An Academic Conference in the Age of Gender
‘Thinking Beyond: Transversal Transfeminisms’, a one day conference in July 2019 at the University of Roehampton was advertised as a response to ‘a series of attacks against the experiences and identities of trans people’ from the ‘Trump administration’s aggressive policing of trans soldiers in the military, to rampant transphobia in the UK’s feminist circles arising from the recent consultation about the Gender Recognition Act.’ At this critical juncture, the conference explained, ‘the divisive threat of trans exclusive radical feminism is once again upon us.’ ‘Trans-exclusive radical feminism’, commonly shortened to the acronym ‘TERF’, is widely used as a term of abuse and associated with threats of violence online. So I was surprised to find the term in a conference that had received funding from ‘the Spanish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities, the European Regional Development Fund, and the Spanish Research Agency.’ Nevertheless the conference was billed as ‘an attempt at generating dialogue across discursive borders’ and I was keen to attend — not least because I’m interested in the history of gender: I have published on sex change narratives in twentieth century fiction, have a chapter in press on ‘gender identity’ workbooks and have also written on Michael Dillon, arguably the first British transsexual. Roehampton is also where I taught for almost thirty years.
On the face of it, then, I should find a common interest with the Trans Studies Network, set up by post graduates working on the history of gender within my old department: ‘The network’, they explain, ‘is open to transgender, cisgender and otherwise academics, the only requirement is an ongoing interest in trans theory’. But I had also signed the two public letters supporting academic freedom to debate gender (one in the Guardian in October 2018 and another in the Sunday Times in June 2019). So sending off my £25 for the day felt like a bit of a test case.
In response came an email ‘laying out the security system we have put in place with the aid of the University’s Senior Management so that everyone is safe on the day’ together with a request for permission to share the names of delegates ahead of the event ‘so that you all know who will be in attendance.’ An accompanying letter set out some ground rules:
Given the hostility and even hate speech that this theme has aroused in some quarters, and the disruption that other conferences have experienced, I want to assure you that your mental and physical wellbeing is of the utmost importance to us, and to outline some of the security measures that will be in place during the conference. First, security staff have been carefully briefed, and will be on hand in the conference room and outside it, in case of disruption. Hate speech, harassment or discrimination will not be tolerated. Secondly, we have been advised to make a video-recording of the proceedings for safeguarding purposes. This will be done as unobtrusively as possible, and will not be distributed in any way. Once the conference has passed without incident, the recording will be erased.
Roehampton had good reason to be anxious. In September 2017, Maria MacLachlan was assaulted by a trans activist at Speakers Corner as she waited to attend a feminist meeting about the implications of proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act. In May 2019, a speaker withdrew from the University College London ‘Trans Studies, Trans Lives’ conference after being misgendered by security staff. In June 2019, Julie Bindel ‘was verbally abused, “lunged at” and almost “punched in the face”, by a transwoman’ as she left a conference in Edinburgh. (If you spot an asymmetry in these examples — the physical violence suffered by gender-critical women as against the violence of misgendering — that’s because I couldn’t find examples of physical assault on a trans person at a conference.)
The saddest development was that the students from the Trans Studies Network were no longer willing to take part. In May they’d been excited: ‘we have an amazing range of speakers on trans issues and a round table chaired by us!’ But on 25th July the network were ‘ sad to announce we have pulled out of co-organising the Transversal Transfeminisms conference at Roehampton next week due to a disagreement in conference organisation practices.’
On the day I was chaperoned by sociologist Michael Biggs, who shares my interest in the history of gender. As it happened, we could only make the afternoon sessions but there were surprises in store even so. At the conference reception we were offered lanyards containing three name badges: our names against a red, yellow or green background.
A notice explained that ‘This conference is operating a traffic light communication system. Name lanyards can be used to indicate the level of communication you wish to have with other delegates.’ Green meant that ‘I wish to speak with other delegates and welcome you to approach.’ Yellow told others ‘I will approach you if I wish to speak’ and Red: ‘I do not wish to speak with other delegates’. The women’s toilets (but not the men’s) had been hastily renamed ‘Gender Neutral’.
The conference was sparsely attended (we counted 16 delegates) and there were plenty of spare seats but even so the first empty seat I approached was taken according to the neighbouring occupant. (In fact it stayed empty until I left). Shortly afterwards (in what was no doubt an unrelated incident) inarticulate sounds of distress were heard outside the door and the conference organizer asked the security man sitting at the back to go out to check.
All just housekeeping, of course. What about the difficult theoretical issues that the conference set out to address? And what would transversal theory turn out to mean in this context? I can only report on the final session (‘Identity 2’) because proceedings had been rescheduled due to the last-minute cancellation by the opening keynote speaker. In ‘Who gets to be a feminist?’, Cheryl Morgan offered a history of the co-existence of trans and feminist organizing. The first slide presented Kathleen Stock as an example of hate speech and biological essentialism. A slide on the work of Sheila Jeffreys had to be hastily skipped to avoid offence. The key question was why a transphobic agenda had been more successful in the UK than anywhere else. Answers included the power of the London/Oxford bubble, the influence of class especially of the landed gentry and the role of crowdfunding in enabling the covert transfusion of funds from the alt right. Things were made worse by the infiltration of the seats of power by rad fem biological essentialism.
This genuinely interesting question took up much of the question time. I ventured the thought that the politics of the ‘backlash’ was a little more complicated than the speaker had suggested. As I saw it, it was inaccurate to identify women such as Ruth Serwotka or Judith Green, longstanding trade unionists who had founded Woman’s Place UK, as members of the landed classes. Nor could Woman’s Place be described as ‘trans exclusionary’ since they regularly platform transwomen such as Debbie Hayton and Krystina Harrison (and have weathered the controversy this decision has brought with it). I was unpersuaded that Kathleen Stock was a biological essentialist and was skeptical that the seats of power had been infiltrated by rad fems. It seemed more likely to me that some women influential in the media had been at university during the heyday of second-wave feminism and were therefore somewhat allergic to the gender stereotyping (not to mention the creepy vibe) of images like that used by Morgan to represent the ideal relationship between trans and ‘cis’ women:
My question didn’t go down well: one of the delegates turned round to offer what I can only describe as a ‘hate stare’ and to tell me that ‘Trans Exclusive Radical Feminism’ is neither radical nor feminist. After this session I made my excuses and left, with Biggs providing a rearguard.
As academic conferences go, this was decidedly sad. Morgan’s presentation, complete with twitter memes, seemed to me to be even more ignorant about the trans history it claimed to represent than I was able to point out at the time. To identify the landed gentry as the cause of resistance to trans liberation is to forget the 1967 Scottish inheritance case of John A.C Forbes-Sempill v The Hon. Ewan Forbes-Sempill. And the Oxford part of Morgan’s ‘Oxford/London bubble’ has been the site of some landmark events in trans history: Michael Dillon was educated at the Oxford Society of Home Students (later St Anne’s) and provided with a retrospective degree from Balliol in order to conceal the sex change. To offer Thomas Baty (as Morgan did) as an example of a transwoman and lesbian is in my view a prime example of historical anachronism: as part of a group led by Eva Gore-Booth, Baty used a female pseudonym (Irene Clyde) and from 1916 co-edited a journal, Urania, which aimed to combat gender stereotyping.
My antagonist in this session turns out to be a trans activist with a history of badmouthing gender-critical feminists. The Times reported in April 2019 that Morgan was engaged by Avon and Somerset police to deliver ‘equality training’ despite having described ‘women who disagree with trans ideology as an “infestation”.’ Such views are clearly no problem within the Women’s Equality Party since Morgan waved a membership card in answer to the question ‘Who gets to be a feminist?’ Given the presence of a speaker with such extreme views, it’s perhaps reassuring that Roehampton (who in many ways came out well from this) offered a security presence and videotaped the day. There were clearly interesting papers earlier in the day and I was grateful that Finn Mackay (whose presentation I missed because of the rescheduling) thanked me for my contribution and lamented the difficulty of offering a more complex reading.
Nevertheless the conference reveals the extent to which academic freedom is challenged by gender ideology. Transversal politics were developed in the 1990s as a means of developing dialogue between women in war-torn countries. Nira Yuval-Davis used the term in 1997 in relation to work with women from northern Israel, from Belfast and from central Bosnia-Herzegovina. Perhaps the problems encountered at Roehampton in 2019 support the surprising discovery made by Stella O’Malley and Olly Lambert when they made the Channel 4 documentary ‘Transgender Kids: It’s Time to Talk’: that gender ideology is more resistant to transversal approaches than some of the world’s most intransigent political conflicts.
In the spirit of transversality, then, I’ll end with an alternative account of the day. Cheryl Morgan suggests that the security presence was needed because of the danger that Mumsnet bloggers would turn up, ‘take unflattering photos of trans people and post them online accompanied by a sea of insults and, if they can get it, doxing data’. This echoes the rationale offered by Tara Wolf for assaulting Maria MacLachlan: ‘I have heard what terfs have done in the past, they take people’s pictures, they put them on the internet and they dox (publish personal details about them)’. It’s true that Mumsnet noticed the call for papers. But whether it was Mumsnet that made the university employ a full time security presence is an open question.