Ruth Hunt: "Our legislation on gender is out of date. It's time for a good overhaul"
After 14 years at LGBT charity Stonewall, Ruth Hunt has joined the House of Lords. She talks to Marie Le Conte about the progress made on LGBT rights, and why – at a time when 'experts' are being denigrated – we should be thankful for the upper chamber
Ruth Hunt – well, Baroness Hunt of Bethnal Green, as she is known these days – does have an office in Millbank House but hasn’t had much time to put anything in it. We try to find a nice spot to take pictures, but all we have to work with are: a reusable cup, a laptop, a bicycle helmet and a painting on the wall. It isn’t hers, and it is good she likes it, because she doesn’t know how she could remove it.
To be fair to her, this is all pretty new: we meet in the week of her maiden speech in the Lords, and after her 14 years at LGBT charity Stonewall, she is only just catching her breath. “At Stonewall we work with the Lords a lot, but it’s quite different working on a specific bill with groups of peers from across benches, and seeing the day-to-day activity”, she says. “I’m grateful that I’ve had an opportunity to watch and learn a little bit, but then we had a general election and it’s all been about the European Union Withdrawal Act, and those are both quite big issues in one’s first quarter.”
Though Hunt’s campaigning work often took her close to Westminster, her background isn’t in politics and she has never been partisan, so it was only natural for her to become a crossbench peer. Joining Parliament without having the colleagues, friends and structure a party usually provides can be tough, but she says the non-affiliated corner of the red benches have taken her under their wing. “They’ve just been very kind and really reassured me at moments where I’ve thought ‘I’m completely a fish out of water here’. It’s a very good bunch.”
She may have the occasional ‘fish out of water’ moment, but Hunt is well aware that she is one of the country’s foremost experts on some areas of legislation, especially surrounding LGBT issues, that if there is one place where expertise is recognised, it is the House of Lords.
“It is a wealth of extraordinary knowledge over there, it’s quite something”, she says. “I feel quite humbled by that, but also confident that I have areas of specific knowledge; I know a lot about how the Same Sex Marriage Act intersects with the Gender Recognition Act and what that means in terms of long-term conditions, and I know I’ll be respected for that knowledge.”
As it happens, Hunt used her maiden speech to discuss the problems thrown up by the legal set up around marriage and civil partnerships. There are currently four different partnership models, – opposite sex marriage, same sex marriage, opposite civil partnerships and same sex civil partnerships. Each is a different legal institution. It is clunky legislation because it came in bit by bit, but it also creates some quirks. Transgender people who transition while already married or in a civil partnership, for example, have to dissolve their same sex union to then enter an opposite sex one, or vice versa, before they can receive a Gender Recognition Certificate. To do this, they must have the legal permission of their spouse or civil partner – effectively giving a partner or spouse the power to veto any legal change in their gender. “This doesn’t seem fair or right,” Hunt told peers.
It may not seem like much in itself, but given the number of hoops people have to jump through when they transition, it makes little sense to add yet another step when it could be so easily fixed, and at the detriment of no-one at all.
It is also part of a wider context of outdated legislation around trans people, which Hunt argues is one of the main areas where the law still fails the LGBT community. “Practically speaking, there are legal inequalities around surrogacy, but the big areas of legal change are around gender recognition”, she explains.
“Our legislation on gender recognition – which was pretty revolutionary in 2004 – is out of date now, and it needs a good overhaul. All parties have committed to that review and the Government committed to quite a good consultation, so it’ll come, but I also know that it’s taken a decade to achieve LGB equality in lots of areas, so these things don’t happen quickly by any stretch.”
Really, she would know; though Hunt gained mainstream prominence during her five years as CEO of Stonewall, she occupied six other posts across nine years in the charity before then. It may be easy to forget now, but a tremendous amount has happened in that decade and a half for LGBT people:
“I came in in 2005, so the Civil Partnerships Act had just passed, and there had been some initial legislation around the right to work. In 2004, that was when legislation first came in that meant you couldn’t be fired for being lesbian, gay, or bi; the first Gender Recognition Act came in 2004. Between 2003 and 2014, there were significant legal changes, including same sex adoption, age of consent, the repeal of Section 28, same sex marriage, but there was also significant culture change.”
“A lot of my job was about changing hearts and minds and changing attitudes, particularly with employers, particularly in schools. When I started, we were talking to schools about sixth formers who might be gay; when I left, we were working with over a thousand primary schools on different families, and that in and of itself felt very seismic in terms of the progress we’ve made.”
Sadly, this doesn’t mean that the fight for LGBT equality is over, or that the way forward is a simple one. While head of Stonewall, Hunt was criticised for her focus on trans issues, but she argues that it was only about trying to right a historical wrong. There is also a reason why there is such a thing as the LGBT community, and an impetus for gay, bi and trans people to stick together.
“Stonewall did the trans community a disservice by not including them more regularly and internationally and in virtually every other movement. It is an LGBT-inclusive movement, simply because we get beaten up for the same reasons, we get discriminated against for the same reasons and we have more in common than that which divides us”, she says.
“There’s always been a hostility towards building alliances in ways that don’t necessarily service the individual and I think that’s something we have to learn from in all campaigning, that we do achieve more together, so I’m very optimistic about the future of the LGBT rights movement in this country, simply because it’s a very powerful force.”
Besides, Hunt will have more on her plate from now on. Though she will obviously keep campaigning and working on LGBT issues from the red benches, there are other issues she is keen to get stuck into. The NHS and palliative care is one of them. Hunt tragically lost her mother-in-law and father-in-law recently, which has given her both an interest and first-hand experience in the area.
She also cites issues around gender, race and disability as topics she is interested in, as well as education and higher education. Not that she is in a rush; at only 39, she is one of the youngest peers in the House of Lords, and happily admits that she doesn’t need to throw herself in right away.
“I certainly have taken to heart the message that has been communicated in different ways, that could be summarised as: talk less, smile more”, she says. “There’s a message in the Lords which is ‘come in when you really know what you’re talking about, be precise, be strategic about that’. There’s a lot to be gained by listening and learning and watching.”
It helps that she’s enjoying it; asked if anything has surprised her since taking her place in the House of Lords, she sings the praises of the working culture in the second chamber. “I wasn’t expecting how much expertise is respected,” she explains.
“I thought it would be a bit more tribal. There is genuine respect for people when they know something, regardless of where they are on those benches. It’s quite inspiring, really, that that’s been protected at a time when there seems to be a diminishing of respect for the role of expertise, and a denigration of the role of experts in all sorts of different polarised parts of the world. The Lords is almost a vanguard for maintaining that.”
Speaking of which, since leaving Stonewall, Hunt has also been using her own expertise away from the ermine. She set up Deeds And Words with her partner Caroline Ellis last year, and together they have been helping companies and government departments become more inclusive and innovative.
And on top of that, a collection of essays on the intersection of faith and the LGBT community she curated is coming out in May. Featuring “modern-day epistles” from Muslim drag queen Amrou Al-Kadhi, Rev. Winnie Varghese and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black among others, the book aims to explore what it means to be gay, bi and/or trans while religious.
Getting her to put it together made sense, as Hunt herself is a practising Catholic, and has been outspoken about the relationship between her faith and her sexuality in the past.
She even went a step further last year, and celebrated leaving Stonewall, joining the Lords and setting up Deeds And Words by getting tattooed in a Dalston parlour (how else?). The quote, “synne is behovabil but al shal be wel, and al shal be wel and al manner of thyng shal be wel” comes from 14th century book Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, the first ever writer in English known to be a woman.
Beyond the symbolism of it all, the quote seems fitting for Ruth Hunt, for whom everything does seem to be going rather well at the moment. Some in the House of Lords may raise an eyebrow at the first sight of a thirty-something woman strolling down its corridors wearing a tweed three-piece suit, but they will get used to it. All shall be well.
As we are about to finish the interview, one last question remains – as a Welsh woman, why be the Baroness of Bethnal Green? “Because I live in Bethnal Green and I go to church in Bethnal Green and I love it. Bethnal Green is full of waifs and strays finding their way in London and it’s one of my favourite places in the world.” And all shall be well.