Thursday, 12 August 2010

Stonewalled - The Strange Case Of The Charity That Doesn't Care

LGBT rights are, thankfully, in the best state ever in our country. The dark days of the 1980s and 1990s, when early gains seemed to be just a false start, are long gone. That doesn't mean we're quite at the point where we can all go our separate ways and congratulate ourselves on a job well done but it's a positive place to start this particularly depressing blogpost.

Now, of course, LGBT rights aren't exactly at the top of the agenda for the Government (silly little things like wars, depressions and partisan attacks keep getting in the way) but you'd think those who claim to speak for the "LGBT community" would still be championing the current "big issues".

Stonewall has been there fighting for just about every major LGBT (I'm going to keep mentioning the T, but Stonewall DON'T campaign on behalf of transgender people, a mark against them in my opinion especially when they dare use the name "Stonewall"!!) piece of legislation announced under the Labour Government (let's pretend Labour did that all out of the goodness of their heart to avoid arguments). See their own website for examples. All very commendable. So why have they taken their eye off the ball just as the endgame becomes visible over the horizon?

Of course, there's always been plenty of criticism of Stonewall. Peter Tatchell was criticising them in 1994 for perceived complacency. Chris Morris considered them part of the real gay mafia. There was controversy over an award nomination for Julie Bindel (a campaigner who has made some very controversial remarks about transgendered folks). And let's not forget this year's controversy over David Laws.

Perhaps these examples illustrate that they never had their eyes on the ball in the first place. Chris Morris' 1999 article above is pretty damning. But let's pretend they did, and give them the benefit of the doubt. Let's try to forget all the criticism and see what they are concerned about right now.

Think about a list of current British LGBT concerns. I've tried it myself (the order given no way implies "priorities, I think all are as important as each other). As you can imagine marriage equality is the top of my list. Followed by the gay blood donation ban. Then there's also homophobic physical and verbal violence, homophobic bullying at school. Employment issues are also a factor but I think that's slowly coming under control. Plus a whole raft of transgender issues, including employment discrimination, that I think are of huge importance.

So what has Stonewall been focussing on? Well they do have a campaign about homophobic bullying in school. And they spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with (and ranking) employers. Strangely you need to pay for that service, which I don't think is at all charitible (I notice Stonewall also trades as a company). They have a guide on how to report homophobic crime (and domestic violence). But both the school bullying campaign and the homophobic crime campaign seem lacklustre, without any sort of drive or determination to solve the problems. Just a quick glance at their "Stonewall News" on the front page of their website shows no mention of any recent crimes. Instead it talks about Will Young supporting them at a concert, about their sponsorship of Black Pride, recent surveys on TV portrayals of LGB people and what's the most gay friendly sport. And they announced their 600th diversity champion! Woo... that's more money for them then...

The earliest story on the front page is July 12th. Shall we see what's happened in the the real LGBT world since then? A man in Leeds was knocked unconscious in an attack, Stonewall attended a meeting with the Government about the future of civil partnerships, police released details of another homophobic attack in Bottle and AA Gill insulted Clare Balding. What has Stonewall said on these? Nothing that I can find.

I decided to look at another LGBT charity, the Lesbian and Gay Foundation, who also offer some for profit activities just like Stonewall. Their website is filled with issues, including about those mentioned above. They have a major campaign called Enough is Enough going on to combat homophobic violence, and they asked the readers of their website (not just those who support them!) to give feedback before the marriage equality/civil partnership discussion that they attended along with Stonewall. The comparison between these two organisations shows how starkly they differ and how far Stonewall has fallen behind.

The problem with Stonewall is it openly "prioritises" issues. Replies to myself and others have often said that their policy isn't against marriages, but they just don't think it's a priority. So what do they think is a priority? Taking money from businesses for consultations? Doing surveys about television programmes and sports? Aiming to get celebrity sportsmen to come out?? Is that what their priorities are?

Whatever good Stonewall have done in the past, and I really think you should read those criticisms above, they no longer represent the LGBT rights movement. They are out of touch, dangerously, and simply do not respect the community they were meant to protect. Worse, when they are criticised, they often respond in a very defensive manner (not dissimilar to how a business would respond) and rarely appear to even take the criticism onboard, let alone act upon it. For example they were sent a letter following Ben Summerskill's ill-thought out commentary on the David Laws scenario (I was one of the signees). Their response was badly written, rude and really quite awful. And we're not the only one's who seem to be "Stonewalled" when voicing an opposing opinion, as seen here.

The worst part of it all is that any criticism of Stonewall is often strongly denounced by celebrities or ordinary folk (even you, Dear Constant Reader, will no doubt tell me off for this piece!) who continue to maintain a nice view of this organisation thanks mainly to the deference shown to Stonewall in the media and by politicians and seem not to notice how unresponsive and insular it is. It cares little for those who defend it.

It's time we woke up and realised there are other organisations out there fighting for LGBT rights AND for non-violence. Stonewall must not be held up as some sacred cow, beyond reproach from any criticism. We must ask tough questions of it. And I would suggest that given it gets £2000 from each corporate member, we might be better sending our money to one of the other LGBT groups out there and helping them raise our concerns instead.

**UPDATE** As if by magic... check out the comments at Pink News on an editorial on marriage. It's really quite sad.

If you feel benevolent and particularly generous, this writer always appreciates things bought for him from his wishlist


m said...

Well said (as always!) ... without your constructively critical tweets about Stonewall, I would never have known just how backwards they seem. I agree - why give any support and respect to them, when there are other much more proactive and less biased LGBT charities much more deserving of it? I had always supported Stonewall since first hearing about them, but only because they were the only gay rights group I knew of. Supporting something because there's no alternative is no way to go, is it?

Oliver Townsend said...

As an aside, when last year I started to run an anti-homophobic bullying in schools campaign (based on, to be fair, their statistics!) as part of Liberal Youth Wales' campaigns...

...we had responses from the NHS, all Welsh teacher unions, the Headteacher unions, mental health charities... we had responses from other parties (though in the negative), from other non-campaigning organisations to apologise for being unable to campaign alongside us... I even had a response from Jo Brand's agent to say whilst she'd love to support us she had too busy a schedule! We even, if you can believe it, had a full endorsement from the CHURCH IN WALES supporting our campaign absolutely.

After a year, I'm still waiting for a response from STONEWALL. When the Church replies in favour of an anti-homophobia campaign before the (apparently top) gay rights organisation... you do begin to wonder.

I fully agree with everything you've said here. :)

Soho Politico said...

"Their response was badly written, rude and really quite awful."

We must have been reading different letters. Whatever one thinks of Stonewall - and I certainly don't regard them as beyond reproach - their response struck me as reasonable - especially given the tone of the original letter, and undisclosed partisan leanings of at least some of its authors.

Jae Kay said...

I feel the fact your focussed entirely on whether the tone of the letter (which I left open to individual judgement by linking to) misses the entire point of the article. I'm happy to accept your view of that letter, but feel (ultimately) it's irrelevant. Thanks though.

Soho Politico said...

Odd reply. Part of your criticism of Stonewall consisted of drawing attention to a letter which they had sent to you and others, which you claimed was 'badly written, rude, and really quite awful.' On the contrary, though, it was a reasonable response to a letter, signed by you, which levelled some pretty unjustified accusations of political bias against Summerskill, whilst failing to declare the Lib Dem affiliations of at least some of its co-authors and signatories. The (entirely relevant) point here is that your attacks on Stonewall on the basis of their reasonable reply to your ill-judged letter are unwarranted. For the record, I agree with some (not all) of your other objections. But your comments about the letter spoil this piece, in my opinion.