[ ] H OUR BEFORE Jo Phoenix, professor of criminology at the Open University of Great Britain, was to give a talk at the University of Essex on the placement of transgender women in prisons of women, the students threatened to barricade the room. They complained that Ms. Phoenix was a "transphobic" who would likely participate in "hate speech". There was a flyer with the image of a gun and a text that read "Shut your mouth, TERF" ( radical feminist transexclusiva, an insult). The university told Ms. Phoenix that it would postpone the event. Then the sociology department asked him for a copy of his talk. Days later, he told her that he had voted to rescind his invitation and that he would not issue more. Ms. Phoenix says she was "absolutely furious and deeply upset" at the damage to her reputation and academic freedom.
Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android.
The Vice Chancellor of the University of Essex asked Akua Reindorf, a lawyer who specializes in employment and discrimination law, to investigate. Eighteen months later, in mid-May, the university posted Ms. Reindorf's report on its website. He said that Essex had violated Ms. Phoenix's right to freedom of expression and that his decision to "exclude and blacklist her" was also illegal. She advised the university to apologize to Ms. Phoenix and Rosa Freedman, a law professor at the University of Reading, whom she had excluded from an event during Holocaust Memorial Week "for their views on gender identity." (In the end, Essex allowed Ms. Freedman to attend.)
Ms. Reindorf's report marks a challenge to transgender dogma that originated on American campuses and has spread to universities across the world. English speaking world. Its advocates argue that gender identity – the feeling that one is male or female – is as important as biological sex and that trans people should be considered in all circumstances as the gender with which they identify. This has increasingly influenced policy makers: various venues allow trans women to enter spaces that were previously reserved for women, from sports teams to prisons and shelters for victims of domestic violence.
The opposite point of view, which is often described as "Gender Critic", could have once been considered mainstream. He argues that since biological sex is immutable, even with hormones, surgery, or any other form of treatment, the conviction that one was born in the wrong body should not be a device. Gender critics argue that biological differences between the sexes necessitate the continued provision of exclusive spaces for women. 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, for the most part, those who are threatened in single-sex spaces,” says Lisa Miracchi, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who has signed open letters disapproving of gender-critical feminists.
In other words, the arguments presented by the two parties are complex and debatable. But many trans activists think that any disagreement amounts 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 from people who do nothing more than express a contrary opinion. 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 opposed "gender ideology" – the view that gender identity should prevail over biology – have been removed from professional positions. In April, Callie Burt, associate professor at Georgia State University, was fired from the editorial board of Feminist Criminology . They told him that his presence could discourage others from submitting manuscripts. The problem appears to have been his criticism of the combination of sex and gender identity in the proposed anti-discrimination legislation. Last June, Kathleen Lowrey, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, was fired as president of an undergraduate program after students complained they felt unsafe. She says she believes the gender criticism posters on her office door were the culprits.
However, the most worrisome effect is likely to be invisible. An unknown number of university employees avoid expressing their opinion for fear that it will damage their careers or make them outcasts. The Essex report says witnesses described a "culture of fear" among those with critical gender views. This is unlikely to be limited to one university. The report also contends that expressing the view that trans women are not women is not hate speech and is not illegal under British law, regardless of what university policies suggest.
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 as well. In February, when Donna Hughes, a professor of women's studies at the University of Rhode Island, published an article criticizing gender ideology, petitions surfaced calling for her dismissal. Her university denounced her and warned that the right to freedom of expression "is not unlimited." Ms. Hughes, co-founder of the Academic Freedom Alliance ( AFA ), which launched in March, says her university encouraged students to file complaints. He hired an "aggressive" attorney. In May, AFA announced that the university had abandoned its research on Ms. Hughes and asserted her right to speak.
The example of Ms. Hughes is striking because in the United States, where concerns about free speech in universities tend to focus on racial sensitivities, critical gender views are rarely expressed publicly. This is in part because there is no federal legislation that specifically protects trans (or gay) people from discrimination, giving particular urgency to LGBT activism . Jami Taylor, a political science professor at the University of Toledo and a trans woman, says she has experienced "biases related to transgender people" throughout her career, from being called "it" by students and a colleague until the they lead to the men's room.
America's political polarization makes these issues even more difficult to debate. Trans activists often portray gender criticism as a far-right cause. Although it is becoming that too, it is an issue on which left feminists and social conservatives agree. In Britain, most of the gender-critical academics are atheistic left-wing feminists. Some in the United States are too.
Her main concern is the preservation of exclusive spaces for women. In February, Holly Lawford-Smith, a philosophy professor at the University of Melbourne, launched a website (noconflicttheysaid.org) that invited women to describe their experiences of sharing women's-only spaces with trans women. It is not a research project and its reports are not verified. Most describe a feeling of discomfort rather than any form of physical aggression. Soon after, around 100 of his colleagues signed an open letter claiming that the website promoted a "harmful ideology." He called for "swift and decisive action from the university." Ms. Lawford-Smith kept her job, but there have been at least two college marches to report it. “I think people really like having a nemesis on campus,” she says.
How did an ideology that does not tolerate dissent become so ingrained in institutions supposedly dedicated to fostering independent thought? Lobbyists have played an important role. In Britain, most universities and many public sector bodies have joined the Stonewall Diversity Champions scheme, meaning they have developed policies that reflect the group's position on trans identity. The Essex report said the university's policy "establishes 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. He recommended that Essex reconsider its relationship with Stonewall. Several agencies, including the government's equality watchdog, have abandoned the Champions scheme.
The influence of pressure groups exemplifies the other great reason why trans ideology has taken hold in the academy: its elision with the rights of homosexual people. Many organizations established to defend gay rights have morphed into trans rights groups. Tamsin Blaxter, a researcher at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge and a trans woman, says that the academic world has become much more welcoming to trans people, in large part thanks to Stonewall. But some gay people disagree with his new approach. In 2019, some supporters parted ways with the group, partly out of concern that their stance would encourage 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 critical views of gender. This year, a group of feminist students in Cambridge organized a “shake-up” event for gender-critical scholars who had been excluded from academic events (Ms. Phoenix was among the speakers). Sophie Watson, one of the organizers, says she has lost friends over the issue. “There is so much fear about using the wrong language, to disagree with the line that trans women are women is considered really hateful,” she says.
Gender Criticism Scholars hope that as more of them speak up, others who share their concerns but were afraid to express them will feel emboldened. When Kathleen Stock, a philosophy professor at the University of Sussex and one of Britain's most prominent gender critical scholars, received a government award for her services to education last December, hundreds of academics from around the world signed a open letter in which they denounced her. More than 400 signed a counter letter in their defense. But many people, he says, prefer to express their support in private.
Universities will no doubt watch the debate evolve outside of academia, especially in court. The dangers of eroding free speech are increasingly apparent as judges decide on issues ranging from medical treatment of children who identify as trans to people who have been fired after being accused of transphobia. If Maya Forstater, a British researcher who lost her job due to her critical gender views, wins her appeal against an employment court decision that this was legal, universities may be quicker to defend their critical employees. of gender.
Regulation can also play a role. In February, the British government announced proposals to strengthen academic freedom at universities, including the appointment of a free speech advocate. Some (but not all) gender-critical scholars welcome the idea. In the United States, lawsuits invoking free speech can make a difference. But it would be better if the universities, which owe their success to a tradition of dissent and debate, actually defended it. ■
This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the title "Let's talk about sex"