Stonewall defends itself after ‘coordinated attack’ across the mainstream media

Stonewall claims 'coordinated attacks' by British media over trans guidance

Stonewall says it was subjected to a “coordinated attack” across the British media over the weekend.

The LGBT+ charity has refuted suggestions that it gave “potentially illegal” advice about equalities law. These claims were made in news articles about the UK’s equality watchdog not renewing its contract with Stonewall’s “Diversity Champions” programme, a workplace LGBT+ inclusion scheme for employers.

Multiple outlets, including the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster the BBC, reported that Stonewall had given “potentially illegal” advice about workplace transgender discrimination protections under the Equality Act 2010.

Rebutting this, Stonewall said that its advice is based on the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) ‘Code of Practice’ – a guidance document for service providers on adhering to the Equality Act 2010 – the legality of which was upheld in a hearing at London’s High Court on 6 May.

In a 24 May statement, Stonewall said: “Over the last few months there has been a sustained attack on Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme, which proudly partners with more than 850 leading employers to support their LGBTQ+ colleagues to thrive.

“We believe these attacks are threadbare and deliberately organised and coordinated to undermine support for our work to ensure every LGBTQ+ employee can thrive at work.”

It added specifically: “The weekend of 22/23 May saw a coordinated attack on our Diversity Champions programme launched across the media.”

Stonewall said that the advice provided by the programme is “robust and correct”, adding: “A number of groups have launched legal challenges to public sector organisations regarding their work with Stonewall, with case after case being thrown out as ‘unarguable’.”

Anti-trans campaigners have long claimed that Stonewall’s interpretation of the Equality Act 2010 is incorrect, but in the judicial review rejected by a judge this month, the case regarding the EHRC’s Equality Act guidance was dismissed as “unarguable”.

It was brought by Ann Sinnott, a co-founder of anti-trans charity LGB Alliance, under the name of her company the Authentic Equity Alliance (AEA). Despite widespread coverage of trans-related court cases in the mainstream media, this verdict was not covered by any outlet other than PinkNews.

A similar case, brought by anti-trans pressure group Safe Schools Alliance against the Crown Prosecution Service’s membership of the Diversity Champions programme, was also thrown out by a High Court judge in January.

BBC report referenced Stonewall university row

The BBC report about EHRC ending its contract with the Stonewall Diversity Champions programme said the LGBT+ workplace inclusion scheme is “not without controversy”.

The BBC cited an independent University of Essex report – which was written before the High Court’s ruling – that said “Stonewall gave it [University of Essex] incorrect and potentially illegal advice on transgender issues”.

The Essex report said that Stonewall’s advice to employers on best practices for including trans and non-binary people on campus was an “incorrect summary of the law” and that the Diversity Champions programme advised the University of Essex based on “the law as Stonewall would prefer it to be, rather than the law as it is”.

The report was triggered after two anti-trans academics were uninvited to speak at the university over allegations of transphobia. The academics later received apologies from the university, and the report concluded that their right to freedom of expression had been breached because of preconceptions about their views on trans rights and gender identity.

Regarding the incident, Stonewall said: “The programme and our staff have absolutely no sway over any organisation’s wider decision-making.

“A recent report on free speech at University of Essex referenced Stonewall’s membership of the Diversity Champions programme. These claims had no basis, Stonewall staff had no involvement at all in this decision.”

Trans Safety Network, a group that gathers and publishes information on anti-trans campaigning in the UK, said that in the aftermath of the High Court ruling, it had observed that “many ‘gender critical’ activists are simply unwilling to accept the ruling as it was in a court of law, instead relying on a pet legal analysis inside a sort of information bubble where the actual court ruling as it stands never happened”.

“Unfortunately when the traditional media establishment make themselves part of this bubble there is a tendency for the news reporting to have an impact on how policy is enacted in practice – as we saw over the now partially reversed Bell v Tavistock judgement being used to nevertheless lend moral weight to banning any sort of medical treatment for trans children in parts of the USA,” Trans Safety Network said.

In a statement to PinkNews, BBC News said: “The main subject of our news piece was about the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) decision to leave Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme. We included statements from both the EHRC and Stonewall to provide balance. To add further context, we referenced an independent report commissioned by the University of Essex which criticised Stonewall, as well as an open letter co-authored by Stonewall and several other LGBT organisations which criticised the record of the EHRC.

“The University of Essex report was about freedom of speech on campus and was entirely appropriate to reference because it was an example of the concerns and controversies about Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme, of which the university is a member. The University of Essex report was not directly concerned with the same issues of accessing single-sex spaces and therefore had little relation to the High Court case.”

What is the anti-trans argument being used against Stonewall?

Many anti-trans arguments suggest that including trans people in single-sex spaces could make those spaces “mixed sex” and unsafe for women and children.

Because the EHRC guidance makes it clear that trans people can only be excluded from single-sex spaces on a case-by-case basis where this is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, anti-trans campaigners have crowdfunded hundreds of thousands of pounds to fund legal attacks on the guidance and organisations that follow it, as well as on Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme.

Trans Safety Network explains that “starting in around 2018, a large vocal anti-trans rights movement was mobilised on social media around the idea that the EHRC had been ‘Institutionally Captured’ and was misrepresenting the actual content of the Equality Act in terms of its impact”.

The group added: “This took the form of groups like Authentic Equity Alliance (AEA) and campaigns like the ‘Real Equality Act 2010’ campaign online run by Maya Forstater informing thousands of people in the ‘gender critical’ movement that guidance favouring trans inclusion unless there are exceptional needs to exclude trans people from single-sex spaces are wrong.

“The Authentic Equity Alliance vs ECHR case fell quite catastrophically in its legal reasoning, which is completely unsurprising given that in 2019 the ECHR had already commissioned their own internal legal review of their guidance and found that it was largely correct.”

A spokesperson from the Equality and Human Rights Commission said that the University of Essex report “is correct in stating that the Equality Act 2010 provides protection against discrimination because of, and harassment related to, the protected characteristic of gender reassignment.

“Our Code of Practice, which was recently upheld in a legal challenge, makes this clear. While terms such as trans status and gender identity are in common parlance and are related to the protected characteristic of gender reassignment, they have no specific legal meaning in this context.”

“As a publicly funded organisation we have to ensure that we are making the best choices when it comes to our budget and are currently reviewing all of our memberships. We have extensive expertise in this area and concluded that, for us, the Stonewall Diversity Champions programme did not constitute best value for money. Therefore we chose not to renew our membership, and advised them accordingly in March 2021. We remain committed to creating an inclusive workplace that will attract people from all backgrounds, where all of our colleagues will thrive and where all LGBT employees are accepted without exception.”