Nancy Kelley: 'As an organisation we have lived through this before'

After a testing first year, Rebecca Cooney speaks to Nancy Kelley, chief executive of Stonewall, about why change can be the best way to honour a charity’s roots

Photograph by Colin Stout
Photograph by Colin Stout

Nancy Kelley joins the video call while wrestling open a large bag of Starburst, and proceeds to eat the multicoloured sweets throughout our 45-minute conversation.

The effect is instantly disarming. It also gives the impression of someone who is entirely relaxed about being interviewed, which comes as something of a surprise.

Stonewall, the charity for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and asexual people (LGBTQ+), which Kelley has led for just over a year, has spent much of that time in the media firing line; particularly over its stance on the rights of transgender people, with comments from Kelley herself often used to fuel further controversy.

And yet, she sees interviews as vital to her role. “It’s counterproductive for us to engage in lots of abstract debating, but really important that we keep engaging and talking about issues we know are critical to the LGBT community in a way people can hear and want to listen to,” she says. As examples, she points to the charity’s campaign to ban conversion therapy (practices that seek to “cure” certain sexual orientations or gender identities on the grounds that they are mental illnesses), or its work for more inclusive sex and relationship education in schools, which enjoy broad support in wider society.

A mainstream, reformist organisation

Having taken up the Stonewall baton in June 2020, Kelley describes her first year in post as “extraordinary on lots of levels” and “incredible to witness”. Like many leaders across the charity sector, she describes her amazement at the “resilience and talent and passion” of staff at Stonewall, and the organisations it works alongside, during the pandemic.

The coronavirus crisis has been kinder to the charity than to many others, Kelley is quick to acknowledge, describing “financial turbulence, rather than the kind of catastrophic, near-extinction loss others have had”. As with many charities, the move to working and delivering services online brought both difficulties and innovations for Stonewall.

But the past year has also been politically turbulent, particularly for an organisation focused on identity: something Kelley says “is being politicised in a way that it hasn’t been in a long time – whether that’s race, LGBTQ identity, the narrative around the idea of a ‘war on woke’ – it’s really heightened and really unhelpful.”

Yet Kelley’s vision of Stonewall is unashamedly grounded in protest and human rights. The organisation was founded in the late 1980s, specifically to protest against Section 28, the 1988 law that effectively forbade positive discussion of homosexuality in UK state schools. Its namesake is the landmark 1969 Stonewall uprising for gay rights in the US.

In May, the charity launched its new four-year strategy, (see boxout), which centred on notions of freedom, equity and potential. But even this elicited negative coverage, with the BBC running the headline: “Stonewall boss defends new strategy amid criticism”.

Much of the controversy linked to Stonewall can be traced back to its 2015 announcement that the charity would actively include trans people within its remit and campaigns, a conversation it described at the time as being “long overdue”.

The decision sparked a growing rumble of discontent among some members of the LGBTQ+ community, which formed one element of a long-running, complex and increasingly fraught global debate between supporters of transgender rights and people who hold so-called ‘gender-critical’ beliefs that biological sex cannot be changed. In 2019 a campaign group called the LGB Alliance, which seeks to advance the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people, was set up in opposition to Stonewall’s policies on trans rights; Stonewall was forced to deny newspaper reports that it had experienced a “split”. The LGB Alliance was awarded charitable status in May this year.

Much of the recent media coverage has portrayed Stonewall as radical or extreme in its stance, with The Times and other outlets accusing the charity of “bullying” or “coercing” companies by taking account of their attitude to trans rights when weighing up whether or not they should score a place on Stonewall’s Top 100 Workplace Equality Index. Matthew Parris, one of the 14 founders of Stonewall, wrote in The Times in May that he believed the charity had “lost its way” in its support for trans people.

Kelley, on the other hand, believes the charity is “returning to its roots as a solidarity-focused, inclusive movement”, and that before 2015 the charity had been considerably behind the times.

“By the time Stonewall took the decision to become a trans-inclusive organisation it was pretty much the only organisation in the LGBTQ+ sector that wasn’t,” she says.

And to an extent, she says, the recent furore is all part of “the specific experience” of being at Stonewall.

“We’re a pretty mainstream reformist organisation and we always have been: we’ve sort of chugged along for 30 years doing old-school lobbying, comms work, some research, some working with schools and workplaces,” she says.

“Then every so often we experience these extraordinary waves in terms of how we’re perceived or the way we’re presented in the wider environment.”

Previous "waves", she says, have peaked during Stonewall’s campaign to equalise the age of consent in the early 2000s, or at the height of the HIV crisis, all of which prompted “extraordinarily negative coverage around gay men and lesbians and the organisations that support them”.

“Once that subsided, we’d go back to chugging along being a mainstream reformist organisation again,” Kelley says.

Attitudes can go the other way too – after the right to same-sex civil partnerships was introduced in 2005 and then marriage equality was achieved in 2013, Stonewall had a period of “being seen as terribly fluffy and nice”, Kelley says, although the charity itself had not changed.

“And now we have the popularisation of anti-trans thinking, and again, we’re in a wave of press coverage about that, and here we are still chugging along through the middle,” she says.

Ultimately, Kelley says, “this is something the organisation has lived through before,” and it plans to simply stay focused on what its community needs and how it can help to achieve those goals.

“I think the big question for us at Stonewall today, as an intersectional organisation that cares about justice and human rights, is: who have we not served? Who was outside the Stonewall Inn, who was marching with the Gay Liberation Front in the UK but hasn’t benefitted from our advocacy over the years?” she says.

Kelley sees herself as having benefitted directly from the gains the LGBTQ+ community has made in the past half-century, driven in part by organisations such as Stonewall.

“But how well have we served LGBTQ+ people of colour, how well have we served disabled people in our community, or those who live in poverty, or trans people?”

The answer, she says, is: “Not nearly as well as we should have.”

Accountability to the community

What’s more, Kelley says, it is healthy for charities to change over time. She points to Barnardo’s, where she worked as a policy officer between 2003 and 2005 – a charity that started out running large-scale children’s homes, and now offers more than 400 different services all over the UK.

“As a charity our accountability is not to be [preserved] in aspic, it’s to keep looking at the community and asking what we got wrong and what we can do better,” she says.

It’s easy to forget organisational mission statements in the day-to-day running of a charity, she says, but something that stayed with her from her time at Barnardo’s was the charity’s principle of “working with hope”.

She says: “It was about hope that you would do better for the children and acknowledgement that you might have made mistakes in the past – and that really moves me.”

Inherent in that idea, Kelley says, is an acknowledgment that when you work in a charity you are accountable to your community.

“You will get things wrong and you will fail to include parts of the community or you will promote solutions that are bad for part of your community, but you will learn from those mistakes and, working with hope, you will keep trying again, you will do better, you will make different mistakes next time,” Kelley says.

“I see evolution as integral to what charities are, so I don’t find it surprising that Stonewall has evolved over three decades.”

And while ‘gender-critical’ lesbian, gay and bisexual people may disagree with Stonewall’s stance, Kelley says it is not the case that the organisation is failing to work on their behalf.

“At a really basic level, the majority of what Stonewall does is about the whole LGBT+ community,” she says, pointing to the charity’s inclusion activities in workplaces and its campaigns to ensure access to fertility treatment for lesbian and bisexual women, and access to surrogacy.

These things, she says, benefit all LGBTQ+ people, regardless of whether they are trans-inclusive in their own thinking or want Stonewall to be.

“For me, being accountable to the whole of the community is about delivering things that improve the position of the whole of the community,” Kelley says.

“That doesn’t mean also taking a position that is exclusive of the trans community because a minority of the LGB community would prefer that – those two things feel quite different to me.”

Two-way communications

It has undoubtedly been a difficult year for those working at Stonewall. In May, the charity’s head of media for Europe, Jeffrey Ingold, announced he was taking a year’s sabbatical – a result, he said, of the “immense personal toll” of the “tsunami of transphobia [and] hatred” directed at the organisation.

This is a risk Kelley is keenly aware of. The majority of Stonewall’s staff are LGBTQ+, and even at the best of times much of the charity’s advocacy work can mean they are interacting with people “who may have some unexamined attitudes or are sometimes actively very homophobic or discriminatory”.

Of course, the issue has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Normally, “being in community with each other, being able to put an arm around each other and being physically there to offer comfort is hugely protective”, she says.

The charity’s leadership teams are trying to maintain open two-way communication, with leaders checking in with their teams to assess what is happening and what support might be needed. The charity also runs professionally facilitated group supervision sessions to enable staff to talk openly about what they are experiencing.

But Kelley says: “Ultimately we protect people by moving society on a bit, as we have done in the past. As we become more inclusive, a bit kinder in our public conversation, the easier it will be for those working in the LGBT sector.”

Mental health is one of her key concerns for the wider LGBTQ+ community, as this is likely to be where the pandemic has the biggest impact on people the charity supports.

Even before the Covid-19 crisis, there was “catastrophically high mental health need” among the community, with LGBTQ+ children and adults experiencing twice the rates of mental health problems of cisgender and heterosexual people as a result of discrimination and exclusion.

The cutting of many social links during lockdown has intensified the need and, in some cases, left people in living situations that were unsafe either emotionally or physically.

“I worry enormously that our community has taken that hit, and the mental health conversation does not tend to focus on us or acknowledge that we are this vulnerable group, and certainly doesn’t put money into it,” Kelley says.

“The pandemic has been a horrendous experience for everybody, but there are some ways in which the underlying context for our community has made us particularly vulnerable, and that’s one of the reasons that there’s a big focus on mental health in our new strategy.”

Despite an increasing focus on the value of “lived experience” in the decision-making process within the charity sector in recent years, it is still relatively unusual to hear a chief executive using the word “we” to mean the people the charity serves, and not the organisation itself.

The alignment of Stonewall’s cause with Kelley’s own life was one of the things that attracted her to the chief executive role. She describes herself as “born and raised in the voluntary sector” and began her career in the disability movement, the sector that coined the maxim: “Nothing about us, without us, is for us”.

This, Kelley says, helped to shape her belief in “a sector that is centred in and led by, not exclusively but as often as possible, people who have that direct lived experience”.

She knew she wanted to lead a human rights charity, and Stonewall, she says, is the one that changed her life.

“I’m an adopter, mum to two kids and I have an American wife who can only live in this country because of rights that Stonewall and the LGBT community fought for,” she says. “So it’s very personal for me.”

And, she says, it’s the balance of those two things that have kept her going through the waves of the past year.

“The job really feeds me, even when things are personally challenging – I cannot tell you how many super-interesting, impressive, exciting people I get to meet, it’s mind-blowing,” she says.

The counterbalance to that, she says, is having “this personal world that is so rich and grounding and lovely and very different – my kids come home from school and they expect me to be their mum and, however hard a day I’ve had, my emotional centre of balance is with them”.

Grounding seems to be the right word. Kelley’s wife Jen – a brewer who previously worked in a bagel bakery, then as a horticulturist – “has all of the skills”, she says.

“I wouldn’t be much use in an apocalypse – I just have blathering out of my mouth and being a bit bossy,” she says. “Jen always says to me: ‘Well, people are always going to need someone to organise them.’”

Kelley considers this for a second before eating another Starburst.

“It’s meant in a really supportive way, but it’s also, as my kids would say, a bit of a sick burn,” she says with a grin.

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