Show caption Illustration by Dom Mckenzie Opinion Stonewall risks all it has fought for in accusing those who disagree with it of hate speech Sonia Sodha The charity has forgotten that true power lies in solidarity and compromise Sun 6 Jun 2021 09.30 BST Share on Facebook
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It was never going to be an ideal Pride month for Stonewall. The protests and parades, with their joyous celebrations and flags are, by necessity, on hold until later in the year. But how did it happen that its chief executive, Nancy Kelley, came under fire last week for likening a strand of feminism to antisemitism?
Two of Stonewall’s founders have accused the charity of losing its way. An independent review by a barrister into the unlawful no-platforming of two female academics found that Essex University’s policy on supporting trans staff, reviewed by Stonewall, misrepresented the law “as Stonewall would prefer it to be, rather than as it is”, to the detriment of women. And following the Equality and Human Rights Commission leaving Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme, the equalities minister, Liz Truss, has reportedly pushed for government departments to follow suit.
Stonewall has characterised this as a series of bad faith attacks by a rightwing media and the political establishment. There are certainly some criticising Stonewall whose track record on equality is dubious, but focusing on the intentions of the messenger does not get you off the hook for criticisms that have substance. It is not just the right: many gender-critical feminists, whose views Kelley appeared to put in the same bucket as antisemitism, believe Stonewall, a once-mighty civil rights organisation that overturned section 28, the law that forbade the “promotion” of homosexuality, now poses a risk to women.
Gender-critical feminists believe that in a patriarchal society women’s bodies and their role in sex and reproduction play a major role in their oppression. Gender identity – the feeling of being a man or a woman regardless of one’s biological sex – can therefore never wholly replace sex as a protected characteristic in equalities law and women have the right to organise on the basis of their sex and to access single-sex spaces.
The 18-year-old me who regarded feminism as little more than the fight for equal pay might have rolled her eyes at this. But two decades of womanhood later, my feminism has matured into the understanding that male violence is a more important tool of oppression in a patriarchal society than board appointments. In case you think I’m exaggerating, almost one in three women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime, a woman is killed by her partner or ex-partner every four days in the UK and seven in 10 of us have been sexually harassed in public spaces. That’s why women’s rights to single-sex services, such as refuges and women’s prisons, where two-thirds of women are victims of domestic abuse, are so important: to protect against male violence.
There is a clash here with Stonewall’s campaign to abolish legal provisions for single-sex spaces, so that males who identify as women have the same rights to access them as those born female. Disagreement on what it means to be a woman – whether it is solely based on a feeling or whether it is related to sex – is one thing, although gender-critical feminists regard the reduction of womanhood to gender expression as reinforcing regressive gender norms. But it is extraordinary that Kelley believes that she is justified in likening these views to antisemitism and arguing that women’s freedom to express them should be legally curtailed.
This is not some fringe perspective that feminists can ignore. Women must be free to express the view that it is risky to allow men who self-identify as women to access female-only spaces as default. It’s not theoretical: abusive men go to great lengths to access female victims and we have never been able to rely on institutions such as the police and prisons to protect us. Karen White, a trans woman who committed indecent assault, gross indecency involving children and two rapes while a man, was placed in a women’s prison where she sexually assaulted female prisoners.
Through its Diversity Champions scheme, in which 850 organisations, including many public bodies, pay it to accredit their diversity policies, Stonewall has the power to frighten gender-critical women into silence for fear of being wrongly accused of hate speech. Despite its role advising organisations on equalities law, it misrepresents it, stating that trans people have the right to access single-sex spaces in line with their chosen gender (there are in fact important exclusions). The University of Essex replicated this error in its policy, reviewed annually by Stonewall, saying that to deny them this amounts to harassment, with real-world consequences: two female academics were unlawfully discriminated against by the university for their gender-critical views, while students who circulated violent threats against them went undisciplined. Stonewall is also being sued by a black lesbian barrister, Allison Bailey, for employment discrimination based on her gender-critical views. Other views that Stonewall appears to regard as hateful include the belief that there should be restrictions on biological males competing in women’s sports, that lesbians can define their attraction as same-sex, not same-gender, and the high court’s view that children cannot meaningfully consent to taking puberty blockers.
It is distressing that Stonewall’s board cannot see what its actions are jeopardising. While some campaigners may balk at trying to win over those who don’t align to their world view – because they’re supposedly evil – this is a guaranteed way to halt progress and generate backlash. As an antiracist, I see it as my job to explain unintuitive concepts such as structural discrimination to people who haven’t come across them, not damn them as bigots. By equating gender-critical views with racism, Stonewall is losing the opportunity to win the argument and build solidarity via compromise: we understand why some women want safeguards for certain single-sex spaces; can you see why in many other circumstances there’s no reason why trans women should be treated differently from those born female?
Ultimately, it plays into the hands of those who seek to foment the culture wars. Look at Robin DiAngelo and her misguided notion of white fragility, a ready-made caricature for the right who use it to pretend that the belief that white people should self-flagellate for their privilege – so counter-productive to solidarity building – is a tenet of mainstream antiracism. It is chilling that Britain’s leading LGBT charity seems to have carved itself a similar role by drawing a parallel between gender-critical feminism and hate speech. I hope there is a way back for it.
• Sonia Sodha is an Observer columnist