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New Stonewall boss Nancy Kelley is a ‘working class girl made good’ with a fresh new approach to the toxic trans rights row

Emma Powys Maurice August 18, 2020
Nancy Kelley: Stoneall boss on trans rights, mental health and COVID-19

Nancy Kelley, the new chief executive of Stonewall (Image supplied)

As far as new jobs go, Nancy Kelley have couldn’t have picked a more turbulent time to start.

She took the helm of Stonewall in June, in the midst of a pandemic, a Black Lives Matter movement and a looming global recession – all set against a backdrop of an increasingly toxic debate on trans rights.

She’s well aware of the pressure on her to unite her community and transform the transphobic landscape engulfing the UK. But Nancy doesn’t have all the answers, and she’s not trying to.

“Coming into this role, a lot of people approached me asking, ‘How are you going to heal the discourse?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I’m not a religious leader, so obviously I’m not going to heal the discourse!'” she told PinkNews.

Instead she plans to lead with optimism and pragmatism, focusing on material goals for the LGBT+ community rather than trying to convert everyone to Stonewall’s way of thinking.

It doesn’t mean the future of Stonewall will be any less idealist, but it does signal a change to a more realist approach.

‘We know the majority of the Great British Public think transphobia is wrong.’

“It’s not about winning a philosophical debate about the nature of sex and gender for me, and I think we miss a trick when we get too dragged into that, whatever our beliefs as an organisation,” Nancy Kelley explained.

When it comes to the long-term goals of the trans rights movement, she ultimately has faith in the Great British public. But she also recognises that the mainstream media has muddied the waters so greatly that, for many, all transgender issues have effectively merged into a single shibboleth.

“It’s become quite common for people to think, ‘Well, I don’t know whether I think trans women are women, so I should be scared of trans women, so I should oppose gender recognition,'” she said.

“But we know the general public don’t want to be transphobic. We know they think transphobia is wrong. We know that women feel more positive and inclusive towards trans people than men do, and we know that the general population don’t want to make trans folks’ lives worse.

“So we need to help them, take them on that journey with us and say, ‘Great, you don’t want to make life worse for trans people! Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about access to health care. Let’s talk about safety in the workplace. Let’s talk about gender recognition.'”

While it probably won’t win over the gender critical feminists, Nancy sees a way to turn the tide by making it possible for ordinary, well-meaning people to advocate for change, “Even if they don’t necessarily think or talk about things in exactly the same way that Stonewall does.”

If she can’t heal the discourse she can certainly simplify it, and in so doing return the public focus to what trans rights is really about: making daily life better for transgender people.

Nancy Kelley: ‘I’m a working class girl made good.’

Nancy’s refreshing approach is driven in part by her own early experiences of inequality. She cheerily describes herself as “a working class girl made good,” but behind that lies a greater struggle.

“I come from quite a difficult background,” she revealed. “My mum had mental health problems and substance misuse problems and those sorts of things. I had quite a tricky upbringing – we had what these days would be called a troubled family.

“That’s the experience I came from, and I escaped, but I look around me and I see that a lot of the people I grew up with are dead or are still living in poverty. And that’s something I feel quite connected to.”

Nancy Kelley feels incredibly lucky to be where she is now, and that sense has fuelled her fierce opposition to meritocracy, as well as a drive to change things for the better.

It’s served her well in her professional life as she moved through the voluntary sector, lobbying for mental health, children’s rights, migration and asylum.

Five years ago she changed tack and became chief executive National Centre for Social Research, before coming full circle and returning to the voluntary sector as head of Stonewall.

She now sees herself as “a poacher-turned-gamekeeper-turned-poacher”, armed with an intrinsic understanding of British social attitudes and a sturdy background in campaigning for cultural reform. So it’s easy to see why she was chosen to lead Stonewall through the post-pandemic world to come.

The role of Stonewall in the time of coronavirus.

Even before Britain entered the worst recession in generations, the LGBT+ community faced higher levels of mental health issues, substance abuse, homelessness, unemployment and financial instability than the wider population.

The coronavirus pandemic has heightened these inequities, and for all the media’s focus on the Gender Recognition Act, Nancy Kelley is aware that these day-to-day challenges are far more pressing in the short term.

The social and economic [problems] are going to be massive for our community,” she warned. “We have to keep pointing to the fact that, before all this, we started from a much greater level of need.”

Take, for example, mental health: the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for many of the systemic disadvantages faced by LGBT+ people.

“This is a really big issue,” she said. “LGBT+ mental health outcomes were really, significantly worse prior to the pandemic. And I think to a degree, we as a wider society have kind of stopped thinking about that. We’ve gone, ‘Oh, of course it’s hard to be queer, right? We know it’s hard to be an LGBT+ person.’

“That’s the position we went into this pandemic with, and we’ve then been disproportionately affected by all that followed – in particular LGBT+ people of colour.”

As chief executive of Stonewall she’s joined a coalition of mental health charities to help move society out of the “catastrophic, traumatic experience” of the pandemic, with a focus on securing targeted investment for LGBT+ organisations and those that work specifically with communities of colour.

Nancy knows this is just the tip of the iceberg, and that levelling the damage of coronavirus will form a key feature of Stonewall’s strategy for the future. Yet she also is struck by a sense of optimism for the LGBT+ community’s ability to rally together during times of hardship, and for the incredible advocacy it’s inspired.

“There’s both this urgent need for action in me, but also this unbelievable level of appreciation for the power and resilience we’ve got in our communities,” she said.

“I look at the intersectional activism that’s really prevalent now, like Black Lives Matter, which has been LGBT-inclusive from the start and throughout. And I look at some of the trans influencers out there, who have thrived in a toxic environment to become incredible creatives and advocates for themselves and the wider community.

“I’m blown away by the depth and breadth of the talent and I feel so incredibly impressed at how we’re able to survive. We’re pretty amazing, and there’s a lot to be proud of I think.”

More: Coronavirus, gender recognition act, mental health, nancy kelley, Stonewall, trans rights

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