Interview: Stonewall CEO Ruth Hunt on why the charity is going trans inclusive

Joseph McCormick February 16, 2015
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As Stonewall England and Wales announced plans to begin lobbying on trans issues, PinkNews caught up with CEO Ruth Hunt to talk about the reasons why, and why now.

In an historic move, gay rights charity Stonewall today announced that it will begin lobbying on trans issues.

The charity, which previously only lobbied only on gay, lesbian and bisexual issues in England and Wales, announced on Monday that it would now also include trans issues in its brief.

Explaining the process, Ms Hunt told PinkNews: “This report is the culmination of conversations with more than seven hundred trans people over the last six months.

“We went out to the communities and said ‘Stonewall currently doesn’t cover trans in its remit, would you like us to so? If we do, what would that look like? Or would you want us to keep our nose out?’

“I was very determined that any change would come from within the trans community, so this is a culmination of all those conversations, it’s a very ground-breaking moment, it’s very historic.”

Asked to explain the rationale behind the decision, Ms Hunt said: “For me it was a case of we had achieved equal marriage in this country, and of course lots of people played their part in that, but that really signalled an end of the legislative battles and Stonewall was moving into the territory of changing hearts and minds.

“As chief exec, as acting chief exec, and then appointed chief exec, I am absolutely committed to creating a world through Stonewall where everyone has the right to be themselves, where everyone can be who they want to be, and I think that the artificial divide between trans and sexual orientation hasn’t been particularly helpful in the kind of disagreements that we have had, so I wanted to move it forward.

“It started with a conversation of fifty prominent trans activists to see if we could make any headway there at all, and it was a really constructive conversation and a really good constructive day, so we were able to build on that.”

On whether she expected the reaction from the trans activists, Ms Hunt, who took over as CEO in 2014, said: “I was surprised. I think the first question was ‘we want to talk about the status quo, and let’s work out how we got here and whether we still want to be here.’

“So the first question [we asked] wasn’t ‘We want to do more’; the question was ‘Do you want us to do more?’ which is a very different kind of statement.

“There was some scepticism of course and there were some things that needed to be said and talked about.

“I was really inspired by how positive people were in that initial conversation and how much appetite there was for exploring this further, so not just a case of ‘no-Stonewall-no’ but actually of ‘Yes, maybe and let’s see what that looks like.’ It was very inspiring.”

Asked about the historic delay in getting to a point of trans inclusion, Ms Hunt replied: “I think when Stonewall was set up it was very clear that sexual orientation and trans issues were very separate, I think probably we should have had the conversations sooner about whether we should combine the issues and have more common ground. I think we didn’t and we should have done so, but I think we are now having those conversations, so it is really about looking to the future.”

In the report, Ms Hunt makes reference to mistakes made and apologies owed. On reflection, she said: “I think we think at Stonewall it’s important to acknowledge our past and acknowledge when we haven’t done things as well and I think that’s a crucial part of building friendship and trust again between trans communities and Stonewall. I don’t think the trans communities could expect us to more forward if we had not demonstrated an understanding of what we had done less well in the past because how can we demonstrate we won’t make those mistakes? And I think part of my way of seeing it is that it is very important to acknowledge mistakes in order to move forward.

“I think for me personally I have always grown up with a very diverse LGBT community but I think I understood why historically it was important to maintain the difference. I remember having a meeting with the Department of Health and explaining lesbians needed smear tests and then my colleagues from Press for Change explaining why trans men needed smear tests. Those were two such separate conversations which needed to have that full stop as it was in the best interests of trans people. But I think we are now in a place where people are more understanding and sophisticated. But to me trans people have always been part of the community that I belonged to and are part of the family and that’s very much part of my philosophy.

Asked about the priorities articulated by trans people, Ms Hunt replied: “The first and dominant message is ‘Use what you are already doing to be trans inclusive.’ So all the work Stonewall does with seven hundred employers, the thousands of schools we work with, the resources we have, they were saying, ‘put trans in that because that will make a big difference.’ Then there are questions about trans-specific work. There are issues around some of the legislation, the Gender Recognition Act, there are issues around healthcare, there are issues around education, but they were very clear and we are very clear: there are lots of trans organisations doing really good work on this already. It’s about how we can amplify that work and work in partnership with them.”

Ms Hunt was asked if Stonewall would campaign to have the “spousal veto” erased from the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act for England and Wales, she replied: “In the seven hundred conversations we’ve had over the last six months, there’s a range of views in the trans community about spousal veto. It’s important to get a very clear idea of consensus around this issue before deciding what to do from a policy perspective – and that applies to a whole different load of things because we don’t have the knowledge or the authority to say ‘this is what should happen’ – it’s really about creating a space to ensure trans people are reflected in our policies.”

Speaking of she would prioritise Stonewall’s trans agenda, Ms Hunt said: “There are significant issues but I think looking at what we already do will help us prioritise. So there is the Workplace Equality Index, which is filled in by four hundred organisations each year – just by adding questions on trans for that can transform the workplace for a lot of trans people working for these major employers. If you look at the work we do with teachers, even if you include trans in that it will help transform schools and cultures. So there are things we can do very quickly and those things will be determined by what we already do. In terms of the some of the trans-specific work, those priorities will have to come from the trans community, so we will need to talk to them about what are the most important things for Stonewall to tackle. There’s a lot of good work going on already, so I think some of those issues will emerge might be about health and access to gender identity clinics for people who are non-binary. Not much is being done on that area so that might be where Stonewall can add value. But that’s really got to come once we’ve got the good training in place, the advisory group in place, and we’ve got some staff in place, and that will all take some time.”

Asked if Stonewall Scotland helped guide the decision to become trans inclusive Ms Hunt said: “Absolutely, Stonewall staff across all of our three offices have been very involved in this process as well as Stonewall supporters, our trans staff, quite a broad church of people getting involved. Stonewall Scotland works very closely with an organisation called Scottish Transgender Alliance and they pursue the trans-specific work and Stonewall Scotland are a very good ally to them on trans inclusive work. Of course Stonewall Scotland delivers a lot of the Stonewall GB products, which are not trans inclusive but where they can be they are. So Stonewall Scotland is very enthusiastic about us becoming trans inclusive as is the wider organisation. All the staff, trans and people who are not trans, are very excited by this and I think the main challenge for Stonewall is to not run before we can walk. Googling trans does not make you an expert, so for staff it’s really about getting them to slow down and make sure we have the right training.”

On whether one of the challenges for an organisation looking to become trans inclusive was using the right language, Ms Hunt replied: “I think that is something that has to be done and I’m sure we will make some slip-ups along the way. I think what I realised and what we realised through conversations is how powerful language is and how it can really put people off. So we wanted this document to help educate people as well, so that’s why at the back there’s a glossary about language and words and the words we use, because people get frightened about this issue because they are worried about getting the language wrong. And certainly our trans staff tell us that pronouns and getting pronouns right are incredibly important and that’s why it’s right to emphasis it, but there’s a lot to learn and that’s why we are clear this will take 18 months, this is not a case of just bunging T onto our remit and thinking we can just start tomorrow, it’s actually going to be quite a slow process to make sure we are fully equipped and qualified and trained to do this well because we don’t want to do any harm.

“At Stonewall we pride ourselves on plain English and bringing people with us and we know how frightening language can be across the whole LGBT spectrum, people worry about if the word ‘lesbian’ is ok and people still use the word ‘homosexual’ and we have to kind of go, ‘No, people don’t really say homosexual now.’ I think in the area of trans, language is developing at a huge rate, and even at some point in the report I say, ‘The language might change by the time you read this’. But I think it’s all about intentions and good intentions and if your intentions are good people will be relatively forgiving if you get it wrong, but I think we need to have the respect for the trans communities in getting it right, and that’s what this report tries to do.”

Stonewall’s full report can be read here.

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