UK

Stonewall's Ruth Hunt Explains Why Its Drive To Include Transgender Rights Didn't Happen Until Now

18/12/2015 07:49 GMT | Updated 18/12/2015 08:59 GMT

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huffpost uk

"We get beaten up by the same people" is the campaigner Helen Belcher's blunt wording of why gay and bisexual activists should work with transgender people. But the relationship has not always been easy. Britain's largest gay rights charity admitted earlier this year it had "cocked up" for not representing the 'T' aspect of LGBT, meaning transgender.

For years, Stonewall's relationship with trans activists was difficult. It focussed only on sexual orientation. Its literature - its main educational tool - did not refer to trans at all. In 2008, its annual awards event was picketed by activists after the charity refused to withdraw Julie Bindel's nomination for Journalist Of The Year after she wrote articles that some said were transphobic.

In February the charity announced a new direction: It wanted to bring its campaigning gusto - it is best known for posters that say "Some people are gay. Get over it!" - to transgender rights. It would re-focus to include transgender rights and work to bring its experience and expertise to help trans activists who were already campaigning. After years of being wary of trampling much smaller trans rights groups' work, its chief executive Ruth Hunt said there was "so much more we can achieve together" but added: "We recognise that we are not instant experts." Stonewall consulted with around 700 transgender people before deciding what to do.

In an office in Stonewall's 13th-floor central London headquarters, Hunt tells The Huffington Post UK that a "minority" of those consulted felt the LGBT should become LGB, leaving trans people to build their own movement. She doesn't agree. "To put an artificial wall there, does the trans community a significant disservice," she says. "We experience oppression in the same way. We experience discrimination in the same ways. People do not differentiate between sexual orientation and gender identity when deliver services, when delivering policies, when being violent. There's a natural alliance.

"When we're talking about preventing bullying in schools, to talk about bullying on the basis of sexual orientation, is to talk about bullying in terms of gender, it's young men who are not stereotypically masculine that experience homophobic bullying. The overlap between that and gender identity is very clear."

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Boris Johnson at a 2008 London Mayoral campaign event, organised by Stonewall

Hunt says Stonewall has been "transing up" its literature, which educates the the public on issues from tackling bullying to setting up network groups. It previously had no trans references. Its latest role model guides now have trans case studies. Its workplace conferences have had trans speakers and sessions specifically about transgender issues. Each member of staff has had trans training from Gendered Intelligence, the group that also reviewed its literature.

According to Hunt, the need for LGB and T to stand together is greater than ever. She has worked at Stonewall for a decade, in which the battle for gay and transgender rights have both shifted from the legal arena to "hearts and minds", she says. Stonewall started in 1989 seeking legal change. Since then, gay marriage has become legal, the ban on gay people serving in the military has been lifted and the law against promoting homosexuality in schools is gone.

Stonewall was campaigning for the civil partnerships at the same time Press For Change, the experts in transgender law, campaigned for a Gender Recognition Act, which passed in 2004. Hunt says "it kind of made sense there were two organisations then" as each pursued a "very different" goal. "As we've moved as a movement in this country, away from legal change and into hearts and minds, the need for greater cross-collaboration is more acute."

When Hunt became acting chief executive in early 2014, Stonewall's board was keen to begin a consultation with transgender people, amid growing feeling Stonewall should be representing them and a feeling within the charity that, in Hunt's words, "we were leaving people behind. That was not acceptable".

It has set up a 17-person Trans Advisory Group to advise it on "trans-specific" issues, such as the need for a new Gender Recognition Act that, like Ireland, would allow people to choose their legal gender without having to see a doctor. "We made a very clear commitment that Stonewall would never appropriate work from other trans organisations, that we'd amplify the work of existing organisations... support trans people to be those advocates..."

Hunt says, to "basically incubate and transfer all the knowledge of 26 years of Stonewall into this group of trans people". Stonewall knows how to lobby, speak to ministers and give interviews to journalists like this one. "What does Stonewall have that the trans movement doesn't? Power, reputation, status, brand... We want to create a group of people who have the knowledge and power that we have," Hunt says, adding it will take around another year for that to be achieved. "We never wanted to go, 'We're covering the T now, see you later'."

Transgender issues encourage us to think about gender identity in a way makes the gay rights movement "better and richer", Hunt adds. She denies it's a case of "there's not many T and it's quite hard from them, bless them, let them be part of our party", adding the relationship is "always a venn diagram that will oscillate in its overlap."

Helen Belcher, the director of Trans Media Watch and a member of Stonewall's advisory group, agrees. "Essentially, we get beaten up by the same people," she says. "An awful lot of homophobia is closet transphobia. Where gay guys and lesbian women get beaten up or harassed or attacked, it's because they're breaching preconceived gender norms because men shouldn't be attracted to men... We have the same antagonists."

She adds: "Fundamentally, there's much more to gain by standing together than by standing apart."

Belcher had her reservations. "I took a little bit of persuading that Stonewall were going to be, along the right path. I still have to preserve a a level of scepticism but I do think Ruth is very much on the right track in what she's trying to do."

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Helen Belcher representing Trans Media Watch at the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics

In terms of numbers, money and influence, trans rights are far behind gay rights, Belcher says. "You talk about 10 to 15 years ago, Press for Change formed [and] campaigned specifically on gender recognition. They were kind of, Stonewall's equal, they worked with Stonewall but they said 'we'll do the trans stuff' and Stonewall can do LGB stuff and so long as we stay somewhat in sync, then that will work out fine."

The result, she says, was many of people working for Press For Change were left "burned out". "The community was so much smaller and there was so much more hatred then," Belcher says, adding the movement has been "fragmented" in the last decade, despite broad agreement on what needs to be done.

She says there are only, as far as she knows, two people whose full-time job in trans-right activism. It relies on a "whole bunch of really passionate campaigners" who volunteer their time. Belcher says she has "two full-time jobs at the moment" - helping run TMW and running a software company.

On the day she speaks to HuffPost UK, Belcher is dealing with media fallout and requests about the death of Vicky Thompson, a 21-year-old transgender woman who was found dead in a male prison, reportedly after saying she would kill herself if sent there.

This illustrates part of the issue with the trans right movement, she says. The activists spend most of their time fire fighting, reacting to stories and issues after they enter the news agenda. She wants to work pro-actively with media and develop the structure, with Stonewall's help, that would allow TMW to go beyond reacting to the "endless issues all over the place".

The largest trans charity would "bring in £50,000 to £60,000 a year," Belcher estimates. Stonewall raised £5.3 million in a year, according to its latest accounts. The imbalance and Stonewall's "not great" history of campaigning on trans issues are what gave Belcher concerns.

"You've suddenly got Stonewall coming in... then there's immediate imbalance and concern... they got the gay marriage thing now, are they going to start corporatising trans? It's not that we need trans people to head of trans charities but we do need to make sure the authentic trans voices are carried across."

She adds: "What has helped is Ruth is very keen to empower trans people, enable trans people, that's what I was concerned wouldn't happened."

TRANSBRITAIN:

For all her confidence as an interviewee, Hunt is wary of her right to speak on behalf of transgender people during the interview. Twice, she stresses to HuffPost UK that we would have to ask a transgender person to get the best answer on the problems they face. She concedes that having Stonewall lead on some aspects of transgender rights, when there are so many existing groups working in those areas, is a compromise. "In a perfect world. would there be a trans Stonewall? Maybe. That's what some would want. But even in that situation I would expect Stonewall to be trans-inclusive. That was the consensus."

Hunt calls Trans Media Watch "one of the most effective organisations out there" and praises its work as "amazing". "It'd be inappropriate for us to get in their way." But when Hunt describes what Stonewall is planning, the charity's reach is immediately apparent. This year, Stonewall asked employers for its workplace equality index of 750 LGBT-friendly employers questions specifically about trans issues for the first time. Next, they will ask what they are doing to support transgender staff. They will then give them guidance and hope, within two years, to be rating them on trans-friendliness. Stonewall commissioned a YouGov poll on people's use of abusive language towards LGBT people in November that asked about transphobia, and before it would have only asked about bi and homophobia. In 2017, its five-yearly Schools Report will include questions specifically about transgender for the first time. Hunt would quite like to do one large 'State of the Trans Nation'-style survey, providing a benchmark for where Britain's transgender people are to measure future progress against. "But that costs money," she notes.

Stonewall has transgender people on its board but none among its senior staff. It aims to appoint a director of trans integration to correct this. Around 5% of its staff identify as trans, Hunt would like to see more. She suggests a candidate to succeed her as chief executive - whenever that will be - could be trans. "That would be quite something," she says.

It's tempting to draw historical analogies. Hunt and Belcher, who were interviewed separately for this article, both independently suggest the trans rights movement is in a similar place to the gay rights movement in the 1980s. Stonewall was founded in 1989 by, among others, Sir Ian McKellan. "McKellan and his friends said 'what 10 things do we want? We're getting to the stage where the trans movement will say 'what 10 things do we want?' That will be quite a defining moment," Hunt says. She lists off what "10 things" they might want - the right to transition without any kind of medical assessment, a reduction in hate crime, better access to medical services to reduce suicide rates, the acceptance of non-binary gender identity in schools. She adds: "We're near the point where there's a very clear manifesto for action that would be easy to articulate but we're not there yet."

The battle for LGBT rights may have moved from the legal arena - Hunt calls British laws for gay and bi people "the best in the world" - but, in a sign that reflects Stonewall's campaigning experience, she identifies a clear legislative goal for the trans movement. It is "a stain on our record as a nation" that we lack an Ireland or Malta-style Gender Recognition Act that gives transgender people the right to have their gender legally recognised without seeing a doctor, she says. Hunt, a colourful, quotable spokesperson, makes this statement with an assuredness the transgender rights movement lacks.

Belcher says transgender rights is in a similar place to the gay rights movement in the 1980s "in terms of getting organised, finding our voice". She says this is happening quicker now but she acknowledges the trans movement lacks the "capacity, skills and reach" of Stonewall. "From pure weight of numbers, trans people would never win anything... We have to win allies, we have to win arguments," she adds. "Stonewall is a group that helpfully that can help us win arguments and teach us how to win allies."

Useful websites and helplines:

  • The Gender Trust supports anyone affected by gender identity | 01527 894 838
  • Mermaids offers information, support, friendship and shared experiences for young people with gender identity issues | 0208 1234819
  • LGBT Youth Scotland is the largest youth and community-based organisation for LGBT people in Scotland. Text 07786 202 370
  • Gires provides information for trans people, their families and professionals who care for them | 01372 801554
  • Depend provides support, advice and information for anyone who knows, or is related to, a transsexual person in the UK