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Baroness Ruth Hunt on quitting Stonewall and being ‘way too young’ for House of Lords

Exclusive: "I didn’t want to be a professional gay anymore"

By Charlotte Manning

Ruth Hunt
Ruth Hunt was asked to become a Baroness aged 39 (Image: Markus Bidaux)

With the average age of House of Lords members currently at 71, it’s no surprise that Ruth Hunt — Baroness Hunt of Bethnal Green — felt “way too young” when she received the call to become a Life Peer at just 39. 

Hunt, who is publicly gay, was nominated for the role in 2019 by Theresa May in her Prime Minister’s Resignation Honours. It came just months after Hunt stepped down from a five-year role as CEO at Stonewall. She had joined the charity in 2005, shortly after civil partnerships were made legal, and the transgender law group Press For Change successfully campaigned for the Gender Recognition Act. Both came into effect that same year.

During her 14 years at Stonewall, she fought to “change hearts and minds”, tackling issues including homophobic bullying in schools and making effective interventions to improve the health of lesbian, gay, and bi people.

She resigned “after a growing protest by leading gay and lesbian supporters against her stance on promoting transgender rights”, according to the Sunday Times. However, in a very fancy room in the House of Lords, she tells me: “It’s not as simple as that. I’d already done nine years, and then I did five years as CEO. There was a bit of me that thought: ‘This needs a new way of thinking.’” 

It’s easy to forget quite how dramatically the UK’s political landscape changed between 2014 and 2019. “When I was CEO, we had Theresa May in power, Justine Greening was our equalities minister, we had Margot James on the benches, Amber Rudd, David Cameron brought in same-sex marriage. There was a much more generous response to LGBT inclusion in all its forms.”

“Then I got a call asking: ‘Do you want to be a Baroness?’” 

But Hunt saw it change quickly post-Brexit. “I felt that I wasn’t the CEO to lead an organisation at that time and that it needed something else. It’s fair to say that the anti-trans rhetoric, that to my mind was always anti-LGB as well, became louder. Not necessarily bigger, but louder than we had anticipated. I just thought I wasn’t the person to lead it anymore.” 

While commitments from inside the government to the community remained fairly stable, with then-PM May standing firm on reforming the Gender Recognition Act, Hunt recalls: “I thought, ‘I’m too tired to do this well.’ I concluded there were better people who should take that role. It’s important, as leaders, to know when to get out of the way. I didn’t want to be one of those people who hung on for a long time becoming the problem. I don’t know whether that was the right thing to do or not.”

Ruth Hunt outside the Houses of Parliament
Ruth Hunt quit as CEO of Stonewall back in 2019 (Image: Markus Bidaux)

But she was also “very clear that I didn’t want to be a professional gay anymore” when she made her decision to exit. “There were 14 years where my identity became my professional identity. There’s a kind of, ‘Who am I?’ I was also aware that it needed a different kind of leadership, and I wanted a quieter role. But I didn’t anticipate the House of Lords.”

Our day together is set to involve an afternoon immersed in the Lords, alongside a meeting with Hunt and partner Caroline Ellis’s company Deeds and Words, which today sees them talking “values” with the London Fire Brigade’s communications team. 

“It’s fair to say that the anti-trans rhetoric, that to my mind was always anti-LGB as well, became louder”

Hunt and Ellis fell for each other after working closely together for years at Stonewall. Meeting in the late 00s, they collaborated on vital projects such as the NHS LGBT Leadership Programme as well as separate programmes for role models and allies. Their relationship was the reason that Ellis made the difficult decision to leave Stonewall several years ago. Hunt says: “It was around 2016 we realised that we had feelings [for each other]. Caroline’s very ethical, right, you get that vibe from her. She said: ‘We need to talk to the board about this.’ [At this point], we haven’t even snogged, nothing’s even happened. [But Caroline said] it changed the power dynamic, and we’ve got to be aware of power. The board said: ‘Yeah, you can’t work together.’” 

Caroline subsequently set up Deeds and Words as a sole practitioner, with Hunt joining after leaving Stonewall. Together they work to build inclusive cultures within some of the UK’s biggest organisations. Hunt continues: “I really missed working with Caroline. I wanted to do some quieter influencing [that’s] less reliant on a heroic leadership model. Stonewall at the time — and I probably got it wrong — required a heroic leader. Everything was on my shoulders, and the organisation’s success and failure was on my shoulders. I wanted a different kind of leadership role. So, Caroline said: ‘You’re ready to give up being a head girl. We’re going to be in partnership together as a collaborative act,’ and then I got a call asking: ‘Do you want to be a Baroness?’” 

“Here I am [in the House of Lords]: ‘Well, she’s gay, but she’s a Baroness.’”

The concept of being ‘head girl’ is something that’s clearly remained consistent in Hunt’s incredible trajectory. She was president of Oxford University Student Union and has always enjoyed the sense of safety that being on top brings. “I thought that people would go: ‘Oh my God, she’s gay, but she’s head girl.’ I wanted it to be something else that someone would see. Here I am [in the House of Lords]: ‘Well, she’s gay, but she’s a Baroness.’ I’ve not outgrown that way of operating. ‘She’s gay, but someone must think she’s good because she’s in the House of Lords.Someone must think she’s good because she’s president of Oxford University Student Union.’” 

Yet saying yes to being an actual Baroness wasn’t an easy decision. “My first thought was: ‘I’m way too young. I’m not ready,’” Hunt recalls. “There’s something about this place that really values experience and the gravitas that comes with that experience. At that stage, I was 39. I [felt I was] not ready to do this. My decision [after Stonewall] was to go into business with Caroline because I really missed working with Caroline. We’d worked together for so long, and it wasn’t convenient to fall for each other at all.”

This work is kept separate from her contributions in the House of Lords, but she says the two roles complement each other nicely. I sit inside the chamber during the afternoon’s oral questions, which include asking His Majesty’s Government when they expect to publish the report of the independent review into the impact on military veterans of the pre-2000 ban on homosexuality. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak makes an apology for those who suffered due to the ban that same afternoon. 

“Part of what this House values is that deep expertise, so I feel that’s something I should deploy”

Throughout the day, Hunt points out that she feels she sticks out due to her youth — as well as her sexuality — within the House. “I worry more about being judged than I actually am, right. But also, I’m not just gay, I mean, I’m a proper dyke. I wear three-piece suits and ties… I’m not shying away from it! There are some lovely, lovely people here who go ‘I love that tie,’ or ‘Where did you get your tailoring?’ You charming hereditary peer, you lovely boy. There is a very real awareness across the House.” From what I’ve observed, she’s right. 

We see this in action during the afternoon’s last questions, which focus on how “recent developments” have brought into question the appointments system used in the House of Lords. I’m left quite surprised, in a way, by how open and routine these sorts of conversations are. “The opposition bench says there are two things that are problematic here that we can’t do anything about: our size, and how people are appointed,” Hunt explains. 

Ruth Hunt
‘Part of what this House values is that deep expertise, so I feel that’s something I should deploy’ (Image: Markus Bidaux)

“There is absolute awareness here that something needs to be done. The House of Lords is a significantly misunderstood institution. [From] the work that’s done, you get a piece of legislation. It’s not our role to say ‘We don’t like that legislation’ or ‘We like it.’ That’s not it. Our role is to look at it and go ‘That’s not going to work; that bit there is not going to work.’” 

“[There was] no gay soc in school or anything like that”

Brought up in Wales, Hunt came out to her best friend as a young teenager by telling them she fancied girls. That was as far as it went for a while. “I just found it impossible to not say that. I wasn’t ashamed of it, and I didn’t think there was anything particularly wrong with it.” But there was next to no gay scene in Cardiff.

“There was one pub in Cardiff. No internet. There was a gay section in Cardiff Library which was my lifeline. [There was] no gay soc in school or anything like that, so it was a very isolating experience. When all the messages consciously and subconsciously are that being gay is wrong… It’s taken me until I was older to acknowledge that has an impact. You can be quite defiant about it, but it leaves a mark. I spent quite a long time proving that I was capable despite my sexuality, not because of it. It took me a while to rewire that,” she admits. 

She came out to her parents when she was 16, after a move to Birmingham. They were both “really worried” after she confided in them about her sexuality. “They’d always been outwardly very inclusive, you know, gave me books and stuff, but were really scared. My mum went to university late; my dad didn’t go to university at all. They were just so worried that my life would be much harder.”

Her parents advised her not to come out, looking at it as a “phase that would pass”. She was told statements like: “You can’t change your mind once other people know.” She says, “That was the fear. It had quite a profound impact on me.”

“[My parents] were just so worried that my life would be much harder.”

Something else that left its mark in more recent times was Twitter. Hunt tells the story of coming away from the social media app for good after having “pretty intense abuse” thrown in her direction. “It just wasn’t helping me judge properly,” she says. “There’s nothing served if you try to resolve these issues via social media. The algorithms, the way in which tech is geared up, don’t want you to resolve it.” 

Hunt points out how we’d undoubtedly all benefit from using social media in a smarter way. “The machine responds to what we feed it. I thought, ‘I just don’t want to be feeding it anymore. I don’t need to be part of this because it’s not achieving anything.’ I’ve never convinced anyone on Twitter, and I’ve never been convinced by anything on Twitter, so why would I expect it to work? I can find out about what people think about Succession in other ways. I just thought, ‘I don’t need this in my life.’”

It makes sense that she sees in-person conversations as vital to developing her work in the Lords. Through “safe and non-judgemental” discussions with her peers, she can get people “in the right place at the right time, at the right moment”. She sees one of her key roles as being a convener of people “who want to do something about this stuff but don’t have time to understand it”. Hunt definitely has the expertise, experience and understanding of LGBTQ+ issues. “Part of what this House values is that deep expertise, so I feel that’s something I should deploy.”

“I’ve never been convinced by anything on Twitter, so why would I expect it to work?”

This came to the forefront earlier this year after the UK government attempted an order under section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998 preventing the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill from proceeding to Royal Assent. “We were able to get a briefing out to allies on that very, very quickly and help different people across all Houses. Being a crossbencher means I work assiduously with every single side, really helping people understand the facts, not telling them what to conclude about those facts. It was so complicated and needed quick translation.”

The topic at the top of her list moving forward is surrogacy. “It’s going to be a big theme for me because the Law Commission has recommended reform of surrogacy law, and that hasn’t been picked up here yet. It needs to be, really. That will have a huge impact on lots of gay men who are wanting to start families. So that’s on my mind.”

She concludes: “What’s odd about this place is the pace. Things are much slower. When I first started, I was like, ‘[claps hands] Right, come on, we’re gonna do this. We’re gonna do this. We’re gonna do this,’ and [peers] were like, ‘Yeah, could do.’ Partly, it’s because we don’t work in terms. In the House of Commons, there’s a real five-year energy to everything. But this is a lifetime, right?”