context? They are not the same organisation as Stonewall Housing or Stonewall Scotland, both of whom are trans-inclusive. The reason for the common name is that several organisations have named themselves after the Stonewall riots of 1969. Most narratives have the riots being started as a result of police harassment of trans women and cross-dressers, so the fact Stonewall use that name but don’t include trans issues generates friction from the outset.
It really should not be surprising then that there was the 2008 protest outside the Stonewall awards when noted transphobe Julie Bindel was up for an award: She was being nominated for an award in the name of riots started due to oppression of trans folk.
What Stonewall do campaign for is same-sex relationships, i.e. mostly focused on gay and lesbian issues, although bisexual folk such as myself do get a look-in as long as we’re in a same-sex relationship.
So, on to the letter Sarah published:
As far as I am aware from speaking to some of my trans friends, most believe that they are the sex that they wish to be transitioned to and they want usually to date people of the opposite sex. Its rare a man changes to woman and then dates a woman and the same goes for women wishing to do the same. Most trans people do not believe that they are gay and therefor I fail to see what the gay scene can offer them.
Research suggests that less than half of trans folk are heterosexual post-transition – some people are simply asexual, but there are as many people that identify as bisexual or homosexual post-transition as straight. It’s a common enough misconception though, because trans folk needed to fit a certain erroneous narrative in days gone by in order to access medical care but those dark days are now mostly behind us.
Regardless, there has always been a huge crossover. Many straight trans women started out as effeminate gay men or as cross-dressers, and many trans men started off within the lesbian scene. People’s identities may change, but they will still retain links with activist groups they used to be or continue to be members of. And homophobia, biphobia and transphobia all have common roots: “We don’t like people who transgress gender norms.”
There are some people who may never have identified with the LGB community in any way – either because they are straight and transitioned young before sexuality was an issue, or went from being heterosexual pre-transition to being heterosexual post-transition. But this is rare.
It is about time some one with your influence created an established advice line for trans people run by trans people, so that the right information can be given and when problems need to be talked over there is an adviser who will understand more closely what experiences the person have been through.
Stonewall and other gay charities raise most of the money through the gay, lesbian and bi volunteers collecting money and in this austere time it does not go far, they need that money for its intended purpose i.e to counsel and advise people in same sex relationships and safer sex.
…and this is really the big issue. Stonewall and the Lesbian and Gay Foundation soak up the lion’s share of funding aimed at the LGBT+ community, and until recently the lion’s share of lobbying time. Despite Stonewall being quite clear they don’t cover trans issues, people feel by consulting with or funding Stonewall in particular that they’ve “ticked the boxes” for the LGBT community and move on to other things. Even the Court of Appeal make this mistake: a judgement published just today on the “gay cure” bus adverts refers to “Stonewall, an organisation that works for equality and justice for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender individuals.”
This leaves trans helplines, of which there have been a few, with little funding and even less access to publicity. This isn’t Stonewall’s fault, it’s a genuine misunderstanding on their part, but more needs to be done to ensure bisexual and trans campaigners and support groups get publicity.
As an aside, I’ll note the trans community isn’t immune from criticism in this regard. As I understand it, trans lobbyists pointed out to the Civil Service that the Gender Recognition Act 2004 would have a negative impact on intersex individuals but the Civil Service failed to actually talk to anyone suitable because it wasn’t pushed hard enough. When dealing with slow, bureaucratic organisations there is a tricky balance to be struck between being too passive and saying simply “we don’t do this” and inappropriate “white knighting”, i.e. speaking on behalf of people you shouldn’t.
Historically, Stonewall have managed to end up heavily on whichever side of that balance is worst for the trans community at that moment in time, but I am hopeful that will change.