Today, tomorrow and Friday I am doing training in Bristol. I have to be up in the middle of the night all three days to catch early trains. They are morning only gigs, so it would have been nice to come home this afternoon, but I wanted to stay in town to attend a lecture by Ruth Hunt. Sucker for punishment, me.
The event in question was the Anne Spencer Memorial Lecture at the University of Bristol. This is an annual lecture put on by the University Chaplaincy. Each year it addresses issues of faith from a different angle. Ruth is unusual in being both the CEO of the largest LGBT+ rights organisation in Europe and a practicing Catholic. Her talk was about her personal journey, in which coming out as a Catholic proved much harder than coming out as a lesbian, and how her faith informs her activism.
Given my involvement in the Twilight People project, I have an interest in the intersection of LGBT+ activism and faith. I also wanted to know what this person who had instigated such a dramatic change in policy at Stonewall — from firmly trans-exclusionary to enthusiastically trans-inclusive — was like.
The evening got off to a somewhat iffy start as the University Chaplain, in introducing Ruth, did a near perfect job of trans erasure. Sure he talked about LGBT a lot, but whenever he said more than that is was always in the context of sexuality only, never gender identity. Ruth, on the other hand, got it all right. She knew exactly when she needed to mention gender identity as well as sexuality, and she dropped in a number of examples of Stonewall’s trans work when she could easily have told her story without them. That was very encouraging.
Indeed, I was impressed by the whole approach that Ruth is taking with regard to leading Stonewall. She talked about how the organisation had to practice what it preached, and that meant being inclusive in who it employed as well as who it supported. Classes for Muslim teachers are given by a Muslim lesbian; the trans manifesto was written by a group of trans people recruited for that purpose. Stonewall’s job, Ruth said, was to empower, and hand over power, to members of the minority groups it is advocating for.
As to the faith stuff, it was all pretty much as you would expect. Ruth began the talk by extolling the virtues of Jesus as a social revolutionary. You can’t got far wrong with a theology based on love for your fellow humans. Even the Old Testament has plenty of good stuff in it if you know where to look. The only major problem, at least from my perspective, is St. Paul, not just because he was awful a lot of the time, but he was so consistent and articulate in his awfulness.
If you base your activism on a philosophy of love and inclusion, and in putting power in the hands of those who have little, you end up with an organisation very much devoted to equality. Interestingly, much of what Ruth was saying sounded a lot like the Women’s Equality Party. Indeed, when she was talking about being out at work she mentioned that it was often OK to have one odd thing about you, but having two (e.g. lesbian and Catholic) made you a problem; but all too often being a woman was counted as something odd as well, because it meant you were different from the default employee.
I’m firmly of the opinion that LGBT+ equality has to start with gender equality, because so many of the stereotypes on which bigotry about sexuality and gender identity are based spring from a foundation of sexism. I rather suspect that Ruth might share this view.
Anyway, it was a long day, but well worth it. Ruth’s vision for Stonewall sounds very much like the sort of organisation I would like to work with. Over the next few weeks I’ll get to see it in action. Here’s hoping my positive impression continues.