Hattie Turner works as a Senior Parliamentary Researcher for a Conservative MP.
Liz Truss, the Equalities Minister, is fast becoming the unsung hero of Boris Johnson’s Cabinet and this time, she’s taken on the issue no one wants to. It all links back to the organisation, Stonewall – which pledges to “stand for LBGTQ+ people everywhere“. Stonewall offers a paid membership to its “diversity champions” programme, which aims to ensure LGBTQ+ people are free to be themselves in the workplace. This sounds a thoroughly decent aim which I doubt anyone disagrees with, but the reality is quite different.
The annual fee to join up starts at £2,500 and many public bodies, such as the NHS, police forces and government departments are members. It is thought to have made £3 million in fees last year and offers a “Trans Ally” one-day course costing £410 for members of the programme.
Of course, there is a separate argument to be had on whether it is up to publicly funded bodies to decide to fund specific social causes using taxpayer money – is it not for HR departments to manage the relationships between employees and resolve issues? However, even if one agrees with the aim to encourage inclusion in the workplace, Truss has highlighted the glaring issue with Stonewall’s programme: women’s rights.
More broadly, Stonewall supports allowing transgender women (biological male) into women’s refuges and including transgender women on all-women shortlists. There are a number of feminist campaigners and writers – often from the left of the political spectrum – who question the notion you can simply “become” a woman. There is a wider discussion to be had on this matter, but this is precisely what it should be: a discussion.
Instead, gender critical speakers have been shut down or had their lectures cancelled, two individuals recently on the back of the Stonewall’s “diversity champions” programme. Rosa Freedman and Jo Phoenix had both been invited to speak at Essex University (a member of the programme), but both were labelled transphobic by students and staff, subsequently having their invites rescinded.
Below: Dawn Butler’s tweet on the issue, which spectacularly backfired.
Who do you trust more?
— Dawn Butler MP (@DawnButlerBrent) June 1, 2021
It has been reported this week that Truss is pushing for government departments to scrap the scheme, for fears it is shutting down freedom of speech and is not value for money for the taxpayer. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has been one of the first dominoes to fall, scrapping its membership of Stonewall’s programme just last week. It cited “value for money” as the reason but has previously declared gender critical beliefs to be protected in law.
Lady Falkner, the EHRC Chair, has also recently stated that “women have the right to question transgender identity“. I suspect the incident at Essex University has not helped reassure some that Stonewall believes in freedom of speech and explains the EHRC’s exit. It may come as a surprise to many that public bodies such as universities and government departments are permitted to spend money in such a way.
What happens to those employees who may disagree with the doctrine that a man can be a woman, just by saying so? Who “champions” their rights? Certainly not Stonewall, given its head – Nancy Kelley – likened the rights of people to express gender critical beliefs as similar to them to expressing anti-Semitic ones.
Stonewall has not always been the woke warrior it is today. Set up in 1989 in the wake of Section 28 – a law that stopped councils and schools ‘promoting the teaching… of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’ – Stonewall has achieved a great deal. Its successes include: helping achieve the equalisation of the age of consent, lifting the ban on LGB people serving in the military, securing legislation which allowed same-sex couples to adopt and the repeal of Section 28.
To use Douglas Murray’s idea, are we now at a point where we are “overcorrecting” with regard to rights issues? This has serious ramifications beyond the more insignificant issue of who uses what toilet. When public bodies are being told that a man can be a woman, we see female prisoners attacked, the NHS changing medical terminology to erase the concept of a woman and male-bodied rapists recorded as “female” on crime statistics.
Of course, Stonewall cannot be attributed as the reason for such changes, yet it forms part of the broader issue of women being erased from public life. Truss is entirely right to question Stonewall’s relevance, but ultimately this will be a decision for the Cabinet Office. Given the context of the pandemic as well as the electorate supporting the only party who is fighting back against the culture wars, Truss has a mandate to push for this change.