A fiction that can make you grind your teeth

Matthew Parris on Stonewall:

You hear talk of “identities” but your gay identity overlaps with so many others you feel that it needn’t define you. Nevertheless, as “a member of the gay community” (a fiction that can make you grind your teeth) you may feel there’s still a need for an organisation to speak up for gay men and lesbian women’s rights and needs: to do “outreach” work in British schools and workplaces, and maybe abroad where your fellowgays still face the gallows. You might join and pay your subs to such an organisation.

I did — until last year. I was one of that organisation’s fourteen founders. Stonewall, formed on May 24, 1989, was set up during the furore over Section 28 of the local government act, engineered by a Tory government to ban the “promotion” of homosexuality…

I remember, too, the sense of solidarity between stalwarts such as Ian McKellen (kindly, conciliatory and shrewd) and Lisa Power (punchy, motherly and fun). I remember Michael Cashman (he of the first gay kiss in EastEnders): thoughtful, civil, and empathetic. We didn’t always agree on aims (I was for reducing the age of male homosexual consent from 21 to 18; the majority were for full equality at 16, so 16 it was) but the big thing we wanted — for gay men and lesbian women to come out of the shadows and into the sun — was so clear and strong that our differences melted in its glare. We rented a little office, engaged a CEO, and Stonewall was launched.

Monday marks the 32nd anniversary of that Wednesday in 1989. But Stonewall has lost its way. The sun we all thought we saw has gone behind clouds of anger, intolerance and partisanship. The organisation is tangled up in the trans issue, cornered into an extremist stance on a debate that a charity formed to help gay men, lesbian women and bisexual people should never have got itself into.

Oh but it’s the LGBTQ+ community, you see, so you’re not allowed to say no. (This is why the LGB Alliance is so necessary.)

What is the charity I helped to found doing, getting entangled in attempts to deny free speech at a university? This column should avoid getting into the trans debate itself. My single, tight focus is on this question: why Stonewall?

There’s something perversely 20th-century about linking gays to trans. Gay men do not want to be women. We like being men. I doubt that being a lesbian is about not wanting to be a woman. Our issues have nothing to do with identification or changing our bodies: we know what we are and nobody disputes it. Most gay men would strongly resist the suggestion we’re boys who want to be girls. I can’t think of anything I’d like less. The whole history of the gay liberation movement is inseparable from what people do rather than what they are. Central to trans concerns is being, not doing.

Also central is not being. It’s about magic. It’s about pretending that pretending changes reality. It’s about insisting, and even mandating, that pretending to be something actually makes you that something. It’s about insisting that you are what you are not, and that everyone else has to agree.

Perhaps the truth is that, after success in our great 20th-century drive for equality, Stonewall was left with bricks and mortar, an admirable staff, a CEO and a fund-raising team and, unconsciously, craved another big, newsworthy cause. 

That. I think that’s a big part of it, and not just for Stonewall. I think people got bored with the old familiar causes, and younger ones wanted their own new cause, and trans is it.

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