When I first moved to Liverpool a dozen years ago, I could not have imagined that I would be at Liverpool Cathedral to hear a keynote speech by the head of an LGBT rights charity. It was Friday the 13th - it happened, the Cathedral is still standing, and the times are changing.
Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall since August 2014, spoke at the Liverpool City Breakfast, a quarterly event to gather a cross-section of leaders from across the region to hear a nationally-recognised speaker – a person of faith and an expert in their field - present on a subject important to Merseyside. Before her promotion, Ruth led the charity's policy, campaign and research work for three years, including its campaign to tackle homophobic bullying in schools. Since taking on the leadership, Ruth has committed to bringing Stonewall even deeper into communities, engaging with groups from different ethnicities, religions and geographies – both in the UK and abroad.
Her appointment has been controversial, both in LGBT and faith communities, as Ruth has spoken openly about her Catholic belief. She told Pink News:
As a practising Catholic myself I often feel isolation - incredulity from some LGBT people and scepticism from some people of faith. Stonewall will be working hard to show wider society that LGBT people of faith do exist and are part of faith communities. Too often it’s assumed we’re never on the same side. Stonewall are also very willing to support faith leaders and communities be more welcoming of LGBT people too.
She has also spearheaded Stonewall’s commitment to campaign for trans equality, following an extensive consultation with more than 700 trans people. The charity's new motto is 'Acceptance Without Exception' - including the wider spectrum of the LGBT community, not just those who have benefited from legislative change over the last decade in the UK.
Ruth shared her perspective on inclusivity in public life, with an audience of around 45 LGBT, heterosexual and cisgender (non-trans*) people, from Anglican, Catholic and other faith traditions and no faith background. She spoke of how Stonewall's journey has mirrored other civil rights movements, and been polarised by highly emotive issues. The primary focus of its 26 year history has been campaigning for that legislative change - once that was achieved, the campaign could have faltered, but a renewed vision was needed.
She believes an authentic relationship with her faith inevitably informs her approach to the leadership of this campaigning organisation as it adapts to the new landscape, to change hearts and minds and promote greater understanding of sexuality and gender diversity throughout public life. Ruth described Stonewall's approach to this process as 'nudging, pragmatic, diplomatic, sitting alongside' those who can make change happen. Stonewall is increasingly doing this with faith communities - for example, it recently produced a booklet called Christian Role Models, sharing stories from LGBT people around the world. Following the Archbishop of Canterbury's invitation in 2013 to help tackle homophobic bullying in Church of England schools, they are working with a coalition of LGBT Christians to make a representation to the CofE's General Synod in 2016.
Their aim is to 'change the tenor of the debate (around religion, sexuality and gender identity) in constructive, respectful and meaningful ways', particularly in the Anglican tradition, which has a history of diversity in theological opinion, but struggles to accept diversity on the issue of sexuality. As an example of this tension, Ruth said that the Bishop of Liverpool had spoken in support of her speaking at this event after Liverpool Cathedral received objections to her presence and message. I was tweeting live from the event, so I shared this statement, tagging both Bishop Paul and Liverpool Cathedral. The bishop replied within a few moments, so I was able to share his message with those present:
"Do not be afraid" - to speak with all, listen to all and pray for all is one mark of faithful Gospel life https://t.co/qPf1Lsszje
— Paul Bayes (@paulbayes) November 13, 2015
Of her own faith journey, she said;
My faith is part of who I am - I've never seen it as incompatible with my sexual orientation.
which she recognises is not true for every LGBT person of faith. However, she added:
I found it harder to come out as Catholic than as gay, because at least I had the gay community backing me up.
She received hate mail after being appointed Stonewall's CEO, including one comparing a Catholic leading an LGBT organisation with asking a Nazi to head a Jewish society. Ruth was modest and humble in her approach, keen to make clear that she speaks from her experience as a person of faith, not as a theologian or spokesperson for the Church. But she recognised the privilege and responsibility of speaking on behalf of LGBT people, a 'wounded community' with a history of criminalisation, blame and shame for HIV, what Section 28 called 'pretended families', and lack of representation in, or deliberate exclusion from, public life.
While many areas of public life have come a long way in addressing inequality, Ruth says there is an ongoing need to tackle this in faith communities. There are times when Stonewall may not have got its pragmatic, diplomatic approach right, Ruth admitted. With hindsight, she said, when Stonewall began to look beyond campaigning for legislative change in 2008, that could have been a better time to commit to supporting trans* equality, as it became clear that its lack of support began to do more damage. Initially, the intention was not to compete with Press For Change, which focusses on trans* issues in law and the media, and to avoid appropriating the struggle and hard work of another community. Having learned from this experience, Ruth said, Stonewall's aim is to amplify the voices of marginalised people, not to claim to be the voice. Following their consultation with 700 trans* people, they are now committed to trans* specific work, and making their existing resources trans* representative and inclusive, as well as supporting trans* people to campaign for a more equal and informed Gender Recognition Act.
In every community, but particularly faith communities, Ruth argued that getting to know LGBT people minimises discrimination. The biggest shift she has observed is 'the change in tone from hostile rejection to questioning discomfort' in the Evangelical Christian movement in this country as LGBT people choose to engage with their faith tradition rather than walk away. She contrasted this with the increase of extreme views and laws in parts of Africa and eastern Europe, where there is evidence that some wealthy US evangelicals are investing money to support anti-LGBT legislation following the failure of the campaign against legislative change is America. Stonewall is working to challenge the rhetoric they preach that LGBT identities are a 'Western import' by amplifying the voices of people from those cultures, as the Christian Role Models booklet aims to do. She also expressed concern about the 'vacillating messages' from the Vatican about where it stands on LGBT issues, and particularly the conflation of understanding the diversity of sexual orientation with the Church's issues around sexual abuse.
Reflecting on the complexity of the international situation, Ruth echoed concerns expressed by church leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, that a split in the church would be most damaging to African LGBT Christians. She did not claim to have the solution, but she has committed herself, and Stonewall, to walking alongside LGBT people of faith, and seeking constructive, respectful and meaningful dialogue so that we can reduce discrimination through relationship.