HOURS BEFORE Jo Phoenix, a professor of criminology at Britain’s Open University, was due to give a talk at Essex University in the east of England about placing transgender women in women’s prisons, students threatened to barricade the hall. They complained that Ms Phoenix was a “transphobe” likely to engage in “hate speech”. A flyer with an image of a gun and text reading “shut the fuck up, TERF” (trans-exclusionary radical feminist, a slur) was circulating. The university told Ms Phoenix it was postponing the event. Then the sociology department asked her for a copy of her talk. Days later it told her it had voted to rescind its invitation, and would issue no more. Ms Phoenix says she was “absolutely furious and deeply upset” about both the damage to her reputation and to academic freedom.
Essex University’s vice-chancellor asked Akua Reindorf, a lawyer who specialises in employment and discrimination law, to investigate. Eighteen months later, in mid-May, the university published Ms Reindorf’s report on its website. It said Essex had infringed Ms Phoenix’s right to freedom of expression and that its decision to “exclude and blacklist” her was also unlawful. It advised the university to apologise to Ms Phoenix and to Rosa Freedman, a professor of law at Reading University whom it had excluded from an event during Holocaust Memorial Week “because of her views on gender identity”. (Essex in the end allowed Ms Freedman to attend.)
Ms Reindorf’s report marks a challenge to the transgender dogma that originated on American campuses and has spread to universities around the English-speaking world. Its proponents hold that gender identity—the feeling that one is a man or a woman—is as important as biological sex and that trans people should in all circumstances be regarded as the gender with which they identify. This has increasingly influenced policy-makers: several places allow trans women into spaces that were once reserved for females, from sports teams to prisons and shelters for victims of domestic violence.
The opposing viewpoint, which is often described as “gender-critical”, might once have been considered mainstream. It argues that, since biological sex is unchangeable, even with hormones, surgery or any other form of treatment, the conviction that one has been born in the wrong body should not be dispositive. Gender critics argue that biological differences between the sexes make the continued provision of female-only spaces necessary. Trans activists say that trans women should have access to those places, too. “The emphasis that so-called gender-critical women place on what they describe as threats to women ignores the fact that trans women are overwhelmingly those who are threatened in single-sex spaces,” says Lisa Miracchi, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has signed open letters disapproving of gender-critical feminists.
The arguments the two sides put forward, in other words, are complex and debatable. But many trans activists think that any disagreement is tantamount to hate speech and try to suppress it. Some universities with policies that reflect the belief that trans women are women have acted on complaints about people who do nothing more than express a contrary view. In May, after students at Abertay University in Dundee reported that a student had said at a seminar that women have vaginas and men are stronger, the university launched an investigation.
In some cases, academics who have objected to “gender ideology”—the view that gender identity should trump biology—have been removed from professional posts. In April Callie Burt, an associate professor at Georgia State University, was fired from the editorial board of Feminist Criminology. She was told her presence might deter others from submitting manuscripts. The problem appears to have been her criticism of the conflation of sex and gender identity in proposed anti-discrimination legislation. Last June Kathleen Lowrey, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, was removed as the chair of an undergraduate programme after students complained they felt unsafe. She says she reckons gender-critical posters on her office door were to blame.
Yet the most worrying effect is likely to be invisible. An unknown number of university employees avoid expressing their opinion for fear it will damage their career or turn them into pariahs. The report about Essex says witnesses described a “culture of fear” among those with gender-critical views. This is unlikely to be limited to one university. The report also argues that expressing the view that trans women are not women is not hate speech and is not illegal under British law, whatever university policies might suggest.
The fight back
The report is likely to embolden gender-critical academics in Britain, at least, where they are already more outspoken. There are signs that a backlash to gender ideology is building elsewhere, too. In February, when Donna Hughes, a professor of women’s studies at Rhode Island University, published an article critical of gender ideology, petitions sprouted calling for her to be fired. Her university denounced her and warned that the right to free speech was “not boundless”. Ms Hughes, who is a co-founder of the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), which was launched in March, says her university encouraged students to file complaints. She hired an “aggressive” lawyer. In May the AFA announced the university had dropped its investigations into Ms Hughes and affirmed her right to speak.
Ms Hughes’s example is striking because in America, where concerns about free speech in universities tend to focus on racial sensitivities, gender-critical views are rarely expressed publicly. This is partly because there is no federal legislation that specifically protects trans (or gay) people from discrimination, which lends a particular urgency to LGBT activism. Jami Taylor, a professor of political science at the University of Toledo and a trans woman, says she has experienced “transgender-related bias” throughout her career, from being called “it” by students and a colleague to being guided to the men’s bathroom.
America’s political polarisation makes it harder yet to debate such topics. Trans activists often portray gender criticism as a far-right cause. Though it is becoming that, too, it is a topic on which leftist feminists and social conservatives find agreement. In Britain most outspoken gender-critical academics are left-leaning, atheist feminists. Some in America are, too.
Their chief concern is the preservation of female-only spaces. In February Holly Lawford-Smith, a professor of philosophy at the University of Melbourne, launched a website (noconflicttheysaid.org) which invited women to describe their experiences of sharing female-only spaces with trans women. It is not a research project and its reports are unverified. Most describe a feeling of discomfort rather than any form of physical assault. Soon afterwards, around 100 of her colleagues signed an open letter claiming the website promoted “harmful ideology”. It called for “swift and decisive action by the university”. Ms Lawford-Smith kept her job, but there have been at least two marches at the university decrying that. “I think people quite enjoy having a nemesis on campus,” she says.
How did an ideology that brooks no dissent become so entrenched in institutions supposedly dedicated to fostering independent thinking? Pressure groups have played a big part. In Britain most universities and many public-sector bodies have joined the Stonewall Diversity Champions scheme, which means they have drawn up policies that reflect the group’s position on trans identity. The report about Essex said the university’s policy “states the law as Stonewall would prefer it to be, rather than the law as it is”, and could cause the university to break the law by indirectly discriminating against women. Itrecommended that Essex reconsider its relationship with Stonewall. Several bodies, including the government’s equality watchdog, have since left the Champions scheme.
The influence of pressure groups exemplifies the other big reason trans ideology has gained a foothold in academia: its elision with the rights of gay people. Many organisations established to defend gay rights have morphed into trans-rights groups. Tamsin Blaxter, a research fellow at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge and a trans woman, says that academia has become a lot more welcoming to trans people, thanks largely to Stonewall. But some gay people disagree with its new focus. In 2019 some supporters split from the group, in part owing to concerns that its stance encourages gay people to redefine themselves as trans (and straight), to form the LGB Alliance. Similar groups have sprung up around the world.
Students increasingly express gender-critical views. This year a group of feminist students in Cambridge ran a “replatforming” event for gender-critical scholars who had been excluded from academic events (Ms Phoenix was among the speakers). Sophie Watson, one of the organisers, says she has lost friends over the issue. “There’s so much fear over using the wrong language—to disagree with the line that trans women are women is really considered hateful,” she says.
Gender-critical academics hope that as more of them speak out, others who share their concerns but were afraid to express them will feel emboldened. When Kathleen Stock, a professor of philosophy at Sussex University and one of Britain’s most prominent gender-critical academics, was given a government award for services to education last December, hundreds of academics from around the world signed an open letter denouncing her. More than 400 signed a counter letter in her defence. But many people, she says, prefer to express their support privately.
Universities will no doubt watch how the debate evolves outside academia, especially in the courts. The dangers of eroding free speech are becoming increasingly apparent as judges rule on matters from the medical treatment of trans-identifying children to people who have been sacked after being accused of transphobia. If Maya Forstater, a British researcher who lost her job because of her gender-critical views, wins her appeal against the ruling of an employment tribunal that this was lawful, universities may become quicker to defend their gender-critical employees.
Regulation may also play a part. In February the British government announced proposals to strengthen academic freedom at universities, including the appointment of a free-speech champion. Some (though not all) gender-critical academics welcome the idea. In America lawsuits invoking free speech may make a difference. But it would be better if universities, which owe their success to a tradition of dissent and debate, did in fact defend it. ■
This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Let’s talk about sex”