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by Mandy Rhodes
04 November 2019
Co-founder of Stonewall calls for calm

Image credit: Anna Moffat

Co-founder of Stonewall calls for calm

As a gay man who has fought for equality and gay rights all his adult life, the former stand-up comedian and now diversity consultant Simon Fanshawe OBE finds himself in a very strange place. His views on the current debate around reform to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) has put him at odds with the charity he helped found in 1989 to campaign for the rights of gay men and lesbians.

Fanshawe believes that the Stonewall of today is undermining the rights of lesbians and putting women and girls at risk by “unthinkingly” merging the rights of lesbians and gays with those of trans people through its ‘acceptance without exception’ dogma as it lobbies for transgender people to be able to legally self-identify as the gender they feel they are without having to provide evidence that they have lived in that gender for two years or by having gender dysphoria diagnosed.

And he says many rights won by women are based on their sex, or reproductive status, and that Stonewall has failed to recognise this: “You can’t self-ID out of female genital mutilation – that happens because you are a woman. Your access to abortion and getting pregnant – that happens because you are a woman. Stonewall has confused legal and biological questions with social identity and when you do that, you start to make bad law.”

Fanshawe points to the furore at this year’s London Pride when a group of protestors from ‘Get the ‘L’ Out’ marched to the front of the parade with banners, including one reading ‘Transactivism Erases Lesbians’. Stonewall responded simply by saying that ‘transwomen are women’ and dismissed any deviation from this mantra as ‘transphobic’.

Fanshawe is clearly outraged that Stonewall would choose to ignore the fears of gay women.

“I have never seen a feminist placard that says, ‘Death to trans people’ but I have seen many placards that say, ‘Death to Terfs’ [trans-exclusionary radical feminists] or ‘Punch a Terf’. The violence coming towards lesbians is completely staggering.”

Fanshawe argues that Stonewall has “a historic responsibility to enable calm reasoned debate” and says he fears that voices – including those of transgender people – are in danger of being drowned out. He says: “Some transgender people are proud to identify themselves as ‘transmen’ and ‘transwomen’, not simply as ‘men’ and ‘women’ and they feel marginalised by the language and ideology that seeks to diminish this difference. I do not wish to invalidate anyone’s experience, but by not acknowledging there is a debate to be had, Stonewall are failing in their duty to LGB and T communities to enable self-determination for all trans people.”

Fanshawe was one of 22 signatories to a letter published last month in the Sunday Times which spelt out concerns about Stonewall and floated the idea of creating a breakaway organisation.

How we have got to a position whereby a gay man who was a pioneer in helping to co-found Stonewall back in the late 1980s, and who has spent his whole adult life campaigning on issues of equality, now finds himself labelled a bigot, tells something of the whole nasty nature of the current binary (ironically) debate that has grown up behind proposed changes to the GRA.

“I’m absolutely heartbroken,” says Fanshawe.

I’m absolutely heartbroken that Stonewall has basically really lost its way.

"So many lesbians who were involved in Stonewall from the beginning are asking me in real distress, ‘What on earth is going on?’ They are saying that they came into Stonewall to support men on the age of consent, which was essentially a boys’ issue and not their fight, but they recognised the bigger principle and they joined with us to campaign, but now they are being swept aside.

“And what is absolutely awful about this is the way debate is being shut down. There is a group of people who are also actively trying to get people out of their jobs. I have spoken to MPs who have said to me that even though they may feel strongly about this, they can’t speak out about it. There are academics I know who are actively being investigated by their employers for apparently being transphobic for simply asking questions and promoting debate. That’s what universities are for. An academic I know was hauled in to speak to their – I’m not saying whether it is a man or a woman – boss and told their writing could be interpreted by people as being transphobic. This is a senior British academic pleading the case to explore and debate. This is a kind of terrible clampdown.

“I am a bit of a free speech fundamentalist, and while I absolutely accept that we put limits on free speech and we have laws of libel, of injunction, and I’m quite happy for there to be limits on incitement … but I think in universities, particularly, the fundamental principle is the freedom to debate. I don’t think you should close down opinions.

I think you should debate opinions. That’s why we’ve got Brexit, because we never were prepared to debate.

Fanshawe and I meet a week after he had attended a fringe event at the Labour Party conference organised by Women’s Place UK which was the scene of angry protesters shouting and pushing at those that attended, calling them ‘Terfs’ and transphobes and banging on the windows of the venue from outside.

“The whole thing really upset me but then worse when afterwards there was a young man who stood up on stage at the conference, and he called Woman’s Place UK a transphobic hate speech group. He wasn’t there. I was there. I heard not one word of transphobia or hate speech. The only hate I saw was on the pavement outside and it was shocking. And yet, that young man got a huge round of applause from Labour members. There’s something wrong here, where if you disagree you apparently immediately move into being phobic. Phobic means hate and I would have to hate all trans people as a group to be called transphobic. I don’t and this vilification is just wrong.”

Fanshawe was one of the original trustees, alongside the actor Sir Ian McKellen, who founded Stonewall, following their effective but failed efforts with the ‘Stop the Clause’ campaign against Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act, which banned the teaching in schools of anything to do with homosexuality. 

The bill, and Clause 28 (thus becoming Section 28), passed third reading on 24 May 1988 and some months later Ian McKellen held a “fairly boozy lunch” at his house for those that had been involved in the campaign. After “quite a lot of wine” the small group of six, including Fanshawe, agreed to bond by making a statement of common purpose and intent to mark the day. The journalist Duncan Campbell typed the agreed declaration on his “bizarrely large portable” computer and printed out copies for everyone to sign. This became dubbed the ‘second Limehouse declaration’ by Fanshawe because McKellen’s neighbour, the former Labour MP David Owen, had left the party to set up the SDP and announced it in 1981 in the grandly titled ‘Limehouse Declaration’.

“There was Ian McKellen, there was me, there was a wonderful civil servant, although he was furious when I called him a civil servant, he was actually a servant to the House of Lords, Douglas Slater, who was brilliant on the legislative stuff, the investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, and then the EastEnders actor Michael Cashman. Those were among the originals and so we were all boys and we realised early on that if we’re going to start an organisation for lesbians and gays, we needed to get some lesbians on board.

“Well, that was interesting because at the time, of course, a lot of gay women did not work with gay men and there was a sort of great hostility between lesbians and gay men and actually, this is not an insignificant factor in how women are feeling now because women recognised that actually, the legislative job, except in relation to children was largely about the men. The first campaign we took on was the age of consent which is all about men. The reason we chose the age of consent was it was such a fundamental symbol of inequality, but women wanted to get involved because they understood the common purpose, and one of them said to me rather sadly the other day that they set aside their concerns as lesbians to a certain extent because it was a bigger principle at stake which they knew they were part of and now she feels abandoned.

“What is important about the foundation of Stonewall is that we always took very specific issues about us, but we then created much more general principles which the general public could support and adhere to and felt it was about them.

“A very good example is of my dear sister who stays in Edinburgh. I remember telling her once that there were these two guys in a partnership for years and years, one of them had some brain thing, catastrophic brain thing, and his partner looked after him for eight years, ten years or something, and then he died. And then the parents arrived, and they took the house. I remember telling my sister this and she was outraged. So, here’s the thing when you’ve looked after and lived with somebody for all those years, it would be the right thing, wouldn’t it, if we had a legal recognition of that relationship? Agreed. It was about fairness and everybody understood that.

“In the early years of Stonewall, every defeat was a victory because what happened was that even though we got defeated in parliament, we gained public support. So, what happened with Section 28 was that we lost the battle, but we started to win the war for public acceptance.

“When the initial idea was mooted that trans people should be involved, many of us did say that, yes, we’ll support that, but we’re about same-sex attracted equality, their issues were different and so we should support them to start their own organisation, find their own voice.

“There’s been an absolute sleight of hand and it’s got even worse with LGBTQIA Plus, and I don’t know if the joke works on paper, but I always say that, you know, they’ve turned one of the great passions of my life, which is fighting for lesbian and gay equality, into a slightly secure password on the internet.

“But what’s happening is that it’s being bombed into an alphabet soup, which is grouping together a whole load of people who are vaguely in a sort of category which is vaguely about sex or sexuality or feelings, but my point is, what actually defines this group of people as having a common political ground? My answer is, nothing.

“So, look, what I’m saying is that when gay people said they wanted to get married, that didn’t affect in any way the marriage that heterosexual people had because actually, the rights were then the same. One of the problems with self-identification becoming the basis for law is that it affects women. Negatively. Because it creates confusion between biology, social identity and the law. So firstly, you can’t change sex. I mean, that is really clear and intersex people are really fed up with being thrown under the bus about this.

“And the point about being female and the point about being male, is that there’s a biological reality to that. So why does that matter? Well, it matters because of the relationship that women have to men around reproduction, whether or not they actually have children or not, and what has been built on that reproductive relationship is a series of things that happened to women from men that oppress women. So, the threat of pregnancy puts women in a particular situation, consequently, the threats of abortion or the lack of access to abortion puts women in a situation and so it goes on. These are things based on the fact that women are actually female. So transwomen are not women, transwomen are transwomen and I respect them for that. When I went out to campaign for gay equality, I didn’t campaign to be heterosexual. I went out in the streets and I said, ‘I’m gay’. I am different, I may be a minority, but I want equal treatment under the law. I want trans women to have equal treatment under the law. I want them to be free from bullying and harassment and violence, but I absolutely can’t accept that they are women.

“And if you allow self-ID to become the basis for the law, which means that a man on his say so can be treated legally as a woman, it then means that men can claim discrimination against them as women. There are implications for a whole set of things around that and bad law drawn up around self-ID ends up with the famous wax my balls case in Canada, where a man with male genitalia is legally saying he’s a woman.

“I have fought for 40 years for equality and I have gone through the difficulties of arguing with the Catholic Church about adoption and fostering, I’ve gone through the arguments about the reform of the sexual offences laws, sat with people from organised religion with profound differences to me, but we found common ground. I have been through these battles and none of the people who screamed at me and called me ‘scum’ at the Labour conference have been through these battles. I’m not playing the old folk knows best card, but I’m just saying, look at history, think about how you make advances, because you don’t make advances just by screaming meaningless slogans and insults, and in the end, if the de-transitioners are telling their stories now, do you really want to be responsible for kids in 20 years’ time who went through a medical process that they may regret? I don’t think so. We’re doing something profoundly wrong here. And we’ve got to get it right. That’s what I’m wanting to do.

I want to debate about how we get this right. This is not prejudice

This is guarding the hard-won rights and privacy for women and protecting children and young people. So one of the dangers and one thing I would say to the SNP, to Labour, the Conservatives, to the Greens is think about the implications of this. It is irresponsible not to think, it is responsible to think about it, and it’s not transphobic to think about the implications of this, because this is not about denying that trans people exist, we are precisely saying, we want a law that confirms your experiences as trans people and makes your experiences as trans people visible in society without affecting women negatively. What we are saying is that we will not support a law that defies biology and defies the history and importance of women’s-only spaces and rights.”

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