The Story Behind UCL’s Rejection of Stonewall

Note: The Academic Board Agenda and materials discussed in the December 10th meeting were made available by UCL via a FOI request on January 28th 2021. The information used for this article is based on an unredacted version of the same document seen by The Cheese Grater.

UCL made national headlines in December 2021 as the first higher education institution in the UK to formally cut ties with the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall. Since 2006, it has been a member of Stonewall’s UK Diversity Champions programme and was the first university to join its Global Network in 2014. Through this affiliation, the charity serves in an advisory capacity by assisting employers across public and private sectors in establishing informed and inclusive policies for their LGBTQ+ staff. During this period, UCL participated in Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index, frequently featuring in its top 100 employers. UCL’s departure from these schemes comes amid a growing wave of hostility toward the charity – led by a loose coalition of politicians, journalists and disgruntled former members – following its 2015 decision to include transgender rights among its campaign objectives.

The initial suspension of UCL’s Stonewall membership took place in 2020 – this was stated to be a temporary measure, citing budget cuts precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic as the key rationale. The university’s subsequent decision to permanently confirm the separation was announced on December 10 2021. This was described as having been “informed by thoughtful and respectful debates at both [the] EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) Committee and Academic Board.”

The Background of Gender Critical Feminism at UCL

Among the core figures involved in the vote was Alice Sullivan of the Social Research Institute, who presented the anti-Stonewall letter during the December 10 meeting alongside members of the UCL Women’s Liberation Special Interest Group (SIG), of which she is a convenor. The group was founded in June 2019 to co-convene the 2020 Women’s Liberation Conference at the Institute of Education (IOE). It is associated with national “Gender Critical Feminist” organisations, including Women’s Place UK (WPUK), as well as LGB Alliance (for whom Sullivan was a panellist at their 2021 conference) and Fair Play For Women. Since 2017, these groups have advocated against transgender rights initiatives such as self-identification, access to single-sex spaces and affirmative care for children and young people experiencing gender dysphoria. As an extension of these organisations, the UCL Women’s Liberation SIG has been active in advancing a gender critical agenda on campus for the last two years. This has included hosting seminars with similar themes, featuring figures including Lisa Littman (proponent of the widely discredited ‘Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria’ hypothesis that defined trans-identification as a social contagion, and attributing gender dysphoria among children and young people to peer influence). They have also issued statements in support of WPUK after it was denounced as a hate group by several prominent labour MPs.

These groups have been engaged in an ongoing dispute with Stonewall for a number of years. Specifically, they have campaigned to prevent Stonewall-backed reforms to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act that that would formalise the right to self-identification for transgender people. Importantly, Sullivan herself has also published a series of articles targeting Stonewall since 2019, with a notable piece co-authored with Professor Judith Suissa of the IOE for the British Educational Research Association.

This extensive prior campaigning against Stonewall would become a defining factor in the events surrounding the December 10 meeting.

Before The Meeting

Interviews with members of the Academic Board, corroborated by documentation of the proceedings, reveal a decision-making process that favoured the interests of the anti-Stonewall contingent in a number of respects. 

One of the most notable factors is the apparent disparity in the preparation time available to the pro-Stonewall and anti-Stonewall groups, along with the limited information available to Academic Board members, prior to the meeting. The meeting, with “discussion of UCL’s membership of Stonewall” as its stated objective, was first announced in the November 3 Academic Board meeting, to be hosted on December 10. By early December, members of the EDI had been asked to assemble general key information outlining the case for rejoining Stonewall, which was to be presented at this meeting. However, it was not until December 2 that the EDI was notified by the Provost’s office that a detailed letter, arguing the case against rejoining, was already in circulation. This meant that, if they wanted to present a pro-Stonewall stance in the agenda, they needed to write a letter and gather a minimum of ten signatories in a short time frame; since an Agenda must be circulated five working days before the meeting, the pro-Stonewall contingent were left with less than two days to do this. As this also needed to be done within the final weeks of term, it presented a significant challenge to those involved. By the time of submission, they had acquired 15 signatories, while the anti-Stonewall letter numbered 66.

Additionally, some Academic Board members report that they were unaware that a vote was due to take place. Emails acquired by The Cheese Grater show that it was only on December 8 – two days before the meeting – that Nick McGhee, the Academic Board Secretary, was able to confirm a vote was actually taking place. A member of the LGBTQ+ Steering Group told The Cheese Grater that they expected a general discussion related to Stonewall: “we were given the impression that our consultation feeding into the supposedly balanced document prepared by [Pro-Provost] Sasha Roseneil would be the basis of the academic board discussion.” While McGhee sent an email to all the board members on December 9 announcing there would be a vote, this was missed by some academics. While it is not clear if the anti-Stonewall contingent were anticipating a vote, their existing level of organisation – reflected by the already active Women’s Liberation SIG and the letter with 66 signatories – suggests that, at the very least, they benefited from the shorter time frame given to the pro-Stonewall group.

Another potential concern about the fairness of the vote surrounded the supposed neutrality of the discussion’s framing. In her background statements, Pro-Provost Sasha Roseneil uncritically repeats, as fact, several of the same misrepresentations outlined in the letter presented by Alice Sullivan – whom she also cites as a source. For example, she reiterates assertions that Stonewall seeks to remove birth-assigned sex as a variable in biomedical and sociological research, and that the acceptance of transgender people’s stated identity necessitates the removal of single-sex spaces. Elsewhere, she describes WPUK, LGB Alliance, Fair Play for Women and Sex Matters in neutral terms as “groups of feminists”, without mentioning widespread denunciation by organisations such as the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights of what are seen as “trans-exclusionist hate groups”. 

Despite this lack of scrutiny, the background section does technically fulfil its function of representing the views of both parties. Nevertheless, the uncritical presentation of the anti-Stonewall argument in the purportedly neutral background text, particularly in the context of a higher education institution, may be a cause for concern. 

The questionable neutrality of the substance of the discussion is further complicated by the flawed epistemic basis of the “debate”. Roseneil’s background presentation fails to, at any point, establish key definitions for fundamental concepts such as academic freedom, freedom of expression, or transphobia. In a discussion whose central themes were, specifically, academic freedom and the protection of LGBTQ+ rights in education, this omission weakened the possibility of an informed debate. This is made all the more striking by the fact that the Academic Board possesses a specific framework for this exact purpose in the form of Sub-Committees and Working Groups. Tasked with creating “terms of reference […] to focus on specific issues or develop an area of work for the Board”, they serve to provide key definitions for discussions in areas of possible political contention. They were recently utilised in the debate surrounding UCL’s adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-semitism. Established in December of 2019, the IHRA definition of Antisemitism and definition of Islamophobia Working Groups were composed of specialists nominated from a range of different departments, who submitted a balanced analysis based on testimony from students and staff. The hasty nature of the procedures preceding the meeting thus suggests a lack of rigour in the handling of the Stonewall arguments, which would be reflected in the meeting’s discussion itself. 

The Meeting

First-hand accounts of the December 10th meeting and the accompanying documentation raise significant doubts over the “thoughtful and respectful debate” UCL purports to have held. While the contents of both letters had been available to members five days beforehand, the sum total of this “debate” took place within the hour-and-forty-minute timeframe of the meeting itself. According to members present, the proceedings amounted to a canvassing of opinion from the Academic Board, with no formal framework for analysing or challenging any of the claims made. It was revealed that arguments were simply put forward and accepted at face value by the meeting convenors, and the issue at hand was put to a vote thereafter. 

As the basis for institutional decision-making, the Board’s apparent lack of scrutiny is alarming. These concerns become all the more urgent in light of the prevalent misinformation that has come to define the national debate surrounding Stonewall and transgender rights. Analysis of the letter presented to the Academic Board by Professor Sullivan alone reveals numerous examples of misrepresentation of fact. These range from misleading statements and misattribution of sources to general mischaracterization, and subjective judgement presented as fact.

Among these is the claim that, by including transgender and cisgender women in the broader definition of “woman”, Stonewall is seeking to erase the concept of both womanhood and “biological sex”. This represents primarily a semantic dispute, one that can be avoided through clear distinction of gender, medical history and birth-assigned sex (reflected in the ONS and NHS guidelines). Based on this logic, Sullivan and her colleagues further equate it to “a refusal to acknowledge biological categories” in biomedical and social research.

A further recurring theme in Sullivan’s testimony is a fundamental misrepresentation of Stonewall’s basic function. She attributes to the organisation multiple powers to dictate actions that in reality it neither holds, nor has given any indication of seeking to attain. The primary rationale for the view that Stonewall is able to influence policy in this way is based on a misconception that its policies are prescriptive – claiming UCL ‘outsources [its] thinking’ on LGBTQ+ issues – and that membership is conditional on an unquestioning acceptance of its dictates. In reality, Stonewall’s function centres on advocacy and education, and decisions as to how universities interpret and implement its advice are left to their own administrations. Sullivan and her associates nonetheless use this wilful misunderstanding to level a list of baseless accusations – including allegations of bribery – while erroneously attributing the actions of particular universities to the direct actions or policies of Stonewall.

Other sections of the letter attribute Stonewall with non-existent policies, such as the concept of “no debate”, claiming they issued guidelines for “barring potential speakers on the grounds that their views on sex and gender may make some students feel unsafe.” In reality “no debate” – a corruption of a slogan popular in activist circles which states that the legitimacy of trans people’s gender identities and their equal treatment within society is “not up for debate” – has never been an explicit or codified policy of Stonewall. Additionally, the Stonewall event guidelines that Sullivan cites contain no instructions to bar speakers on any grounds but do stress the importance of universities as places to “explore challenging topics and debates, and – rightly – are institutions that promote and uphold the principle of free speech.”

Beyond the claims regarding the supposed removal of “biological sex” made by Sullivan and her colleagues, and references to independent decisions taken by The University of Essex and NatCen, the arguments presented contained no concrete examples of Stonewall’s policies directly impinging on teaching or research within UCL or elsewhere, which have been cited as crucial reasons for leaving Stonewall. The majority of the examples mentioned also only refer to academics receiving professional sanctions for allegedly using their positions to promote transphobia, with little or no connection to the academic content of their work.

Members of the Academic Board present also disclosed that since the chat function acted as a sign-up sheet for speakers, it could not be turned off during the proceedings. This meant that many of these same fallacies could be repeated during the depositions given by members speaking in favour of rejoining. One attendee stated how “mistruths and mischaracterization were voiced [with] loads of gender-critical academics piling in. Any comments for reapplying to the Stonewall schemes were dismissed out of hand, or as a threat to women in public spaces,” with the tone of the discussion being likened to “the worst of what Twitter can be like.” The chat function was therefore supposedly abused by some anti-Stonewall supporters to detract from their rival speakers, undermining the legitimacy of a supposedly fair academic debate. 

UCL Women’s Liberation SIG –  A Gender Critical Lobby? 

While the lack of substantive debate surrounding the vote is in itself problematic, a second key factor in its skewed outcome is the actions of Alice Sullivan, Judith Suissa and the Women’s Liberation SIG. By creating an identifiable list of affiliates, the Women’s Liberation SIG has made it possible to identify a pattern of correlation between its members and the departmental affiliation of the anti-Stonewall letter’s signatories. The result presents a troubling picture of the extent to which networking and leveraging of personal connections appear to have influenced the vote. 

Of the 66 signatories to Alice Sullivan’s letter, 36 were from the IoE, where the majority of the Women’s Liberation Group is based. Of these, 20 are based in the Social Research Institute, where Sullivan is Head of Research. A further 15 signatories consist of members of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Great Ormond Street Hospital, the Bartlett School Faculty of the Built Environment and SELCS. All of these (with the exception of SELCS) include one or more staff that are either affiliated with the Women’s Liberation SIG or have identifiable connections to Alice Sullivan, such as prior professional affiliation or mutual status on social media. This means that two thirds of a nominally university-wide group come from just five departments, with the remaining 15 representing all 100+ other departments across UCL.

In an email to The Cheese Grater, Alan Sokal, from the Department of Mathematics and one of the anti-Stonewall letter’s signatories, admitted that: “I became aware of these issues [regarding Stonewall], about a year-and-a-half ago, by discussion with gender-critical feminist colleagues (notably Alice Sullivan and Judith Suissa).” The remaining signatories were reticent when approached for comment, but if Sokal’s experience is indicative of the others, then the extent of Sullivan and the Women’s Liberation SIG’s influence on campus presents a significant challenge to any neutral discussion of transgender inclusivity in university policy.

Combined with the departmental affiliation, this evidence of canvassing by Sullivan and others indicates potential substantial prior organisation leading up to the December 10 vote. This is particularly significant in light of the relatively small number of staff represented in the decision-making process. Of the 1830 members of the Academic Board with attendance and voting rights, less than 17% participated in the final vote, including abstentions. Assuming all 66 anti-Stonewall signatories voted on both motions, they comprise over a third of the final figure (183 No votes for the rejoining the Diversity Champions Programme and 175 No votes for reporting to the Workplace Equality Index). This means that the outcome was determined by a minority of UCL’s staff. The small scale of the vote therefore makes achieving an overwhelming majority a seemingly simple task for a determined and well-organised party such as the Women’s Liberation SIG. 

It remains unclear how early Sullivan et al. became involved in the process of leaving Stonewall, or what influence they may have had prior to the meeting’s formal confirmation on November 3. Nevertheless, the UCL Women’s Liberation SIG’s prior opposition to Stonewall and their well-established network meant that they were more prepared for a vote. Compounded by the shorter time frame for their opponents to prepare a letter, insufficient communication that there would even be a vote, the lack of  an independent working group, insufficient scrutiny over the anti-Stonewall arguments, and the low turnout, the conditions of the meeting were favourable for them to successfully lobby against re-joining Stonewall.  

The Role Of Senior Management

While the circumstances during and surrounding the December 10 meeting appear to favour the anti-Stonewall contingent, the power to uphold the Academic Board’s decision ultimately lies in the University Management Committee (UMC), chaired by UCL Provost, Dr Michael Spence. The Board only acts in an advisory capacity, and for this reason the administration sanctioned their input along with the EDI Committee’s. However, when they produced conflicting judgements, the UMC decided to back the Academic Board. It is important to note that the EDI Committee has been organised to represent different stakeholders at UCL, including students, whose views are often disregarded in such matters, while the Academic Board almost exclusively features the academic faculty. While academics may be deemed as the most appropriate choice for critical evaluation of university policy, the Board’s 15% participation is hardly a  representation of the views of the UCL community. It is also worth noting that, in June 2021, the Provost dismissed concerns about Stonewall impeding on academic freedom; he “confirmed that should a conflict arise between an external organisation’s policies and UCL’s own policies, UCL’s policies would always take precedence; there had been no evidence this had occurred before.” Accordingly, Spence’s rationale for backing the Academic Board decision appears to contradict his earlier statements.

Questions also arise regarding the role of Professor Sasha Roseneil, recently appointed as the first Pro-Provost (Equity & Inclusion). One member of the EDI team, who recently left UCL, wrote a scathing email criticising Roseneil directly. They stated, “when Sasha could finally find a few minutes to meet with the EDI team… ‘step up and do your job’ was her most repeated line… My faith in the future of EDI work at this university is shredded, especially under a so-called leader of EDI who appears to accept and even benefit from systemic structural barriers at UCL.” While these claims cannot be independently verified, there is a evident loss of faith and personal blame ascribed to Roseneil within the EDI Team. This raises a question regarding the purpose of instating a representative EDI Committee when its views are wholly disregarded by the Provost and potentially belittled by its Chair. 

Implications Beyond UCL

The impact of UCL’s decision is eminent on a number of levels inside and beyond campus. UCL is the first higher education institution to sever ties with Stonewall. If the decision – and the many highly suspicious contributing factors – is allowed to go unchallenged, then it is likely UCL may serve as the blueprint for a wave of similar departures across the higher education sector. For now, however, the greatest impact of the decision is being felt within the university itself. Even before the details of the meeting itself became available, students and staff across UCL had expressed dissatisfaction with both the transparency of the decision-making process and its representativity of general attitudes towards Stonewall and trans-inclusivity. A petition was launched shortly after the decision was announced and, at the time of writing, counts over 6000 signatures.

Crucially, this also induces serious apprehension about the safety of UCL’s transgender community, and the environment on campus for LGBTQ+ staff and students. In a joint statement responding to the decision, the UCL Student Union Trans Officer and Equity Officer claimed that it “has the potential to create an environment where gender prejudice and transphobic language is justified under the guise of academic freedom.” 

When contacted for comment, a UCL spokesperson said: “UCL has established governance procedures for decision-making and these were followed thoroughly. Our decision to not re-join Stonewall’s Diversity Champions Programme or make a submission to the 2023 Workplace Equality Index was informed by thoughtful and respectful debates at both EDI Committee and Academic Board, which recognised the importance, complexity, and sensitivity of issues relating to sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex.

“We are very aware that there are members of our community who are upset and angry about UCL’s decision not to rejoin Stonewall, and we acknowledge their deep feelings. UCL’s policies and protections for LGBTQ+ staff and students remain in place and are unchanged. We introduced policies to support trans members of our community some years before Stonewall started campaigning on trans rights, and we remain deeply committed to advancing the inclusion of trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming members of our community.

 “We are determined that UCL will become an environment in which everyone is able to be themselves, and is respected as a valued member of the university. We are establishing an LGBTQ+ Equality Implementation group which will build on our existing work and engage representatives of the LGBTQ+ community at UCL to develop a strong programme of action that tackles all forms of inequality, marginalisation, and discrimination experienced by LGBTQ+ colleagues and students.” 

While the UMC’s decision is effectively final, the discourse surrounding it is ongoing. Still, the events of and surrounding the vote reveal much about the flawed decision-making process of UCL’s Academic Board. The short notice, lack of an independent investigation and rushed debate appear to have allowed a small group to wield their personal connections to reverse university policy. The decision to focus on a manufactured threat to academic freedom rather than addressing the real needs of UCL staff and students for equity and inclusion suggests a pivotal shift from its founding values that will define the university for years to come.

In the midst of LGBT+ History Month, UCL – a supposedly progressive institution – leads the sector in reversing progress towards LGBT+ equality. The tragic irony is that it is Stonewall, named after the trans-led riots that catalysed the LGBT+ rights movement, against which UCL has taken its ignoble stand.

In response to a request for comment prior to publication, Alice Sullivan wrote the following statement. 

This article argues that a variety of imagined procedural issues were the cause of the pro-Stonewall side losing the debate at UCL, while ignoring the more likely explanation that they had the weaker arguments.

The article mentions my name 19 times, yet I was not approached for comment. It contains so many falsehoods that to correct them all would require an equally lengthy piece. Perhaps the most brazen inaccuracy is the claim that no concrete examples of violations to academic freedom linked to Stonewall were provided to the Academic Board. Anyone reading the papers can see that several such examples were provided. Just one of these is the fact that I have been no-platformed from a research methods seminar simply because of my advocacy in favour of retaining data collection on sex. Nancy Kelley, now CEO of Stonewall, was involved in the cancellation of the event in question, simply to avoid hearing my views. 

My speech to Academic Board recounted that a group of UCL EDI Vice-Deans attempted to have a 2020 conference on women’s rights, co-organized by UCL academics and our third sector partners Woman’s Place UK, cancelled on the basis that it was  in “direct contradiction to Stonewall’s UK Workplace Equality Index

Catherine Amhurst falsely accuses me of “numerous instances of misinformation”, a defamatory claim which she is unable to support. Stonewall’s “no debate” position and opposition to sex-based data collection are well-documented. I would refer readers to my peer-reviewed papers on questions of sex and gender:  “The gender wars, academic freedom and education“; “Sex and the census: why surveys should not conflate sex and gender identity”;Sex and the office for national statistics: A case study in policy capture“.

Stonewall’s vilification of its opponents encourages bullying and silencing tactics. UCL is the first university to hold an open debate on Stonewall membership. It is perhaps unsurprising that the advocates of “no debate” are displeased with the outcome. 

By Catherine Amhurst

This article appears in CG Issue 81