Ben Summerskill: ‘Lots of gay and lesbian people don’t actually want marriage’

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In an exclusive interview with, Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill discusses gay marriage, the ‘cancer’ of homophobic bullying and the future of the charity.

The gay rights movement celebrates two landmark anniversaries this summer. One is the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York; the other is the 20th year since Stonewall, the UK gay rights charity, was founded.

Section 28, which banned discussion of homosexuality in schools, has been lifted, along with the ban on openly gay military personnel. Civil partnerships, heralded as virtually identical to marriages, are now legal and the age of consent for gays and straights has been equalised.

So then, some may ask, what is the point of Stonewall? Ben Summerskill too hopes to see a day when the charity can be dismantled, which he believes could be within the next 20 years.

“When I arrived at Stonewall six years ago, we did do a legislative plan which involved 12 years more work and actually we have almost completed that with the arrival of the new Equality Bill which will mean we have legislative protections in every single area,” he said.

“But we’re still very mindful indeed that changing the wider world is critically important and so our challenge for the next 20 years, which we hope will be the last 20 years of our existence, our challenge for next 20 years is to try and make those legislative developments meaningful across right across the whole of the public sphere.”

Notably, Stonewall does little work abroad compared with those at the other end of the gay spectrum such as Peter Tatchell, who frequently champions the rights of those in eastern Europe and middle-eastern countries.

However, Summerskill rejects this criticism: “We do international influencing and we lobby on all sorts of issues but we are also very cautious of being one of those charities, which says slightly piously, ‘we do everything’. ‘Whatever you want, we’ll campaign on it’, and then finds five or ten years down the road, that they haven’t really achieved very much anywhere.”

He said: “We are very alive to the fact that at the end of the day, even though we have about 30,000 active supporters, at the end of the day, our resources are limited. So we currently will continue to focus on Britain and when we see the levels of homophobic bullying in primary schools, we know they need tackling.”

He also disagreed with the view that Stonewall should represent trans people, saying that for many charities, it was simply a case of ‘popping the T on [to LGB]’, rather than actually working for trans rights.

He said: “We are committed to doing stuff as professionally as we can. There are some really complex issues, like medicalisation, that quite often people in gay organisations have no idea about. And we do think those issues are important enough to be supported and funded separately and we’ve helped to develop and deliver a number of income streams to help. Like when the Department of Health said they wanted to fund some research into gay and trans people’s health, we warned that’s not actually good enough, these are two very different areas.”

“We recognise it’s not an easy add-on that can be done in a very glib way and I do think that’s the approach some of these organisations take.”

Another criticism often levelled at the organisation is its acceptance of civil partnerships as opposed to marriage, something some critics have described as “sexual apartheid”.

“Well, the issue on marriage is that again, there are a lot of vocal supporters, but the thing they’ve always focused on is actually the real rights and entitlements. As I said, we know there are quite a lot of gay and lesbian people who wouldn’t want marriage, and some have explicitly said so. I think Antony Sher [the gay actor and playwright] gave an interview a while back where he said ‘If it was marriage, I wouldn’t want it. It recognises what’s special about me and my partner.’ And we know there are lots of lesbians who actually don’t want marriage.”

When questioned about those who do want gay marriage, Summerskill said: “Well, someone people do and they’re perfectly entitled to express their views. We are one of many, many organisations but at the end of the day, in terms of our priorities, what we’ve always focused on, is absolutely practical hard outcomes which make a real difference to people’s lives … The reality is half the population already call civil partnerships marriage anyway.”

“It’s one of Stonewall’s ways of working. We’re always more interested in things that make a real, practical difference to people’s lives than perhaps just an intellectual and academic name. And my own view is that civil partnerships have been quite a remarkable piece of what used to be called in the old days ‘political education’.

“We can never go back to the days when I was young, even just 30 years ago, when MPs would stand up in parliament and say ‘Well I don’t know anyone who’s homosexual’. Forty million people are getting a tax return that acknowledges that laws for gay people exist in long term relationships, they’re actually kind of learning something that they wouldn’t if all you had to do was ticked a ‘married’ box. They would have continued being able to be in denial.”

On perceptions of Stonewall being a charity for middle-class white men, he said: “I think its always true that charities can be characterised as middle-class and white, and that’s something you have to work on, to actually demonstrate the reality is different. When I got here six years ago, our staff was 35 per cent women and that is now 52 per cent. It’s the same with trustees and we also have nearly 20 per cent of our staff who are ethnic minority and the same amount who are disabled.”

Responding to the historic perception that Stonewall is traditionally a Labour-sympathising organisation, Summerskill said he had never asked any Stonewall employee their political affiliation, adding: “I voluntarily adhered to the bit of the civil service code which prevents any senior civil servants from expressing any party political preference in public.”

Many believe the next government will be Conservative but a recent survey of readers found that only 37 per cent believed the party has changed its views on gay issues. When asked about the possibility the party may attempt to turn back the clock on gay rights, Summerskill said: “I think we would say you actually have to continue to be vigilant regardless of who’s in power and you could have a government of all sorts of complexions that suddenly thought kicking one minority group or another might be a good thing to do.

“And I think we have to remind all politicians of the risk they pose to themselves. Without a shadow of a doubt, one the reasons I think Conservatives have moved is probably less to do with recognising that there are whatever it is, 2.8 million gay electors, which is nevertheless quite a big group of people, I think what they’ve realised is that if they twitch every time the word gay is mentioned, actually most people under 40 in this country now think ‘Why are you so excited and why do you keep banging on about sex?’

“I think the Conservatives would be very unwise to even contemplate going back to where they might have been in the 1980s. But certainly the impression I’ve had with members of the shadow cabinet recently suggests they’re well aware of that risk.”

Summerskill welcomed the appointment of Conservative John Bercow to the position of Speaker, saying he was “confident that Bercow will take the under-representation of gay people in the House of Commons seriously”.

He added: “John Bercow is right, he recognises it’s ridiculous and its not only ridiculous, it’s a disgrace that in 2009 there is one lesbian out of 13,00 legislators in the Houses of Parliament. Even though there is a handful of gay men, they’re still massively under-represented and it is one arena where it just isn’t good enough for parties, and certainly the Liberal Democrats, to say, as they have done in the past, there might be people who are lesbian and gay who are not out.”

“I have no problem with those who are not out but the simple fact is you cannot stand up in the House of Commons and speak with the lived experience of being lesbian or gay if you’re not actually able to say ‘By the way, the reason I know this is so important is because I’m a lesbian myself’.”

On Stonewall’s financial position in the current recession, Summerskill is positive, pointing to a new six-figure sponsorship arrangement with a financial services firm organised in the 24 hours before the interview.

He said: “Clearly some of our supporters have been stretched, but on the other hand, there are two things I would say. One is that some of the businesses that have developed work with us, such as Credit Suisse, Barclays and Goldman Sachs, are business that have actually weathered the recession quite well and we would conclude that’s because, and they recognise this, that doing work around equality and supporting the very, very best staff regardless of background, is actually a way of being more commercially successful. Clearly we will be under some pressure, although as yet we have not seen a significant fall in income.

“In the current financial year, eight per cent of our funding is probably coming from the public purse in one way or another but it’s certainly not an amount which would cause anyone to think we were influencable.

“Five years ago we had £11,000 of reserves. We’ve now got £1.5m. It does mean we’re protected against a serious recession and that’s not a question of protecting us or protecting staff, it’s a question of protecting the work Stonewall does.”

For the foreseeable future, that work will focus on schools, Summerskill says.

“One of the biggest challenges we face is to get the cancer of homophobic bullying out of the schools. We saw from the case of Michael Causer last summer in Liverpool who was beaten to death. He wasn’t beaten to death by someone who went to school in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s. He was killed in a homophobic attack by someone who went to school in the last five years in this country.”

One of the biggest challenges for Stonewall now, he said, is changing hearts and minds rather than laws, something likely to be far more difficult.