In the three decades since, Stonewall has been at the forefront of the gruelling struggle for LGBTQ+ rights – from successful campaigns to repeal Section 28, end the ban on LGBTQ+ people in the armed forces and equalise the age of consent, to winning long battles to extend adoption and IVF rights to same-sex couples, and to introduce civil partnerships.
But LGBTQ+ equality is far from won. One in three employers openly admit that they would not hire a trans person, one in five LGBTQ+ people (rising to two in five for trans people) have experienced a hate crime in the last 12 months, and up to 24 per cent of young homeless people are LGBTQ+. Trans people are under intense attack from politicians and large parts of the media, in a storm of deliberate misinformation and moral panic all too reminiscent of the treatment of gay people in the last century.
It is for these reasons that Stonewall is still needed. The BBC’s withdrawal this week from the Diversity Champions Programme is deeply concerning. Stonewall set up the programme in 2001 to practically support employers in making their organisations more inclusive, going beyond the minimum legal requirements and creating a culture where LGBTQ+ employees can thrive.
When it first got out that the BBC was considering withdrawing from the programme, an anonymous BBC staff member told Vice News: “I’m super scared about this sliding back on supporting LGBT employees.” Five former employees said they felt “hidden” and “ashamed” at the BBC, which eventually caused them to leave.
If a large, high-profile and publicly funded national institution can show such disregard for its LGBTQ+ employees, how many other organisations and employers will see this as an opportunity to do the same? What does this mean for those in lesser known workplaces, especially precarious and low paid workers? What other minority or vulnerable groups might also find themselves excluded at work?
In the statement announcing its withdrawal from Stonewall’s programme, the BBC said its participation “has led some to question whether the BBC can be impartial when reporting on public policy debates where Stonewall is taking an active role”.
LGBTQ+ rights are fundamental human rights. There is no “impartiality”. There is homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, or there is the active combatting of it and championing of equality.
The very suggestion that withdrawing from an equalities scheme under these circumstances is a neutral act – or more insulting still, a broadcaster taking the moral high ground in its duty to the public – serves to undermine LGBTQ+ people, our experiences and our humanity. It reduces us to objects of a political debate that it is reasonable to be on either side of – like HS2 or electoral reform.
The BBC’s supposed desire to be “impartial” on this issue is also undermined by its recent reporting on Stonewall and a highly misleading article about trans women, both of which have been heavily criticised.
This withdrawal is, of course, not occurring in isolation. The BBC, with a former Conservative politician as its new director-general, is just the latest institution to be subsumed by the so-called “culture war”, in which trans people are among the most prominent targets, but which ultimately stands against all marginalised groups.
Once the rights of one group is eroded, it’s easy to erode another’s. For example, blocking access to trans-specific healthcare sets a precedent that could easily excuse further neglect and underfunding of other treatment. “Trans people are only a tiny proportion of the population” can quickly become “it’s only one in 10 people who have endometriosis”. Similarly, undermining the rights of one group of workers is a step towards undermining everyone’s.
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The purpose of the “culture war” is to distract and redirect blame for society’s problems away from the government, and onto a marginalised minority demanding change. It derails serious issues of healthcare, safety, housing and employment, and reduces them to a fight between politicians and pundits about toilets.
Meanwhile trans people are kicked around like a political football by those who frankly don’t have skin in the game, and sometimes literally kicked, as they face increasing danger in the streets.
Trans people need material change, not moral panic. For example, again and again trans people have stated that healthcare is a top priority – too many are dying on waiting lists that are years long. They need more and better services, training for GPs and other healthcare staff, and fewer barriers to accessing vital affirming treatment. This is the scandal that should really be filling column inches.
Trans people are constantly spoken for and spoken over; the conversation about them is had without them. They know what it’s like to actually be silenced, because they don’t have a platform in the national media. But trans people can speak for themselves – and they are. So please listen to them and the organisations, like Stonewall, that are fighting on their behalf.
Nadia Whittome is the Labour MP for Nottingham East
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