Pride Month began this week in a seemingly capricious climate, with the UK equalities minister urging public bodies to withdraw funding from a diversity champion scheme run by the country’s largest LGBT charity, with the head of said charity comparing some gender-critical views in the trans debate, i.e. that sex cannot be changed, as akin to antisemitism, and various other campaign groups going up against each other in a legal showdown over trans rights.
This surely is a pivotal moment in LGBT history and while Pride was always going to be a little different because of the pandemic, it has also coincided with the febrile row around changes to the Gender Recognition Act which has grown into a much wider debate about the conflation of sex and gender, and the philosophical and scientific questions about what maketh a woman and what constitutes hate.
With an increasingly polarised debate centred around gender identity, it has felt for some time dangerous to hold nuanced views.
Frankly, it has felt like a dangerous place to be a woman, given the complexities of the debate, in as much as you could be: a supporter of LGBT equalities, but wish to express concerns about some aspects of an almost evangelical belief in gender identity; you could respect someone wanting to live in the gender of their choosing, but not also echo the rallying cry of ‘trans women are women’; you could want anyone suffering abuse to find refuge, but still believe that there was a risk in lowering any threshold of safety for women from single-sex spaces; you could defer to someone’s choice on how to be addressed, but still feel uncomfortable at the weaponising of pronouns; and you could support a young person struggling with their identity, but still express issue with them taking, potentially, irreversible steps in terms of changing their bodies.
There is no black and white in this and yet that is what has been demanded.
Are you for or against?
Are you a trans ally or a transphobe?
And with a woman charged in Scotland this week over tweets she had made including some apparently relating to male-bodied sex offenders, who later claimed to be women, it feels we are at a tipping point.
So, where to start?
I have no qualms in saying sex is binary, biology is real, and you can’t actually change sex. But I also know now that such bald statements of fact, regardless of my concurrent view that anyone can be whatever they believe themselves to be, could now lead to me being accused of a hate crime, of being a transphobe and of attempts made to hound me out of my job.
I know that to be true because it’s already happened.
And if all that sounds a little too Orwellian, then let’s look at the facts.
Let’s take the case of Allison Bailey. A black, working class lesbian. The daughter of Jamaican immigrants. A survivor of child sexual abuse. A woman who, against all conventional odds, has fought her way through, and up, a system institutionally designed to hold her back. A barrister. A poster girl, you might think, for gay rights and equality. But now in the invidious position of suing the LGBT charity Stonewall.
As one of the founders of the LGB Alliance, an organisation set up primarily for same-sex attracted people, Bailey put herself on a collision course with Stonewall when she tweeted of her concerns about males being admitted to single-sex spaces for women.
Stonewall filed a complaint with her employer, a subscriber to the charity’s diversity champion scheme, and warned that its relationship with it would be damaged unless it took action against her.
Bailey claims this was an attempt to silence and intimidate her about what she sees as Stonewall’s “malign influence”. All three are now locked in legal dispute.
Last month, the Equality and Human Rights Commission withdrew from the Stonewall diversity scheme on the grounds of cost. This followed the decision by the employment dispute service, Acas, to leave last June and now joined by a growing number of other public bodies to do so.
Meanwhile, Essex University, another Stonewall ‘diversity champion’, had to apologise for dropping two academic speakers accused of transphobia following advice from the charity which was later deemed to be potentially illegal.
Some may remember Scotland’s most senior civil servant, Leslie Evans, tweeting a picture last year of her leading a meeting with her senior team and expressing concern that the Scottish Government had slipped down Stonewall’s top 100 league table for employers. She pledged to do better.
You may also recall FOI requests that revealed just how many meetings MSPs had had with Stonewall in the run-up to, and during, the consultation around the reforms to the GRA.
Just last week, Patrick Harvie, the Greens co-convenor, laid a motion in the Scottish Parliament in support of Stonewall. And the Scottish Government has announced it has no plans to leave it.
Stonewall started life in the 1980s with a laser sharp focus to change the law for gay people. To give them the same rights that straight people already had. The right to marry, the right to serve in the armed forces, the right to adopt, to foster, the right to be.
Having secured those legal wins, it has evolved into a multi-million-pound agency whose views have become so entrenched into the institutional bodies of our nation that to criticize it is to commit heresy.
And for some, including some of its original founders, that matters because, they say, it is now pushing an ideological dogma about gender identity that is being subsumed into our public life without debate.
Earlier this week, Labour MP Dawn Butler, the politician that claimed ‘babies are born without sex’, ran a Twitter poll which asked, ‘who do your trust more? Stonewall or Liz Truss?’ With over 90,000 votes cast, the Tory equalities minister won hands down by almost 70 per cent to Stonewall’s 30.5.
Nancy Kelley, the head of Stonewall, is right when she says that times change, needs change and charities change, but 30 years ago, when Stonewall was campaigning for people not to be thrown out of jobs for being gay, did it really envisage that one day it would be fighting on the wrong side of an employment dispute between a black, gay, working class woman and her employer, or voted less trustworthy than a Tory government minister?
Regrettably, Pride sometimes really does come before a fall.