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Oxford’s submission to Stonewall

We are pleased to announce that Michael Biggs, Associate Professor of Sociology at St Cross College, Oxford University, is joining the Sex Matters Board of Directors.

Professor Biggs has written this post, as well as a letter to Professor Louise Richardson, Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford, calling on the University to end its membership in Stonewall’s programme. Read the letter


The University of Oxford “has long been a proud member of the Stonewall Diversity Champions programme”. The University’s submission was rewarded in 2020 by a rank of 76 in Stonewall’s Top 100 Employers list. Oxford provides a case study of institutional penetration, illustrating the reach and impact of Stonewall in particular, and the diversity industrial complex in general.

As forensically dissected by Naomi Cunningham, a leading barrister and founding member of Sex Matters, Stonewall has devised a fiendishly clever system. Oxford pays a modest annual fee (£2,500+VAT per year) to belong to Stonewall’s programme, and submits to an annual audit by filling in a questionnaire known as the Workplace Equality Index. The University’s latest submission (obtained as a result of Cunningham’s #DontsubmittoStonewall campaign) fills 390 pages. The submission is then graded and ranked by Stonewall: “Your Stonewall Account Manager will organise a feedback meeting with you to talk through the strengths and weaknesses of your current LGBT inclusion work.” Response to this feedback will be scrutinized, of course, at the next annual audit. The programme is constructed to ratchet up compliance; organizations compete with each other to display greater obedience to Stonewall’s demands, and every year the demands become more onerous.

The annual audit naturally covers the organization’s policies. The Equality Act 2010 rightly outlaws discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender reassignment, but Stonewall does not wish simply to enforce the law. For example, Oxford’s Action Plan for its 2021 submission includes rectifying “gendered language used in the Maternity policy”, which is evidently deemed problematic: “Stonewall will provide examples of best practice in this area.” Indeed, Stonewall requires organizations to ignore the letter of the law. As one example, Oxford’s Equality and Diversity Unit defines sexual orientation as “a person’s emotional, romantic and/or sexual attraction to another person”. This peculiar circumlocution—omitting the defining criterion of sexual orientation, namely sex—is Stonewall’s. The Equality Act, by contrast, defines the protected characteristic as “a person’s sexual orientation towards (a) persons of the same sex, (b) persons of the opposite sex, or (c) persons of either sex”.

Stonewall’s audit goes far beyond policy. The organization must publicize “visible role models” in every one of the specified categories, including gay or lesbian, bisexual, binary transgender people, and non-binary people. Some letters are more equal than others: L and G together share one category, while T gets two categories. Stonewall emphasizes that “the person’s identity must be clear”: “It should not be left up to the reader or viewer to make assumptions.” What is privileged, in other words, is the person’s identity rather than their individual achievements or contributions to the organization’s mission. 

Alongside LGBTQ+ role models, Stonewall creates a novel identity: the LGBT+ Ally. Oxford paid Stonewall £6,000 to train 26 Allies in 2017; this training is now replicated within the University. Allies must “visibly signal their commitment to LGBT equality” by means of “email signatures, badges, lanyards and mugs”. Oxford thus provides specially designed badges with the “A proud LGBT+ Ally” logo plus preferred pronouns. Virtue-signalling, however, does not suffice. The audit needs to know what the Allies have achieved. As Stonewall notes tartly, “‘Helped organise’ here, refers to allies taking an active involvement in the planning and execution of events. It does not mean allies simply turning up to events.” Indeed, Stonewall’s Ally training makes every person pledge aloud to the rest of the group: “As an inclusive and active ally I am…and the one thing I commit to is….” One newly fledged Ally at Oxford, for example, committed to organize a training session from Gendered Intelligence (with consequences to be discussed below). Another “Invited the Chair and Trans representative of the LGBT+ Advisory group to a peer-mentoring group of women in physics/engineering to discuss how cis-gender women can become better allies to trans women and non-binary colleagues”. The Chair’s talk on LGBT+ 101 was featured in Oxford’s audit; one slide is reproduced here.

Stonewall requires the organization to enforce Stonewall’s doctrines on other organizations, too. One section of the audit covers “the steps taken to ensure LGBT inclusive suppliers are procured and held to account”. In this area, Oxford has evidently been remiss. Stonewall’s feedback on the 2018 audit (obtained through a Freedom of Information request) included this comment: “Pre-contract processes could be more explicit as to the level of scrutiny applied by the university to their potential providers, with clearer descriptions next year as to how this is done. Use Stonewall resources (and a possible lunch and learn with staff responsible for procurement) to advance this area.” Obediently, Oxford now plans to “Invite Stonewall to meet with the Finance team in charge of procurement over 100K to explore ways to strengthen the University’s approach”.

In sum, the Diversity Champions programme gives Stonewall a remarkable degree of control over the University of Oxford’s policies and operations. So what? Who could possibly object to more equality and diversity? The problem is that Stonewall’s mission is to install its own particular doctrine on gender as orthodoxy, which overrides the legal obligations of a publicly funded body and contradicts the particular mission of a university.

Stonewall’s doctrine conflicts with the obligation on public bodies to balance all protected characteristics specified by the Equality Act: not only sexual orientation and gender reassignment, but also sex and “religion or belief”. Let us take one example of the university’s duty to balance competing demands. Many, if not most, women are averse to sharing toilets with men. Many adherents of Judaism and Islam (and other religious traditions) object to sharing toilets with the opposite sex. The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 mandate separate toilets for men and for women. Stonewall, however, completely ignores these established rights. Indeed, one of its longstanding goals is the elimination of single-sex facilities. According to the 2021 audit, “guidance must make clear that all trans employees can use the facilities (e.g. toilets, changing rooms) they feel comfortable using.” Oxford’s Transgender Guidance (updated in 2018) already states that “People should be able to use toilet and changing facilities appropriate to their gender identity.” Oxford’s policy obviously violates the Workplace Regulations and the rights of women and religious minorities.

This would be a problem for any employer. The second problem is particular to universities because their fundamental mission is to pursue truth—which demands freedom of thought and discussion. The Education Act (No. 2) 1986 obliges universities “to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees”. Stonewall, however, aims to curtail that freedom. A well-known example is the persistent harassment of feminist historian Professor Selina Todd for publicly disagreeing with gender orthodoxy, including her exclusion from a conference at Oxford which she helped to arrange. Even more disturbing is what happened during a training session on Trans Awareness in 2019. This training was provided by Gendered Intelligence, as the result of a commitment by someone attending LGBT+ Ally training (as mentioned above). In an unprecedented step, the University agreed to impose a code of conduct for the training session, which included the injunction to “Refrain from using language or putting forward views intended to undermine the validity of trans and gender diverse identities”. One of the attendees asked some pointed questions at the end of the session, which reflected her disbelief in gender identity. After a complaint by Gendered Intelligence, she was subjected to a disciplinary investigation culminating in a charge of transphobic harassment. After several months and two hearings, she and I succeeded in getting this charge dismissed. However, the uncertainty of a protracted disciplinary process amounted to a kind of punishment—and this simply for questioning the orthodoxy promulgated by Gendered Intelligence and Stonewall. 

In conclusion, then, the University of Oxford’s submission to Stonewall contradicts its fundamental values and conflicts with its legal obligations, especially those established by the Education Act (No. 2) 1986 and the Equality Act 2010. It should be emphasized that Stonewall’s influence on Oxford is not nearly as pernicious as on other universities—compare the University of Edinburgh’s submission, analyzed by Naomi Cunningham. Moreover, the administrative burden and financial cost of submitting to Stonewall is less onerous for a wealthy institution like Oxford. For most British universities, by contrast, spending £6,000 to train two dozen staff has a significant budgetary impact. Over the six years from 2013/14 to 2018/19, for example, the University of Cardiff paid Stonewall a total of £77,000.

One final caveat: I am not arguing that Stonewall should be banished from the university sector. Stonewall articulates one significant perspective on gender, which held by many people who identify as transgender and by many younger lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Students and academics need to hear this perspective and understand it—and question it. They also need to hear other perspectives, as articulated for instance by the LGB Alliance and by Sex Matters. As the University of Oxford itself proclaims, “within the bounds set by law, all voices or views which any member of our community considers relevant should be given the chance of a hearing … and exposed to evidence, questioning and argument”.