UCU must stand up for academic freedom on sex and gender

Scholars of feminism attract an overwhelming amount of intimidation; their right to explore controversial issues demands explicit protection, say Alice Sullivan, Judith Suissa, Holly Smith and Lesley Gourlay

April 19, 2019
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We will be taking a motion supporting academic freedom to discuss sex and gender to the 2019 University and College Union (UCU) congress next month. While the union has a stated position in favour of academic freedom in general terms, it has shied away from making any statement on the harassment of feminist academics.

Academics who do not adhere to a particular line on gender and transgender issues have suffered intimidation by trans activists, including students and colleagues who seek to silence them.

These scholars have faced campaigns of blacklisting and smears, no platforming and professional disinvitations, organised efforts to get them fired, and rape and death threats. The level of hostility, hatred and often overtly misogynistic bullying faced by these scholars does not compare to anything we have seen in other debates within academia, even the most contentious.

The divide between trans activists and their opponents is a split within the left, rather than a left-right divide. Trade unionist women, led by A Woman’s Place UK, have led grass-roots calls for proper consultation with women regarding proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act. They have consistently worked with trans women who share their concerns regarding, for example, same-sex exemptions in the Equality Act, women’s sports and child safeguarding, yet trans activists have attempted to shut down their meetings, using tactics such as bomb threats to venues.

Long-standing gay rights campaigners have demanded that Stonewall reconsider its approach to transgender policy and engage fully in debate on the issue. A recent Open University conference on prison reform was cancelled after being targeted by trans activists because the director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies opposed housing trans women with female prisoners.

The UCU has rightly called out threats to academic freedom posed by government interference, but it has not commented on the silencing of dissent on this issue, which has grave potential to damage the wider progressive movement.

This is a difficult issue for the union because activists are divided on the substantive issues. However, the concept of academic freedom is meaningless if it does not extend to those with whom one disagrees. The UCU’s official statement on academic freedom recognises that the issue is bound up with broader civil liberties and human rights, and that academics must be free to express their opinions on matters of public interest, which may touch upon controversial or sensitive topics. This statement is hollow if not applied consistently.

As trade unionists, political activists and critical scholars, we are as equally motivated by a concern for social justice as our critics, though we see the issues differently. We recognise the discrimination faced by trans people and the importance of defending their human rights.

It is a sound principle of both political and academic work that we should listen to the voices of people from marginalised groups when discussing issues that affect them. The language used to define sex and gender, and the implications of these definitions for issues of public policy, including healthcare, education and child safeguarding, affects us all.

It is thus misleading to construe disagreements on these issues as a debate between “feminists” and “trans people”. Indeed, trans people who have asserted that “gender identity” does not supersede biological sex and should not replace sex as a protected characteristic have also faced bullying by activists. A culture of silencing is dangerous and counterproductive, particularly for vulnerable groups. This has been exposed most sharply by recent resignations from the Tavistock Gender Identity Clinic of doctors concerned about the hormonal and surgical procedures offered to children.

In the current climate, even articulating any of the following points as a basis for discussion can lead to accusations of transphobia, and to bullying and harassment: Humans have two sexes, male and female; females are the sex that produce large immobile gametes called ova; males are the sex that produce small mobile gametes called sperm; women are adult human females; women do not have penises; homosexuality is same-sex attraction; a transwoman who transitions as an adult has not always been female.

At a time when the recent gains of the feminist movement and the gay rights movement are under attack by the forces of the far right, it is vital to distinguish between those who seek to uphold the rights of all groups who continue to suffer from patriarchal and racist oppression, and those who uphold an explicitly sexist and racist ideology.

Authoritarian anti-intellectualism on the far right is unlikely to be defeated by its mirror image on the left, and we believe that defending academic freedom, while opposing all forms of authoritarian politics, is a basic function of our union.

Alice Sullivan, Judith Suissa, and Lesley Gourlay are professors at the Institute of Education at UCL and Holly Smith is a lecturer at the Institute of Education at UCL.

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Reader's comments (4)

new
I totally agree with academic freedom and uphold the right of these women to oppose transgender ideology without reprisal or hindrance. But these have ALWAYS been the tactcis of the LGBT movement., There is nothing new here! The article claims "These scholars have faced campaigns of blacklisting and smears, no platforming and professional disinvitations, organised efforts to get them fired, and rape and death threats. The level of hostility, hatred and often overtly misogynistic bullying faced by these scholars does not compare to anything we have seen in other debates within academia, even the most contentious." Wrong. LGBTs have been using these these tactics for at least 20 years to bully their way into dominance in academia and elsewhere. They have bullied many doctors, medical researchers, teachers, lecturers, and other professionals out of their jobs. They bullied Brendan Eich out of Mozilla, and bullied the CEO of Chick-fil-A literally to death. They bully many other people to death all the time. They bullied August Ames to death last year, and there are endless examples. The whole LGBT movement is an ugly, nasty, tyranny that is opposed to moral and intellectual freedom. I bet you delete this message because they control your webpage as well.
new
Great and timely article. Debate should be open, reasonable and slogan-free. No woman academic should feel afraid of expressing her opinion, and heads of school and university administration should take a much more proactive role to make sure threats of retaliation and demands for silencing are met with the contempt they deserve.
new
I have been following this issue for about two years now. I came to the issue through concern for freedom of speech - and the more important freedom of thought - and not through feminism. It is clear that the questioning of 'trans agenda' is being mostly carried forward by feminists, but this could be because feminists have, through existing feminist networks, channels where they can discuss and campaign on this issue. But are the (various) lines of feminist though the right hammer to hit the nail with? Could it be that whatever is happening and the answers to what is happening lie outside feminist thinking and may need a totally different way of examination?
new
There is so much I am tempted to say here, but as a parent of a trans teen, I'll focus on accuracy. I note the misleading reference to the Tavistock's work. GIDS does not offer surgical procedures to children. Surgical procedures are only available to those over 18. Hormonal intervention does take place in a relatively small number of cases of the children who present at the Tavistock. It does not happen lightly and starts with a year of puberty blockers, several assessments of both the child and their family situation. The waiting list to even be seen is now over 20 months, which means that even when puberty blockers are felt to be appropriate, the majority of children has already started puberty, and teenagers have lived as their preferred gender for at least twenty months. In practice, the child has lived through gender change much longer, as children often take a long time to come out to their parents, and parents rarely go down the referral route immediately. In short, academic freedom is a great good worth fighting for, but so is accuracy, especially by academics. Surgical procedures are not offered to children, and hormonal interventions only to a small number of highly tested, assessed and monitored part of the many children coming forward with gender dysphoria. If nothing else, let's be accurate. I will leave it to biologist or endocrinologist to explain the 'there are only two sexes' assertion, which is also inaccurate.

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