Artillery Row

Is transphobia an academic critique?

The abhorrent treatment of Kathleen Stock by Sussex UCU is a loss for academic freedom

Professor Kathleen Stock shared the below image of a statement issued by the local branch of the University and College Union — the trade union who is there to protect the interests of academics. This statement is not in any fashion a neutral statement aimed at supporting the rights of the union’s trans and gender non-binary community.

The statement suggests that “appeals to employment rights and academic freedom are often instrumentalised” in the context of devaluing the lives of trans and gender non-binary people and it then calls on the University of Sussex to launch a review of “institutionalised transphobia”.

There are only two comments I can make. First, the union might want to consider what it means by “appeal to employment rights and academic freedom”. Professor Stock, or any gender critical academic, does not need to “appeal” to these things. As employees we have employment rights. The University does not need to appeal to academic freedom; it has a legal responsibility to protect it. Employment rights and academic freedom already have a legal limit and it is my opinion that the constant cry of transphobia (without argument or evidence) sits outside those limits.

The question is this: is the accusation of transphobia an academic critique? The short answer is no, it is not.

To give the answer context let me give some background: last week Prof Kathleen Stock was viciously harassed and intimidated by a group of activists (possibly students, possibly not). Within minutes #ShameonSussex was trending on Twitter and cries of “she’s a transphobe” were made despite her very clear assertions that she is no such thing.

My heart broke for Kathleen. She has been in the eye of the storm for several years now. She’s not the only one. She is sadly one of many — Rosa Freedman, Alice Sullivan, Selina Todd, myself and Jon Pike, among others. Quite a roll call.

Being silenced by strong arm tactics harms all women, biological as well as trans

Since the summer of 2019 I’ve had the accusation transphobia thrown at me with some serious professional consequences. Because of these accusations I’ve been unlawfully cancelled and blacklisted. Together with colleagues at the Open University, a university I used to be proud to work for, I created the Gender Critical Research Network. My colleagues and I were immediately told that not only were we transphobic as individuals but so was the network and steps were taken by my OU colleagues to have the network removed, without any examination of the content of the network, or the significant work carried out by members of the network.

The accusation of transphobia is used, often by other academics, staff and students within their own university, and it is disguised as academic critique — it is used to shut up and shame academics doing legitimate and important research. Calling for an academic to be sacked or a research network and its members to be disaffiliated from a university based on the ipso facto crime of transphobia begs a question that everyone seems to be dodging: Is the accusation of transphobia a legitimate academic criticism?

No, it is not. Academic criticism requires empirical data, previous studies and/or a logical argument. It requires debate, a conversation. It is clear from the vitriolic manner in which the accusation of transphobia has been made that there has been no examination of Kathleen Stock’s work, or my own, or that of many others. We have been judged by hearsay alone, and that hearsay has been accepted by those who use the tactics of the playground bully, who scream out the slogans, carry the placards and intimidate respected academics into silence. There is no debate, no conversation, and therefore there is no academic criticism.

If, as a gender critical academic, I pursue research about women that excludes transgender women am I professionally obliged to somehow acknowledge that this might be uncomfortable for transgender and gender-nonbinary people? I do not remember a similar requirement when I was fighting against the sexist assumptions that littered sociology and criminology handed down by sexist academics when I was a student.

In those days students and fellow academics didn’t seek to destroy, harass, or discriminate against academics whose views we disagreed with — we sought to destroy their arguments and create new knowledge. The trans activists are unable to do that, so they demand “no debate” and hide behind activism and politics which have nothing to do with the production of knowledge which requires that all questions must be capable of being asked. Think here of the idea of “sexed bodies”. I must be allowed to ask how, where, why and to what effect the idea that sex is immutable matters and to what extent it is legitimate to proceed as though biological sex is significant in human society.

Being silenced by strong arm tactics harms all women, biological as well as trans. In politics and activism we focus on how we want the world to be, and what we can do to achieve that world. For some people that means behaving as if the world is already in the state they want it to be, and deny the opinion of anyone who challenges that.

Those of us in the firing line are credentialised, employed professional academics. We understand the methodology employed in the production of knowledge, the clear framework required and rigorous guidelines used to ensure that knowledge is just that, knowledge. Knowledge and opinion are different things; in knowledge production ALL questions, no matter how politically distasteful they might be, are capable of being asked and addressed. It’s imperative that, as academics, we question everything — it is especially important in the social sciences because human beings are not inanimate objects. We create our world through the ever changing meanings we ascribe to things.

I welcome debate, however heated, about my work; but it must be informed and rational

Last week, in the context that the statement “only women have cervixes” is transphobic, a senior Labour politician repeated the oft said claim that trans people “are the most marginalised group” in society. But is that true? How can we prove that? How do we “rank” the marginalisation of groups so that we can prove that statement? No such research has been conducted, as far as I know, and under the “no debate” culture and the trans activist mob rule it isn’t allowed to be conducted as it would mean stating that transwomen are excluded from the category women. It would mean establishing exactly how many transgender people exist, what their collective experiences are and, once established, creating a measurement to compare is the most marginalised — them or women? or children? or ethnic minority transwomen? or disabled women? Without research that separates natal males/transwomen and women (with and without GRCs) from biological/natal females, we can’t begin to look at ways in which the lives of transgendered people can be improved — or natal females for that matter.

The name calling, the attacks on the person, the targeted campaigns are nothing more than the repetition of the same line: being gender critical is — by definition — transphobic. No argument, no evidence. If we, as academics, say that “gender criticality” is an emerging theoretical perspective, we are told that it makes people feel unsafe and we are part of a problem, a threat. Gender criticality within the academy starts with an academic defining the terms of reference for the research and making arguments.

I choose to define women in relation to biological sex and I choose to draw a line of distinction between transgender individuals and those who are not transgender. Defining our concepts, deconstructing, and making arguments is part of my job as an academic, as it is for other scholars. It is the lawful practice of our craft. I welcome any academic criticism — it informs my work, it adds to the sum of human knowledge. I welcome debate, however heated, about my work. But it must be informed and it must be rational.

Being called a transphobe is not academic critique.

Part of this article originally appeared on Jo Phoenix’s substack

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