January 6, 2014 | by Michael K. Lavers
British gay group to expand int’l advocacy efforts
Ben Summerskill, Stonewall, gay news, Washington Blade

Stonewall Chief Executive Ben Summerskill (Photo courtesy of Stonewall)

CONWAY, N.H.—The head of the U.K.’s largest gay advocacy group told the Washington Blade last month his organization has begun to devote more resources to the global LGBT rights movement now that marriage rights for same-sex couples have been secured in England and Wales.

Stonewall U.K. Chief Executive Ben Summerskill said during an extensive interview in New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley on Dec. 20 where he was spending the holidays that his organization hopes to hire additional staff to continue its work on LGBT-specific issues in Uganda, Russia, Eastern Europe and other areas.

Four of Stonewall’s 70 staffers currently work directly on these issues. The organization also works with the British Foreign Office and the U.K. Department of International Development to raise them at the United Nations.

“I was very anxious historically about us getting engaged in that sort of territory while we didn’t have complete legal equality in Britain,” said Summerskill. “It just opened you up to the people who turn up in Uganda to say what are you doing? Why have you come to lecture us?”

Summerskill spoke with the Blade hours after the Ugandan Parliament approved a bill that would impose a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts. The Indian Supreme Court’s Dec. 11 ruling that recriminalized homosexuality sparked global outrage.

Summerskill said he feels it is more effective to work through the U.K. commonwealth — as opposed to “standing outside [the Ugandan embassy in London] in the rain with placards” — to address anti-LGBT laws in former British colonies. He also applauded British Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to begin channeling foreign aid directly to non-governmental organizations in Uganda and other countries as opposed to giving it directly to governments whose records on LGBT rights and other issues have sparked criticism.

“I don’t think any LGBT campaigner, however strongly they feel about Uganda, would think that it was a good thing that people should starve just so we feel we’re making some progress around human rights for gay people,” said Summerskill.

Another Stonewall strategy is to work with U.K.-based businesses to urge countries in which they do business to improve their LGBT rights records.

Summerskill told the Blade many of the corporations that are part of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions program that promotes gay and lesbian equality in the workplace are “becoming increasingly uneasy in investing in countries of that sort.” Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, which is not a member of Stonewall’s workplace advisory group, on Dec. 23 announced he would not do business in Uganda because of the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

“That is another way in which we can put pressure on Uganda and other governments,” said Summerskill. “And we’ll continue to do so.”

Organization opposes Olympic boycott

Stonewall remains opposed to a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics that will take place next month in Sochi, Russia, over the Kremlin’s LGBT rights record.

Summerskill said this position “has been informed from day one” by Russian LGBT rights advocates with whom his organization works.

“They were crystal clear again from day one that that’s not what they thought was the best way of moving the needle in terms of the reality of everyday life for gay people in Russia,” he said.

Summerskill said Elton John was “right” to perform in Russia last month — the gay British singer specifically criticized a law that bans gay propaganda to minors during a Dec. 6 concert in Moscow. Summerskill added he feels the BBC’s decision to send lesbian reporter Clare Balding to Sochi to host its coverage of the games sends a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“She will be there making a very powerful point,” said Summerskill. “The coverage will be anchored by someone who billions of people by then will know is a lesbian.”

The Independent on Dec. 20 reported Cameron would not attend the Sochi games. The newspaper cited sources within the U.K. government who said the decision is not a boycott the Olympics over Russia’s LGBT rights record.

“[Cameron] has been crystal clear about what he thinks,” said Summerskill, noting British prime ministers have never attended the Winter Olympics. “He’s raised the issue face-to-face with Mr. Putin, which again would have been unthinkable when Mrs. Thatcher was prime minister, and he’s been prepared to do that very publicly. And that actually is something we should all have been quite encouraging about.”

A group of gay and lesbian advocates that campaigned against a bill that would have banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in public schools in the U.K. founded Stonewall in 1989. Stonewall Scotland and Stonewall Cymru (Wales) operate within their respective regions of the country.

Stonewall’s annual income in 2014 will be £4.5 million ($7.37 million.)

Gays and lesbians in England and Wales can begin to legally marry on March 29. A final vote on a measure that would extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in Scotland is expected to take place in the coming weeks.

The government of Northern Ireland in November announced it had lifted the ban on gay couples adopting children.

IBM, Barclays and Goldman Sachs are among the nearly 650 companies that are members of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions program. They pay the organization an annual fee of £2,500 ($4,090) to receive advice and other materials on how to become a welcoming workplace for gays and lesbians.

“We’re very conscious that we just don’t have a situation where they do what we call signing the poster, which is all a bit too easy,” said Summerskill. “They actually pay us.”

Stonewall has also worked with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) to develop a campaign to tackle anti-gay bullying in U.K. schools.

The U.K.’s anti-discrimination law protects trans people in employment and public accommodation, but Summerskill said some of the statutes need “tidying up.” Trans people in the U.K. have been able to legally change their gender on birth certificates and other documents without sex-reassignment surgery since 2004, but the country’s hate crimes law does not include gender identity and expression.

Stonewall Scotland advocates for transgender rights, and Stonewall does so on the international level.

Stonewall and Stonewall Cymru do not specifically advocate for trans rights because Summerskill said English and Welsh trans advocates have specifically asked them not to do so. This stance has sparked division among some British LGBT rights advocates.

“While that’s a lively debate, we’ve kind of finessed that by trying to be as supportive as we possibly can of trans people but not claiming to speak on their behalf if a material number have said we don’t want you to,” Summerskill told the Blade. “Happily there is an infrastructure, although it’s fragile, of seven or eight quite good trans organizations in Britain.”

Summerskill also discussed British Olympic diver Tom Daley’s acknowledgement last month that he is in a relationship with a man widely reported to be “Milk” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.

He categorized the Olympian who won a bronze medal during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London as a “national treasure” alongside Balding, John and comedian Stephen Frye. Summerskill added most of the reaction to Daley’s announcement from within the U.K. was along the lines of “Oh, he’s a nice young man.”

“We want him to do well in the Olympics in 2016,” said Summerskill. “If being able to be who he is makes that easier, which it almost certainly does, then he will probably perform better.”

Summerskill also discussed those who were quick to label Daley as bisexual or gay, even though the British Olympian has not used either term to identify himself.

“He’s kind of said he’s in a relationship with another guy,” Summerskill told the Blade. “It’s pretty clear what that means unless you’re a queer theorist looking to be upset by someone whose not using the language you like to use to describe what’s going on in your life.”

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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