The Middle Temple LGBTQ+ Forum debate
Artillery Row

Stonewall finally accept debate

Middle Temple made history with its LGBTQ+ forum

The Inns of Court may seem an odd location for a breakthrough in the gender wars. But the Hogwarts-like hall of the Middle Temple, where the first ever performance of Shakespere’s cross-dressing comedy Twelth Night took place, was this week host to another historic event. 

“No debate” has been the longstanding position of Stonewall since it took up the cause of overwriting sex with by self-identified gender. It has refused all invitations to take part in discussion with those who disagree with its “trans women are women” position.

So when on Tuesday night Stonewall CEO Nancy Kelley spoke alongside Naomi Cunningham, Chair of Sex Matters, and answered questions from members of the LGB Alliance, history was made. 

The stewards of the centuries-old bastion of the legal profession are made of upright stuff

The debate was about Stonewall’s new campaign, against “conversion therapy”. Stonewall argue that there is an urgent need for a new criminal offence, despite there being no evidence that old and barbaric practices of gay conversion are making a come-back in the UK. 

Why the urgency?  Barrister Naomi Cunningham pointed out Stonewall (and the government) has included in the definition of conversion therapy not only efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation but also efforts to change whether a person is trans.  These things are quite different: 

Being gay or bisexual isn’t a medical condition. It doesn’t require treatment. We can all agree that practices that try to change people’s sexual orientation are wrong and futile. 

Gender dysphoria sufficiently severe to make you seek radical alterations to your healthy body undoubtedly is a medical condition. There are two clues. The word: dysphoria – profound unease or dissatisfaction. And the demand for medical treatment.

The proposed law would make it a criminal offence for a therapist or other professional to try to encourage a child who has declared themself trans to feel comfortable about their sex instead of putting them on puberty-blocking drugs.

It would also enable a disgruntled patient, whose doctor had declined to give them the desired diagnosis to get a Gender Recognition Certificate, to initiate a criminal investigation for abuse of their gender identity. 

The government is currently running a blink-and-you-will-miss-it six week consultation on the legislation (we are asking people to write to the MPs calling for the government to #presspause)

So every opportunity to debate is precious. Barrister Naomi Cunningham was a late addition to the event, after some Middle Templars, including members of the “EllGeeBeeTeeQueueCommunitee” (in Nancy Kelley’s smoothly practised phrase — lesbians  in old money) argued that Stonewall’s position did not represent them and should not be the only view presented. 

In response to the new line-up 100 barristers, pupil barristers and law students anonymously “signed” a letter of protest calling for Ms Cunningham to be de-platformed. 

But the stewards of the centuries-old bastion of the legal profession are made of upright stuff, and the event went ahead. Ms Cunningham told the assembled barristers and barristers-in training: 

Debate informed by evidence is how we test ideas and proposals: if they’re any good, they’ll stand up to being poked with pointed questions. If they don’t stand up to being poked, they’re no good. This idea underpins our whole profession. 

The discussion, ably chaired by Robin Allen QC, and also featuring Jayne Ozanne, an evangelical Christian who spoke about trying to deny her sexual orientation for 20 years, unfolded in a refreshingly grown-up way with questions being asked and answered. 

One question came from Kate Harris, previously a Stonewall Ambassador and now co-founder of the breakaway LGB Alliance. She highlighted that the proposed law would for the first time put the concept of gender identity into legislation and asked “how can you base good law on a feeling rather than a fact?” … “We don’t have to use the word gender identity” said Nancy Kelley “we could use person language like trans and non-binary people”. 

Stonewall’s CEO, dressed in papal purple, avoided further debate

Allison Bailey, a barrister suing Stonewall for victimisation also asked a question “How are you going to stop lesbians being harassed to accept transgender males into their dating pool when you are comparing lesbians to racists and anti Semites? It is coercion” 

Nancy Kelley looked uncomfortable and replied “We are talking about two separate things: lesbian sexuality and who people date…I don’t think it is relevant to how we provide protection to young adults.”

The audience was split between those giving applause to Ms Cunningham when she called medicating same-sex attracted young people to stop them going through puberty “modern conversion therapy” and to Ms Ozanne when she made an apology to the trans community for Ms Cunningham being there at all. But over drinks and dinner the audience discussion was cordial and animated. Barristers and their guests, from all sides, explored the issues.  Nancy Kelley dressed in papal purple sat at the top table away from further debate and resolutely swerved any discussion other than small talk about her pets (she has fish, dogs and lizards), or burnishing Stonewall’s laurels for its assistance in evacuating Afghan refugees. 

The debate must surely go on; where organisations seek to change the law, or influence public policy they should be exposed to public debate and scrutiny. The Middle Temple has shown leadership and courage in holding this debate. More institutions should follow their lead.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover