We first took a stand against transphobia at our university in the summer of 2018. Of course, that’s not to say we weren’t aware of it before, or that we weren’t affected by it – as two trans individuals who had been teaching and studying there – but summer 2018 was the first time we tried to confront it.
The catalyst came in the form of an open letter published in the Sunday Times that, among other things, challenged the rights of trans students to use their preferred pronouns and names in the classroom, speculated about trans women’s genitals, and encouraged universities to sever their ties with human rights organisation, Stonewall.
A senior professor from our university had co-signed this letter on behalf of the institution.
We were shocked. In retrospect it seems naive, but at the time it seemed inconceivable that the institution would support an event with such obviously negative consequences for its own students and staff. Even when we discovered that senior lecturers in the same department had disciplinary records for previous instances of transphobia, and that on social media and in academic publications the same lecturers had questioned the existence of trans people, attacked preferred pronoun use in the classroom, and even supported conspiracy theories about a “trans agenda” – even after all this, we felt that an ostensibly liberal institution like a university would protect us.
We were wrong. Although we received some support from supervisors and close colleagues, others ignored our requests for help, said it wasn’t the right cause or the right time for them, or worse, responded with detailed, perfectly collegial arguments in favour of transphobia. University administration put out an official statement reaffirming colleagues’ right to free speech. For those of us who were affected, the sentiment was one of “tough luck”.
We have seen this happen time and time again: a transphobic speaker is invited to the university to share their views, a colleague shares an article about the ‘trans agenda’, a professor complains about trans activists in the student paper. And every time the university response is the same: We’re sorry if this has affected you. We’ll look into this. We’ll hold a committee, to arrange a meeting, to consider… And at the end of the day trans staff and students are left hanging, wondering where the next blow is going to come from.
So why has transphobia proven so hard to address in academia? A major reason is the way academic language, and academic structures of debate, treat transphobia as a subject for discussion. (It is no coincidence that the vast majority of anti-trans discourse in the university comes from philosophy departments.) The idea of academic freedom gets thrown around a lot, much in the same way that in many libertarian right-wing discourses freedom of speech is used to authorise hate speech. And just as, hopefully, we can readily understand that racists don’t sincerely care about the philosophical value of freedom of speech so much as their right to use slurs, so the compass of academic freedom is used time and time again in bad faith to embed attacks on marginalised individuals.
What is peculiar about this ‘freedom’ is the extent to which so many academics don’t notice, or perhaps don’t care, how profoundly it excludes the people it targets.
To give an example: A transphobic speaker was invited to our university, one so infamously litigious that we cannot print their name here. We complained to university administration citing the speaker’s considerable wealth of anti-trans conduct on social media and on campus. The university’s response was to invite us to a meeting with the head of school who took the liberty of calling us out for “opposing feminism” (that was a low point, for sure).
Not once was the irony acknowledged that, in pursuit of academic freedom, the university was making it transparently clear that trans people were not welcome. That when one’s rights, one’s identity, or the conditions of one’s existence are the subject of debate it is not a debate in which one can participate.
By way of an apology the head of school grudgingly suggested we have a trans person as a future speaker, confirming what we already knew: that to the university this is a debate with two sides – an argument for and against, a question of does or doesn’t exist.
The worst thing is, even if we were opposed to freedom of speech – which we’re not – there wouldn’t be any threat to academic conventions.
That same year, in 2018, BBC Reality Check confirmed via FOIA that there had been six speaker cancellations across all UK universities in eight years. Even if every single one of those was a transphobe successfully ousted from campus we’re averaging about two thirds of one every year. Not exactly an agenda, is it? Meanwhile in 2020 the Times published an article critical of trans people on an almost daily basis, while journalists and academics filled the pages of Spiked and the Daily Mail to complain to a readership of millions that they were being silenced.
It is vital to remember that ‘freedom of speech’ has never meant freedom from criticism.
It would be totally unacceptable for a professor of philosophy at a major university to wade into the papers arguing for his right to use a gay slur, or that lesbians shouldn’t be allowed in the women’s bathroom in case they prey on our daughters with their unnatural same-sex attractions. These things would be rightly sanctioned in 2021 and no one, one hopes, would cry that academic freedom was in danger. But when trans people want to be accorded a basic measure of dignity and safety on campus the same rules do not apply. It seems we are a necessary sacrifice in the name of free speech.
When dealing with this level of opposition, to which there appears to be no end in sight, it can be easy to give up. But then our voices would never be heard. So this is what we did…
First, we stopped beating our heads against the issue. Bringing about policy change and culture shift are vital, and working towards them is an important part of the fight for trans rights – on and off campus. But it can’t be achieved overnight, and it can’t be achieved alone. The big home advantage institutions like universities have is their size, their power, and their ability to wait out moments of protest. They know that they are unlikely to lose any money over a single person’s complaints (and, unfortunately, the kind of people who work in upper university management are unlikely to lose any sleep over the issue).
They know that if they sandbag that person with endless cycles of meetings, promises of reviews, and even threats of disciplinary action, that that person will likely break before they do. So we took a step back to breathe.
Secondly, we found our people. For us, this started with the Students’ Union. Where the university had failed to support us, they released a strong statement of support for trans students and staff.
We exchanged emails, we met with LGBT+ representatives, and we found a shared sense of solidarity in our shared sense of powerlessness. We all knew what it was like to face the institution on an issue of social injustice and come away empty-handed. So we took those feelings and decided to make them into something: rather than try and fight an institution that wouldn’t budge for us, we took a different route.
We organised a trans pride event, connected with undergraduate groups and created spaces for them to voice their concerns, formed an advocacy group for our local Pride committee, and even channelled our energy into creative projects like podcasts, art, and this article.
Of course, then COVID happened, and our best laid plans were largely cancelled. But through the alternative paths we took, we have reached hundreds, perhaps thousands more people than we ever could have done arguing with the brick wall of university administration.
So: if you’re a trans person at university, staff or student, or you’re concerned about transphobia on campus, this is our advice. We can’t promise you things will be better tomorrow or offer you a solution, BUT we can tell you with absolute confidence that there are other things you can do. There are people you’ve not met, projects you’ve not started, and paths you’ve not yet found that will get you places beyond the scope of the institution.
We can find academic freedom in freedom from academia.