In 2015, the main trade union for UK academics, the University and College Union (UCU), objected to the government’s newly announced counter-terrorism strategy—specifically, the part concerned with universities’ legal duty to attempt to prevent student radicalisation. A central aspect of UCU’s highly critical response concerned the use of ill-defined, imprecise words in the strategy. One UCU briefing noted that (my italics):
it is important that branches become familiar with how the government defines ‘extremism’.. as follows: ‘Vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.’ Branches should note the somewhat nebulous nature of so described ‘British values’ and the potentially very broad range of individuals and groups who may at some point fall foul of such a negatively constructed definition.
In a similar vein, a Professor and a senior lawyer expressed their concern that that the vagueness and lack of definition of terms like “terrorism,” “non-violent extremism,” “radicalisation,” and “fundamental British values”
could be understood to mean that…academics and students accustomed to expressing personal views at university would need to be warned of the risks of discussing certain issues.
They concluded (my italics):
But this is not correct, and universities should not let the imprecise and unclear language of the guidance draw them into placing unlawful restrictions on academic freedom and freedom of speech.
Reading this back, I grimace with some irony. For a strikingly analogous situation exists now in UK universities, one to which the UCU is not merely indifferent but arguably actively facilitates. Nebulous definitions of concepts like “gender identity” and “transphobia” are appearing in university policies and training, often based on guidance by the influential LGBT charity Stonewall, and with the approval of both senior management and UCU figures. The effect has been to curtail academic freedom.
Stonewall directly influences universities via its “Diversity Champions Programme”, whereby the charity gives institutions its imprimatur of approval if they sign up to a number of core principles. In a competitive market for students, high-profile branding that conveys so-called inclusivity is thought by university bosses to be worth having and paying handsomely for. As a condition of membership, specialist trans policies and training programmes are being rolled out across universities, along with a calendar’s worth of special events to reinforce the associated messages: Transgender Day of Remembrance, International Transgender Visibility Day, International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexism and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT), Pride Month, and so on. In its briefing material Stonewall describes how “consistent messages of support for the LGBT community” are communicated at De Montfort University
via social media, plasma screens, student portals and internal emails. Messaging centres around significant days like Transgender Day of Remembrance and IDAHOBIT, with rainbow flags flying on campus for #DMUPride and other events. The visible commitment of De Montfort University’s Vice-Chancellor Dominic Shellard is key to success in this area.
I question why individual policies are needed for trans people alone, given that other minorities working and studying in UK universities tend to be covered only by general equalities policies. However, there’s clearly nothing wrong with making sure that trans students and staff are treated well, on a par with their fellows, with specialist arrangements in place where needed. The problem is that the trans-specific policies tend to go much further than this and stipulate what is appropriate to teach, say, and, perhaps, also to think. Where teaching is explicitly informed by research, the dividing line between constraints upon teaching and constraints upon research is paper-thin. Some trans policies require that “any materials within relevant courses and modules will positively represent trans people and trans lives.” Another says that “Any historical content or comparative content containing what is now recognised as transphobic material needs to be clearly labelled with a trigger warning.” Nearly all such policies contain clauses about the outlawing of “transphobic propaganda” on campus.
Stonewall’s stated definition of transphobia, towards which institutions are supposed to display “zero tolerance”, is: “The fear or dislike of someone based on the fact they are trans, including the denial/refusal to accept their gender identity” (my italics). In other words, a refusal to “accept” a person’s gender identity seems to be counted as automatically transphobic. The stated definition of gender identity is: “A person’s innate sense of their own gender, whether male, female or something else, which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned at birth.” Stonewall defines a trans woman as “someone who is assigned male at birth but identifies and lives as a woman” (notwithstanding that the charity is currently at the forefront of a public campaign to get the law changed so that no period of “living as a woman” is required for legal gender reassignment, but only an act of self-identification). An iconic Stonewall T-shirt, worn by hundreds at UK Pride parades, robustly declares that “Trans women are women. Get over it.” Another current Stonewall policy commitment is that all-women shortlists and quotas, originally set up in the name of equality of opportunity for females, should be open to trans women. “Trans women are women, and because of that it makes sense that they should have the same opportunity…as any other woman” says the charity’s website in a section called “The Truth about Trans.”
Whether or not you agree with such pronouncements, Stonewall’s substantive policy commitments and the intellectual presuppositions underpinning them are obviously academically contestable. As a “gender-critical” philosopher, I would argue that only some, but not all, people have a gender identity understood as Stonewall would have it—as an internal “sense” or feeling about whether one is really a man or a woman or neither, and one which potentially floats free of material facts about one’s sex, or about how that sex is perceived by others. I also argue that where such feelings do occur, they needn’t be innate, as Stonewall claims. Rather, I suggest, they often arrive, sometimes transiently, as the result of developing a certain personal narrative about where one fits, or doesn’t, in a social world already structured fairly rigidly around sex-based stereotypes. I argue that prioritising talk of gender identity, understood as an internal sense which can’t be directly perceived by others, is not an adequate substitute for describing in law and policy both the inevitable biological realities and the contingent social realities associated with belonging to a particular sex. While, as a matter of basic courtesy, I’m happy to use whatever pronouns and other descriptors a student or colleague wishes, I’d also argue that there are conceptual problems with assuming that, generally speaking, pronouns refer to one’s inner gender identity, rather than to something material or social.
Equally, on feminist grounds, I argue that serious questions should be raised about prioritising talk of internal gender identity over talk of biological sex, and about using preferred pronouns, when it comes to things like recording sexual crimes or gathering sexual assault statistics. I disagree that trans women should be on all-women shortlists, or have access to other means designed to improve equality of opportunity for biological females, since this would defeat the original, female-centred point. I argue that trans women attracted to females can’t technically count as “lesbians” as Stonewall claims they sometimes can. I argue that to question trans-identified kids about their feelings is not “conversion therapy,” as Stonewall suggests. (In fact, I argue, if the kids in question are gay, it may turn out that not questioning them is a form of indirect conversion therapy). And I’m against the policy of self-identification as the only criterion of eligibility for legal gender reassignment because of its predicted impact on females.
Do such views count as transphobic, according to Stonewall and the universities that sign up to its polices? It’s unclear. After all, arguably I’m someone who doesn’t “accept” gender identity, at least in an intellectual sense. In its document “Delivering LGBT-Inclusive Higher Education”, which is specifically aimed at universities, Stonewall says that “Speakers who hold strongly anti-LGBT views, such as…denying that trans people exist as the gender they say they are, cause LGBT people to feel deeply unsafe.” In Stonewall’s “Inclusive Policy Toolkit,” widely distributed to Diversity Champion Programme members, it cites this example of “bullying and harassment” taken from a University of Essex policy: “Refusing to address a trans person by…a correct gender pronoun.” Yet “address” here is also rather vague. Does it mean that when discussing with students where best to house trans women prisoners I have to refer to Karen White, who sexually assaulted female prisoners while in a women’s prison, as a ‘she’? (Newspapers described “her erect penis sticking out the top of her pants.”) As I say, personally I am more than happy to use preferred pronouns for colleagues and students and would consider it rude not to. But still. It is highly unusual, and rather chillingly heavy-handed, to find university policies prescribing specific politeness norms on pain of disciplinary procedures.
To the many who agree with Stonewall’s stance and who disagree with me, no doubt such commitments seem perfectly benign and my worries overblown. But that’s the thing about freedom of speech: you tend not to notice it being curtailed until it’s your speech that’s being restricted. And that will only happen when you think or say something at odds with what those in authority want you to think or say. The nature of social conformity is such that, for many people, this doesn’t happen very often. In contrast, one would expect it to happen reasonably often to academics. Challenging prevailing orthodoxies is surely part of their point. Yet, in practice, there’s a climate of intolerance around gender-critical thought, with academics either being censored by others, or self-censoring for fear of professional consequences. Stonewall’s close ties to universities, vaguely worded and punitive-sounding university policies, and general prominence as a political lobbying group, have led to a situation in which academic interrogation of Stonewall’s ideas and policies is condemned as a transphobic act.
In this febrile atmosphere, a vocal minority of students, well versed in university procedures, has become trigger(ed)-happy when it comes to issuing complaints against academics they perceive to be transgressors. Equally, some academics—although #notallGenderStudiesProfs—are apparently happy to describe gender-critical views as attacks on vulnerable members of the trans community, not as intellectual challenges to ideas or powerful institutions. University administrators are often slow to protect gender-critical employees from harassment and, in some cases, terrifyingly quick to believe that such employees are bigoted.
I recently put out a call, asking UK academics for their personal testimonies about their experience of hostility to gender-critical thought. Tales poured in: of managers demanding that staff defend their Twitter histories; of institutions failing to protect staff from student and public harassment; of staff facing complaints for signing letters to newspapers about academic freedom; of a lost editorship of an academic journal and a lost membership of an editorial board; of research rejected from publications on vague suspicions of transphobia; of no-platforming; and of researchers being warned off by managers about pursuing gender-critical research in the first place. Many respondents were too frightened of professional consequences to put their names to their testimonies.
In my own case, I’ve experienced student complaints, FOI requests, campus protests, threats to milkshake me, the defacement of my office door, open letters to no-platform me, articles in the local press and student newspapers claiming I make the campus at my university “unsafe”, defamation by the Student Union Executive, an attempted smear campaign by academics at another institution, and various forms of student and public harassment. Occasionally, critics point to the fact that despite this I still manage to write and publish, suggesting that this gives the lie to any claim that I don’t have the freedom to do so. But I wonder how many gender-critical academics have been deterred from expressing their views by these tactics? This doesn’t feel like a normal environment, and the ability to cope with it shouldn’t be taken as a basic requirement in order to pursue gender-critical research. One of my correspondents talked of how her hands would shake before she posted a gender-critical comment on Twitter.
Academics’ anxiety in this area is enhanced by the fact that influential factions within their trade union seem gleefully in tune with the dominant institutional and cultural mood. At the UCU General Congress this year, a motion to protect the academic freedom of gender-critical academics failed to pass. A recent branch motion passed at the University of Edinburgh declares: “All of our members have the right to exist and be recognised as the gender they themselves identify as”; and “We should not support members in weaponizing their speech to question the existence of trans and non-binary colleagues.” (Needless to say, no gender-critical academic to my knowledge has ever denied the existence of trans and non-binary people, nor denied their right to live free from harm and discrimination, but that is usually pointed out in vain). The new General Secretary of the UCU, Jo Grady, has boasted of her use of Twitter blocklists, designed to filter out gender-critical thought. As it happens, I’ve received good support from my local UCU caseworker, but the availability of such support looks patchy at best. That’s hardly reassuring to nervous academics who are concerned about their livelihood, worried about being demonised, and considering whether to stick their head above the parapet.
And yet certain subjects need to be broached. Only this week, the UK Gender Identity Development Service for children and teens released new figures showing that the number of patients has risen yet again in the past year. Now 74 percent of its patients are female and 54 percent are under the age of 14. Academics need to understand why the numbers of female and younger patients are rising so rapidly. More generally, they need to better understand the variety of reasons people within different demographic groups transition. What makes a 50-year-old heterosexual male, married with kids, want to transition, will differ from what makes a 14-year-old teenage girl wish to do so. As Oxford’s Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine, Carl Heneghan, recently noted, further understanding is also urgently needed of the longterm effects of drugs offered to gender-dysphoric children and teens.
In psychology, there’s a need to develop compassionate therapeutic services for the “detransitioners” and “desistors” already emerging. Epidemiologists and sociologists need to record their numbers, and medics need to monitor any longterm effects of medications. We also need to hear more, from a sociological perspective, about the experience of “trans widows”—wives of late-transitioning males, either left with broken relationships, or forced to adapt to huge changes in their marriages.
Academics also need to fight for robust biological-sex-based data, alongside data about gender identity, in order to properly track and analyse the multiple differences—physically, psychologically, socially, politically—currently statistically correlated with each sex. No doubt some of these differences are culturally and historically contingent, but something can be contingent, yet as obdurate as biological reality and so still be in need of study.
Legal theorists need to explore the complex interactions and possible conflicts between special legal protections for sex and for gender reassignment. Policy-makers need to understand the material consequences for women, many of them survivors of sexual assault, of the current shift in policy towards “gender neutral” (I would say, unisex) spaces. We need to understand the social and political implications of LGBT organisations redefining homosexuality to exclude any reference to biological sex—as Stonewall has done—and thereby classifying some biological males attracted to women as “lesbians.” This is bound to have serious implications for female homosexuals which need to be explored.
Philosophers need to be free to explore and analyse the nature and consequences of metaphysical notions such as gender identity, both in themselves, and in terms of their practical implications for policy decisions. And, in my no doubt tendentious view, we also need feminist thought to explain how misogyny and habits of female socialisation have brought us to a place where nearly every women’s organisation permits biological males to access their resources on the basis of self-identification, but where hereditary titles still pass down the biologically male line, transition notwithstanding, and where the Freemasons will admit males, including transwomen, and trans men, but not non-transitioned females.
Of course, there shouldn’t be suppression in any other direction either. For instance, we shouldn’t suppress arguments in favour of prioritising gender identity, or of changing our concepts, laws, and policies to recognise it. We need to hear these points of view, fairly and non-defensively. But in the absence of complicating critical voices; of proper scrutiny of a large range of evidence; of consideration of a variety of academic perspectives and not just those politically committed to certain narrow outcomes in advance— in short, in the absence of what is business-as-usual in other areas of academic research—any conclusions drawn from such arguments look error-prone.
To get back to business-as-usual in this area, university managers need to put some distance between their own policies and the emotion-saturated simplifications of lobby groups like Stonewall. They need to be careful about embracing the PR-friendly waves of politicised campaigns to be “inclusive” and “diverse” without anticipating how such campaigns might intersect with various existing conditions to produce unintended consequences. And generally, they need to start thinking much harder about how to uphold freedom of speech in their universities so gender-critical academics can pursue and discuss their ideas, without undue anxiety, alongside different-minded peers.
Kathleen Stock is a professor of philosophy at Sussex University. She can be found on Twitter at @Docstockk