Comment: Why Stonewall’s decision to lobby on trans issues was the right one

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Having been one of the first trans activists to meet with Stonewall during the charity’s consultation period into lobbying on trans issues, Reubs Walsh writes for PinkNews on why the change was the right one to make.

It is not very often that an organisation sets out to listen to trans people, and then makes real changes, as a matter of urgency, in response to what we say. However Stonewall has just done exactly that.

After 25 years of excluding trans issues from their work, and even making serious mistakes that, at the time, did real harm to trans people, Stonewall have finally heeded the calls of numerous trans people (including myself) to integrate our needs and issues into their work. They have conducted an extensive consultation process with the trans community, in a way that ensures all sections of the community have an equal chance to be heard, and have today released a report setting out the next steps.

You can now see the report online, but there are three key features I would like to focus on.

First, there is a strong sense of ‘mea culpa’ in the opening pages of the report. In her foreword, Ruth Hunt (Stonewall’s relatively new CEO) speaks candidly about the mistakes of the past:

“We recognise the impact of mistakes we have made in the past. We are aware that we have missed opportunities to open up this conversation far sooner. We apologise to trans people for the harm that we have caused.”

There is a whole six-page section called “Where we’ve come from” identifying when and how Stonewall ceased to be working in harmony with trans campaigns, and within that there is even a subtitle “Learning from our mistakes” under which the specific, avoidable mistakes that Stonewall has made in the past are itemised and examined.

Without this sense that Stonewall’s leadership recognise the severity of the mistakes they have made, and the importance for everyone of a cohesive LGBT movement, it would not now be possible to look to the future of trans people within Stonewall with the hope that I now feel.

Secondly, there is a thread throughout of recognising the diversity of trans experiences, and the important intersections of race, disability, age. nonbinary and intersex. The structure of the consultation process has already shown that Stonewall understand how these issues impact upon the trans experience, and they have included in the report a detailed summary of the ways these intersections add complexity to the requirements of trans-inclusive campaigning. Intersectionality is not something that Stonewall have historically been seen as achieving, so I am heartened to see that this aspect is changing too.

Thirdly, the action-plan itself is ambitious, but achievable, and is built on a sense of the need to bring the experiences and knowledge of trans people and trans activists to bear on every area of Stonewall’s structure. The report states Stonewall’s intention to:

  • Commission trans-specific training for all staff,
  • Update all Stonewall literature to include trans issues where appropriate, or produce new, parallel materials (or signposting to existing resources) where it is not.
  • Ensure trans representation on the Board of Trustees.
  • Establish a Trans Advisory Group advising the Trustees and senior management.
  • Recruit a Director of Trans Integration to oversee the change.
  • Recruit full-time staff to begin work on campaigns focussed on trans people’s needs and concerns.

In the report it is clear that all of the people recruited or commissioned will have specific expertise on trans issues, which in practice means that the majority will probably be trans themselves. The report also states that these individuals will be paid for their time and expertise, which is relatively unheard of for trans activists and will be a big first step towards a powerful ‘T’ in the UK’s LGBT movement.

Many people will continue, legitimately, to criticise aspects of Stonewall’s ways of working. I for one would like to see them become more transparent and democratic. But it is good that Stonewall’s way of working is so different from the majority of trans organisations in the UK. Limited reach and resources has meant that we have tended to focus on casework, changing one employer, family, student’s union, university, or hospital, at a time. We have also been highly reactive, because without salaries, trans activists have also had full-time jobs to pay the rent, and so planning ahead and taking action not driven by a sudden need was impractical. Stonewall has a five-year plan (which they intend to re-write under the guidance of their new trans experts). Stonewall explicitly does not engage in casework, but rather lobbies at the national, institutional level, by comparing (for example) schools and universities on a systematic measure of LGB (and soon, trans) inclusiveness, by speaking with powerful people in Whitehall, Westminster and the City. Trans people have not historically had access to these spaces. GIRES do amazing work in these areas, in large part because they are cisgender individuals with a deeply personal passion for trans liberation, in a sense subverting their cis privilege to achieve gains for trans people. However, at the core of all prejudice is the refusal to see the group in question as fully human, and there is no substitute for meeting a ‘real life’ trans person as a way of forcing them to reconsider that position. Inclusion in Stonewall means a seat at the table for trans people who would otherwise be unlikely to be in the building, and in many places, unlikely to be emotionally safe in that space. Inclusion in Stonewall means enormous pressure on schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, service providers and employers to meet their legal and ethical obligations to trans people. Inclusion in Stonewall means that things are going to get a lot better for us, and a lot quicker than they otherwise would have.

I do not think that trans people should be thanking Stonewall for doing what is right, but I do think we need to acknowledge that this was not an easy thing to get right, and so far they have done. I do however want to echo what Ruth Hunt said in closing her Foreword to the report:

“I want to thank everyone who has made the effort to reach out to Stonewall and tell us what you think. We can achieve so much by standing together so that each and every one of us can be ourselves in all areas of our lives.”

This historic moment has happened because we as a community refused to tolerate being excluded, and Stonewall had the courage to admit past mistakes in the interests of moving forward. Together we will continue to refuse anything less than absolute equality for all LGBT people, both here and abroad.

Reubs Walsh is a trans activist working with NUS LGBT, GIRES and the LGBT consortium, and a psychology student and associate lecturer at Birkbeck University of London

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