May 30, 2023: Protesters outside The Oxford Union (Photo by Eddie Keogh/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Free speech lives in Oxford

Ox, Stock and 150 shouting protestors

Oxford Feminist Union (OFU) formed in response to growing threats to women’s rights and our freedom to speak about this. We set out with the aim of “Amplifying Women, Asking Questions, and Encouraging Debate”, which became our slogan. In recent years, there have been many reports of women being attacked for speaking out, and media coverage has suggested this is particularly intense at Oxford.

We were therefore surprised but delighted to see the announcement of Professor Stock’s appearance at the Oxford Union, and we applauded the committee’s bravery in upholding their plans to host the event. We attended the event, not only to support Kathleen, but to see if indeed free speech had returned to Oxford, if women can talk freely and if we at OFU now may be defunct. In short: not quite.

Media coverage and university tensions approached a frenzied crescendo as the event crept closer. The topic has been inescapable, not only within student communities, but also amongst staff, who have felt a need to intervene. It is surely unprecedented for the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education (Prof. Martin Williams) and countless other academics to publicly concern themselves with student politics and make competing statements of their own positions.

On the day of the event, the city itself felt tense. We were conscious that the wider world was watching.

Hundreds of attendees gathered outside the Union’s building

Protest banners were spotted around the city from the morning, coming off the train. The Union’s grounds were remarkably busy all day, with students chattering excitedly and journalists slithering between every room. Stressed committee members hurried in circles trying to manage the two groups.

Meanwhile, in Waterstones nearby, an employee with rainbow earrings claimed to have run out of Professor Stock’s book Material Girls, despite it being early in the day. Blackwells had copies in the back, but then said they were unable to find them. How unfortunate that neither apparently anticipated a surge in demand around today’s highly publicised event. Both, however, had prominent displays of Shon Faye’s book The Transgender Issue.

The protests:
As 5pm approached, hundreds of attendees gathered outside the Union’s building — the queue snaking out of sight down St Michael’s Street and around the corner. We were struck by the diversity of the crowd in every aspect, which was wonderful to see. Yet we expected that those wishing to hear Prof. Stock would be small in number compared to the “1000 protestors” predicted in the press. This group arrived whilst event attendees were still waiting to enter. Whilst this was quite intimidating, the substantial police presence helped us to feel safe, and we did not see any altercations.

The protestors were certainly loud, but there were surprisingly few of them: about 150 at most. Much of the posturing and social media bragging of the protest organisers appeared misplaced. For a celebration of “trans joy”, much of the crowd appeared cis and sad. They huddled together with their special “rainbow cape” marshals and confusing signs.

The event:
From inside the debate chamber, cheesy music and unimaginative chanting could be heard on the street outside. This was fine, the audience inside appeared to agree: they had a right to express themselves. Both sides appeared to be peacefully sticking to agreed terms and allowing the other to be heard.

Entering the packed 400-seat debating chamber, Professor Stock was met with a riotous round of applause that went on for so long that the Union’s President (Matthew Dick) had to interrupt it to start the event. The format was scheduled as an interview between Professor Stock and Mr Dick, followed by questions from the floor and anonymous ones submitted in advance online.

Shortly after the start, it became apparent that not everyone was abiding by principles of respect and civility. Three protesters from the audience stood up suddenly, shouting “trans rights now” and “no more dead trans kids” — the same as could be heard from outside. Two of them scattered leaflets aimlessly across the aisle and the edge of the audience. The third flopped down onto the floor like a toddler, glueing one hand to the stage where Professor Stock was sitting.

The event was halted for approximately 20 minutes, whilst the police were consulted and then came to remove the protester. This appears not to be the first dramatic action by the activist, who has appeared on multiple news stations in recent weeks. This person was filmed being told off by police for harassing “Billboard Chris” and even broke into Windsor Castle to kiss on the King’s bed. It looks like the individual is set on making a career from such attention-seeking stunts.

A divided audience was brought together against this stunt

What is less clear is exactly how this particular stunt was expected to go. If the idea was to stop the event from happening, it was a failure. If it was to prove a point to onlookers, its effect was surely the opposite from that intended. Attendees with ambiguity towards Professor Stock and her views, those who were heard saying they had only come out of curiosity, were driven to outrage by the apparent attempt to silence her. A divided audience was brought together against this stunt. Frustrated audience members called out for Kathleen to continue and ignore the lone sticky figure perched beneath her. The protestor sat silently, staring straight ahead. Kathleen and Matthew waited patiently for the police. It seemed hard to believe that anyone was persuaded by this protest.

The event continued after Mr Dick announced, “This event will go ahead, and it will only go ahead on our terms, so let’s get back to it”, to much applause for the committee and police who carried out the removal. Kathleen dealt with both the protest and the questions fired at her with an unflappable cool. As promised by the Union, Kathleen was certainly challenged. The president appeared to be attempting a devil’s advocate position, with limited success. Kathleen calmly rebuffed a series of questions which she stated mischaracterised her points. The interview would surely have felt very different if the president had been a woman, especially on the topic of rights. Yet his role was vital in ensuring that robust debate indeed took place. The reaction of the audience indicated they were better persuaded by Professor Stock than him. At one point, he had to insist that, contrary to appearances, he had read her book (with much laughter from the audience).

This is not to suggest that the audience had been filled by pre-paid fans of Professor Stock. On the contrary, the questions asked by the audience suggested a variety of views, most of which seemed to oppose her position. Several critical speakers admitted that they had not read Material Girls, which led us to wonder how many outside the venue had read it. Perhaps if the local bookshops had been better prepared, it would have saved embarrassment for many of them.

The president slumped exhausted back in his seat after his part was done. Kathleen left the chamber with a smile still on her face, and another huge round of applause resounded.

In the Union bar, more students had arrived upon hearing what had happened, to see for themselves and to applaud Professor Stock as she left. It was nigh impossible to get through the door into the buzzing room. There was much agreement that tonight would “go down in Union history”, with hope that it may represent a wider cultural turning point.

The verdict:
It was reassuring to see that this type of event can cater for people who disagree with each other. All in all, the event was a success. We greatly thank Mr Dick. We hope that others take note that the Union’s committee stood strong — and it was not they who ended up collapsed on the floor covered in glue. It is difficult to see what “harm” the event might have caused trans people, other than from those who claim to represent them yet push audiences the other way.

Free speech is alive and well. We just have to wait for a few career extremists to finish their tantrums, and calmly carry on.

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