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Why This Feminist Is Taking the University of Bristol to Court

· 15 min read
Why This Feminist Is Taking the University of Bristol to Court
Raquel Rosario Sánchez

Next week, I am taking my university to court. To my knowledge, it is the first time an academic institution has been forced, at trial, to justify why it prioritises trans rights over women’s rights. The other party in the case is the University of Bristol, which one might suppose to be an unlikely defendant given its distinction as the first higher-education establishment in England to have admitted women on an equal basis to men. Unfortunately, the university has more recently become known as a hotbed for anti-feminist militancy.

The university’s Victoria Rooms once served as ground zero for suffragettes in the city of Bristol, and in the larger southwest area of England surrounding it. Beginning in 1908, the Women’s Social and Political Union branch of the suffrage movement would host its meetings on campus. The University also hosted leading lights of the British feminist movement, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, her daughter Christabel Pankhurst, and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence.

All of this history will provide an ironic backdrop to next week’s legal proceedings, in which the university stands accused of sex discrimination and negligence for failing to protect a feminist scholar. I will argue that the University of Bristol has engineered a number of practices and policies that prioritise the demands of trans activists over women’s legal rights. This institution-wide pattern, I allege, includes a failure to properly investigate complaints of bullying, harassment, and intimidation committed by trans activists on campus, even while targeting feminists who defend sex-based rights, such as myself.

My ordeal began with an action so benign that is seems laughable. I agreed to chair a meeting held by the campaigning organisation Woman’s Place UK, which featured a discussion of proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004, a UK law. These changes would have allowed any person’s biological sex to be trumped, without any checks, delays, or safeguards, by their own gendered self-identification. Woman’s Place UK’s concern over such amendments is rooted in its mission, which is to ensure the availability of “reserved places, separate spaces and distinct services” on the basis of biological sex.

My participation should have been entirely unremarkable, as Gender Studies have been my academic field for the past decade—right up to my PhD work at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Gender and Violence Research. Outside of academia, all my professional experience has been in the women’s sector, mostly working in shelters and refuges for women and children escaping male violence. People shouldn’t need this level of experience to voice an opinion on the sex-and-gender debate. But to the extent the question was, “Is she qualified to speak on this?,” then I don’t think the answer was in much doubt.

But the radicalized activists who denounced me don’t seem to care much about facts. The moment that details of the meeting were announced in late January 2018, I was denounced as a TERF (a term of abuse that signifies “trans-exclusionary radical feminist”). In response, I filed a complaint with the university on February 1st, 2018, as I believed that the school’s stated anti-harassment policies were clearly on my side. But university officials dragged their feet on my case for the next two years and, in late 2019, dismissed it entirely. I was invited to leave the university and my PhD programme.

When we go to court next week, I expect that university lawyers will argue that the school did nothing wrong, and that any impact the bullying and harassment had on my health and academic studies were my own fault because I am, as they see it, a deficient student who is being dishonest about her state of health. My legal team will argue otherwise.

Anyone who has followed this issue will know that I am hardly the first female academic to be bullied in this way. In the UK, women’s legal rights remain rooted in sex, not self-declared “gender identity,” and sex is considered a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. This means that single-sex services, facilities, and spaces are legally permitted, even if they exclude biological men who demand full treatment as women. Yet many institutions—including, apparently, the University of Bristol—believe that they may put these laws to one side as a matter of political expediency, so that they may appease a tiny, but often aggressive, constituency.

Consider the “women-only gym sessions” that the University of Bristol launched in April 2021. In the press statement introducing this policy, the school declared:

In 2019, our two-hour female-only #ThisGirlCan “gym takeover” was attended by 230 students. Feedback from session attendees identified that the women-only environment provided a “safe” and a “non-judgmental” space for women, with many reporting feeling “intimidated” when using the gym at other times. It has also been acknowledged that members of our #WeAreBristol community, for religious and cultural reasons, require a women-only space for exercise.

In fact, these gym sessions weren’t restricted to females, but rather were open to anyone who announces, with no further elaboration, that they “self-identify” as female. And so while female students who attend the sessions may believe they will be entering a female-only space, that’s not what they may find on any given day. It’s an insult to women who desire safety, privacy, and dignity.

Another protected characteristic under the Equality Act is “pregnancy and maternity.” But ideological puritans staffing the university’s Diversity and Inclusion office have sought to erase virtually any term that communicates the reality of female biology. I know this because I have been contacted by several female employees facing career implosion after they expressed support of sex-based rights, including one who’s responsible for writing family policies for staff members. She had already been pressured to remove all references to words such as “woman,” “she,” and “her” from the maternity policy. But over time, she was instructed that even this was not enough. According to this whistle-blower:

In a recent meeting, the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion team required further changes. Among other things, they were arguing that the word “maternity” itself is exclusionary and problematic. In the meeting, I stated, “you have to have a uterus to give birth.” I said it worried me that the word “maternity” is deemed problematic in a maternity policy. I said we had a duty to consider the needs and rights of women accessing the policy, and not only the transgender community. As a result, a written complaint was made to the senior HR team accusing me of transphobia and abuse.

As ridiculous as this may sound, she was in fact investigated, and forced to apologize for standing up for the reality of human biology, and for the letter of UK law as it now stands.

In some ways, British feminists are more fortunate than their counterparts in other countries, because the backlash against hardcore gender ideologues began earlier in this country. The public has started paying attention to battles that once played out only in college classrooms and gender clinics. And in almost every part of the UK, it seems, the tenets of gender orthodoxy (not to mention the unsettling strongarm tactics used to advance them) have been shown to be at odds with public opinion. Several figures within this resistance movement have now become well-known figures, including former University of Sussex philosopher Kathleen Stock, writer Helen Joyce, litigant Keira Bell, and educator Debbie Hayton. And so, even as I have been bullied and isolated at my university, I have been able to find kindred spirits who could offer support and brainstorm about the best way to fight back at gender radicalism on campus.

These include Nicole Jones, co-founder of the youth-led XX Feminist Network, whose members believe that “freedom of assembly, association, opinion and expression are fundamental principles of women’s liberation.” Like many young women at university, she became baffled by the disconnect between the postmodernist-infused theories presented to our generation as feminism and what she knew to be day-to-day material reality. Nicole told me:

I first became aware of this issue through reading second-wave [feminist] texts, and finding mainstream feminism to be increasingly in conflict with the materialist analysis of women as a sex class. I was then alarmed to see the women attempting to address the questions raised by this conflict being aggressively silenced and smeared. Intelligent, thoughtful, and evidence-based contributions to the discussion were being shut down in favour of meaningless mantras and ideological conformity.

Nicole knows first-hand what it feels like to want to escape your female body as you’re overwhelmed by the pressure associated with feminine expectations. But sharing these feelings earned her no sympathy from trans activists. Just the opposite:

The worst aspect has probably been the social isolation. I have been threatened, refused service, and subjected to dehumanising comments, all on the basis of my feminist beliefs. I found that the solution to this treatment has been to withdraw and keep to myself, but this has taken an intense personal toll and impacted my university experience. I’m an art student and find myself avoiding speaking to peers, participating in group shows, and fearful to make contributions in class … I’m careful to avoid situations where there might be conflict. But this has meant lost friendships, networks, and opportunities. The silence from the art world on these issues has meant that these opportunities now only seem to exist outside of what I originally intended to do with my life. When you’re young and at the start of your career, there is less that can immediately be taken from you, as you have yet to build what the backlash might seek to destroy. Instead, it feels like a series of doors closing.

But rather than sulk and cry, Nicole began organising on a grassroots level, co-creating a national network for female students concerned about the takeover of gender-identity theory in academia. “Stop waiting for permission to challenge the new orthodoxy,” she told me. “It won’t come. [But] organising with the XX Feminist Network has shown me that the so-called ‘generational divide’ is a myth: plenty of young people share these concerns, and are willing to have these conversations. We just need to create the space for them.”

Although the majority of people advocating for sex-based rights are female, there are some male academics in this fight as well. And things can be similarly grim for them as well. At the University of Oxford, Michael Biggs, a sociology professor, has found himself at the centre of controversy for expressing opinions critical of gender identity, including such basic propositions as the idea that one “can’t actually change from a boy to a girl.” This is how he explained his story to me:

For a Master’s Degree level class at University of Oxford, we discussed—as an example to develop sociological explanations—the increasing number of children identifying as trans. After the class, an American student told me that other students had said things in class that were unacceptable, yet she had not argued with them in class. Two other students also emailed me and told me to educate myself. All three were women and not trans-identified.
The student newspaper ran two front-page stories on me. One of these was copied and circulated throughout my department for several days. Students circulated a petition to have me disciplined. One of my classes was interrupted by students demanding that I explain my beliefs, and this struggle session took the whole hour. One of my doctoral students left me, as did two of my college advisees. I was invited to give an academic talk in Norway and then uninvited because of my views.
The most amusing incident was a trans-identified female student wearing the t-shirt “cunt-boy” to my lecture. Rather sadly, this same student attended the Woman’s Place UK in Oxford meeting at which you spoke, and [reportedly] did her first shot of testosterone in the toilet after the meeting—her way of “owning the TERFs.” Fortunately, my department does positivist social science, and so I have been supported or at least not opposed by colleagues—with the exception of two Americans.

Today, Prof. Biggs helps lead the campaigning organisation Sex Matters, a UK-based non-profit that seeks “to re-establish that sex matters in rules, laws, policies, language and culture.” When I asked him at what point he decided to step up and speak out, he mentioned the 2017 physical assault against a then-60-year-old woman named Maria MacLachlan at Hyde Park in London, wherein a group of 20-something male trans activists ganged up on her as she discussed sex and gender. In April 2018, one of those trans activists, named Tara Wolf, was convicted of assault by beating. Coincidentally, this was also the incident that galvanised me into action as well.

In many cases, culture-war battles are settled when both sides learn to compromise. But that seems difficult in this case because, while legislators, activists, and academics (including those denounced as “TERFs”) have already endorsed common-sense human-rights protections for trans-identified individuals, the fundamentally puritanical nature of gender-identity ideology casts any compromise as a form of cruelty (or, to adapt the common cliché, “a denial of one’s right to exist”). What compromise is possible with someone who views any recognition of biological reality as tantamount to a metaphorical form of extinction?

Moreover, since gender-identity ideology is based on the idea of an invisible, unfalsifiable, soul-like quasi-spiritual force that defines one’s identity, it arguably resembles a religious movement as much as an intellectual one. As such, it treats heretics and apostates as morally flawed creatures worthy of ostracism and public shaming.

“Transgenderism requires everyone to play along,” is how Michael put it to me. “When they say that we are ‘killing’ them, they are not entirely wrong insofar as they have constructed selves that require validation without exception.”

“What is frightening is that the younger generation of doctoral students, postdocs, and junior academics are far more invested in transgender ideology than my generation,” he added. “And they explicitly reject academic freedom. As they move into more senior positions over the next ten or twenty years, they will inevitably dominate [universities].”

Philosopher Jon Pike of the UK-based Open University is another male professor who’s been denounced for such thoughtcrimes. In response, he’s set up a group called the Gender Critical Research Network, aimed at bringing together scholars dedicated to rejecting any taboo against “exploring how sexed bodies come to matter in their respective research fields.” It was a cause he fell into through his study of sports:

I specialise in the philosophy of sport, and fairness in sport. Sport actions have to have an aim, and it has to be difficult but possible to achieve that. All this depends on our bodies. And the possibility and difficulty of what we do depends on our sexed bodies. This seems to me to be obvious. I started talking and writing about these issues, and I have been able to get some policy changes through, particularly through advising World Rugby—[even though] it’s often difficult for a philosophy academic to have much effect on the outside world.  So that’s been satisfying. But I’ve also had a few death threats, which is not so great.

Academics create formal and informal networks all the time. Yet it was this one that prompted an official statement from the Open University’s vice chancellor, indicating that its establishment “has caused hurt and a feeling of being abandoned among our trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming staff and students. It has also distressed many others in the wider OU community. This, and the well-being of all colleagues, greatly concerns me.”

Despite this passive-aggressive rhetorical attack on Dr. Pike, he doesn’t appear cowed or intimidated. Instead, he continues to argue forthrightly that it’s time to drop our reservations about speaking plainly. And he goes further by arguing that the problems afflicting the study of gender studies go well beyond trans activism:

There are certain approaches which could fade away with no great lost. There are good reasons why Judith Butler is not taken seriously in most philosophy departments: a lot of her stuff is incoherent, in my view … There are reasons why “lived experience” is not a key input into devising safety polices in contact and invasion sport, and why, more generally, anecdotal evidence and autoethnography struggle for intellectual respectability. We wouldn’t resolve the concussion crisis in Rugby and Football just by listening to ex-players who said, “Well, it never did me any harm.” First person perspectives just don’t have much to offer here.

As for the Gender Critical Research Network, he describes it as a collective effort that arose essentially out of desperation: Dr. Pike had signed a letter to the Sunday Times that the aforementioned Kathleen Stock had circulated, criticizing LGBT charity Stonewall for its radicalized approach on trans rights and suppression of dissent (a school of thought sometimes described as “#nodebate”). As it turned out, he wasn’t the only signatory from Open University. Another was criminologist Jo Phoenix.

“I think both of us got tired with spending all our time in a fight for space, so we went for a sort of do-or-die solution—get a public network off the ground and put ‘#nodebate’ to one side,” he told me. “In effect, we said—you can have your debate over #nodebate, but, in the meantime, we have got intellectual work to do: Sex matters—how, where, why, to what extent?”

Pondering these questions aloud ended up costing Prof. Phoenix her job at Open University. In December 2021, the former chair of Criminology announced she’d be leaving, ending a 25-year relationship with the institution. Today, she is suing the university, and has added a claim for constructive dismissal to her case after they failed to take the bullying and harassment she endured from colleagues who compared her to a holocaust denier and “the racist uncle at Christmas dinner.” She told me that:

The strange thing about the last two years of my life is the dawning realisation that standing up for academic freedom, standing up for the need for single sex exemptions as provided in the Equality Act 2010, and pointing out the need to disaggregate transgender individuals from females in research is somehow transphobic. I still fail to understand why I am accused of transphobia or of being a transphobe because I choose in political and intellectual terms to define the category woman in relation to biology. As an author of research, I am free to define my research categories as I see fit.

Following two years of this kind of daily battle, she’s concluded that transphobia has now become a meaningless smear, applied unthinkingly to anyone who departs in any way from gender-identity orthodoxy: “I no longer think the accusations of transphobia have anything to do with academic or even political critique. I think they are simply used to delegitimise an individual as having any authority or credibility in the area they work with them or talk about.”

Phoenix has raised almost £100,000 in donations from the public to take her former academic institution to court. Leaving, she says, broke her heart. But at least it didn’t end her career. On January 1st, she took up a new post as Professor of Criminology at the University of Reading, which she has praised for “its commitment to upholding and protecting academic freedom.”

The critical question, she told me, is whether other university managers will commit themselves to ensuring viewpoint pluralism on campus, which would involve unwinding the heavy-handed influence of lobby groups such as Stonewall. Moreover, she says, students must come to understand that debate isn’t a form of trauma, and that vague accusations of transphobia aren’t an academically credible form of disputation.

As a result of these developments (and, to be fair, many that preceded them), the whole field of gender studies has become a sort of punch line among many ordinary people, a byword for obscure, jargony, dogma-addled academic cant. “How come you’re still sane?” is a question some people who’ve remained in the field will get half-jokingly from others. But it wasn’t always like this.

About 10 years ago, I sat in a Utah classroom during one of my Introduction to Women’s Studies lectures. We had a guest who’d come to speak with us about the performativity of gender. He was a crossdresser.

He was dressed in a light green tweed outfit of pencil skirt and buttoned-up jacket, with bright pink lipstick and a blonde wig. He was going for a business-glam look. I say “he” when referring to our guest because that is the pronoun he used to refer to himself. He told us he had a wife and kids who knew about his desire to dress in feminine clothing. He also said this was something he engaged in mostly during the weekends, for fun.

In Mormon-filled Utah, the conversation that took place among those mostly impressionable 18–22-year-olds was sensible and measured. Even the contrarian men (who one sometimes finds in Women Studies classrooms) showed respect. Not once did our guest refer to himself as a woman, and if he had argued that he was indeed a biological woman because he liked to wear skirts and makeup, the classroom would have perceived that idea for what it is: misogyny.

Such a scene is difficult to imagine today, as failure to abide by the idea that pronouns trump biological sex can (in the UK, at least) earn you a literal visit from a police officer. Indeed, numerous British women have been investigated for the words they’ve tweeted and the stickers and posters they’ve pasted around their cities.

Next week, I’m scheduled to sit in a courtroom, facing my university—an institution in which I’d vested so much hope and trust about my future, before its leaders became co-opted by activists seeking to ruin my life in response to a single 2018 feminist meeting. Even if I win the case, I ask myself, what future in academia awaits a young scholar who’s already marked herself as a heretic?

Oftentimes, I also think of the woman I was when I decided to engage my adversaries on this battlefield. When the campaign of vilification against me began, I was faced with two bad choices. And as the Russian saying goes, both were worst.

Either I obeyed trans activist bullies, retreating apologetically into irrelevance, bleating my pronouns; or I stood up for myself and dared to face the consequences. Back then, I wouldn’t have been able to understand the consequences of the latter option, even if they’d been accurately explained to me. But then again, there was never any real question of which path I would take anyway, as I have always aimed my career at eradicating the abuse of women and girls. And so a failure to stand up to my own tormentors wouldn’t have just represented a betrayal of my own personal opinions and principles, but of the very cause that brought me to a university I’d imagined to be a bastion of feminism.

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