A nonbinary philosopher’s perspective on the cis philosophers’ letter

I am writing as a non-binary philosopher working in the UK. While my gender is not a total secret, I am usually not very public about being non-binary. The first time I tentatively included my pronouns in an academic article, I quickly received anonymous transphobic and homophobic emails telling me that that I should hang myself. I did not feel able to go to the police about this and I did not know which colleagues would be safe to talk to. Given this, even at the best of times I am not very open about being non-binary even with colleagues and friends. I am writing anonymously to avoid further harassment.

The following is how I experienced the unfolding of events leading up to and around the recent UK philosophers’ open letter regarding Kathleen Stock and academic freedom. I am detailing this as I suspect it will help cis colleagues understand the experiences of trans students and colleagues in UK philosophy, at least some of whom may feel similarly. I think it’s important for cis philosophers to understand how the letter, and the message it sends, will affect at least some trans students and colleagues in, or in a position to apply to, UK philosophy departments.

The events as I experienced them can be — roughly, as there is some temporal overlap — broken down into eight key stages:

Stage 1: For a number of years, I have seen Professor Kathleen Stock of the University of Sussex arguing for ‘gender critical’ views in a series of blogs and articles in the right-wing press. These articles and blogs focused around changes to the Gender Recognition Act, but also appeared to spread misleading views about what was actually involved in this act, and was publicly criticised by trans philosophers for failing to meet minimal scholarly standards. Christa Peterson has argued that, both on her twitter account, and in her writing, Stock consistently appealed to transphobic tropes, and shared news articles which did the same.

Stage 2: Over a similar period, I watched as Stock and Adam Tickell, Vice Chancellor of The University of Sussex, were alleged to have used their positions to silence trans students or allies who raised concerns about Stock. It has been claimed that this involved getting a student newspaper article written by a University of Sussex undergraduate taken down by threatening legal action for defamation. The details of these allegations (some more serious than others) have recently been gathered here and are discussed here).

Stage 3: More recently, Stock became a trustee of a group many LGBT people see as a hate group. She also signed a declaration, produced by another group, that is widely seen as committing to either severely diminishing or simply abolishing trans rights. This was surprising, since in her published work, Stock has said that she is in favour of trans and non-binary people receiving protection under the 2010 equality act, while the declaration seems to call for the ending of protection for trans people under this act.

Stage 4: In response to the previous stages, a small group of trans students and allies organised a peaceful protest specifically to point out that they are unsafe and to call for Stock to be fired. One student there clarified that they recognise firing is “a stretch”, but that “even just an apology or even any kind of accountability from the university would be good”. In response, Adam Tickell quickly released a statement that framed the protest as an attack on Stock’s academic freedom. His statement wholly failed to acknowledge the worries of trans students. Following this, University College Union branch at Sussex released its own statement in solidarity with trans students. It explicitly did not endorse calls for Stock (or anyone) to be fired, but it also suggested that Tickell had let trans students down, and called for an urgent investigation into “the ways in which institutional transphobia operates at our university and diminishes the democratic rights and freedoms of some of its most vulnerable members”.

Stage 5: As ever, UK journalists and politicians, (misleadingly, Grace Lavery argues) portrayed the peaceful protest as a sinister threat to academic freedom and as a ‘mob’. Broadsheet portrayals could be interpreted as giving the impression that the protest is about Stock’s research or views on the metaphysics of gender. This was despite the students being clear that it is not about her research and there being no evidence provided for the media portrayal of the peaceful protestors being a threatening mob.

Step 6: Following the media coverage, a great many (surely well-meaning) senior (and, as far as I know, cisgendered) UK philosophers signed an open letter defending Stock’s right to academic freedom, and congratulating Adam Tickell in particular on his staunch defence of her. In other words, it wholly sided with the very institution and individuals that critics allege to have silenced trans students and allies who — as far as the evidence suggests — have voiced legitimate concerns about transphobia in a lawful way. The letter also failed to defend (or even mention) the infringement of the academic freedom of trans individuals, which is arguably a much more pervasive and urgent issue.

Stage 7: Shortly after the open letter, Stock resigned from her professorship at Sussex. She cited “bullying and harassment” over the past few years as the reason for this. This event was described as a ‘victory for the bullies and anti-intellectuals’ and as a ‘crisis for free speech’ in the British press. By and large Stock had extremely sympathetic press, including time on Women’s Hour, while the allegations against Stock and Tickell still went largely unreported.

Stage 8: Shortly after her resignation, Stock announced that she was in fact taking up a new post anyway, at the newly formed University of Austin (an institution which self-identifies as a university), alongside various other conservative commentators and academics.

To be absolutely clear, I am not saying that everyone should agree with this interpretation of events. My aim is to help others understand a different perspective, not to attempt to convince them to agree with it. While not all trans and nonbinary people will feel similarly to me, I suspect that a great many do feel roughly the same. With this in mind, I worry that not everyone signing the letter was sufficiently informed about the various allegations noted here, or of the potential effect the letter could have.

I include several caveats before I go on.

I have never thought that Stock should simply be fired. She should certainly not be disciplined in any way for her academic work. Personally, I understand the protesters as calling for an investigation into the allegations regarding Stock and Tickell, as well as more general institutional failings, not as a call to simply fire Stock with no due process. I would oppose the protest if I believed that they were calling for Stock to be fired without due process. I am also, appalled by the harassment Stock has experienced online and offline, from people who are, so far as I know, not the students protesting her. No academic (or person) should be subjected to harassment or threats on the basis of their research, views, or political activism.

I do not have a strong opinion on Stock’s academic work, and, like the students protesting, do not see her academic work as something to protest or be worried about.

Finally, I was saddened to hear that Stock felt she must quit her job, in part because I have never wanted Stock to feel uncomfortable in her place of employment, but also because I worry that with Stock and Tickell leaving at roughly the same time (Tickell is imminently moving to the University of Birmingham), it may be harder to properly investigate the various allegations noted above.

For those who take standpoint epistemology even remotely seriously, I think it is incredibly important to recognise that at least some trans and nonbinary students and colleagues will have experienced these events unfolding in a way that is, to varying extents, similar to my own experience. By the same token, it is also important to recognise that the open letter was at least mainly (possibly completely, although I don’t know for sure) signed by cis philosophers who will not have direct, situated knowledge of how transphobia operates. Unless I am wrong and the letter was mainly written by trans philosophers, it would be accurate to refer to it as the cis philosophers’ letter.

On the issue of taking epistemic standpoints seriously, it is particularly striking that John Collins, the cis philosopher who organised the cis philosophers’ letter, recently wrote of Stock’s critics both that “I consider the other ‘side’ to be non-serious. I just don’t believe anything they say” and that “I honestly haven’t a clue what the other ‘side’ mean”. If he does not have a clue what trans individuals and allies mean, it is not surprising that he struggles to take us seriously; but in this case it is odd that he considered himself qualified to organise the cis philosophers’ letter.

With all this in mind: the key reason I decided to write this regards the significant damage this letter signed by many well-meaning colleagues may have caused. First, it frames Stock alone as the one in need of defence from threats to academic freedom, and explicitly endorses Tickell, while failing to mention the arguably much more serious threats to trans students, academics, and allies whose views are allegedly being suppressed. It therefore sends a message that support is for cis academic freedom only. Importantly, this also takes place in a broader context of rising authoritarianism around the world, a key direct target of which has been not just trans individuals, but also gender studies departments and gender theory. In the best possible interpretation, to many trans individuals, the publication of the cis philosophers’ letter at this time communicates that a great many senior UK philosophers are not remotely equipped to comment on trans issues, and that many may be ignorant of how transphobia operates.

Overall, the letter may also thereby send the message that trans students and colleagues will not be supported (as their concerns will not even be understood) and may not be welcome or safe (especially in departments where many senior staff signed). Again: I do not think that any of this was intended by most of those who signed individually, but I do think that this is the message that the cis philosophers’ letter will send, nonetheless. After all, it would have been easy to demand freedom and protection for both Stock and for the trans and non-binary students or allies, since both sides claim to be being intimidated and silenced by the other. But the letter did not do this. Rather, regardless of the letter’s caveat that not everyone who signed agrees with all of Stock’s philosophical views, it unambiguously took the side of Stock and Tickell. In other words, it took the side of the precise people accused by the other side of undermining attempts at safe, free, and open academic debate.

If nothing is done to rectify this, and if those well-intentioned philosophers who signed the letter are not able to acknowledge how the letter may contribute to an unwelcoming environment for trans and nonbinary individuals in UK philosophy departments, I am worried that trans and nonbinary students and colleagues will no longer feel safe or supported in UK philosophy departments, perhaps for many years to come. I worry that this will have significant consequences for their mental health, their studies, their careers, and in the long run for UK philosophy. I worry that graduate students will drop out, and that undergraduates will feel unable to come to class or confide in their tutors. And I worry that UK philosophy departments may become even less diverse as a consequence.

If we are to have a genuinely open and free academic debate — which is precisely what many trans activists are calling for — we must defend the rights and freedoms of everyone.