Ben Summerskill: Stonewall not fighting for gay marriage because ‘it could cost £5 billion’
This one leaves me utterly flabberghasted, even in spite of Stonewall’s long history of questionable positions and decisions.
The organisation has done some really good work in terms of raising awareness; opposing homophobia in schools, in the media, and in sport; and lobbying politicians. However, they also have a nasty habit of gobbling up a vast proportion of the funding available to LGBT organisations, pushing aside or ignoring local groups who are already working on particular issues, and toadying up to government representatives and corporate interests.
This is the organisation that charges a huge amount of money for inclusion in their ‘Diversity Champions‘ programme for employers (which can’t do many small businesses and public sector bodies any favours), ignores input from those effected by many of their schemes (e.g. LGBT student societies were entirely sidelined in a recent guide to gay-friendly universities), and insists that it’s still entirely appropriate to campaign as an ‘LGB’ organisation (despite the fact that most of the issues they campaign upon impact trans people, and they’re getting all that ‘LGBT’ funding!)
The organisation’s name couldn’t be any less appropriate. Stonewall was a riot in which some of the most marginalised gay, lesbian, bi and trans people (e.g. drag queens, butches, prostitutes and homeless street kids) took a stand against institutional bigotry and discrimination. To name an assimilationist, corporatist, trans-exclusive organisation after this event seems like some kind of sick joke.
Ben Summerskill – the current Chief Executive of Stonewall – seems to embody everything that is bad about the organisation. I was able to attend a Parliamentary Committee briefing last year where representatives of LGB, trans and feminist organisations gave evidence in relation to the Equality Bill, and was deeply shocked to hear some of Summerskill’s arguments:
Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): This is really to Stonewall. I wondered what concerns Stonewall might have, if any, about the new disparities that will be created by the Bill—for example, in terms of harassment, the exclusion of sexual orientation. I would like your views on that.
Ben Summerskill: I can certainly say on the issue of harassment we are not convinced that there is a need for protection in this area. Members of the Committee who have dealt with Stonewall in the past will know that we tend only to ask for things where we can provide hard evidence of need, and we tend then only to ask for prescriptions that might put things right.
Lynne Featherstone’s face was a picture; I think she hardly expected a representative of Stonewall to claim that that there was no need for protection against harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation when the proposed Bill saw fit to (rightly) include such protections on the grounds of other ‘diversity strands’, such as race.
Summerskill was also quick to defend Stonewall’s decision to nominate Julie Bindel for their ‘Journalist of the Year’ award. He ultimately admitted on a number of occasions that this nomination was pretty disrespectful towards trans people (others who have issues with Bindel, such as many intersex individuals and sex workers, didn’t get a look-in) but claimed that un-nominating her would ultimately be far too dramariffic. Yeah, right.
Given this noble history, I wasn’t too surprised to hear that Summerskill doesn’t believe in fighting for marriage equality. After all, Stonewall were quite content to compromise on civil partnerships; they didn’t seem to think there was a chance of achieving full marriage equality…and so didn’t bother fighting for it. It was, however, the sheer audacity of Summerskill’s arguments that shocked me.
I understand those who believe that marriage is an oppressive, patriarchal institution (an example of this position can be found here). Moreover, the experiences of the LGBT lobby in the USA demonstrate that equal marriage campaigns can be a massive drain on resources that keep activists from addressing more urgent issues, such as everyday violence on the streets, queer poverty or homelessness. Summerskill apparently drew upon both of these arguments, but in a somewhat confused and contradictory manner. If Stonewall believes that marriage equality campaigns are a drain upon resources, why did they bother campaigning for civil partnerships? Moreover, since when did Stonewall take a radical feminist or queer stance on anything?
I personally believe that the oppressive nature of marriage is a contingent and historical situation rather than a necessary one: it’s possible for there to be a tradition which celebrates a relationship in an open, non-prescriptive fashion. Moreover, if married individuals are to be afforded certain benefits or privileges by the state, it’s important that all relationships are afforded equal recognition as long as this questionable system of privileging remains. The current system in the UK, whereby separate institutions of marriage and civil partnership exist for ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ couples, merely enforces the idea that ‘gay relationships’ are that much different to ‘straight’ ones. And that’s before we get on to the massive complexities caused by the Gender Recognition Act, which forces trans people to divorce or annul their partnership should they want to acquire a Gender Recognition Certificate (lest we end up with a gay marriage or a straight civil partnership!) Marriage equality will mean that trans people can just get married without having to worry about their own legal gender status and how it relates to the legal gender of their partner.
The really impressive bit, though, is where Summerskill argues that marriage equality will be ‘too expensive’. Since when did equality come with a price tag? Since when was it acceptable for a civil rights organisation to throw up its hands and say “sorry guys, we’re in recession right now, we’ll just have to wait until the economic climate is more appropriate for our liberation”?
I’ve heard a whole load of people argue that Stonewall does not represent them, particularly in recent months days hours. I’d like the join them. As a trans person, Stonewall officially doesn’t give a damn about representing me…however, as a bisexual individual, they’re meant to be acting in my interests. I don’t see that happening any time soon, and therefore would like them to stop pretending that they’re campaigning for my rights when they seem so keen to do the exact opposite.