Kathleen Stock: life on the front line of transgender rights debate

Sussex philosophy professor on why she continues to speak out despite facing online abuse and ‘hostile environment’ at work

January 7, 2020
Source: © Andrew Crowley/Telegraph Media Group Limited 2019

“It is quite a strange situation to work somewhere where people make it clear that they loathe you,” reflected Kathleen Stock, professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex, on the backlash she faced for her views on gender identification.

As one of the UK’s leading gender-critical feminists, who has insisted that an individual cannot change their biological sex, Professor Stock has faced relentless criticism and abuse over the past 18 months – with blogs, petitions and Twitter users regularly demanding her dismissal for her allegedly “transphobic” views. In late November, a failed campaign to bar her from speaking at the Royal Institute of Philosophy’s annual debate generated 6,300 likes on Twitter, but just five emails from outraged complainants.

But it is at traditionally left-wing Sussex where Professor Stock has encountered some of her biggest critics: students have made several formal complaints against her, while some colleagues have made it obvious that she is not welcome, Professor Stock told Times Higher Education.

“I’ve found it quite a hostile environment – [some] have claimed my position is bigoted and I should be sacked,” she explained. Recently, she was asked to teach in a different academic building and arrived to find numerous transgender pride flags hanging from office doors near her teaching room. “It is a grey area where, in apparently being kind [to one group], you can get away with some very targeted behaviour,” said Professor Stock.

Update: see our October 2021 article on Kathleen Stock’s resignation from Sussex

An internal Sussex email which was shared on social media after the publication of this article suggested that the flags were distributed in 2018 as a gesture of solidarity with trans people following media coverage of proposed legislative changes in the UK and international repression of LGBT rights.

Increasingly, however, the debate is less about whether Professor Stock’s views are right but whether she should be allowed to voice them at all. To question the idea that a trans woman should be treated as a woman in all contexts is an act of “hate speech” that seeks to “erase” her identity, Professor Stock’s critics contend. Writing anonymously on Medium in May, one PhD student claimed that she was leaving philosophy, in part, because she could “easily imagine running into Stock or some other transphobic philosopher” at a conference.

Avoiding controversial issues because of such sensitivities is anathema to Professor Stock, she admitted. “I was always encouraged to discuss fundamental things like identity and social kinds, but now we are being told to accept a highly ideological view that a person is whatever they feel they are,” she said.

“Even when it has massive ramifications for society, philosophers are being told to stay silent,” continued Professor Stock, who objected, in particular, to the idea that discussion of the limits of transgender rights should be halted because it could cause some individuals to self-harm or take their own lives.

“I’m interested in the evidence that this is happening,” she said, adding that it relies on “dodgy statistics that have not been independently verified”.

“It is appropriate to engage in fiction for some contexts, but we are now losing the ability to talk about these issues because of this passive-aggressive way of arguing,” Professor Stock said, adding that “many women are devastated by what is happening in this area and their opinions matter”.

While unpopular closer to home, Professor Stock’s views are seemingly striking a chord with a larger audience outside academia – with 24,000 accounts following her on Twitter. Last month her blog on the employment tribunal ruling against Maya Forstater, the tax expert who lost her job after claiming that transgender women could not change their biological sex, was liked by more than 3,300 people.

According to Professor Stock, the judge’s claim that Ms Forstater’s belief was “not worthy of respect in a democratic society” was a precedent that “sent the message” to UK employees that your “job will not be protected” if you espouse this view – a concern later echoed in a tweet by Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling, who referenced Professor Stock’s post.

That decision followed the withdrawal of invitations to feminist speakers at three UK universities in November and December after receiving complaints over their support for gender-critical groups, such as Woman’s Place and the LGB Alliance.

Professor Stock is now involved in a campaign to mount a legal challenge to the policies of Oxford Brookes University, which postponed a November talk by feminist artist Rachel Ara, who draws a distinction between biological sex and gender identity. A crowdfunding campaign has raised more than £6,000

However, while some hailed 2019 as the year that gender-critical feminism reached the mainstream “thanks to the tireless efforts of many women”, Professor Stock was less optimistic that colleagues were listening. “Most academics only read the BBC or The Guardian which refuse, in general, to talk about these things, so the issue is still badly understood in academia,” she said.



Print headline: ‘Some accuse me of hate speech and want me sacked’

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Reader's comments (13)

So much for Sussex’s flagship ‘dignity at work’ policy
It is a cheap shot to call anyone whose views differ from our own "phobic" in any sense. It is also nonsense to claim that gender, a socially constructed idea of what feminine and masculine is, is the same an sex which is a biological construct. Academics should be vocal and support those who speak out about this. It is thought policing and very dangerous to block those of us who can see things as they are. To state that sex is innate and immutable is not to deny rights to anyone at all, but the transgender movement is increasingly denying women a say, and their rights.
What a complex arena of debate - everyone has a right to an opnion. An opinion is not by default 'hate'. On one hand why would any of us be so bothered as to challenge an individual's right to be viewed or known as whatever they want ? We should be living in enlightened societies. So socially it should be easy for people to live peaceful lifestyles as they would wish. If the debate is about biology should it even be on this particular debating list? Surely that is just an issue regarding medical treatment. The more complicated areas seem to be surrounding the rights of transgender people (especially male to female) and certain feminist voices who do not formally recongnise them. It seems the real issues here are based around agression, rounded debate and agreement on ways forward that ensure acceptance and inclusivity, but which also do not alienate.
Thanks for covering this story and I agree academic freedom and freedom of speech are being challenged as well as hard win women’s rights. I feel I can’t speak about this issue at work as well and women / feminists are being silenced and erased so that trans can have a voice (quite violently) and it begs the question as to why do one group’s rights have to trample on and erase another’s - how does this create an equal society with equal voices?
This is both biased and *sloppy* reporting. According to other professionals at that institution, the trans flags were put up to protest Trump, and there had been plenty of communication about it beforehand. The flags were not just "on doors near [Stock's] teaching room", they were on numerous doors. And Stock's own arguments have not been mere philosophical exercise, they have been actively dismissive of students' (and other people's) lived experience, and have also misrepresented any number of the issues which trans men and women have been trying to bring forward. Her actions have in fact contributed to a "hostile environment" for other people in the department and university, as well as outside it; certainly no-one wants to think of themselves as a villain, but painting herself as a victim (using, I note, extremely emotive language which again misrepresents many of the criticisms) for being called to account for promoting harmful myths about a small and vulnerable minority, is not justifiable. THE had a responsibility to look into the details of this situation. They evidently couldn't be bothered.
I don't agree with Stock's opinions regarding transgenderism, but she is as entitled to hold them as I am to hold mine. Hate is not an appropriate response, neither is name-calling and abuse. If you don't agree with someones' views, refute them. That's what academic debate is all about: it doesn't say much for the development of basic academic skills in a community where someone with dissenting views is so badly treated.
what is especially troubling is to read the discussions of Prof Stock and the issues here on social media, & to see how those discussions transfer into the academic setting. one of their main lines of attack is to say that "nobody is being silenced" as Prof. Stock says. well, I am being silenced, & that's part of why I am posting anonymously. I NEVER speak or write about this topic, though I have spent a great deal of time researching and thinking about it. further, in very tentative, private conversations with a few trusted colleagues, i hear the same thing. i think it is possible that the majority of academics, especially those with a strong inclination toward feminist values, are terrified to speak about this topic because of the variety of tactics trans activists use to attack us. it is remarkable to read carefully the trans literature and to ask: which parts of feminism do they actually support? because it turns out that that the answer is: virtually none of it. from women's sports to women's health to sexual harassment policies & even to equity in pay and work, trans activists are exclusively interested in extending those rights to trans people. what they call "cis" women are, to many of them, part of the problem. trans is the most dangerous political movement on the left I have seen in my 30+ years of research and activism. it is full of fascist and proto-fascist gestures and rhetoric, and despite the surface and real differences, has many things in common with far-right anti-feminist movements like the incels and MRA. Most frighteningly, it is impossible to talk about this in academia, without the very fact that we are talking about it becoming the object of conversation, rather than the issues we are trying to talk about. i do not agree 100% with Dr Stock's positions on gender, but many of them, and I admire her willingness to take the profoundly antifeminist attacks that are constantly lobbed at her. that they are lobbed in the name of feminism--but a feminism that has almost nothing in common with what we described with that name 20 years ago, and attacks that resemble exactly the other attacks on feminist women in the university we used to see and still do see--is profoundly disturbing. you don't have to dig for more than 5 minutes to see the proto-fascist logic at work in condemnations of Dr Stock: despite her decades of work, she "isn't really a feminist," they say. what is a feminist, you ask? someone who supports trans rights. Why can't trans rights be a separate thing from feminism, just as lesbian and gay rights are? that is hate speech and it is "killing people." the world is upside down.
If you care about human rights you have to care about ALL of them. It's no use preening yourself on your dedication to feminism if you don't care about the rights of people on the LGBTQ+ spectrum or gender diversity or fighting racism: even if your particular interest is in feminism. That may be your focus, but if you do not pay attention to the needs of others, why should they care about your particular 'thing'?
who said anything even remotely resembling "do not pay attention to the needs of others"? I said, as Dr. Stock says, that feminism is a thing to be understood. So is racism. in fact racism has different forms. all must be understood. in your prior message you talked about academic rigor. i am trying to be rigorous. transgender rights are important. so are women's rights. that's what I said. that's what Dr. Stock says repeatedly. i see trans people, despite the rhetoric, expressing care *only* about trans rights. all over the place. so I find your message curious. In fact I pointed out in my message that many trans people write and talk as if "cis women" are part of the problem. that is not paying attention to the needs of others. that's telling them you could not care less. it's certainly not "caring about ALL human rights." it is certainly hard to understand why I should count as "feminist" a position that tells the vast majority of women that they are part of the problem. sometimes human rights conflict. that is part of Dr Stock's point: there are very clear ways in which trans rights and what have been described until now by feminists as women's rights conflict. i do care about the needs of trans people. what i see is that trans people care only about themselves (and yes, they talk about race and other forms of categorization, but usually only to aggrandize their own sense of marginalization, and usually only when the racial other is also trans). and I see it all over the place. by the way, who in political history has called "feminism" "caring about a particular 'thing'"? not feminists. so right there you have what I, and I think Dr Stock, see as a huge part of the problem: trans rights very quickly take on the rhetoric and arguments of antifeminism. only trans women are to be supported. in other words, most women are not. that is the world turned upside-down.
I support free speech but this is highly inaccurate: "As one of the UK’s leading gender-critical feminists..." Stock has been inolved in the debate quite late in the game and there were other scholars well-steeped in the debate before some women in the feminist movement started putting flagpoles on their perceived territory. Julia Long is one such academic who has been speaking and writing about this for years, well over a decade. It would behoove The Times Higher Ed to get facts straight because Stock is a latecomer and has written pieces plagiarising from other scholars on this subject. I think Stock believes citations are only due if it relates to academic material, but the stark reality is that she recylces women's work way before her.
Glad to say my daughter has rejected Sussex due to the bullying of Stock.Realised students are woke sheep far from the free thinkers as the university would like us to think.Shock you have a penis you are male.No amount of Trans bullying is going to change that. No amount of trying to erase the term sex and trying to replace it with gender will change this.Isnt it great that Sussex reinstates a convicted male lecturer who assaulted a woman.Do they use NDAs to gag female sexual assault victims.This is all deeply worrying misogyny.Death threats made to women who call for women only places made by trans.I call you out for what you are women haters.So petty to call for the removal of female symbol from sanitary towels.Disgrace.Sorry guys you will never be women.
Cause Celebre Why we must discuss what is happening to our young women, Why did you make my teen your cause Celebre, your virtue signaling tool, your evidence of inclusivity? Maybe I missed her distress signals, maybe I thought my kid felt loved and unique, maybe she was at home. I missed the distress she felt in the social networking, socially competitive world teens navigate in middle and high schools at the onset and apex of puberty. I missed the destructive pull of the inclusive agenda pushed by well intentioned student governments, students, staff and school board. That world is the perfect environment for a previously overlooked, socially awkward vulnerable confused teen to find celebrity and solace as the mascot for a social justice group agenda as their congratulatory gender identity pet. My child became the pet once she declared herself transgender of entire clubs, psychologists, teachers, virtue signaling individuals and school board members. They could all point to her and congratulate themselves on how kind and compassionate and inclusive they were. She could then go on to a college that advertises proudly how inclusive they were by posting pictures of inclusive clubs where all identities are welcome. None of these virtuous warriors, well intentioned institutions, gentle affirming therapists will be present in my daughters life when the deleterious affects of cross sex hormones gripe her healthy body. When here uterus collapses, when her vaginal walls atrophy, when her bladder leaks as her kidney become increasingly damaged, when her risk of heart disease and suicide escalate. All the virtuous warriors that were “understanding” and “available to talk” because her parents “didn’t know” are gone, retired, some may have moved on with their lives, their healthy bodies and families. Most won’t even remember her name. My daughter was the “buffer girl”, the girl placed between to rambunctious jocks because she was quiet and good, the one no one noticed. Finally she got noticed, she got celebrated, she was championed, at what cost? Virtuous inclusive warriors, will you carry away the Surgical discard vessel that contains her amputated breasts, her surgically evacuated uterus? Will you hold and comfort her precious, beautiful young body post op? A lithe young body that built fairy houses in the woods, and set out birdseed for the warblers? You probably won’t, you’ll be too busy congratulating yourself on what a wonderful person you are, you will probably be busy at your next speaking engagement as you talk about your work on the inclusiveness committee. You might even be running for public office, loudly proclaiming how compassionate you are and how you love every body; even as I alone hold my beautiful baby and wonder what could I have done to reassure her that she was born perfectly made, no committee present. I also know that I will be dismissed. Labeled as some kind of crazy phobic person. My years supporting my gay child overlooked, my years believing in birth control for all rejected. What will history say about me? About you? About this?
Thank you for this, anguishedmom. The most eloquent argument I have read on this issue so far. At the end of the day, it is not the rights of some amorphous category of humans we are talking about but the real good (and harms) that as a society we bring upon our young. My daughter will be starting secondary school in a couple of years. We went to visit a few recently to get a feel for what is to come and I was concerned to see that one of the schools was advertising an LGBTQ+ club. My daughter has no identity problems at the moment and is happy in her own skin, but will this be still the case once she becomes exposed to the 'spectrum' of possible identities she is supposedly free to develop? I'd like to think I am an inclusive and compassionate person but I wonder if the identity crisis many young people seem to experience in their most formative years is created from the outside rather than emerging from within?