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3 November 2021updated 05 May 2022 12:01pm

The battle for Stonewall: the LGBT charity and the UK’s gender wars

It secured landmark legislation for gay people, before taking on the divisive issue of trans rights. Can Stonewall survive the political fallout?

By Gaby Hinsliff

The room was packed, the mood exuberant. On 5 October this year, young Tories queued for an LGBT+ Conservatives Pride reception at the party’s annual conference in Manchester, thanks to its promised star guest. “Trans is brave,” their 23-year-old host, Elena Bunbury, who chairs the group, told the crowd. “Trans is beautiful!” And then she handed over, with a hug, to the Prime Minister’s wife.

Boris Johnson watched from the back of the room as Carrie Johnson, a long-standing ally of the group, declared her husband “completely committed” to extending LGBT rights. She listed party pledges including a ban on conversion therapy (the practice of attempting to “cure” homosexuality), and rolling out HIV-preventative drugs on the NHS. Maybe, she joked, her husband could resurrect the pink cowboy hat he wore on a Pride march while mayor of London. Afterwards, she talked with the evening’s co-host – a beaming Nancy Kelley, chief executive of Stonewall. At the after-party, Michael Gove and Liz Truss were prominent on the dance floor.

When Kelley took the helm at Britain’s best-known LGBT organisation almost 18 months ago, she promised to move away from what she called a “philosophical debate about the nature of sex and gender” (and others would describe as a bitter war over trans rights), focusing instead on more practical issues – such as those Carrie Johnson listed. But if Stonewall and the Tory government appeared united that night, the reception also masked some considerable differences.

Founded in 1989 in protest against Section 28, the Thatcher government’s attempt to ban the “promotion” of homosexuality, Stonewall has helped secure historic changes in the law, from equalising the age of consent to adoption rights for gay parents. But its decision to campaign for trans rights (since 2015) has proved more controversial.

When I spoke to Kelley in September, she said that increased visibility for, and progress on, trans rights had come at a cost. “Trans people, particularly in Global North countries, have become much more visible over the last decade and that’s fantastic. But the level and nature of press coverage of trans people’s lives has made things worse. On the one hand, you’ve got this positive trajectory, and on the other, you’ve got a lot of incessant hostility.”

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An ally in No 10: Carrie Johnson speaks at the LGBT+ Conservatives Pride reception at the Tory party conference in October. Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Stonewall has become a focus for that hostility. Since 2015 it has advocated for trans people to be accepted as who they say they are, popularising the mantra “trans women are women, trans men are men, and non-binary people are valid”. It has argued for easier legal recognition, access to chosen single-sex services and spaces, and the prescription of “puberty blocker” drugs to trans-identifying teenagers. Such arguments are fiercely opposed by “gender-critical” thinkers, who maintain that biological sex cannot change. To say so isn’t hateful, they argue, challenging Stonewall’s insistence that to deny a trans person’s identity is transphobic. The debate over what can and can’t be said has spilled over into workplaces, universities and the courts.

This year there have been a number of defections from Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme, which offers employers advice on LGBT+ workplace inclusion for a fee. The Ministry of Justice, Crown Prosecution Service and Channel 4 have all severed ties. (Stonewall claims Diversity Champions is growing nonetheless, with more than 900 members.) In a recent BBC podcast series, the presenter Stephen Nolan accused Whitehall, Ofcom and the BBC of too readily accepting Stonewall’s world-view. The charity has too much influence, he argued, through its Workplace Equality Index, which scores organisations on LGBT+ inclusion, as well as advocating inclusive language (such as swapping “mother” for “parent” in family leave policies).

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This autumn’s Labour conference was overshadowed by a row over whether it was transphobic for Rosie Duffield MP to say that “only women have a cervix”, given trans men may have one, too. (Keir Starmer told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show it was “not right”, while the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, criticised Starmer’s comments.) During the Liberal Democrat conference, the party leader Ed Davey was forced to justify banning a female activist from running for parliament, reportedly over complaints about a T-shirt she had worn that read “woman: adult, human, female” (an ostensibly bland definition adopted by gender-critical campaigners).

With Stonewall under attack from both sides of the political divide, some now sense an existential threat to the charity. “There are actively directed attempts to destroy it, and they’re coming from the right,” the former Labour minister Angela Eagle told me. Stonewall’s opponents were, she argued, “fomenting trouble between people who ought to be allies: LGBT people, feminists, and people who are on the receiving end of nasty inequalities”.

But the charity’s critics include its former employees: I spoke to some who privately argued that Stonewall had pushed too far too fast, failing to engage with detractors and alienating the public. After JK Rowling wrote last year that her gender-critical views reflected her experiences of sexual assault and domestic violence, Stonewall’s then media manager was criticised for tweeting that she had “weaponised her experience”. In a BBC interview this May, Kelley triggered controversy by comparing gender-critical beliefs to anti-Semitism when arguing that free speech had limits. “With all beliefs, including controversial beliefs, there is a right to express those beliefs publicly,” she said. “And where they’re harmful or damaging – whether it’s anti-Semitic beliefs, gender-critical beliefs, beliefs about disability – we have legal systems that are put in place for people who are harmed by that.”

“I think the ‘no compromise’ position has radicalised people,” one former Stonewall staffer told me. “Someone like Rowling started off just asking questions, Rosie Duffield the same. Now, some of the things Rowling says are quite problematic, but I don’t think it had to be like this.” Stonewall, they argued, needed to choose between being an effective lobbyist with mainstream support, or a protest movement. “The other day Stonewall was tweeting about Gaza, and about voter ID. [Stonewall retweeted an Amnesty International tweet on Gaza posted on 15 May 20201.] The old Stonewall was ruthlessly focused on gay equality. Now it’s become a sort of all-purpose left-wing group – and if you’re a Tory you see that and think, ‘Why is Stonewall doing it?’”

Yet at the Conservative conference, the Prime Minister’s inner circle seemingly embraced Stonewall. Will this détente last? This is the story of three months in the charity’s contested history, its political roots – and what they tell us about today’s culture wars, trans rights and the limits of free speech.

I first spoke to Nancy Kelley in September over Zoom, from her kitchen table in east London. She had recently returned from a camping holiday with her wife and two children that hadn’t gone as planned. Kelley had spent much of it crouched by the car, frantically charging her phone from the battery, trying to negotiate safe passage out of Afghanistan for LGBT Afghans at risk from Taliban forces. “We’re hearing of people being threatened, having to pay bribes,” she said. “Very worryingly, there are rumours of fake [rescue] operations, to lure people into coming forward.” An initial group of 29 LGBT Afghans arrived in the UK on 29 October.

A former civil servant who joined Stonewall from NatCen, Kelley’s background is in policy rather than political campaigning, and her strength is in the detail. She talked animatedly about discussions with the Foreign Office over how best to protect those who had fled to neighbouring countries where they also risk persecution; the challenge, she said, lay in helping people prove eligibility for asylum when it is dangerous to carry evidence of their sexuality. But Stonewall’s ongoing work in encouraging the reporting of hate crimes in Turkey and the west Balkans provided useful insights. Kelley was delighted that the Prime Minister’s new LGBT envoy, the former Tory MP Nick Herbert, confirmed LGBT Afghan refugees will have priority for resettlement in the UK alongside other Afghan groups. (Kelley described Herbert as a “really thoughtful, positive advocate, incredibly pluralistic”.)

Historically, Stonewall has worked closely with governments. When Tony Blair presented its founders with a lifetime achievement award from the LGBT paper PinkNews in 2018, he praised the way they had “reached out and brought people onside. They liberated the nation’s mind and won its heart.” But a year later one of them, the broadcaster Simon Fanshawe, broke away to join the LGB Alliance, a group that pointedly omits the T.

Stonewall’s 14 founders were a broad church, ranging from the actors Michael Cashman and Ian McKellen and the activists Lisa Power and Jennie Wilson (all still loyal to Stonewall) to the Tory MP-turned-columnist Matthew Parris (who this year argued that the charity had been “cornered into an extremist stance” on trans rights). Named after the 1969 Stonewall riots, sparked when police raided a New York gay bar, the charity married radical ends and establishment tactics: Wilson has written of its determination to be “solidly structured, well-funded, professionally staffed and targeting decision-makers and those with the power to make change”. During John Major’s government, Stonewall cooperated with liberal Tories; under Blair, it became practically a pillar of the New Labour establishment.

Under Ben Summerskill, an artful political operator, Stonewall adjusted smoothly to the rise of Tory modernisers. David Cameron describes legalising same-sex marriage in England and Wales in 2014 as one of his proudest achievements. When he was re-elected in 2015, his inner circle – knowing he didn’t plan to serve a full term – began exploring ideas a successor could embrace to show that Tory liberalism wasn’t dead. “George [Osborne] was saying, ‘The next big equalities thing is trans rights, that’s what we need to do, it’s happening in the US,”’ a former Tory staffer told me.

[see also: Shon Faye wants a “deeper conversation” about trans liberation]

In January 2016 a report from the Conservative-chaired Women and Equalities Committee duly recommended reform of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act (GRA), which allows trans people to have their identities legally recognised. Instead of needing to live “in role” for two years and undergo assessment, as mandated by the GRA, it argued that people could “self-identify” via a simple declaration. When Theresa May succeeded Cameron in 2016, she ran with the idea. “Being trans is not an illness, and should not be treated as such,” she told a PinkNews awards dinner in 2017, promising to consult on self-identification.

For trans people, the world seemed to be opening up. The veteran trans activist Christine Burns recalled arranging dinners with newspaper editors, and even approaching hostile evangelical Christian groups. “The first thing we’d try to do is meet with our detractors and see what common ground we had, make friends of our enemies,” she told me.

Burns is a former vice-president of the trans pressure group Press for Change, which fought test cases on legal recognition, leading to the GRA. The group had swapped notes with Stonewall, but saw its struggle as separate; some trans people felt they needed their own voice. But in 2014 Stonewall’s incoming CEO Ruth Hunt suggested joining forces. Having won its legal battles, Press for Change was keen to change hearts and minds, which was Stonewall’s area of expertise; meanwhile, Stonewall’s clients were asking for advice on trans rights at work. Working together made sense, and in 2015 Hunt pledged to embrace trans causes, apologising “for the harm that we have caused” by not doing so earlier.

Had Stonewall focused on the relatively uncontroversial issues Burns told me were then preoccupying many trans people, such as waits for healthcare or employment protection, the next six years might have been different. But Conservative ministers were attracted to the idea of a bold move on self-identification, which, according to sources close to the discussion, was seen as a low-cost tidying-up exercise generating little public interest. And, crucially, many trans people found the GRA process demeaning. Even Burns hated some of its provisions, while accepting them as the price of reform: “Politics is the art of what’s possible at the time,” she said.

Riding high after its campaign for equal marriage, Stonewall now argued for self-identification. It also campaigned for scrapping exemptions in the Equality Act that allow providers of single-sex services to exclude trans people where deemed “proportionate”. Stonewall considered these exemptions vague and little-used. It later quietly dropped that demand – yet the idea that rape counselling services or women’s prisons could be compelled (by law or public opinion) to welcome anyone calling themselves female has stuck.

Arguably, this happened for two reasons. First, May’s government delayed publishing a consultation on self-identification that could have clarified its impact on the Equality Act, leaving the debate hanging. And second, some activists have continued to attack exemptions as transphobic. (Kelley wouldn’t explicitly say she considered them necessary, but argued that if a service feels it important to exclude trans people then trans people are better served elsewhere: “We respect their right to do it, and we think it’s not really in trans women’s best interest to be accessing a service that feels so strongly they shouldn’t be there.”)

Meanwhile what nobody anticipated, Burns argued, was the political weather blowing in from the US: the rise of Donald Trump, and the reinvigoration of the culture wars. “You make progress, and people wake up to the fact, and then there’s a backlash,” Burns said, noting that this pattern is wearily familiar to feminist activists, too.

Had May remained prime minister, self-identification might have become law. But in July 2019 she was replaced by Boris Johnson, and a hardening political mood. In 2020 the new Equalities Secretary Liz Truss formally rejected the idea. (The Scottish government is proceeding with self-identification.) Truss pledged instead to tackle waiting lists for trans healthcare by opening three new gender clinics, aimed at taking 1,600 people off the waiting list by 2022. (Whitehall estimates there may be 200,000 to 500,000 trans people in the UK, although no census data is yet available.) This April, Truss disbanded May’s former LGBT advisory panel, after long-standing member Jayne Ozanne and two others quit in protest, following what Ozanne described to me as months of feeling sidelined. Stonewall’s influence seemed to be waning. In summer a source told me that parts of Whitehall had come to regard “Ruth [Hunt] as a bit Ed Miliband, and Nancy Kelley as Jeremy Corbyn” in approach.

Perhaps the most wounding opposition to Stonewall, however, came from inside.

Like the senior American Express executive she once was, Kate Harris appeared on Zoom looking business-like in a blue striped shirt, papers stacked on her desk. Harris joined Stonewall under its second CEO, Angela Mason, and became an official ambassador, promoting the charity in corporate circles. “It was nice being part of such a successful organisation, that was sensible but radical, and we knew that MPs and so on could rely on us,” Harris said crisply. She supported Hunt’s appointment, but soon became concerned that Stonewall’s expansion into trans rights risked conflict. What worried Harris most was activists’ attempts to redefine “same-sex attraction” as attraction to the same gender, which some lesbians feel creates pressure on them to date trans women.

“We tried and tried to talk, over a period of two and a half years,” Harris said. She and others wrote to the Sunday Times arguing that Stonewall had “made mistakes in its approach that undermine women’s sex-based rights and protections”, and suggested the charity bring in mediators. “Again and again it was, ‘We can’t see how we can have a conversation with you if you deny people’s existence,’” Harris said.

Finally, in September 2019, Harris and Bev Jackson (of the Gay Liberation Front) launched LGB Alliance with a pledge to uphold freedom of speech and biological definitions of sex for lesbians, bisexuals and gay men. (Kathleen Stock, who recently resigned as a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex after a student campaign to oust her, is a trustee.) At the time, Harris’s friend and LGB Alliance co-founder, the barrister Allison Bailey, tweeted: “Gender extremism is about to meet its match.” But Harris insists the split was bittersweet. “I have close friends who have given years of their life – people like me, you know, who were all, ‘No presents for our civil partnerships: give your money to Stonewall.’ All of us are devastated.”

[see also: Kathleen Stock, trans rights and a crisis of free speech in British universities]

Since then, the LGB Alliance has secured meetings with politicians and civil servants. This spring it won charitable status, although the Charity Commission warned it had “noted some evidence of social media activity… by LGB Alliance and considered that some of the language used may be regarded as inflammatory and offensive”. The charity had, the commission noted, subsequently changed its social media policy. Yet in August the Alliance breached Twitter rules with a (now deleted) tweet suggesting that the term LGBTQ+ gives “the green light to paraphilias like bestiality”. This summer trans campaigners began a legal challenge against its charitable status.

Did Harris regret that tweet? “I think history will be the judge of whether that was a useful tweet or not,” is all she would say, though she insisted things had changed now that the Alliance has trustees. “Our social media is going to expand into a production studio so we can make our own videos for TikTok, so that we can put out our own messages on YouTube for kids who are thinking, ‘Am I a girl, am I a boy?’ At the moment they’re only getting messages from people who believe it’s a good idea to tell kids they can change sex. We’re going to put out messages that say it’s fantastic to be lesbian, gay or bisexual, you don’t need to do puberty blockers, double mastectomies and the rest.”

Many of the Alliance’s critics regard claims that teenagers are being pressured to transition as transphobic in themselves, so this strategy may further test the boundaries of free speech. The Alliance recently responded to a Law Commission consultation on hate crime laws, citing concerns that they could prevent people from arguing that biological sex is immutable. It has also lobbied ministers over conversion therapy, arguing that any ban should not hamper therapists’ ability to challenge children and young people over their reasons for identifying as trans. Harris told me the Alliance will lobby wherever it feels gender-critical perspectives are missing, including the belief “that biological sex is real”.

Does she believe trans identities are real, too? “We know from Ray Blanchard’s work and others that there are a small number of people who simply cannot live with the body that they have,” she said, citing a Canadian-American sexologist whose theories linking trans identity to erotic fantasies are offensive to many. “But I would say, please, help us get away from terms like ‘non-binary’. Are you 100 per cent female, feminine in every way? I’m not. Am I 100 per cent male, masculine? No. Does that mean I’m non-binary? Well, no. If it does, it’s just confusing because then everybody is.” The Alliance, Harris said, supports trans people’s rights to equality and respect, but fears the term “‘trans’ has bloomed into covering a range of people other than those that the legislation was intended for”.

Rallying cry: protesters at a Reclaim Pride march, organised to raise awareness for the LGBTI+ community, in London, July 2021. Photo by Belinda Jiao/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Alliance is seen by many in the LGBT sector as a fringe organisation at best, and at worst a hate group. Some hear an echo, in its concerns over trans women using female facilities, of the way gay men were once portrayed as predatory. Arguably, its attacks on Stonewall have prompted LGBT activists to rally round; when Paul Martin, the chief executive of the LGBT Foundation, strode on to the stage at the British LGBT awards this August and called for solidarity with Stonewall, there was a noisy standing ovation.

When we spoke over Zoom, Martin emphatically rejected the idea that the LGB Alliance rivalled Stonewall as a representative voice for gay and bisexual people: “They certainly don’t speak for me. They certainly don’t speak for the majority of people that I speak to – they’re making themselves out to be much more representative than they are. We have to be very careful that we don’t breathe too much oxygen into this space.”

Many LGBT activists refuse to share a platform with the Alliance, creating a dilemma for broadcasters seeking editorial balance. In August the broadcasting regulator Ofcom quit Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme, citing concerns that membership “poses a conflict or risk of perceived bias”. Ofcom had received multiple Freedom of Information (FOI) requests about its views on trans rights after its chief executive Melanie Dawes told MPs last December that she had met Stonewall to discuss ways of balancing trans coverage (she subsequently met the Alliance, too).

Stonewall estimates that in the first quarter of 2021 around 900 FOI requests were made to organisations it works with, often coordinated via feminist blogs or threads on the parenting site Mumsnet under the hashtag #DontSubmitToStonewall. Some seek evidence of what they see as biological sex being erased on Stonewall’s advice, such as changes to family leave policies; others query advice on gender-neutral toilets, or spending on rainbow lanyards and badges. Anonymous briefings that Liz Truss (who remains Equalities Secretary, as well as Foreign Secretary) wanted Whitehall departments to quit Diversity Champions have arguably increased that pressure, without becoming official policy.

Dealing with FOI requests “pulls resource and energy away from the work we’re here to do and that is really distressing for staff”, Kelley told me. Yet under such scrutiny, some undeniably awkward questions have emerged.

In May the University of Essex apologised to two gender-critical female academics who had been disinvited from speaking engagements, after a review by the barrister Akua Reindorf found a misunderstanding of the law in its policy. Although Stonewall hadn’t advised the university directly on either case, Reindorf argued that, during reviews of its employment policy, the charity had missed a legal error (this elided gender reassignment, the characteristic protected in the Equality Act, with gender identity). Reindorf recommended Essex reconsider its ties, adding that the policy seemed to reflect “the law as Stonewall would prefer it to be, rather than the law as it is”. (The university has since reiterated its commitment to working with Stonewall.)

Did Stonewall get it wrong here? Kelley told me she was “very comfortable with the quality of the advice we give”, pointing out that best-practice recommendations commonly urge employers to go beyond the minimum requirement. But doing so has become a riskier prospect for employers.

LGB Alliance’s Allison Bailey is currently suing Stonewall and her legal chambers, alleging that she lost work as a barrister after the charity encouraged Garden Court to distance itself from her views. (Garden Court has described the allegation as “groundless and… without merit”.) The development consultant Maya Forstater, whose contract was not renewed after she posted gender-critical views on social media, is suing her former employer following a ruling in June that found her belief in the immutability of sex to be protected in law. The case will be heard next spring, although Forstater’s supporters say this summer’s ruling is already having an impact.

“People are more willing to say, ‘Well, actually, that’s my protected belief.’ It’s been mentioned in union training, the legal precedent,” said Kiri Tunks of Woman’s Place UK, a gender-critical group rooted in the union movement. Tunks argued that this will affect workplace policies. “People won’t suddenly say, ‘Oh, I got that wrong’, but the emphasis will shift – things will start to disappear off websites, policies will be redacted.”

Both sides in this dispute suspect the other of having deep pockets. Kelley pointed to a “well-funded global anti-gender movement” that campaigns against both LGBT and women’s rights, while Helen Joyce’s recent book Trans highlighted donations by the billionaires Jennifer Pritzker and Jon Stryker to trans causes in the US. Some Stonewall supporters cite gender-critical campaigners’ links with evangelical Christians, including Paul Conrathe, the solicitor who acted for Keira Bell, a 24-year-old woman who regretted transitioning. (Bell recently lost on appeal her legal battle against those under the age of 16 being prescribed puberty blockers.)

But there is little evidence of shadowy millionaires driving Britain’s gender wars. Stonewall’s latest accounts showed it deep in the red (an £809,000 deficit in the year ending September 2019), and the LGB Alliance accounts depict a shoestring operation. Bailey and Forstater have crowdfunded their legal cases. Meanwhile, gender-critical feminists insist they have no desire to collaborate with right-wing or evangelical groups with whom they have historically fought over abortion or contraception rights. “We see that they’re regressive for women and we just don’t want them anywhere near,” Kiri Tunks told me.

What is true, however, is that both sides in the gender wars have seen old alliances crumble, as uncertain new ones start to form.

Carrie Johnson’s intervention at the Conservative conference may have made the front pages, but her husband’s interview with GB News the same night was equally telling. Asked if it was correct that only women had cervixes, the question dividing Labour, Boris Johnson answered with uncharacteristic seriousness. “Biology is very important, but we’ve got a system now in our country, for many, many years in which people… can change gender. We help them to do that, and what I absolutely passionately believe – and I’ve thought this for a long time – is everybody should be treated with dignity and respect.” It was a long way from his reference to gay men as “tank-topped bumboys” in a 1998 Telegraph column – and some suspected the influence of his wife.

Yet Johnson’s views are more nuanced than that column suggested. In 2003 he voted with Tory modernisers to repeal Section 28; and as London’s mayor, he backed equal marriage before David Cameron did. The sniggering public schoolboy humour belies a libertarian conviction that people’s private lives are their own business. For all her reservations about the government’s LGBT advisory panel, Jayne Ozanne told me that working on it had convinced her that Johnson was sympathetic. “He’s said some very unfortunate, ill-informed things and I don’t think he quite understands how that still shadows him. But I do believe he wants to see progress. That’s in his core.”

Yet until recently Johnson has been largely absent from the fray, leaving two rival camps within No 10 wrestling for control: one led by the head of policy Munira Mirza, and a more liberal camp led by the senior adviser Henry Newman, a friend of Carrie’s. Newman has, say friends, long wanted to cool the temperature; Nick Herbert’s appointment as LGBT envoy in May, reporting directly to Johnson, was widely seen as an attempt to do so.

It was the Tory loss of Chesham and Amersham to the Lib Dems in June that crystallised concerns in government that its role in the culture wars was backfiring. Luke Tryl, the British director of More In Common – a group working to counter polarisation – said its focus groups show voters are tired of political slanging matches. “All our research shows that’s just not where the British public are,” said Tryl, a former aide to Nicky Morgan when she was equalities minister. “People will say, ‘This thing is quite new to me, I don’t understand’, but they’ll punish any party that goes too far to one extreme. That’s why we are seeing some of the culture war stuff reined in.”

Self-identification may be off the table in England, but Herbert, who will host a conference next year on international LGBT rights, told me Johnson’s intentions are clear. “He has said to me that he doesn’t want to get involved in a culture war on these issues. He’s very committed to this agenda and to making the global conference a success. I want to follow by encouraging everyone to focus on the agendas we can agree about. And where there are differences, to hold those respectfully.”

But while Herbert thought the public wanted to move on from “angry and unkind debates on social media”, he was clear that discussion cannot be stifled. “I don’t think we can just assert things and deny people’s freedom to express differing views, or worst of all cancel them.” This autumn has shown how that might work in practice: the LGB Alliance was banned from Labour’s conference fringe but not from the Tories’; and while Johnson declined an invitation to speak at the Alliance conference in October, he did so in a letter praising its “incredible hard work”. The appearance of the Johnsons at the Stonewall event signalled where favour lies – for now.

Some in the LGBT movement remain suspicious of Johnson’s motives, and frustrated by the pace of change; as Kelley herself told me, “a lot of the movement would like us to be more radical, not less”. In turn, some senior Tories are concerned about Kelley’s ability to keep impatient activists onside. The public truce negotiated by Nick Herbert and others could yet be broken over any number of flashpoints – from the treatment of trans teenagers (an NHS-commissioned review of gender identity services is due to report in the next few months), to the definition of hate speech.

Yet Kelley remained optimistic about a reset, citing the same shifting public mood Luke Tryl described. “If we take ourselves out of the rarefied world of politics and the media, I think there’s very good reason to be incredibly hopeful,” she said. “Because the public don’t want toxic, negative debates around LGBTQ people’s existence or rights. Even if they don’t quite understand certain things, even if they’ve got questions.” The gender wars are far from over, with bitter battles still to come. But don’t underestimate, on both sides, the buried desire for peace.

[see also: How to talk about trans rights]

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This article appears in the 03 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britannia Chained