Transgender disputes threaten to split university unions

Gender critical theory and harassment move up agenda as major battles over pay and pensions loom

January 6, 2022
Transgender Action Block activists and supporters protest outside the first annual conference of the LGB Alliance in October 2021 in London
Source: Getty

Academic unions are facing deepening divides over transgender issues, just as they seek to unite members in fights for fairer pay and pensions.

In the UK, a new group of early career academics has claimed that the University and College Union has failed to stand up for scholars facing harassment and ostracism for their views on sex and gender, contributing to an intimidatory climate that is inhibiting freedom of expression.

In Australia, the National Tertiary Education Union has been accused of sheltering “transphobes” after refusing to condemn one such standpoint – gender critical theory, which holds that an individual’s sex at birth is immutable, even if they can change their gender identity.

The rows come at delicate moments for the organisations, with the UCU locked in industrial action over pay, Universities Superannuation Scheme pensions and working conditions, and the NTEU seeking multimillion-dollar back payments from universities in a long-running dispute over universities’ “wage theft” from casual staff.

In a letter to the UCU’s general secretary, Jo Grady, the Collective of Early Career Feminist Academics states that it has been “appalled to see UCU leadership repeatedly fail to defend basic principles of academic freedom and protection from harassment”.

The newly founded group, whose members wish to remain anonymous for fear of harassment and damage to their careers, said the “abhorrent treatment” of Kathleen Stock, the gender-critical philosophy professor who quit the University of Sussex in October after protests on campus demanding her dismissal, illustrated how those who believe that “sex and gender refer to different things” face “defamation, harassment, blacklisting [and] attempts to deprive them of their livelihoods”.

“How much more does the climate of hostility against feminists need to escalate before the UCU unequivocally condemns it?” says the letter, adding that “victims of harassment and bullying…should be able to turn to our union for protection”.

Before her resignation, Professor Stock had warned that a statement from Sussex’s UCU branch, which urged managers to take action against “transphobia”, would “end her career” at the institution – although the statement refused to endorse the calls for Professor Stock to be sacked.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, a CEFA founder said some of its members had already faced repercussions for expressing views – such as the importance of ensuring that both sex and gender are used as categories during data collection – that were interpreted as transphobic.

“People have been dropped from research projects and frozen out by collaborators for simply saying that they want to include what people’s biological sex is, rather than their gender,” said the early career academic. “Senior professors have also encouraged others to shut down people’s research for this [reason]; and because a lot of us are on fixed-term contracts, it is very easy to get rid of us.

“We’re also seeing quite extreme language used against us – one member said she was compared to a Nazi and a Holocaust denier,” she continued, saying that scholars were “not only fearful of being called names but having to physically protect themselves”.

Recent anonymous letters from departments at prominent UK universities – including the London School of Economics – condemning the creation of a gender-critical research network at the Open University also “sent a very clear message that if you do not toe a particular line, you will have fewer job options”.

In a statement, the UCU said it was “a long-standing defender of academic freedom and the right of those working in universities to challenge received wisdom”.

“Equally, we recognise that this important right has to be balanced alongside the rights and freedoms of others,” it added, stating that it “condemns all forms of discrimination and is clear in its opposition to bullying and harassment…[but] neither misogyny nor transphobia have any place on our campuses”.

Alice Sullivan, professor of sociology at UCL, said the experiences highlighted by CEFA showed that many scholars were afraid to speak out.

“People often comment that high-profile professors who speak out on the material reality of sex and women’s rights have not successfully been silenced – and this is perfectly true. They have endured harassment and vilification, and yet they are still speaking up,” said Professor Sullivan, who added that “the people who have been silenced are the voices you don’t hear”.

“There are many young female academics on precarious contracts, and PhD students, who are intimidated – they cannot possibly speak out because of the risk to their careers.”

The Australian dispute flared up after the NTEU’s national council carried a resolution rejecting discrimination against the trans community, warning that academic freedom is no “excuse for vilification”. However, the executive edited out clauses condemning gender-critical theory as “hate speech…masquerading as academic work”.

A statement explaining the change said the union’s role did not include judging the legitimacy of research fields, but the amendment has triggered threats of cancelled memberships. “The union has become an unsafe workplace – that’s core union business,” one commentator tweeted. “I wouldn’t make a financial contribution to any organisation that supports or both-sides transphobia,” said another.

Sandy O’Sullivan, a Macquarie University professor who identifies as transgender, said the term “gender-critical theory” was “made up a few years ago to act as cover for transphobia” and breached principles of ethical and responsible conduct of research.

“Transgressions can happen within a discipline, but this is different, because ‘gender critical’ thought is predicated solely on the hatred of a group of people. Imagine waking up every day and knowing you pay 1 per cent of your salary in fees to a union which fails to protect your fundamental rights,” Professor O’Sullivan said.

But another member, who asked not to be named, said “ideologues” who condemned gender critical theory were discouraging university staff from union involvement. “You have people who work really hard to do the things a union requires, and another group that criticises everything they do. People just retreat and don’t say anything,” she said.


Print headline: Transgender disputes threaten to split unions

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Reader's comments (6)

The NTEU is correct to support academic freedom in universities.
I am pleased this conversation is happening, thanks for a balanced article.
It would have been useful in this article if it gave real life examples of where the tension lies, so that non-academics could understand the debate. I only understood the debate when someone gave me real life examples. E.g. women wishing to have the right to meet in a protected space without men present, while transgender people who identify as a woman (but are physically male) wish to have the right to join that protected space. This has repercussions for female prisons, Women's refuges, women's sport etc etc. It also affects important academic research where you are doing a study of the differences between men and women in a certain area. The results will be skewed if participants declare they are one gender but were born a different sex. Sorry if I have any terminology wrong.
Thank you for this article - the attacks and accusations of transphobia against academics for simply attempting to protect hard-won single sex spaces and services for women and girls, or even for seeking to undertake research and gather data on biological sex, has created a climate of fear and hostility in our universities that is entirely incompatible with academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of belief. I have even had to change my username just to be able to post this comment without fear of retribution - this is how bad things are.
The fact that you state that: "gender critical theory, which holds that an individual’s sex at birth is immutable, even if they can change their gender identity," as if the fact that sex is immutable is a contested point, demonstrates how far gender identity ideology has infested academia. Sex is immutable in mammals, and by the way it's determined at conception, not birth. This is simply a fact. Imagine stating "Physics, which holds that light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum...." to get an idea of how nonsensical this sounds. Academic freedom needs debate for ideas to be tested for their robustness and discarded when they don't fit, not to scream "transphobia," "no debate" and start aggressively harrassing anyone who dares disagree with you. To state that biological sex is real is not "transphobic"; indeed, to ignore biological sex or privilege gender above it, ignores not only sex-based oppression of women, but the specific health needs of trans people themselves.
I agree with Jo R. What happened to live and let live, and lively academic debate that doesn't end in threats of concentrations camps or worse. It doesn't help that people use the word 'hate' inappropriately. In no way is it hateful to say that women-only spaces (ie biological women) are appropriate for some activities. Just because someone doesn't agree with a position does not make them Nazis. It has all got out of hand and I am very worried about where it is leading. In the past if men wanted to wear women's clothes it was fine, if they wanted to call themselves a woman then whatever - though it is inappropriate to be 'offended' (another misused term) if someone calls them he if they look like a he. If they want to have surgery to change the way they look then that is fine (though it can be argued that allowing this in children and adolescents is abuse). The bottom line is that someone with a penis should not be in women's toilets or changing rooms.