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What’s with all the fuss over Simon Fanshawe?

The writer and activist’s nomination as Rector of Edinburgh University has been oddly controversial

Artillery Row

Edinburgh University is engulfed in yet another public row with pro-trans academics and students at the institution who appear to regard viewpoint diversity on campus as a threat to their psychological safety.

The trigger for the latest “triggering” was a statement issued earlier this week in which the prestigious Russell Group university announced that Simon Fanshawe OBE had been nominated unopposed as the institution’s new Rector.

“So what’s the problem?”, one might well ask.

So, it’s a terrific nomination … isn’t it?

Fanshawe was, after all, appointed OBE for services to higher education in 2013, and has previously acted as Chair of the Governing Council of the University of Sussex. He’s an award-winning former comedian, a much in demand consultant and practitioner in the field of diversity, and a Sunday Times feature writer to boot. As if that wasn’t already enough glitz and glamour for the denizens of Edinburgh’s cloistered colleges to be getting on with, there’s also the fact that Fanshawe is one of the original trustees who founded Stonewall, following the group’s effective but ultimately unsuccessful “Stop the Clause” campaign against Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act.

So, it’s a terrific nomination … isn’t it?

It’s certainly true that that last biographic detail sounds just the sort of thing to have campus trans activists cooing over their new “ally” in no time at all. And yet the fact is that Stonewall wasn’t always the charity that we’ve come to know and… that we’ve come to know.

Originally set up to advocate on behalf of lesbians, gays and bisexuals (the “LGB”), in 2015 Stonewall effectively decided to change direction and prioritise campaigning on behalf of those who identify as transgender (the “T” of the “LGBT”). Fanshawe felt this embrace of trans rights was an error, not least because “same-sex” attraction means being exclusively attracted to people of the same biological sex, and that those who are so attracted therefore have “very, very different aims” to those who identify as transgender.

In 2019, he was excommunicated by the charity after signing an open letter criticising its campaign for changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 that would allow people to “self-identity” as whatever sex they chose. This would, he said, undermine “women’s sex-based rights and protections”. He also rebuked the charity over its growing tendency to denounce as “transphobic” anyone who refused to fall in with the view that a person’s gender identity takes precedence over biological sex in policy and in law.

As if to prove his point, the organisation then sent Fanshawe a terse, vaguely millenarian sounding email that read: “By expressing your views, you have put yourself outside Stonewall.”

“How bitterly ironic,” he responded in the Mail, “that the only freedom Stonewall won’t embrace is the freedom to disagree.”

Staff and students at Edinburgh are now hoping to follow in Stonewall’s footsteps, with an attempt to uninstall him as Rector already underway. In an open letter currently circulating on campus, they call on the university to axe the nominee, and find someone with exactly the same ideological worldview as them – or, as the letter puts it, “a true advocate of equality, accessibility, diversity and inclusion”.

Gina Gwenffrewi, an academic at the university who has a PhD in “transgender studies”, attempted to link the move to the murder of transgender teenager Brianna Ghey. “Ten days since the judge at the trial of Brianna Ghey’s killers identified transphobia as partial motive for the murder, the University of Edinburgh announces its new Rector is a founder of LGB Alliance,” she wrote disapprovingly on X.

“The insensitivity of such an appointment when the trans community is still traumatised and vulnerable to increasing hate crimes is difficult to put into words,” Dr Gwenffrewi continued, adding: “This is an outrageous declaration of contempt by the University of Edinburgh for trans people.”

In fact, Fanshawe isn’t the founder of LGB Alliance — although the idea that it constitutes some form of “black mark” against a person’s name to be involved with one of the only charities currently standing up solely for the rights of same-sex attracted people (who are, lest we forget, among some of the most marginalised and vulnerable groups in the UK), perhaps tells us more about trans ideology’s inability to understand what participation in a pluralist liberal democracy involves, than it ever could about the co-founder of Stonewall.

Jonathan MacBride, a staff member at the university and an officer at its staff pride network, said that Fanshawe “speaks negatively and just offensively, to me and many people I know, about trans people. That is upsetting that the University of Edinburgh feels like this is someone suitable to have as our Rector.”

Fanshawe responded to criticism of his unopposed nomination by offering to meet with those who are unhappy. He said: “I am delighted and honoured to have been named Rector. I will do all I can to advance the university and its staff and students and fearlessness in the exchange of ideas.”

Let’s hope he has better luck than one of his predecessors, Ann Henderson. Back in 2021, the then former Rector told the Times that she feared for her safety on campus after students falsely accused her of “transphobia”.

“Much of my energy was consumed with unfounded allegations of ‘transphobia’,” she said, adding: “There has been a significant personal cost, with time off work, sleepless nights, and fearing for my own physical safety around campus student venues. I considered resigning.”

The trigger for this sustained campaign of abuse and attempted cancellation? Her call for a reasoned debate on gender recognition reforms; that is, exactly the same reforms that so troubled Simon Fanshawe back in 2019.

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