Making universities safe for trans people doesn’t threaten academic freedom

by Chris Bertram on June 20, 2019

Last Sunday a letter appeared in the Sunday Times attacking the LGBT charity Stonewall for its work with British universities as a threat to academic freedom. For context, a non-paywalled version of the text us available here).The letter was signed by some reasonably prominent figures, such as Kathleen Stock (Sussex) and Leslie Green (Oxford) as well as motley others (including a Brexit Party candidate). It is no accident that the letter appeared in the Sunday Times, which together with its companion paper the Times has, for at least a year, maintained an almost daily campaign against transgender people and the organizations and individuals who support them and which has also been to the fore in attacking universities around largely spurious concerns about “free speech”.

In response at least two letters of reply have circulated, one of which appeared in the Independent, and which I have signed (see this Pink News piece for link). The text of this blog post derives from what would have been another such letter, specifically from philosophers, which I drafted in consultation with some others (and I particularly thank Catarina Dutilh Novaes for her contribution). Hence, perhaps, some of the tone of the text below which was originally written with in the first person plural. I feel there is a particular obligation to speak out within philosophy because of the prominent role philosophers have played in public debate on these issues and because of the recent relentless focus of the leading blog in philosophy on trans debates. The letter to the Sunday Times was framed in terms of supposed threats to academic freedom posed by Stonewall guidance and training to universities. Of course, freedom of speech, inquiry, and opinion within the academic community is of great importance (as Stonewall also recognize in their documents). But it is also vital that universities as places of education and as workplaces function as environments where everyone is able to participate and work together with dignity, rather than places where some are excluded or humiliated because of their race, sex, sexuality or gender identity. The authors of the letter to the Times are, at best, cavalier in their attitude to the effects that this “debate” is having on trans people, who experience the very validity of their standing within society as put in question by the discourse around transgender.

Taking seriously the exclusionary effects of much of this discourse would mean trying to work with organizations like Stonewall to improve the environment in academia. That engagement need not be uncritical, but it would be a very different starting point to one that frames Stonewall‘s work to frame as inclusionary practice as a threat, as the letter does. The letter alleges that Stonewall seeks to ban from universities any outside speaker who questions “that trans people are the gender they say they are” but I see a factual claim — and a true one — about the effect of outside speakers who hold a range of view (including advocating conversion therapy) namely that such speakers “cause LGBT people to feel deeply unsafe”. Just as the effect of speakers preaching hate against other groups may reasonably be take into account by universities in deciding to invite them onto campus, so trans people are entitled to similar protections.

The Sunday Times letter singles out and objects to Stonewall‘s advice to educators that we should seek to find out students’ preferred pronouns and use them. I know that some signatories of that letter actually choose to respect others’ preferred pronouns, but framing this as a matter of personal choice or charity is really not enough. Trans people have the right not to be misgendered and someone who insists on doing so in a workplace or place of education is engaged in bullying and harassment, as Stonewall guidelines insist. Academic freedom does not exempt philosophers and other academics from the duty to treat their colleagues and students with dignity and respect, not to exclude or humiliate them, and anyone who repeatedly and deliberately misgenders their students or co-workers ought to face disciplinary action from their employer.

Philosophers and others will hold a variety of views on the metaphysics of sex and gender. That is both right and inevitable I have no objection to philosophical and scientific inquiry of such matters, nor do I take a position on them in this post. In teaching too, it is it right and proper that, where relevant, a range of different views be fairly and objectively presented. But trans people are here as part of our academic and wider communities, their experience needs to be taken seriously rather than dismissed because it fails to fit any preconceived ideological framework, and cisgendered academics need to acknowledge them as co-participants in building an equal, open, and inclusive university environment. Stonewall‘s work helps us to do that and deserves our support.

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