Are academics freely able to criticise the idea of ‘gender identity’ in UK Universities?

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  • When I contacted my University’s head of HR to discuss emails from trans activist students that I found intimidating, I received no response to my email.
  • The academic responsible for “teaching and learning” assured students in my department that they would not have to be taught by me if they disagreed with my views.
  • My department decided to establish a postgraduate programme in gender and queer studies. I was asked to teach on this. I asked for an open discussion about the programme’s title and focus, in order to consider sex as well as gender, and that not all teaching staff are uncritical of ‘queerness’. This request was refused.
  • Together with a small group of colleagues I asked for and received a meeting with the head of the equality and diversity unit and the head of HR to discuss our concerns that the University’s transgender policy conflicted with the institution’s commitment to academic freedom. We also raised specific instances of harassment and intimidation, in my case from students setting up a Facebook petition calling for me to be disciplined/sacked and emails from students purporting to represent the larger student body. We were told they would look into it and get back to us within 2 months. That was 5 months ago and we have heard nothing.
  • When an article about my ‘transphobia’ appeared in a student newspaper my employer wrote a press release which sought to distance themselves from my views. I had to threaten legal action to have the content of the release changed.
  • On discovering that candidates for students’ union roles were making manifesto pledges to have me sacked, I complained to my employer that I was experiencing bullying and harassment and asked that these candidates be spoken to about appropriate behaviour. This request was refused on the grounds that ‘an election isn’t the right time’.”

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  • XXX was student union LGBT+ officer here. Called women not willing to countenance sex with XX’s penis “cuntscum” and called for their expulsion from the university. University did nothing, citing independence of student union. Did seem to manage to lean on XXX [same officer] and the union once XXX [same officer] hoped that police would “die”, though — so not as independent as all that, when it mattered.
  • Rector of the university retweeted something about a parliamentary information meeting — which I had already urged my MP to attend — and attracted a storm of protest. Instead of supporting her perfectly civil free speech, a university spokesperson made a statement including that the university had “zero tolerance for transphobia”. I wrote to the (then new) Principal of the University supporting her and pointing out that although the university’s actual policies were (and are) pretty sensible, the meaning of “transphobia” is so contested and in some people’s eyes so broad that that was a really unfortunate way to summarise the university’s position, especially as XXXX [member of University receiving protests] hadn’t said anything remotely objectionable. I got a brush-off reply from him. Conclusion: the principal of the university doesn’t get it, and doesn’t robustly support free speech.
  • The same principal made a pronouncement about coming down hard on anyone leaving “Woman. Noun. Adult human female” stickers on university premises, suggesting that CCTV footage could be used to support disciplinary action against staff or students doing that — he even said the police had been involved. OK, stickering is vandalism and it’s fine for the university not to tolerate it, but a more sensible principal would have made it symmetric, applying to e.g. “some women have penises get over it” stickers as well.
  • The students’ union is running a campaign called No Terfs on our Turf. Apparently, the use of the derogatory term “terf” has been raised with the university-level equality and diversity committee, but it is considered to be covered by free speech. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of derogatory words for other groups, similarly frequently used to incite violence against members of the groups, that would never be permitted to be in the title of student union campaigns and on banners on university premises. I’ll refrain from listing them.
  • The university did host and stick with the recent Women’s Sex-Based Rights panel — very good.
  • A member of staff at the university reported on Twitter having contacted HR to complain about other members of staff who signed your recent Sunday Times letter — there was a link to the email asking whether HR were going to take action against them. Tweet seems to have gone now. I hope HR have told this person where to stick this complaint? I’m not sure, though. I had been regretting not having seen an invitation to sign it — not so sure now.

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Current doctoral student

Former student

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Professor of Philosophy, University of Sussex.

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Kathleen Stock

Kathleen Stock

Professor of Philosophy, University of Sussex.

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