Why is Stonewall losing members?
The LGBT lobbying group Stonewall seems to be in the news daily at the moment, losing major employers from its ‘Diversity Champions’ scheme, criticised for misleading advice, and damaged by friendly fire from its CEO, Nancy Kelley, who compared dissent from its orthodoxies to anti-Semitism.
From edgy, rebellious beginnings in 1989, Stonewall had grown to become a large and powerful charity with an annual income of over £8M, and an enviable level of access to the Establishment. Its flagship quality mark scheme for organisations, Stonewall Diversity Champions, is a means by which it has persuaded many public and private sector bodies to part with substantial sums of money to be intensively lobbied. A glittering list of heavyweight employers in a wide range of sectors – government departments, NHS trusts, professional regulators, universities, magic circle law firms, household name retailers and many more – had signed up.
But the scheme now seems to be unravelling fast, with new departures announced daily. Why?
The problem, in a nutshell, is that although Stonewall purports provide organisations with advice on complying with the law on equality and diversity, in reality it has been pursuing its own law reform agenda in the guise of ‘training.’ The fact that Stonewall doesn’t have a detached impartial interest in all of the 9 protected characteristics defined by the Equality Act is not in itself a criticism: it is after all a focused lobby group with a particular constituency, and it is entitled to privilege that constituency in its work. But employers and public authorities have different priorities and duties. They’re not entitled to privilege the interests of groups defined by one or two specific protected characteristics over all other groups. If they do – and still more, if they allow themselves to be guided by a pressure group’s retelling of the law as it wishes it were, rather than the law as it is – they are likely to act unlawfully.
The variety of functions performed by the public bodies, charities and private companies appearing on Stonewall’s Diversity Champions creates a wide range of legal risks. What follows aims to provide an indication of some of the kinds of legal problems that organisations may face.
Single-sex toilets, etc
Stonewall has widely promulgated the notion that self-identification as trans has legal consequences, and that trans-identifying males are automatically entitled to access women-only spaces. In reality, so far as the Equality Act is concerned, a trans-identifying male without a GRC remains legally male, and can lawfully (and as we shall see, often must) be excluded from any legitimate women-only space; and a trans-identifying male with a GRC may be excluded where it is justifiable.
Employers that accept the Stonewall interpretation of the law and permit trans-identifying males to use women’s toilets, locker rooms, or changing or washing facilities, etc may face indirect discrimination claims from their female staff. This is a provision, criterion or practice that is applied to the whole workforce, but which is likely to put women at a particular disadvantage compared to men, and/or to put female adherents to some religions at a particular disadvantage compared to people who do not share that religion. In either case, the employer will be required to show that its policy is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. That will be difficult, particularly in light of employers’ duties under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 to provide separate facilities for men and women.
No doubt the great majority of trans-identifying males present no actual threat to women; but some proportion of males do present a threat to women, and there is no reason to expect that proportion to be smaller in the case of the subgroup of males who identify as women. If women suffer sexual harassment as a result of such policies, employers may be vicariously liable for that harassment.
Expanded definition of ‘transphobia’
Stonewall encourages employers to adopt policies under which “transphobia” is made a disciplinary matter. That would not be problematic if Stonewall’s definition were confined to hatred of trans people, or bullying or harassment or other mistreatment of them because of their status as such. But the Stonewall definition goes further:
The fear or dislike of someone based on the fact they are trans, including denying their gender identity or refusing to accept it.
One would hope that most employees would refrain from bullying or harassing any of their colleagues on any grounds, including gender reassignment; and most employees will be content to use their trans colleagues’ pronouns of choice. But it is also to be expected that employees will remain aware of their colleagues’ biological sex. Much of the time this need not arise: in most workplace contexts, sex is irrelevant and can (and should) simply be ignored.
But there are times when sex does matter, and at those times staff can’t simply be asked to ignore it. If a female employee goes to HR with a complaint that she feels embarrassed to use the ladies’ toilets when she has her period, because a colleague who is a trans-identifying male has taken to using the same facilities, what is to be done? If she is told that the problem is with her, and her “transphobic” attitude to her colleague, she would seem to have grounds for a complaint of sex discrimination and/or discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. If she walks into the toilet, but turns around and leaves on seeing her trans colleague there, will she be disciplined for “transphobic bullying”? If so, again, she is likely to have grounds for a claim.
Occupational requirements raise further problems. It is lawful to restrict certain jobs to one sex or the other, if being either male or female is an occupational requirement, and the application of that requirement is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. So, for example, a department store is undoubtedly entitled to restrict jobs as bra fitters to women. The legitimate aim is to secure the privacy and dignity of customers seeking help with choosing a bra that suits them; and restricting the work to women is proportionate, because the overwhelming majority of women will prefer not to take their bras off in the presence of a man they do not know. But if a store decides that those jobs can be given to trans-identifying males, then at least arguably they will have destroyed the legal basis on which they restricted them to women in the first place; a man might apply, and sue for discrimination if he is unsuccessful. There is in general no defence of justification for direct discrimination, so an employer that has deprived itself of the shelter of the occupational requirement provisions may find resisting the claim difficult.
Workplace health and safety obligations
Regulations 20, 21 and 24 of the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 require employers to provide single sex toilet and changing facilities, unless instead they provide separate lockable rooms to be used by one person at a time. The only trans people the law regards as having changed sex are those who have been granted a GRC. It follows that employers which permit trans people to use facilities provided for the use of the opposite sex on the strength of self-identification are in breach of those regulations. Such breaches can be prosecuted as a criminal offence.
Public bodies are bound by the public sector equality duty at section 149 of the Equality Act, and are generally required to act rationally and lawfully, and not to place improper or arbitrary fetters on the manner in which they make decisions, in the performance of their public functions. Policies that misstate the law or are based on an erroneous understanding of the law may themselves be unlawful.
In 2020, a 13-year-old schoolgirl commenced judicial review proceedings against Oxfordshire County Council (a Stonewall Champion), complaining of their Trans Inclusion Toolkit. The Council had consulted with Stonewall and with their own Children and Young Person LGBT+ Inclusion Group on the drafting of the policy, but had not consulted more widely. The policy made various erroneous statements about the law. The High Court gave the claimant permission to seek judicial review, and at that point Oxfordshire withdrew its Toolkit – so the matter was never decided in court.
A different teenager challenged the Crown Prosecution Service over its guidance to schools about hate crime and its membership of the Champions scheme; the latter failed, but only after the CPS had permanently withdrawn the schools guidance. Other challenges to Stonewall-inspired policies are under way, including to the Ministry of Justice’s policy relating to trans-identifying males in prison; to the EHRC’s guidance on single-sex spaces; and to the College of Policing’s policy on the recording of “non-crime hate incidents.”
In 2021, the campaign group Fair Play for Women successfully challenged the decision of the Office for National Statistics to issue guidance permitting Census respondents to answer the question about sex with their self-identified gender rather than their legally-defined sex.
These kinds of challenges are likely to proliferate, because any public body that allows Stonewall to dictate or heavily influence the drafting of its policies will end up with policies that better reflect Stonewall’s views about how the law ought to be than the reality of how the law is.
In addition, there may be challenge to a public body’s membership of Stonewall’s schemes. An application for permission to seek judicial review of the Crown Prosecution Service’s membership of the Champions scheme failed at the permission stage early this year, because the judge thought that membership of the scheme related only to the CPS’s role as an employer, and was unlikely to impinge sufficiently on its performance of its public functions to make it amenable to judicial review. But the judge doesn’t seem to have been shown material demonstrating the extent to which a submission to Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index reaches – quite deliberately – into every aspect of an organisation’s operation, both its relations with its staff and its public-facing activities. In truth, Stonewall’s interest in the activities of its Champions extends well beyond their role as employers, as is demonstrated by a wealth of material now in the public domain thanks to a FOIA campaign. The failure of one application for judicial review of the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision should not be taken to offer any other public body much comfort on this front.
Some concrete examples
There are real dangers for organisations in signing up to any equality and diversity quality-marking scheme that focuses exclusively on one or a small number of protected characteristics. Some of the following possible scenarios are grave in the extreme, but none of them is fanciful:
- A swimming pool opens its women-only sessions to trans-identifying males on the basis of self-identification. A Muslim woman who had been a regular attender gives up swimming, and sues for indirect discrimination on grounds of sex and/or religion.
- A charitable trust set up to fund sports scholarships for women decides that its scholarships are to be open to “anyone who identifies as a woman.” A trans-identifying male wins the qualifying competition for a triathlon scholarship, and is awarded £6,000 a year for the duration of a three-year undergraduate degree. The runner up sues for indirect discrimination on grounds of sex.
- A local authority provides care at home, including intimate care, for a severely disabled girl. They have always sent a female carer. They write to the child’s parents to tell them that they have a new carer on their books. Lynette/ David is non-binary, and sometimes attends work as a man, sometimes as a woman. Lynette will from time to time be attending to their daughter, although David won’t. The parents object, saying that they want a female carer, and they do not accept that Lynette/David is female even on Lynette days. The local authority tells the parents that rejecting Lynette is transphobic, and if they insist on doing so the care package will be withdrawn. The parents apply for judicial review of that decision.
- A woman attends a health centre for a gynaecological procedure. She has asked to see a female doctor. She sees a doctor who is a trans-identifying male who does not have a GRC. The NHS Trust’s policy is to treat trans-identifying males as women for all purposes, and it considers that the doctor’s gender reassignment is a private matter which patients have no right to know about, so the patient is not told that the doctor is a trans-identifying male. The patient is initially confused by the doctor’s appearance, but too embarrassed to say anything. Part way through the procedure, she becomes convinced that the doctor is physiologically male, but by this point she is frozen with embarrassment and continues to submit to the procedure anyway. She later complains to the police that she has suffered a sexual assault.
- Maria is a social worker employed by a local authority that has committed itself wholeheartedly and visibly to the Stonewall schemes, with allyship training, rainbow lanyards, a procurement policy, active social media accounts, and a commitment to buy-in at all levels of the organisation. Maria’s caseload includes 3 girls in their early teens who have recently started to say that they identify as boys. One of them has asked her about how she can get ‘top surgery,’ and another has recently started binding. Maria’s managers tell her that she should refer these children to a local charity for trans youth. Maria looks into the charity, and is horrified by its ‘only affirm’ approach and its record of encouraging young people to transition. She asks her managers for guidance about alternative sources of support for these children which may explore with them the reasons for their sudden identification as trans, and whether it is possible to resolve their dysphoria or come to terms with their bodies as they are. Maria is disciplined for transphobia and for promoting conversion therapy. She brings a whistle-blowing claim against her employer.
- A firm of solicitors adopts writes the Stonewall definition of transphobia into its policies, and in its effort to rise up the Stonewall league table, it sets up a working group to draft a response to a government consultation on reform of the GRA. A female solicitor co-opted onto that working group raises a concerns that self-identification would undermine women’s rights, in the course of which she points out that a GRC doesn’t actually change a person’s sex: it only creates a legal fiction to that effect. A trans colleague complains, and the solicitor is put through a disciplinary procedure on a charge of gross misconduct in the form of harassing her colleague by expressing transphobic views. The disciplinary hearing exonerates her, but the process causes her to take time off work with stress and anxiety. She complains to an employment tribunal of direct discrimination on grounds of her gender critical beliefs, and indirect sex discrimination.
- Alex, a child with autism and learning disabilities, is being educated at a mainstream school where children routinely call their teachers “Sir” or “Miss.” His class teacher transitions during the course of the school year, leaving at the end of the autumn term as Mr Hawthorn and returning at the beginning of the spring term as Miss Hawthorn. Alex can’t understand the transition, and continues to call Ms Hawthorn “Sir.” He becomes confused and distressed when told that he must now say “Miss.” The school insists, and Alex’s distress increases until he starts refusing to go to school. Alex sues (through his parents) for disability discrimination.
- An NHS trust that provides mental health services for children and young people operates an “only affirm” policy in relation to young patients presenting with gender dysphoria. A young female patient is referred, manifesting extreme distress and insisting that she is really a boy and she wants hormonal and surgical transition as soon as possible. Clinicians affirm her gender identity without exploring the possibility of other causes for her distress, and put her on puberty blockers and later testosterone. Soon after she turns 18, she undergoes a double mastectomy. The transition fails to relieve her distress. A few years later, she comes to understand that her belief that she was trans was a response to childhood trauma, unexplored at the time. She detransitions and sues the trust for negligence.
- A police officer who is a trans-identifying male is permitted to carry out a full search of a female detainee, which the detainee experiences as a terrifying and humiliating sexual assault. The police officer is prosecuted; superior officers face disciplinary charges; and the force faces a civil claim for breach of the detainee’s Article 3 right not to suffer humiliating or degrading treatment.
- A rapist and murderer is convicted and sentenced to a term of imprisonment. He has no medical history of gender dysphoria, although he has been an occasional cross-dresser for some years. After he has been sentenced, he says that he now identifies as female. He doesn’t seek medical treatment, but he does require to be provided with wigs, female clothing, and make-up. He is housed in a women’s prison where he rapes a female inmate. The victim brings judicial review and negligence claims against the prison.
- Rugby is played at a mixed school, with separate boys’ and girls’ teams and matches. Chris, a 17-year-old trans-identifying male wants to join the girls’ First Fifteen. Chris plays “tight head prop,” a position in the front row of the scrum. Parents of several girls in the team write to the school to object, saying that they fear for the safety of team-mates and opponents, and drawing the school’s attention to the evidence that was considered by World Rugby in its 2020 process about trans inclusion. The school disagrees, and allows Chris to play in a school match between the girls’ First and Second Fifteens. A girl playing opposite Chris has her neck broken in a scrum, and dies. The school is prosecuted for corporate manslaughter.
Membership of the Stonewall Champions or Workplace Equality Index schemes is capable of leading to a significant legal problems for organisations of any kind, in any sector. Depending on the nature of their functions, it may cause them to discriminate against employees, infringe liberties, mis-state the law, commit or condone criminal offences, and put children and vulnerable adults at risk of serious harm. Organisations should think very carefully – including conducting an equality impact assessment which takes full account of the impact on any policy changes on groups defined by reference to all other protected characteristics before they incur these risks. Organisations that have signed up should conduct a careful review of their policies and practices to make sure that they have not been led into a misunderstanding or misapplication of the law.