Ruth Hunt, CEO of Stonewall, the largest LGBT rights organisation in Europe, read English at St Hilda’s between 1998 and 2001. Elected JCR president, she went on to become OUSU President. Aged 25, she began working at Stonewall and became CEO in 2014. On 2nd December she found an hour in her busy schedule to talk to Martha and me about campaigning, activism in Oxford, and some of the most important issues facing the LGBTQ liberation movement.
What were Oxford LGBTQ liberation campaigns like when you were OUSU President compared with campaigns today?
The issues are different. When I was JCR president, I remember it being a big deal that I was openly gay, and it was a pretty big deal when I was elected OUSU President because it was unexpected and new. But I also think Oxford was a very tolerant place if you were LGB – even in terms of bi representation in those days it was pretty good. I think with trans students there was a willingness to be inclusive but a massive lack of understanding. Generally lots of trans people were talking about trans issues as quite separate issues. One of the biggest changes I see in the student movement is a much greater capacity to think more broadly, and you see this in how the notion of fluidity around gender identity or sexuality is much better articulated and understood now.
I’m glad you brought up the lack of trans inclusion. We wanted to ask why Stonewall only became officially trans-inclusive in 2015?
When Stonewall was set up 26 years ago, it was positioned as a lobbying organisation working strategically and non-democratically to achieve full law change on the grounds of sexual orientation. Similar conversations about the law and gender identity were happening with an organisation called Press For Change. We were kind of siblings and we worked closely. Then when full law equality was achieved, in its broadest sense, Stonewall moved into hearts and minds: loads of research and policy work. Press for Change was doing all that for trans people, and Stonewall didn’t want to take away from them.
But then Stonewall got much bigger, and so it became a harmful exclusion rather than a respectful boost. Now, after speaking to 700 trans people last year, we’ve got to the position where, with their support, permission and endorsement, we’re becoming trans inclusive, and doing trans-specific work.
My instinct has always been that any liberation movement should be led by people who belong to those movements and I’m not trans so is it right that I take away the platform from people who are trans? It’s that balance and getting it right, which can often be perceived as Stonewall not getting it right when actually it’s about making sure we don’t get in the way of genuine trans movements.
This links to a topical debate in Oxford about who has the right to speak on liberation issues. Can you touch on that?
There’s a difference between leading a group and working together and Stonewall places a huge emphasis on allies – I consider myself an ally to the trans community, gay men and bisexual communities, and Stonewall does a lot to encourage gay men to be good allies of lesbians and heterosexual women and we talk with them a lot about sexism. There is a responsibility for us all to be interested and involved and informed.
If I were to go on Question Time, I wouldn’t say, “Well I can’t talk about trans issues”, because of course I’m going to use that platform to talk about trans issues; however, if a minister says, “Ruth, I want to have a really good conversation about trans”, I’m going to say “I’d love to come but I really want to bring this person with me.” All this comes down to power: who has the power, who’s going to give up power, and who’s going to share power.
Recently I was at a meeting of predominantly black and minority ethnic people talking about racism in the LGBT community. There were about five white people in the audience. The chair took questions and the white people all put their hands up first, and I thought “Just shut up. You don’t need to say anything right now: just listen.” It’s about responding rather than leading.
Lots of straight people turned up at LGBTQ soc drinks to buy discounted tickets for Wadham’s Queerfest this year, prompting discussion about what Queerfest represents, whether straight people should attend… What are your thoughts on safe spaces in this context?
You have to be clear on what the space is for. Wadham’s Queer Week in 1999 was the best week ever. It was amazing that so many straight people at the Bop. It was such an endorsement.
In terms of safe spaces, you have to consider: what’s the purpose, what are you doing, and how are you doing it? If loads of straight people want to go to a big gay party, that has to be progress because, previously, people didn’t want to be seen in case they were labelled gay. But we can have safe spaces, like singles nights, that are LGBT-only spaces – it’s perfectly legitimate.
Even if it was LGBT-only, you cannot say that a Bop at Wadham is going to be a safe space – obviously, if there was any bi-phobia, homophobia or transphobia in that space then Wadham would come down on it like a tonne of bricks, but let’s be realistic about what level of safety can be achieved at a Bop.
Stonewall’s been described as ‘moderate’ as opposed to ‘radical’. How do you understand ‘radicalism’ and do you think it’s a help or a hindrance in LGBTQ activism?
You need both. We would probably term it as ‘anti-establishment’ and ‘assimilationist’. The radical movement is saying that actually these structures are flawed so let’s reject these structures, and assimilationists are saying you need to let us be part of these structures. Stonewall’s philosophy is that you need to be able to have the right to be part of an assimilationist society in order to have the right to reject it, whereas others would say you should just reject it. In the seventies, and that’s before my time, there was this tension, I think, between a movement that celebrated ‘the other’ and a movement that wanted to remove the sense of ‘other’.
Marriage is a good focus for this. Marriage as an institution is antiquated and doesn’t really hold up very well – people get divorced and it’s not a very successful model – but should gay people have the right to do it? Absolutely.
Working to try and get change on any liberation issue in Oxford can sometimes feel somewhat hopeless. Do you have any advice for Oxford’s activists?
At Stonewall we’re very pragmatic, which is different from other campaigning groups, so some would argue that we don’t go far enough, but there’s always a nudge. We’re nudge campaigners, so if we can move some people, some of the way, every day, we’re making progress. Which is very different to a kind of unequivocal, non-negotiable sign of what success looks like, and I think how we characterise it is that we’re never on the outside shouting in, we’re always inside sitting next to someone, working with them, and that’s a form of campaigning and it’s not for everybody.
I think that for the liberation campaigns in Oxford it’s about understanding that you are in a significantly old machine. I mean, I felt immensely privileged to go to Oxford. I loved it. I felt, and still feel, a real affinity – it was certainly somewhere where I felt I could be myself for the first time – be as gay as I want. In that institution that you love and respect, you’re trying to make things work better, and that’s always going to feel immeasurably difficult but also deeply satisfying. I think back sometimes, well what impact did I have? I’m not entirely sure because it’s actually a very short period of time.
We’re Oxford students. Using the privilege and access that that brings, what is the main thing that Oxford students should do to help with LGBTQ liberation?
The LGBT movement has been determined a lot by what ‘I’ need, what ‘you’ need, what individuals need. It’s been quite a selfish movement. We’ve all got to look beyond our privileges, and for every person who says “I’m okay now”, there are lots and lots of people who are not, who don’t have a support network around them, whose family hasn’t accepted them or who live in countries where being LGBT is a crime We’ve got to shift away from “what about us?” to “how do we empower others?” That’s the biggest challenge.