Ruth Hunt hasn’t had an easy ride. The outgoing chief executive of Stonewall has been accused of driving away donors. She has been charged with running “a militant trans agenda” by one former supporter and “[losing] what the big principle was” by another. Earlier this year the Times and Daily Mail claimed her resignation as a victory in the face of “growing protest by leading gay and lesbian supporters”.
For the head of a charity campaigning for lesbian, gay, bi and – under Hunt – trans rights, it might have been crushing. But Hunt, 39, is unflappable and unapologetic.
“The truth is, the support for our position significantly outweighs the opposition,” she says. And for proof, she points out that in her five years in the job, Stonewall has more than doubled in size, expanding from 75 to 160 staff, while its income has grown from £5.4m to £8.7m. “We’ve lost a few donors but we’ve gained a huge number, and maintained relationships with people who wouldn’t be working with us now if we weren’t trans-inclusive.”
She believes that there was an ethical imperative for the organisation to acknowledge the trans community and lobby on its behalf.
“We had a moral responsibility. It’s disgusting we hadn’t done this work sooner. Our lack of trans inclusion was utterly baffling – why would we work with 800 employers and tell them everything about how to monitor sexual orientation and not tell them about trans? Why would we train every immigration judge on LGB issues and not tell them about trans? It was preposterous. The aggression shown towards trans people is one micro-step away from aggression shown to butch dykes or camp men. It’s all part of the same hatred – people do not differentiate.”
Still, Stonewall’s new approach – which included T-shirts reading “Trans Women Are Women. Get Over It” – got it caught in a toxic deadlock with gender-critical activists. “We always knew it was going to be rough,” she says. “But I [knew] the organisation well enough to do this, and how to do it quickly.” Hunt finds the “intellectual stupidity” of the gender debate alarming. “There is a group of people who believe trans women are men and there is nothing that will change that. There is a group of people who believe trans women are trans women and it’s all a bit puzzling, can we have a chat about it? And there’s a group that think trans women are women and that’s the camp Stonewall supporters are in.”
The question over whether gender self-identification “will lead to men raping women” is, she says, the wrong one. “Men are always going to rape women. The question should be: ‘Will the increase in gender fluidity increase the risk of men masquerading as women?’ Let’s talk about that. Don’t talk to me about self-ID – I’ve spent my life being told I’m not woman enough. It’s about treating people as they want to be treated, and when it causes no disadvantage to me whatsoever, who am I to challenge it? When someone says they’re gay, we don’t go: ‘Well, have you done anything gay? How gay?’”
Hunt is composed and confident; she is clear that she is not leaving because of any opposition, but because she has spent almost her entire career at Stonewall. “Fourteen years is not a bad stint. It’s good activism.” Her next move is to head a leadership business with her partner. By several accounts, however, she has transformed Stonewall’s working culture, as well as broadening its reach and mission. The board has supported her every step of the way.
This week is the 30th anniversary of Stonewall’s founding. While the charity has been fundamental in advancing equal rights and supporting gay activism, Hunt doesn’t consider it radical. In her view, Stonewall’s pragmatism and soft diplomacy has been more effective.
“We get criticised for that. For instance, why haven’t we called what’s happening in Birmingham schools homophobic? Why haven’t we come out and said it’s because all Muslims hate gay people?” In March, a primary school withdrew lessons that included teaching on same-sex marriage and LGBT rights, after parents protested. The protests have now spread nationwide.
“We work with 2,000 schools a year and do a lot of work with faith schools. We work with many Muslim parents and LGBT Muslims; the work is about bringing parents from all backgrounds to understand the journey of different things sex education covers. It’s not a religiously motivated battle. This necessity to take things down to its lowest common denominator dominates all discourse now and it’s just deeply annoying.”
By Hunt’s own admission, Stonewall was “a very white, very establishment, very ‘good gay’ organisation, and arguably it had to be like that to change the law for same-sex marriage”. Part of its purpose now is to “translate that support to, say, a lesbian Muslim teenager in Yorkshire”.
Hunt, a Catholic who came out as a lesbian aged 13 in Wales and went on to become president of the Oxford University student union, always knew that she “wanted the world to be different to the one I grew up in”. Yet she is anxious: certain that Britain is increasingly less tolerant, and unsure if some of Stonewall’s landmark achievements would be possible now.
“It’s to do with where we are as a society now – which is increased polarisation, falling away from the centre and an increased permission to say things one wouldn’t normally say … If you can say something 10 times on Twitter, why would you not say it on the street?”
Highs and lows
2009 Hunt is appointed director of public affairs at Stonewall, and produces key research on LGB health inequalities, religion, and older LGB experiences.
2014 Following protests against the Dorchester Hotel over anti-gay laws in Brunei, Hunt, as acting chief executive, says Stonewall will not join the boycott against the hotel chain: a move she now admits was “a fuck-up … and a comms fail”.
2015 Voted the third most influential LGBT person in Britain, Hunt, now chief executive, is awarded an honorary fellowship from Cardiff University and an honorary degree from Keele University
2015 Following a six-month consultation, Stonewall becomes “trans inclusive,” vowing to lobby on behalf of transgender people.
2018 Hunt comes under fire for Stonewall’s position on trans equality, with critics accusing her of promoting a “militant trans ideology”.