Artillery Row

The wrong sort of women, again

View from Oxford: the Fortune Wheel of grievance spins yet again

As Rhodes Must Fall: The Sequel reminded us in the summer, the young people no longer have need of a physical presence in Oxford for student-politics to continue unabated. Since Term ended the University has come under fire for appearing to endorse, through a research grant, Woman’s Place UK (WPUK)—an organisation which has argued, since its foundation in 2017, that that the current sex exemptions in the Equality Act ought to be “upheld, understood and enforced”.

The letter is silent about Professor Todd’s need for protection officers after she received threats

In short, WPUK does not want trans women—that is, women who are biologically male—to be allowed access to spaces previously reserved for those who are biologically female, such as lavatories and changing-rooms. The Committee of Common Room Presidents has taken a perhaps-predictable position; it has written to the History Faculty in general, and in particular to the Head of Humanities Division, Professor Karen O’Brien, and to the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson.

We, the Common Room Presidents of Oxford, were extremely disappointed to hear of Oxford’s £20,000 payment to Woman’s Place UK this year. WPUK is an organisation which seeks to deny transgender people their rights in the false name of ‘feminism’ and has been condemned by numerous LGBTQ+ organisations, including Stonewall and PinkNews. WPUK has campaigned for numerous projects that actively discriminate against transgender individuals, for example, they advocate for a ban on transgender individuals using the bathrooms that correctly align with their gender rather than their sex assigned at birth. WPUK conferences have historically been funded and attended by transphobic individuals and WPUK has made no attempt to condemn this faction of their support base. WPUK is a transphobic organisation, and Oxford University should be condemning them, not funding them.

The project which the History Faculty funded is led by Professor Selina Todd, an individual condemned, on numerous occasions by trans students at Oxford, for her transphobic views. The project, titled ‘The Political Erasure of Sex’ protests the use of gender identity, rather than sexual identity, as a data variable in the national Census. Not only would mandatory questions on sexual identity force transgender and non-binary individuals to describe themselves with a label which they have disavowed and may cause them trauma, it explicitly contradicts the recommendation of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2011. This project threatens trans rights. Trans rights are human rights.

The University has been criticised on numerous occasions for hosting WPUK and providing a platform for the organisation to lobby their transphobic views. The University has claimed that platforming WPUK is not the same as endorsing their views. A £20,000 payment from Oxford University, the largest in their financial statements from 2018-20, is an endorsement. When combined with the transphobic aims of the project, it becomes clear the History Faculty is funding the erasure of trans rights.

Oxford University has a deep problem with transphobia. The 2018 Trans Report found that 98% of trans students had experienced mental health problems at Oxford, 65% said the University had impacted negatively upon their mental health and 45% had experienced suicidal thoughts. 63% had experienced transphobia at Oxford, and those that experienced discrimination were twice as likely to self-harm and have suicidal thoughts. There is a clear link between discrimination and mental health issues, and a very alarming crisis in mental health for trans students at Oxford. In the context of the COVID pandemic, where many trans students have been forced to remain in home environments which are toxic, abusive and harmful to their mental health, tackling this crisis should be an urgent priority for the University.

It is extremely concerning that the University is willing to fund projects that contribute towards the discrimination of transgender individuals and promote a culture which erases their identity but fails to fund resources to tackle the crisis in mental health taking place amongst the trans community of Oxford. Indeed, the University’s indifference towards the suffering caused by hosting WPUK to trans students and now news of the University’s financial endorsement of WPUK will damage the trust of trans students in the University and contribute further towards this crisis in mental health. Contributing to an environment which is hostile, discriminatory and humiliating for transgender students by endorsing WPUK the University is violating its own Harassment Policy.

We understand that the History Faculty has granted Professor Selina Todd funding for her project, and where she chooses to devote this funding would be at her discretion. This highlights a clear flaw in the ethical standards any project in the History Faculty is expected to meet. If a research project which threatens transgender rights can pass the Faculty’s standards of ethical research, these standards are clearly out of date and insufficient.

And so the revolution devours its children. Keen-eyed readers will note that Professor O’Brien and Professor Richardson are women; so is Selina Todd, and so are the women represented by WPUK. The letter is deafeningly quiet about Professor Todd’s need for protection officers after she received threats of violence from activists earlier this year.

It is also silent on Stonewall’s well-established political agenda—and on WPUK’s public rebuttal of PinkNews, which it accuses of spreading “half-baked claims and insinuations masquerading as journalism”. Nor does it engage with Keira Bell’s recent victory in the High Court against the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust, under the auspices of whose Gender Identity Development Services she received major transitional surgery that she now regrets.

How does the University, or any public institution, for that matter, navigate these choppy waters? It might well be argued that no obligation exists to keep all stakeholders happy; to attempt to do so would be an impossible task and one that engendered a Fortune’s Wheel of grievance, season by season.

At the same time, the Common Room Presidents are meant to represent all their members. Either there are no women students at Oxford who identify with the aims and concerns of Woman’s Place UK, then, or those that there are have chosen to keep their counsel for fear of being themselves vilified. Be it loos or landings, is there still a safe space for them?

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