Hard Talk  ‘Is Stonewall in danger of tearing itself apart?’ Sarah Montague interviews Ruth Hunt

Interview 2. Hard Talk  Sarah Montague 

A few days later a second more challenging interview followed, the interviewer being, World at One presenter Sarah Montague.  Her researcher had provided her with some good questions but I didn’t feel she took the opportunities she had to really grill Hunt on her position. Perhaps she personally didn’t feel confident on the topic and when faced with an ‘expert on a controversial subject’ only too readily accepted whatever response she got. How unlike her questioning of politicians on the Today programme or now World at One! They don’t get let off the hook so easily. So an opportunity rather wasted but still some interesting responses from Hunt on which to comment.  I wanted to ask my own questions which I will occasionally insert in this piece, probably out of frustration!  For those that haven’t the time to listen to it here is my take on it.

The context of the interview was different from the above one which was pitched as a interview of an outgoing chief executive.  This next one was about the contention that Stonewall was in a problematic situation and the headline title shows this with ‘Is Stonewall in danger of tearing itself apart?’

Montague began with asking Hunt – why self ID?  Her first response was quite surprising as she said well other countries are doing it. Really – was that the reason? She cites a few including Iran!  Have we as a country always been so keen to follow Iran in their social legislation?  Some of these countries have enabled trans to be legalised because it is more acceptable than homosexuality which is outlawed as Hunt will only be too aware. Proceeding with the discussion on self ID here in the UK Montague asks about the proposed GRA 2004 reforms and the demands to make it easier to get a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) and legally change sex.  In an effort to play down the importance of this, Hunt then says that actually getting a GRC doesn’t really make any difference as people are self id- ing anyway!! No one she says gets asked for their GRC.  So one may well ask why the fuss to repeal the 2004 Act?  But Montague doesn’t ask this.  Or ask the obvious next question which is ‘So what legal rights are trans activists actually wanting then that they haven’t got that will make a difference?’

Montague failed to drill down here but did raise the issue of women’s safety and women’s fears re special provision for sex segregated spaces. She cites the case of Karen White who sexually assaulted women in a women’s prison, having gained access as a trans woman. This is batted off with Hunt saying safeguarding is already done on a case by case situation and will continue to be. That case was just one failure in the process.  However I have read several policy documents of organisations, which were advised by Stonewall and there the policy is to accept trans people’s word without question. In this culture staff do not feel empowered to question or refuse entry to a trans woman as they fear retribution. Hunt knows full well that this is the advice she and her team have been giving organisatons for some years now even though the law (Equality Act 2010) does provide for the possibility of  barring a trans woman from women only spaces.  So to my mind SM could have then made the point in this first part of the interview  that ‘it seems that you have already achieved what you want by changing policy and practice without any further change in the law.. what exactly are you arguing for now?’ But she didn’t.

The next  question was hard hitting (all the good ones were where SM could rely on someone else’s quote or an actual report)  SM quotes Kristina Harrison saying that what Stonewall is  doing is changing what it means to be a woman (my paraphrase) and what did Hunt have to say in response to this accusation. Her response shocked me and should have prompted a counter question from SM but didn’t… “Oh “ she said in a rather superior, didn’t you know way, “the debate about what constitutes a man or a woman happened in 2004 when it was discussed at length.” SM obviously didn’t know what that meant so failed to ask for further elaboration. Mistake. Hunt must have been referring to the lead up to the 2004 Act. As far as I am aware no women’s groups were involved nor was there any public debate. This was because as the consultation papers show the Committee all believed they were discussing and passing legislation to help fewer than 5000 people, who were unable to marry because this was when same sex marriages were  illegal.  It was this bill that sowed the confusion between sex and gender and there was some concern expressed by certain committee members this at the time.  However again because of the small numbers they decided to create a legal fiction whereby someone could get their birth certificates changed after certain conditions were satisfied and this became the GRA 2004. Outside of this committee I found no public debate about what it meant to be a man or a woman but these conversations were perhaps taking place among the trans lobby. Perhaps this is what Hunt was referring to. In a paper written by Professor Stephen Whittle and Lewis White the authors considered the insertion of the word gender in the bill to be a success. One now can see why. Gender was on its way to being prioritised over biological sex. .

This has been the number one goal of the trans movement. To replace sex with gender as a category. If they could never actually be physically a woman or man then they would change the meaning of being a woman or a man so that they could be. Of course none of this is admitted by Hunt nor does SM challenge her. It is interesting that in the earlier interview Hunt said that Stonewall took on the trans rights brief because it had the resources available that Press For Change (Whittle is the founder) which had been going for years did not have. The influence of Whittle is obvious.

When SM repeats that some feminists and lesbians are upset/angry Hunt’s stock reply is to ignore that question and say well I am also a feminist and a lesbian. End of.

Next SM tries, as the other interviewer did, to tackle the toxicity of the debate. But this is familiar ground for Hunt. She can express surprise and blame all sides as she did in the earlier podcast interview, placing Stonewall firmly in the ‘we are doing the right thing and have received hostility for it’. Or the furthest she goes to conceding that trans activists hostility has played a huge part is that there is incivility on all sides.

SM does push her on Stonewall’s refusal to debate with those critics.  Hunt then goes on to say that a debate is going on all the time, conversations are going on all the time and difficult ones at that. Much of the frustration for gender critical feminists has been the trans lobby’s refusal to debate so it isn’t clear with whom Hunt is debating.  A possible embarrassment brought up by SM was the public criticism of Stonewell’s refusal to debate by Simon Fanshawe, one of the original founders of Stonewall. Hunt dismisses this in one sentence… his time was a long time ago sic he doesn’t understand the issues.  As to not debating with critics, she uses the safety of her trans staff as an excuse not to. But only 6% of Stonewall’s staff are trans and this doesn’t explain why she herself who is not trans cannot sit and debate the issues.

SM then asked her the direct question “Is it transphobic to disagree with the concept of self ID?” ‘No’ she replies categorically, ‘Nor have we ever said that’.  This is the biggest concession she has made yet  but she still does not condemn those activists who accuse feminists who do question self ID of transphobia and worse. Almost as if she is expecting  SM to  have come back with,  then what is there to fear in a debate about self ID?, Hunt gets there first by pronouncing that “It is not Stonewall’s role to host that debate” thereby closing off that part of the questioning.

And to justify Stonewall’s position which this interview entrenched further she said that it (position) was arrived at through a survey of 700 plus trans people.  She also rather disingenuously says that Stonewall’s position has been influenced and informed by all its diversity champions. This is an area I know and the reality is that these corporate champions have taken their stance and developed policy through Stonewall’s advice and training not the other way round. But Hunt insists that these employers ‘have been asking us to do trans work for decades’. Again I find that hard to believe.

Hunt maintains that Stonewall’s approach is ‘thoughtful, considered and measured’ which does provoke SM to ask ‘Why then are so many feminists and lesbians angry with Stonewall?’ Hunt dodges the question like before and replies ‘What we are seeing is lots and lots of support. Many, many of our supporters are very supportive.’  Montague’s response should/could have been  ‘of course they are but that wasn’t the question’. But it isn’t. Hunt sensing she has the floor continues to declare  that the organisation is a much bigger one today than it was, much richer ‘since we thought about things differently’.  So here she acknowledges that the trans work has made Stonewall more successful. The work is lucrative.  It has a new strand of income and the subject matter is so niche only Stonewall can provide the advice and training organisations have been led to believe they need.  It is their ideology wrapped up in rights and discrimination and organisations want to do the right thing. They have created the demand for a service only they can provide. Hunt still has not answered the question as this has nothing to do with anger from feminists.

So Ruth Hunt has acknowledged that pretty much all the recent growth at Stonewall has come from trans issues. An obvious question at this point would be ‘How have you grown so much on the back of promoting rights for a tiny, tiny fragment of the population? Why do so many people and organisations want to fund this?’ I have my own thoughts here but that is for another piece.

Or why not ask the question ‘What percentage of your income is directly attributable to work you do on trans rights and policy advice compared to that for lesbian rights or gay rights? Of the £7.5m income from training, advice, donations etc… how much can you attribute to trans work, or funding for trans issues.’

Hunt continues saying that some people didn’t want or believe that trans people should be part of that movement (what movement?) but lots and lots did. Again instead of addressing the specific concerns of lesbians, a group Stonewall was set up to protect, she dismisses them, citing that there was bigger support for trans as her rationale.

Sarah Montague has another gem of  a challenge to put to Hunt(and her researcher has been good, pulling out reported criticisms). This time it is the report  that Maureen Chadwick, a  well- known  Stonewall supporter and her partner pulled their funding citing Stonewall’s militant trans rights crusade as the reason. Montague quoted some of their concerns, like the teaching  ‘that a bearded man with a penis can be a lesbian’ and  the couple’s criticism of  the fact that Stonewall was using the gender norms of the 1950’s as signs of being girls or boys.’

Hunt dismissed the criticism by merely responding with ‘I don’t agree that that is what is happening. I am a lesbian myself’ before repeating that an increase in donors is proof that Stonewall is doing the right thing.  She merely says again that some people don’t want them to work on trans issue, an easy rebuttal without acknowledging the specifics of the criticisms.  Montague had a real opportunity here to press in on the ideology that Maureen Chadwick objected to and ask more about it. But she didn’t.

Alluding to the fact that Stonewall was coming in for public criticism SM asked Hunt if she was leaving to protect the organisation. Interestingly she didn’t exactly deny this. But she says there is a board which is 100% behind their policy, defensively adding that Stonewall is supported by all political parties and other organisations like the Army and Barclays. Again this is because these organisations have relied on Stonewall , the self-appointed expert, to tell them the rights and wrongs of how to treat trans people and have swallowed the ideology hook line and sinker.

SM’s best challenge comes near the end. Having gained so much for the LGB community in the UK, she said, some people feel that Stonewall should campaign in countries which still carry the death penalty for same sex relationships ‘rather than focusing on identity and semantics’, she conjectured. Hunt responds quickly with ‘it is not semantics for trans people who experience hate crime daily’ and the viewer feels by this stage that Montague is just looking forward to finishing what has seemed to  be an uncomfortable interview. A few minutes of quite banal conversation follow before time is up.

As a reasonably well informed observer I think Ruth Hunt was also uncomfortable with this interview and just used a few tactics to avoid any challenges or indeed engage with any of the difficult issues. She either ignored criticism of others, and referred to being backed up by supporters, then repeated her own experience as a lesbian and feminist to trump any feminist/lesbian criticism and lastly used donors and clients as justification for policy. She actually failed to take ownership and responsibility for the policy or put forward a really persuasive argument for the work Stonewall is currently doing that is making them quite rich.