Episode 26: WERKIN with Ruth Hunt on being a better ally

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With London Pride this weekend, what better way to celebrate than chatting with Ruth Hunt, CEO of Stonewall, the UK’s leading charity for LGBT+ advocacy. Hayley met with Ruth at Stonewall’s head office in London to talk about what’s changed since Stonewall was founded 30 years ago and what organisations can do to be better allies.

Hayley: Tell us about Stonewall.

Ruth: Stonewall was founded 30 years ago by Ian McKellen, the actor who plays Magento and Gandalf, and a group of other individuals in response to something in Britain called Section 28. Section 28 was a piece of legislation that prevented the promotion of homosexuality in schools, and it led to the banning of books in schools and it led to public bodies in Britain not feeling able to talk about LGBT issues at all.

And so this group of people got together to set up an organisation that would be highly strategic, pragmatic, and democratic and would do everything to campaign for equality for, in those days, lesbian and gay people. Certainly, the first decade was spent really tackling some of these major legal inequalities. In 2004, the Civil Partnership Act was introduced, which was the first same sex partnership rights in Britain, and the Gender Recognition Act. I came in 2005 and began a mission to change hearts and minds. We always knew that changing the law was one thing, changing hearts and minds was quite another.

Stonewall has worked diligently over the last 15 years to do everything we can to change attitudes and to how people think, live, work socialise, play and pray with LGBT people.

In 2014, when I became chief executive officer, the Same Sex Marriage Act just passed. So there was a real sense of ‘job done’ and what we were really aware of is that the job was done for a certain demographic of gay people for whom, that was what equality looked like for them.

But we were also aware that even the most privileged gay men and women, who are married, still are anxious about hate crime as they walk down the street. They are still unable to go on holiday to places where they want, where there are clear inequalities. But also, alongside that, we knew that there were whole groups of people who were not experiencing that equality.

For young people, particularly trans young people, Stonewall hadn't campaigned for trans rights up until that point. We started advocating for kids from ethnic minority backgrounds, low income older people. We just knew there were lots of people outside the core group who were still experiencing inequalities but we also knew that the rights we'd fought for were very very gently held. There was no guarantee that the rights were secured between the last 30 years will remain. Every day we are seeing different threats to what we thought was held dear. For example, schools, teaching staff protest outside schools, primary schools, taking us back to Section 28, banning kids books [with LGBTQ content]. We're always very mindful that although it may not be as easy to put on a poster [like marriage equality], it's still absolutely crucial that there is a vibrant, well-resourced professional body watching out for these rights.

One of Stonewall's key priorities is transforming institutions to make them more inclusive. Are there any notable differences across industries and how they are approaching inclusion? What are the main similarities you see in how institutions can meaningfully support LGBTQ+ employees?

Stonewall is perhaps unusual for a charity, in that we've never been squeamish about working with business and we think that businesses and employers are the key agents for change, of changing attitudes just by the virtue of their status as an employer, they have access to a lot of people, their influence in advertising, their products, their messages, their media, their ability to set social values. I have strongly felt that companies and organisations can speak to values in a way that is often difficult to communicate in other ways.

What we've seen with companies is a journey to a real understanding that if staff are able to be themselves and bring their whole selves to work, they are more productive, and they enjoy working, they perform better, they form better relationships and often look using the prism of LGBT as an incredibly useful way to think about other identities. There are organisations who do a remarkable job on this.

If you look at our Top Employers list from the last few years, and we run something called a workplace equality index, that we make harder every three years. It’s not an easy jog in the park by any stretch of the imagination. MI5 was our top employer, then Lloyds Banking Group was our top employer, then Pinsent Masons was our top employer. You also see the National Assembly for Whales, which is the Welsh government, it's not about your budget, it's not about your capacity to put rainbows on your products. It is absolutely about a commitment to thinking differently about your culture and about how you can create working environments that can transform workplace culture.

You've dedicated your career to activism and advocacy. Having spent 14 years with Stonewall, what do you attribute to your success and also your longevity?

I came out when I was 13 in 1993. Living in Wales, there was nothing. I went to the library, there was a gay section, and that was mind-blowing. There was no reference in schools, hardly anything on the television. When I went to university, I was out, and did well, but was absolutely determined to try and create a world where the barriers that I faced wouldn't be faced by others. So it was quite a selfish thing to begin with, and I am a passionate believer in making the world a better place.

We work with 800 employers, 2,000 schools a year. We are training activists all over the world in 80 different countries. We are training young people to become advocates in their local communities. The sheer volume of work to be done is quite inspiring.

And what we also see is that the homophobic bullying has gone down, but it still exists in schools. We see that suicide rates amongst trans youth is 50 percent. There is enough to motivate to keep going. And I think that I've always felt that I hadn't quite finished, and there was always a bit more to do.

Has mentorship played a role in your career and do you have any tips for mentors or mentees?

The mentors in my life have been people who've said, ‘You know Ruth, you're doing a great job. Have you thought about doing it this way? Let's think about it from this angle.’ I tend to acknowledge mistakes a bit too quickly. You know, I'm the first to say I've got this wrong and I think mentors have really helped rein in some of that self-doubt, and self depreciation and that capacity to to feel overly responsible for everything that is happening.

There was a moment last year when I got very, very tired and the attacks on trans communities in Britain has been extraordinarily bad. It's just been relentless, and I felt very personally responsible. And it took a very good mentor to say, "kid, it ain't all about you" and just just let me off the hook a bit and knock me off my ego trip.

I really value the mentors in my life and some incredible men and women who have stuck by me on this journey.

What is one piece of advice you would give to an individual or an institution seeking to be a better ally or advocate for the LGBTQ community?

Talk to your staff. Every organisation I go into says they have no problem. They all say "we don't care if you're gay, straight, blue, black or whatever. We just want you to do the best job you can." And it's a real optimistic position to take, but is often based on zero evidence. I can walk into this organisation at Stonewall and say “I don't think we've got a race problem. I think we're fine, and I'm white.” So until I talk to my black staff, then I couldn't possibly make that judgment. So first thing, talk to your LGBT staff.

The second thing is to have a look on Stonewall's website. We have so many resources, getting you thinking, and it's really moving away from that kind of passive acceptance to a more active acceptance of the differences in your workplace. And that shift from passive to active is revolutionary and culturally exciting if it's done well.

For more from Hayley’s talk with Ruth Hunt listen to the full interview above or on SoundCloud or iTunes.