UCU set for showdown over transgender rights stance

Members asked to back motion opposing ‘gender critics’ and ‘transphobes’

May 11, 2022
A woman walks along a pedestrian crossing with trans flag colours in Bloomsbury. to illustrate Trans rights debate ‘is distracting union’
Source: Getty

The UK’s biggest academic union is set for a bitter showdown over its stance on transgender rights – as members remain locked in disputes over pay and pensions.

Critics of a motion that calls on the University and College Union to take a stand against “gender critical” feminists – those who believe it is not possible for people to change their biological sex – said that it was divisive and distracted the union from its core work of protecting workers’ rights.

But supporters said academics should be doing more to create a culture that is fully inclusive and safe for people of all genders and accused their opponents of whipping up a “culture war”.

If passed at the UCU congress in early June, the motion would mandate the union to “oppose ‘gender critics’ and transphobes ‘promoting gender ideology’ and trying to undermine trans and non-binary people’s rights”.

Holly Smith, who is coming to the end of her two-year term on UCU’s national executive committee, said that this could expose the union to legal action from those who felt discriminated against, referencing the case of Maya Forstater, who won a high court ruling in June 2021 that gender critical beliefs should be protected after her contract at the Center for Global Development, a thinktank, was not renewed.

“It is unclear what opposing feminists who take a materialist approach would look like in practice, but it certainly raises the possibility that UCU is advocating for us to be subjected to unlawful discrimination,” said Dr Smith, a lecturer in higher education at UCL.

Although the motion is yet to pass, a spokesperson for the union said that it was a “proud and unequivocal supporter of the rights of trans and non-binary people” and it “rejects wholeheartedly the attacks being launched on this community across the media and in government”. The spokesperson added that the union would “not sit idly by whilst a culture war is stoked in order to question their [transgender people’s] existence”.

The motion also resolves that the congress should congratulate the University of Sussex branch of UCU for its “solidarity” with student protests against philosopher Kathleen Stock, after she was accused of transphobia due to her views on gender. Professor Stock claimed the statement “end[ed] her career” at Sussex and later resigned.

Dr Smith said that a lesbian feminist academic losing her job shouldn’t be celebrated and that the failure of the local UCU branch to support her right to participate in public policy debates about women’s rights “sets a destructive precedent”.

“Academic freedom is a foundational value of higher education, and free speech within the law is an essential prerequisite for democratic debate,” Dr Smith said, adding that she felt trade unions were most effective when organising on the broadest basis of common interest of the membership.

The founding of the Feminist Gender Equality Network, which opposes transphobia on campuses and more broadly, is also welcomed by the motion.

The co-founders of this network, Sally Hines, chair of sociology at the University of Sheffield, and Natacha Kennedy, lecturer in education at Goldsmiths, University of London, said they were “heartened” to see the “commitment to advancing the inclusion of trans and non-binary staff and students” because the “pushback” by gender critical academics “makes trans and non-binary students vulnerable.”

“The UCU motion rightly underscores the importance of creating HE cultures that are fully inclusive and safe spaces for work and learning for people of all genders,” they added.

But Jo Phoenix, who is taking the Open University, her former employer, to an employment tribunal over claims it failed to protect her from harassment on campus because of her views on sex and gender, predicted that more academics like her would quit the union as they no longer felt it served them, speculating that it was likely some could be considering starting an alternative union.

Professor Phoenix, now professor of criminology at the University of Reading, said academic freedom was the “primary cornerstone” of what it was to be an academic and argued that it was a “sad and sorry” state of affairs that some within UCU seemed prepared – as she saw it – to sacrifice this, particularly at a time when “academics are under such attack generally and their conditions are deteriorating”.

“A trade union is meant to protect all its members’ working conditions and this importantly includes freedom from harassment on the basis of one’s political beliefs,” she added.

The UCU spokesperson said that “ministers and others should address the real problems in the sector,” rather than “pretend that defending the rights of the most marginalised constitutes a threat”.

“We are clear that the defence of trans and non-binary people is central to improving the conditions of all staff and students in post-16 education, and look forward to UCU’s 2022 congress reaffirming this position,” they added.



Print headline: Trans rights debate ‘is distracting union’

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (27)

It is interesting how few basic scientists are speaking out or being heard. The scientific facts, the biology is what us being undermined here.
It sounds like people's academic openness and agreeableness are being taken advantage of by the campaigners.
Opinions, they say, are not responsible for the people who hold them. Whilst it is everyone's right to hold, argue for, and defend, whatever point of view they wish to hold, we - as a society - have chosen to set a few limits. Current consensus holds that views which discriminate on the grounds of skin colour or gender are unacceptable. We cannot, logically, castigate those who express such opinions without also shunning those whose views discriminate against those who are part of the trans community. If nothing else, these views are sexist in nature as we only ever hear demands for discrimination against trans women, not trans men. Should our argument, then, be whether or not we allow current sensibilities to modify academic debate at all? I hold that however much I detest someone's opinion, however much I might argue against it, I do not have the right to deny them the right to hold that opinion. You, of course, are free to disagree with that opinion.
Socking, really, that a union of academics should display such ignorance and unwillingness to see past trite slogans and consider the actual arguments or evidence. The motion itself is incoherent: consider the line quoted above that calls on UCU to "oppose ‘gender critics’ and transphobes ‘promoting gender ideology’". But gender critical people OPPOSE gender ideology, you muppets! Gender ideology is the view YOU support! The view that says inner feels matter more than biology. The view that male people can just identify into women's sports, prisons, political offices and more. The view that lesbians who are not attracted to males, and women who desire female-only rape/violence counseling services, are somehow bigots. The view that gender-nonconforming children should be rushed into sterilization and the amputation of healthy body parts. The view that pretends detransitioners do not exist or should be ignored. I hope the UCU legal office will rule this motion out of order before Congress, on the grounds explained by Holly Smith in the article. If it is passed, it will turn UCU into a laughing stock.
All of this confirms that I made a wise choice by saving my money and not joining the UCU. It always was very left-wing, especially after the merger of the AUT and NATFHE but its list of crazy views is now too large to even take on board.
To suggest that Univ Sussex did the right thing in not supporting Kathleen Stock ought to render one unfit to work in higher education, or in any educational institution for that matter. This student proposal seems to be peppered with the usual unsupported assertions about harm to trans people while ignoring the very real and extraordinary cultural epidemic of parents declaring young children to be 'transgender' and feeding them pills; teenagers suddenly discovering (usually after input from a trans evangelist) that they are in the 'wrong body' (whatever that means) and abusing the only body they will ever have with chemicals and surgery; and the verifiable statistical evidence of continuing horrific violence against women—by men. Any union that passed such an overtly political motion as this, replete with abusive terms for the members who disagree—while claiming to represent all—will be propelling its punt rapidly down a very narrow channel to oblivion.
The Union needs to be clear in its terminology - sex, gender and gender identity are not the same thing. They also need to consider the law in relation to sex as a protected characteristic and recent legal challenges; as well as the Forstater legal ruling mentioned above. Just looks like ill informed posturing with a nasty self righteous stance. It will lead to more bullying of women. Have people forgotten about sexism and misogyny. Never mind the wilful ignorance about basic science.
This proposal is woeful. What is interesting however, is that those who advocate taking a stand against gender-critical feminists (and their allies), very often see themselves as progressive and on the political left. The push-back against single-sex, and separate sex spaces, and the celebration of the Sussex UCUs inaction/complicity over Prof Stock, are examples of a right-wing ideology. What the UCU leadership appears not to grasp, is that those who wish to maintain single/separate sex spaces are not all necessarily motivated by a perception of threat. Some of my female students have told of asking "men" to leave the ladies loos; not because of fear of attack, but for wanting to be in a female-only space for a few minutes. Calling such women transphobic sends out a message, that those they perceive as men should not be challenged. I accept that personal boundaries differ; for example, some female colleagues have remarked that they would be comfortable with trans-identifying men/transwomen in ladies toilets and changing facilities. However, were a young woman to express discomfort about such a scenario what should our response be?
My partner, a woman academic has asked me to say how utterly oppressive, misogynistic, anti-democratic and dictatorial she finds this proposed UCU stance to be and if anyone can start up an alternative union she would ditch the UCU like a shot! It's no Union for thinking feminists. I must say, I agree entirely and I'm heartened by the more discerning comments that have been made here.
I would leave the UCU in a heartbeat if there were anywhere to go
I am leaving regardless as a result of reading this article. I was quite dismayed when it became clear the UCU did nothing to support Stock and sided with the thugs who hounded her out but I let it pass then. Not now. I'm out. This isn't even that much to do with the whole gender/sex argument but if I cannot trust the union I pay my subs too (which are considerable) to support me in my workplace because they happen to not agree with whatever views I might hold, then what is the point of them?
#3 writes "If nothing else, these views are sexist in nature as we only ever hear demands for discrimination against trans women, not trans men." Surely this is because it only trans women (or perhaps more accurately their self-appointed allies/spokespeople) who are making outrageous demands about the dismantling of rights to single spaces?
What outrageous demands? All trans women want is to be able to go to the loo. They aren't asking for special treatment. Nothing very outrageous there, we all do it.
What is the point of the UCU if not to represent all its members? Truly sad state of affairs and those of us who do not subscribe to this recent and very regressive ideology need to get well versed on the Equality Act and recent EHRC guidance to deal with HR/EDI committees as need be.
“I would leave the UCU in a heartbeat if there were anywhere to go“ — I suspect you are speaking for many, many women academics here.
As a gender critical feminist retired teacher I despair at the direction of UCU and many other organisations. Trans rights seem to trump women’s rights now. Apparently Stonewall says it’s transphobic to even mention that trans women have male bodies. As if this would not be relevant in terms of women’s sports, rape crisis centres, changing rooms, hospital wards etc.
Trans women aren't attempting to trump women's rights, they merely want to share in the human rights that everyone - irrespective of birth gender or gender identity - should be free to enjoy. What is being taken away from you by the woman in the next stall being trans? Nothing. Ezpecially if you have no idea that she is.
You pose the question about what what is being taken away from a woman, if the person in the next cubicle is trans. I have had female students and colleague who have answered that; it is privacy and dignity. The desire to be in a female-only space without having to justify it. You make the point that one may not know who is in the cubicle; but we so see people in the wash basin areas, so we would see. Would it therefore be wrong (for example) were a female student to request that someone she perceives as a man, should leave the ladies loos?
And what when this rather precious female student makes a mistake and asks a woman who happens to look fairly 'mannish' to leave? Has she thought about the offence she might be giving or is she so obsessed with herself that she isn't interested in anyone else's feelings? Should we be supporting such an attitude, such behaviours? Is everyone to 'prove' (how?) their right to use the bathroom of their choice?
There are a number of questions there. The scenario in the first one happened to my ex; somebody mistook her for a man in a pub toilet, but realised their mistake when she turned around! The other lady was embarrassed and apologised profusely, and they both laughed about it; there was no offence taken by my ex as she realised she was being challenged for good reason. I hope that answers that question. I think that such challenging attitudes and behaviours should be supported. If a woman sees a male in the ladies changing rooms, or toilets, then politely asking that person to leave seems proportionate; no proof is required, it never is. The male can use the the gents toilets. I don't agree that such a woman is precious, self-obsessed, or lacking in empathy. Such challenges happen more frequently nowadays that is true, however think that is due to a middle-class entitlement culture amongst some transactivists, and fairly right-wing one at that.
What is being taken away from you by the woman in the next stall being trans?" I don't take a strong position on this issue as I don't know enough, but I think, from what I understand, what is being taken away, for some, is a feeling of safety. People, let us say "with a penis" have been a source of great harm to, let's say "people with a vagina" over history and many of the latter prefer their bathroom and changing rooms to be segregated on such lines. It sounds quite simple in a sense, but of course, nothing is ever really simple.
I would imagine that most people despite taking a side or having an opinion on this issue don't actually want to cause offense or make anybody else feel uncomfortable. Is the solution proposed by daver above the answer? Rather than having contentious gender based spaces - toilets, changing rooms etc. segregation would be based purely on the physical attributes of the user. So there would be a 'penis' toilet for example , which would have no gender connotations and be used by any anybody with that type of 'equipment'. Similarly, I'm trying to understand this issue so as not to cause offense to anybody so please correct me if this is a stupid or inappropriate suggestion.
Good points, Emmanuel, and I'm glad your former partner was not offended by someone misgendering her and asking her to leave a pub ladies' loo. However, trans women identify as women. If challenged by some busibody, they aren't going to say, "Oops, yes I am a man" & go away. They will say "I am a woman"... and THAT's when contention begins.
But transwomen are not women. Make the men's toilet unisex. Let men deal with the alleged safety concerns of their trans-identifying fellow males rather than forcing women to make space for them.
Make all toilets unisex, then. MMU has a delightful unisex loo that consists of a corridor with doors along it. Behind every door is a tiny room (not a cubicle) with a lavatory & a hand-basin. You are completely private and alone in there. Safe as houses. This is the best solution if you're of the opinion that individuals require single-sex space. I doubt men want women in 'their' space either, although it only ever seems to be women who get antsy about those they fail to accept as women... we don't hear men moaning about trans men invading their space even when they ask for bins to deal with their sanitary needs!
"I doubt men want women in 'their' space either.." I doubt men care anything like as much as many women do. This whole argument is complicated by the fact that toilets are labelled "men" and "women" but from a time when these words had a different meaning. The meaning of these words has changed, so without changing the labels the basis on which bathrooms are divided has inevitably changed and that point is not usually discussed, it is just assumed we should change the basis of the division rather than the labels on the doors.
The UCU already supports transracialism through written policy, allowing anyone to self-identify as Black if they so desire. The obvious concern is that the transgender activists, who invariably aren’t transgender, but are predominantly white, middle-class males, will switch to advocating for transracialism if their obsessions with reducing women’s single-sex protections are realised. And then will the UCU be introducing a motion against those opposed to transracialism? That might be a bit fanciful, but the UCU has already abandoned any pretence re. good judgement, and seems intent on reinforcing that reputation.