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Interview: Ruth Hunt, chief executive, Stonewall

15 April 2016

‘The C of E has got itself into a right old mess, unfortunately’

I have always been a campaigner, involved in student politics at Oxford; and social change has always been a really massive motivator for me. I’ve been working at Stonewall since 2001, and became chief executive in 2014. Before that, I worked at the Equality Challenge Unit, advising higher-education institutions on sexual orientation and gender-identity equality. My own experience made me acutely aware that inequalities existed that didn’t need to.


There is no typical day. My work goes from hosting international human-rights defenders to chairing multifaith seminars on LGBT inclusion, and announcing MI5 as our top employer in Britain. No one day looks the same, but each of them is busy, inspiring, tiring, and exciting.


So far, my proudest achievement is that Stonewall became trans-inclusive in 2015, after a six-month consultation with more than 700 trans people. Being able to call Stonewall an LGBT organisation for the first time was a milestone moment for me. However, the real achievement is the progress that we and the trans community have made together since that point.


Laws relating to gender identity are very different. Trans issues are much more closely aligned with social orientation for lots of different reasons. There are mixed views about whether we are natural bedfellows; so it was a very complex relationship. It took a lot of delicate, honest conversations, but I’m very pleased I did it — it was a bit like trying to get Catholics and Evangelicals to have a joint party.


There’s always a danger that, when you merge, lots of stuff gets lost. Trans rights might be deprioritised; so they’ve had to trust me to not do that. Some people would say that they are better working for themselves. But we’re in the business of working together, working pragmatically, and with people where they are instead of where they should be.


I still want to achieve Stonewall’s vision of a world where all lesbian, gay, bi, and trans people are accepted without exception. Until we reach that point, our work will continue.


I led on a number of Stonewall’s campaigns and research in areas that included hate crime and health. Since becoming chief executive, I’ve been committed to bringing Stonewall deeper into communities, engaging with groups from different ethnic, religious, economic, and geographical backgrounds in the UK and abroad.


In law, Britain is one of the better countries for lesbian, gay, and bi equality, although there’s still some work to be done around laws affecting trans people. Despite that, reports of homophobic and transphobic hate crime are increasing. Ninety-nine per cent of young people still hear “You’re so gay” used as an insult in schools; and some of our recent research last year found that one in ten staff with direct responsibility for patient care has heard colleagues express a belief that someone can be “cured” of being lesbian, gay, or bi.


We’re not sure why the hate crime is increasing. There’s been a significant social change over the past decade; but there’s still a fear of the other which pervades sections of society, and that fear and anxiety hasn’t dissipated as much as it should.


We think the answer is education, and working with young people We train one or two teachers in 2000 schools each year, including faith schools, but there are 25,000 schools; so the answer is to get teachers trained from the outset. Some schools are more open than others; some are very anxious. Stonewall doesn’t do pastoral work — we work with the teachers, not young people — but teachers tell us that young people are more likely to talk about what they’re experiencing, and this is better for their overall mental health. Keeping all this secret leads to poor outcomes for young people.


Everyone has something about them which is perhaps not the norm. But do they need to be oppressed because of it? Do we need to take away anyone’s opportunities to flourish and get on? There will always be an anxiety about otherness, but we can handle our anxieties differently.


“Toleration” implies that an individual or group is doing something wrong that others are putting up with. What Stonewall wants is acceptance that LGBT people are no different from anyone else, and should be treated equally in all areas of their lives. That extends to where they pray, learn, work, eat, live, and play sport.


No one should feel the need to declare their sexuality or gender identity, let alone define themselves by it. When and how individuals choose to “come out” and define themselves is completely their choice, and always should be. What Stonewall wants to do is help create a world where all LGBT people feel comfortable enough to be open as their full selves, wherever they are, if that’s what they choose to do.


Amplifying the voices of LGBT role-models in areas like faith is vital to this, as it helps to dispel the myth that you can’t simultaneously be gay and Christian. Support from the straight community — “allies in faith” in particular — is extremely effective and speaks volumes. It tells LGBT Christians that they are accepted by their community, and encourages other people to think about their role as allies, too.


Laws and attitudes can affect one another, and addressing both is equally important in different ways. When something has the support of a government, it sends a strong signal to a population that it must be accepted — for example, with equal marriage. Equally, the reverse is possible, when protests and petitions lead to a government addressing a specific issue. In Australia, for example, where same-sex marriage is not legalised, public outcry and protest has forced the government to address this.


Faith is not homophobic, but people of faith can be. Stonewall works with a number of Christian leaders and groups in Britain and abroad who support equality for lesbian, gay, bi, and trans people.


Religious texts can be interpreted in different ways, and it is individuals within institutions whose homophobia affects the institution as a whole, rather than the other way round.


From a young age, Christianity has taught me about love, equality, and respect, which is at the heart of the work I do at Stonewall. I learned to love my neighbour through visiting church as I grew up in Cardiff and attended Christ the King School. Religion was an important part of my life as I grew up, and still is. Today, I still attend mass at my local church in Brixton and with my godchildren.


Being gay and Christian, I have experienced dual discrimination. Coming out as a lesbian was harder than it was coming out as Christian. Understanding this has taught me about the importance of intersectional representation and role models. We have to ensure that every single member of our communities has a voice and is listened to.


We are a long way away from achieving inclusion in the Church. There’s so much anxiety about sexuality, the role of church in society, and managing all sorts of other things. The Roman Catholic Church tends to be more coy about judging people — they have other ways of doing it — but the C of E has got itself into a right old mess, which means we’re a long way off, unfortunately.


I grew up in a Catholic family, though my parents have since left the Church. My parents both worked very hard, and education was the most important thing for me and my brother. We grew up never wasting a single opportunity. I’m still very close to my family, and I live with my partner in London.


Each year, we march in front of hundreds of thousands of people who attend Pride in London’s parade. Hearing them blow whistles, cheer, and chant back to us in support of what we do is one of the most powerful and reassuring sounds in the world. It reminds us all of the real individuals who contribute to our work, or are affected by it, or who support it every day.


I love books — so much so, I went to Oxford to study English literature. So it’s hard to pick out a few which are important to me. The top three which give me peace, though, are Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, T. S. Eliot’s poetry, particularly Ash Wednesday, and the works of Jeanette Winterson, especially Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.


I was last angry when talking to a young person who had been told that they were no longer welcome at home because they’re gay. There is no place for rejection and cruelty.


Many things bring me joy. My godchildren are a particular delight. But I’m really happy when the Stonewall team has done a good job, and everything has gone to plan.


My English teacher, Roy Hopwood, was a great influence in my life, and my tutor Professor Mapstone, from when I was younger. They taught me to be myself, and that I could do anything I put my mind to. Now I get to meet so many amazing people every day. Shami Chakrabarti is a huge inspiration.


I pray that we will find ways to disagree with peace, love, and respect — whether it’s our neighbours, partner, family, colleagues, or, in my line of work, those who oppose full equality for LGBT people.


If I was locked in a church and could choose anyone to be my companion, I think right now a long and off-the-record chat with Pope Francis would be good.


Ruth Hunt was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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