Comment: Stonewall’s complicated relationship with trans activists is based on old arguments
Writing for PinkNews, Lib Dem councillor Sarah Brown reflects on the sometimes fraught relationship between Stonewall and trans activists, and says she hopes they can work together going forward.
The relationship between Stonewall and the trans community has never been straightforward, to say the least.
Stonewall in England is, and has been, ostensibly an LGB group, campaigning for those involved in same sex relationships, and has taken the position that they are allied with trans campaign groups, but do not involve themselves in trans issues directly.
On paper you can draw nice neat lines separating “gender identity stuff” and “sexuality stuff”, and have everything work out. Sadly, reality is messier and doesn’t much care for attempts to confine things to neat boxes.
Perhaps this was most obviously seen in 2008, when what was reckoned at the time to be the UK’s largest public protest by transgender people and our allies took place; outside the swanky Stonewall Awards ceremony in London. Trans people were hurt and outraged that journalist Julie Bindel, who many trans people saw as openly transphobic, was nominated as a champion of diversity. I was there, waving a banner and shouting, and the crowd was angry over what it saw as Stonewall promoting its own interests by hurting our vulnerable community.
A similar problem arose more recently, over the same sex marriage bill. It’s fair to say Stonewall were caught napping a bit when, in autumn 2010, the Liberal Democrats announced our commitment to delivering marriage equality. As momentum built, Stonewall joined enthusiastically and published a draft “same sex marriage bill”. It was, as I recall, less than two pages long and didn’t mention trans people once.
Trans people were treated terribly unjustly by marriage law for a long time, and if ever there was an opportunity to right wrongs, it was with this bill. Since the 70s, our marriages were in legal limbo until 2004, when the then government, finally forced to act by the European Court of Human Rights, grudgingly agreed to recognise our true genders (and thus allow us to be protected at work from sex discrimination and a whole host of other stuff), but at a cost; the government wanted to take our existing marriages away, to erase them from history.
When the actual act came forth, not only did the government not want to right historical wrongs; they also wanted to make a new one, the Spousal Veto. If you wanted your employment non-discrimination rights, and other stuff that came with recognition, you (literally) need a letter from your husband, wife or civil partner saying they consent. If they don’t (and it doesn’t matter if they’re estranged and hate you, or in a coma after an accident and unable to consent), the only way you can end your legal non-personhood is to divorce them.
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About a dozen-or-so trans lobbyists, of which I was one, met with civil servants, lobbied parliamentarians, and offered amendments and compromises to try and get our conﬁscated marriages back, to remove or at least time-limit the veto. Despite parliamentarians like Julian Huppert and Liz Barker passionately taking up our cause in the Commons and Lords respectively, the civil service and government didn’t budge.
The Marriage (same sex couples) Act passed into law with a spousal veto, and with no restitution of the marriages confiscated.
Things could have been so different if our little group of people who didn’t really know what we were doing had a big organisation like Stonewall behind us. In Scotland, after work by the excellent Scottish Transgender Alliance and the Equality Network, and where Stonewall does support trans people, the Scottish Parliament voted unanimously to remove the spousal veto. In England and Wales, we’re stuck with it. At a time when trans people really, really needed the help of a professional LGBT lobbying organisation, Stonewall decided it was nothing to do with them and looked away.
Every time I talked to former CEO Ben Summerskill about this, he said it went back to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act, when trans groups wanted to do things by ourselves. I can’t help wondering if there were personality politics involved at the time, if bridges were burned. Perhaps that’s why we’re left in the cold. Times change, a new generation of trans activists is around today and we feel like we’re being constrained by deals, and perhaps arguments, that happened behind closed doors ten years ago by people who haven’t been able to move on.
My plea to Stonewall, and to interim CEO Ruth Hunt, is to use this opportunity to sweep away old understandings and misunderstandings, and to see if we can’t build something more inclusive, where trans people can turn to the largest LGBT rights organisation in the country (because that’s what everybody else sees them as, regardless of whether they see themselves that way), ask for help, and get it.
We don’t promise to be uncritical, and not say anything when you get it wrong, but wouldn’t it be great if Stonewall at least tried to be on the same side as trans people, rather than leaving us to ﬁght the same battles, against the same people who hate us for the same reasons, alone?
Sarah Brown is a Lib Dem councillor in Cambridge.
As with all comment, this does not necessarily reflect the views of PinkNews.