Friday, 29 October 2010

Stonewall: Captured?

Next Thursday, I'll be performing as part of the Finnish poet and artist Anna Puhakka's 'Tales Told at Dusk' event at The Bridge Hotel, Newcastle. And I'm looking forward to it, because Anna is an amazing person, and I'm always glad to have a gig...but I had been toying with hopping a train to the Smoke and attending the Why the Silence? protests against the Stonewall awards least until Stonewall, after being shouted at, browbeaten, and protested against on the web for ages, finally agreed to do what its actual members wanted and support same-sex marriage.

This decision comes hard on the heels of Stonewall nominating Bill Leckie, a transphobic journo who has been criticised by Stonewall Scotland, for an award - and then swiftly being forced to withdraw his nomination after a storm of protests by trans groups; and producing an 'educational' film for children in schools designed to prevent LGBT bullying and which yet says, with a straight face, that 'tranny is short for transgender' - an assertion akin to arguing that the N-word is 'informal slang to describe a person of Afro-Carribean origin'.

How did it come to this? How have we reached a situation where the progressive wing of LGBT activism is protesting against Stonewall, and not side-by-side with them? Part of the explanation for that may lie in the fact that many cis gay people have followed an assimilationist 'we're just like you!' strategy in the last two decades, but despite that I know that I, and, I'd guess, a lot of other gender-variant people, can say that I know a lot of cis gay folks who are more inclusive and radical on trans issues in their sleep than Stonewall are at their most on point. I think there's a more worrying explanation for why Stonewall has became more and more conservative (and more and more removed from the orginal spirit of the Stonewall riots, at which, let's not forget, trans people were front and centre).

There is a phenomenon known to people who study the intersection of politics and business as regulatory capture. It occurs when a regulatory agency begins to make decisions in the interests of the industry it supposedly regulates, and stops acting as a check on the practices of that industry. It's one reason why the Western economies are now in such a terrific mess: the agencies who were meant to regulate the markets wound up being seduced by the 'masters of the universe' whose powers they were meant to keep in check, and so the hedge funds, the banks and the rest of the financial industry were able to get away with what amounts to economic murder.

Now. Here's an interesting thing. Have a look at the Stonewall site, and in particular the list of 'Corporate Partners' whose names scroll along the bottom. Seem familiar? Yep: banks, financial companies, insurance firms...Exactly the same kind of companies involved in the regulatory capture of the financial watchdogs. These people are the experts when it comes to subverting outside agencies to their own ends.

I would suggest that Stonewall's increasing conservatism, and its refusal to walk the walk when it comes to trans issues (a refusal which extends to Stonewall stubbornly referring to itself only as a gay, lesbian and bi organisation, when just about every other gay group has at least added a 'T' to the end of its acronym, if nothing else), is the result of a desire on their part not to alienate these powerful sponsors. We can actually see this in the justification Ben Summerskill gave when he originally said he would not be 'jumped into' support for gay marriage - he believes introducing it would be 'too expensive.' This is not the argument of someone who believes he is fighting for a noble cause. This is the argument of a CEO who fears his shareholders will revolt if he damages their bottom line. And those 'shareholders' - who include people like JP Morgan, Barclays, Aviva and American Express - are, it seems to me, not exactly groups whose interests are best served by genuinely trying to dismantle the kyriarchy.

It looks, now, as if there won't be as much of a protest as there would have been on November 4th, now that Stonewall have given in and decided they will support the right of cis gays to get married after all. I still hope there's some level of protest, because the transphobia which their 'educational' film displays is something they still need to do something about. But I have to confess that, now I think about it, it would perhaps be more interesting to actually go to the awards themselves. Not to witness the orgy of backslapping and congratulation - or even to pour a bucket of champagne over some of those 'corporate partners' in a Chumbawamba-style act of protest - but to see Ben Summerskill's face up close. And, in particular, to look in his eyes.

Because I can't help but feel that those eyes are the eyes of a man who's beginning to realise that he may have compromised too much on the ideals that made him an activist in the first place. A man who knows he may have to choose between pandering to the corporations whose money supports his £90,000 a year salary, and making his organisation a joke in the process, or standing up for real equality (including equality for trans people), and running the risk of alienating those corporations and being forced to live a slightly less lavish lifestyle. And a man who only realises, now, with dawning horror, that it's the big salary and the life of not rocking the boat that exerts the greater pull.

A man, in short, who has been captured.


  1. I've looked into those eyes many a time. Often, at the same time his mouth was telling a bare faced lie. There is no shred of humanity in them.

  2. Excellent article. I would also add that Ben Summerskill also seems to be using his position to play party political games - see his comments at the Lib Dem conference and his awful Guardian article on David Laws. I've defected to Labour from the Lib Dems myself, but I absolutely don't want the head of Stonewall doing this sort of thing.