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Stonewall’s response to my recent blog on transphobia and Julie Bindel

October 29th, 2008

Dr Petra

Last week I blogged about Julie Bindel’s nomination in the journalist category for Stonewall’s annual awards. The nomination has proved controversial as Ms Bindel has previously written negative features about transsexuals; and many lesbian, gay, trans, bi and feminist organisations and individuals have complained that Stonewall should not support a nomination for someone who holds such opinions.

I sent Stonewall a link to my blog and asked if they wanted to comment. Yesterday I had a telephone conversation with Stonewall’s Chief Executive, Ben Summerskill where we discussed the nomination, Stonewall’s position, and future directions for the LGB charity after they have been accused by some groups and individuals of supporting transphobia. Our conversation is summarised below.

At the start of our conversation Mr Summerskill stressed Stonewall was desperately sad that people had been distressed and was very aware that many groups and individuals had been upset and complained to the organisation.

I asked why Ms Bindel had been nominated and was told she is an example of someone who had written a lot of positive issues on lesbian issues in the mainstream media in the past year, and that Mr Summerskill considered her to be one of the few people writing in the national media about lesbian issues. Whether other journalists who write about lesbian issues (or who are lesbian writers) would agree with this is up for debate. Certainly there are other writers (both straight and lesbian) who do write positively about lesbian issues and perhaps for future years they may be nominated instead.

I’m still unclear about who nominated Ms Bindel, and it may still be useful for Stonewall to be more transparent now and in future years about how the nomination and judging process works.

I wanted to know why the nomination was upheld, given the volume of complaints against Ms Bindel. Mr Summerskill explained by the time this case came to the public eye the shortlisting and voting had already happened. No doubt critics might argue that even if voting had taken place one could still withdraw a person from an awards shortlist. Mr Summerskill stated that ‘part of Stonewall’s credibility is based on being straightforward and not grandstanding’ and that if Ms Bindel was withdrawn from the awards this would be seen as an act of grandstanding and could be seen as dishonest.

I’m not sure I’m completely convinced by this, since with a clear explanation about the whole nomination and judging process it could be possible for Stonewall to withdraw a nominee. One of the things critics have been arguing about is whether or not Ms Bindel wins, the fact that she’s shortlisted for the Stonewall awards could be something used to enhance her reputation as a writer. And they find that unfair given she has previously written negatively about transsexuals – and refuses to apologise for those statements.

It was clear from talking to Mr Summerskill that Stonewall was sorry that people were upset, but were not about to reverse their decision and seemed fixed on defending their choices. Mr Summerskill did point out that the transsexual debate (particularly in relation to lesbians, gays, bis and feminists) is not new – which we know. However, it is the case that this nomination has definitely caused more upset and revived some very unpleasant discussions. Mr Summerskill explained again that Stonewall were sorry for distress caused, but he felt some people who had complained about this situation were not directly affected by trans issues. I got the impression he felt Stonewall would feel criticised whatever happened.

Mr Summerskill also stated that trans groups have always been welcomed by Stonewall and as an organisation they’ve never turned a trans individual or organisation away. He added that groups and individuals also have to help themselves and make the effort to come and speak to Stonewall.

Given the upset the nomination has caused I asked what the future holds for Stonewall in relation to transexuals. Mr Summerskill explained they would
- revisit the criteria for the awards for next year
- that Stonewall’s ‘door continues to be open for trans and other issues’
- that trans organisations and individuals are welcome to meet with Stonewall to discuss concerns

Overall I got the impression that this is an organisation that is trying to deal with criticism but is doing so by standing firm on their decision, and suggesting trans folk have to help themselves as well as complaining about the nomination.

I’ve no doubt Stonewall is genuine in their apology, but I feel as an organisation trust may well be regained by them if they had been more publicly transparent about this story from the outset. It seems to have been left to individuals, bloggers and organisations to make contact with complaints – and to then be told by the organisation what Stonewall’s position was. It would have been a lot more reassuring to hear from them directly (perhaps in a statement on their website or in the press) about their decisions and why they made them.

I don’t feel it’s enough for Stonewall to suggest if trans people want to talk then their door is always open. It’s a nice gesture but we know from work in other areas of conflict that if an individual or group feels criticised, hurt, or marginalised they are not usually motivated to make contact with whoever they feel has let them down. Where trust has broken down it may be better for the organisation or individual associated with breaching that trust to make some steps towards rebuilding relationships.

I accept that Stonewall has no doubt recieved a lot of criticism – although in fairness I can’t see why they won’t have expected that to happen. I think rather than responding to individual comments and expecting that trans folk will turn up at Stonewall and ask for a meeting a more generous and appropriate response might have been to approach relevant groups directly and make a general public statement about Stonewall’s decisions.

I don’t think this discussion is going to move forward very much. I think Stonewall feel they have been fair and clear. I think trans groups feel let down and that the role of trans folk in the Stonewall riots (where the charity draws its name from) have been overlooked. As far as I know there will be a demonstration by trans folk and supporters outside the Stonewall awards, with a counter demo from Julie Bindel’s supporters.

It is sad this situation has arisen, and shocking that our gender politics still haven’t been resolved and can get ugly pretty quickly. If nothing else this story has served as a wake up call that LBGT and feminist groups still have a way to go on working out their differences in a considered and open way.

In the meantime it’s clear if trans groups want any support from Stonewall they have to go to that organisation rather than expecting the organisation to work any more closely with them. So there is that option for moving forward if people decide to take it. It’s a catch-22 situation though since trans groups and individuals are feeling pretty sore right now and won’t probably want to go and speak to Stonewall. Many might argue why should they have to. However, if they don’t make this move it is also pretty clear Stonewall isn’t going to approach them, and may interpret their lack of response as a sign that either trans issues aren’t a problem or that Stonewall doesn’t need to worry about them.

What happens next remains to be seen. I suspect Stonewall feel they have handled this situation with honesty, but I think they may have lost supporters by sticking to their guns and discussing competition and judging rules rather than tackling how to handle the trans debate. Trans folk have the chance to make their protest heard, but let’s hope that while this is noisy and clear, that it remains focused and non violent. The last thing we need now is for this debate to end in an ‘I told you so’ argument where trans people end up cast as the bad guys/gals.

Postscript 02/11/08

Julie Bindel wrote a statement about her nomination and subsequent experiences on Facebook. While she does apologise for the tone of some of her writing on Trans issues she has not apparently changed her mind about them. The statement and discussion that follows is well worth reading and reflecting on.

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