The Aftermath of UCL’s Decision to Reject Stonewall

Lily Park and Daniel Harding

UCL’s refusal to continue working with Stonewall, despite being over a year ago now, still poses a controversial problem to UCL’s stance on their LGBTQ+ policy as well as overhanging issues over the fairness of the vote to leave Stonewall. With LSE also recently ceasing their commitment to Stonewall, queer politics, especially discourses surrounding transgenderism, has been under more scrutiny with many students also feeling they cannot express themselves freely anymore. This is highlighted by a recent Stonewall study that shows that 2 in 5 LGBT students hid their identity at British universities in fear of discrimination, whilst it has also been reported that 7% of trans students have been physically assaulted within the last year. These statistics also only take into account reported incidents from those comfortable to speak of their experiences. Subsequently, there is a need to shed more light and scrutiny on the process by which UCL ended their commitment to Stonewall as well as the impact this has had on life at UCL, particularly for vulnerable groups such as trans students. 

On the 4th February 2023, student protests against WPUK and the UCL Women’s Liberation Group hosting a TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) conference on the UCL campus occurred. The reaction to the conference, an event condemned by the student union, shows continued outrage amongst students and staff for the continued institutional ignorance of concerns of people who identify as transgender within our university community. In a letter to UCL Council members, UCL’s LGBTQ+ Equality Steering Group (LESG) criticised the rejection of Stonewall based on the argument that “rejoining Stonewall was an alleged threat to academic freedom”. This justification, which is being used across institutions by academic reactionaries, is being employed without clear definition or legitimacy. Regardless of clear definition and legitimacy, the questioning of transgender staff and students’ right to exist should not be up for debate in any context; such questioning is prohibited by the Equality Act 2010, an act which protects the freedoms of British citizens and is integral to the democratic and inclusive functioning of the UK. 

The LESG also told The Cheese Grater that “No evidence has been presented to date where academic freedom has been limited or hampered due to UCL being a member of Stonewall. Moreover, involvement in the Stonewall schemes simply provides UCL with external guidance on best practice about LGBTQI+ matters, without conferring any obligation to act according to that guidance. It therefore remains unclear how academic freedom could be impacted, however defined.” 

The campaign to leave Stonewall was primarily led by UCL Women’s Liberation Special Interest Group (SIG) who had been critical of Stonewall’s position long before the December 10th debate in 2021 involving the EDI (Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion) Committee and Academic Board. In response to The Cheese Grater’s previous article on UCL’s rejection of Stonewall, Alice Sullivan (who was a core part of the anti-Stonewall group) stated that: “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.”

However, following on from the meeting and the decision to leave Stonewall, there has certainly been a lack of transparency around how this decision came about  as well as concerning rhetoric being used in the anti-Stonewall campaign. Firstly, as a pro-stonewall professor, told us that a group of “gender-critical academics” organised a“sustained campaign […] putting together a position paper opposing UCL re-joining the Stonewall scheme” over an 11 month period. The opposing pro-stonewall side did not have the luxury of this time to prepare prior to the vote: “So, having had as much time as they wanted to prepare the case for leaving stonewall, those of us who wished to remain were given 2-3 weeks to organise, not knowing what their argument was.” Subsequently, perhaps the strength of arguments was not the cause of UCL’s decision, but perhaps the very real and large discrepancy between preparation time for the debate in which UCL’s relationship with Stonewall was to be decided. 

The campaign by UCL Women’s Liberation Special Interest Group has retrospectively been seen as highly misleading, with emotionally charged and, at times, transphobic rhetoric being used. They also recalled the meeting as the “closest I’ve witnessed to a lynching, in that what we heard was outrageous untruths about transgender people: suggestions that trans people are more likely to be sex offenders, rapists, and be men pretending to be trans to gain access to female only spaces in order to commit sex crimes.” Dr Helga Luthersdottir similarly criticised the campaign and content of the meeting for being “highly misleading”, “emotionally manipulative” and outright  “transphobic” whilst also pointing a glaring issue with the meeting: representation. Not a single trans person was present in the meeting when the decision was being made.  

Whilst the anti-Stonewall group campaigned citing the importance of academic freedom and free speech, including alleged bullying and no-platforming for their views, “they are extraordinarily loud” for a “group of silenced people ” one unnamed professor stated. Furthermore, the very fact that a group of fringe academics were able to determine the LGBTQ+ policy for the entire institution points shows that there is no lack of their influence within the UCL community. The claim that Stonewall was impeaching on the right to academic freedom was an egregious claim as the “conflation of free speech with a discussion of gay rights, and support of those in our community most vulnerable should have never happened” as Dr Luthersdottir points out, and even more so that it “very clear this was done deliberately.” In essence, the emotionally charged, transphobic language allowed for a small minority to hijack the vote, and produce a successful coup whereby they persuaded a significant number of people that leaving Stonewall was the genuinely right thing to do. 

The campaigning against Stonewall argued that “commissioning the Stonewall schemes amounted to an institutional recognition that gender could not be debated”, which was criticised by a professor who believes that the purpose of Stonewall is in fact the opposite of this as “the Stonewall scheme provides solid advice for how to encourage and allow debate while protecting vulnerable staff and students.” 

Whilst the campaigning of the Women’s Liberation Special Interest Group to leave Stonewall was misleading and filled with misinformation, the nature of the vote and neutrality of UCL’s role is also under question. This because UCL’s academic board effectively allowed a vocal, politically active minority to end UCL’s commitment to Stonewall, despite this going against overwhelming support for the Stonewall scheme by UCL’s LGTBQ+ community. This was highlighted by the subsequent outcry following UCL’s rejection of Stonewall, as well as statements given by UCL’s Student Union and LGTBQ+ Steering Group. Whilst the view that leaving Stonewall as being financially motivated can easily be dismissed as leaving has ended up costing more with the union having to make up for the resource stonewall provided with a lack of funds and backing. The neutrality and fairness of debate and the vote have also retrospectively been brought into question. Firstly, this is because of the sizable gap between preparation times between the anti-Stonewall and pro-Stonewall side of the debate.

Furthermore, whilst the campaign against Stonewall used underhanded tactics that were misleading and emotionally charged, the process of the vote itself may not have been an entirely fair one. This is due to the question marks concerning the role of the Provost in the agenda to leave Stonewall. These concerns were noted in The Cheese Grater’s previous article on the Stonewall decision, which pointed out the questionable appointment of Pro-Provost Professor Sasha Roseneil in the EDI as well as some of Provost’s previous comments on the relationship between Stonewall, academic freedom and UCL’s policies foreshadowing UCL’s exit from Stonewall. As an unnamed professor stated: “Before the provost even met with the LGBTQ+ Steering group, we were reading his opinions on academic freedom and freedom of speech in the broadsheet newspapers and it was very clear that the degree of overlap between those views and the views of the conservative cabinet, particularly along the lines of academic freedom and specific opposition in government to the attitude of Stonewall and the widespread moral panic around trans issues.

The same professor also stated: “Where basically there’s a pre-organised campaign that comes from the US religious fundamental organisations to use people’s unfamiliarity with transgender issues and people to drive a wedge into the intersectionalist equity space- specifically trying to hive off trans people from LGB people, hence the formation of the LGB Alliance for instance, and also trying to drive a wedge between trans people slash queer people and women, feminists with the use of the argument of the view that trans people are a threat to the existence of women.” 

This contradicts the Provost’s own statement in which he states the UCL’s approach to working with Stonewall was one in which they “use their advice and guidance where relevant and helpful, such as their frameworks for good LGBTQ+ inclusion practice, but being mindful of setting it within the UCL context” but “ where their position is incompatible with our own policies, for example on academic freedom, we have identified that and distanced ourselves from specific recommendations.” As the Provost was the one who presided over the debate and vote, in order for the democratic process to be fair, his neutrality and unbiasedness would have been essential to ensuring that the voices and concerns of LGBTQ+ staff and students were properly heard. Whilst there is no evidence that the Provost was explicitly biassed in the actual meeting, Dr Luthersdottir following the meeting said that whilst the ‘Provost was attempting to be neutral… nothing felt that way.“ 

Whilst there was clearly an uneven playing field between both opposing sides of the Stonewall debate and what feels like an ignoring of the majority view, the fallout from UCL’s rejection of Stonewall has also had a profound effect. For Dr Luthersdottir, the biggest damage from leaving Stonewall was a “loss of trust” towards UCL and her fellow colleagues as well as feelings of ‘sadness, shock and extreme disappointment.” The decision to leave Stonewall has left trans students evermore vulnerable at UCL and is a sign of regression in a country where over a third (36%) of trans students have faced negative comments or conduct from university staff in the last year for the very fact they are LGBT.  

 With UCL becoming a more hostile environment for trans students due to the removal of stonewall support and the allowance of openly transphobic meetings on campus, the union has launched a gender recognition fund. This consists of £3000 of funding designed to help trans students access things like binders that will make them feel more comfortable coming onto campus. Harper Taylor Hanson UCLs trans officer belives that this fund is not enough and “we need to be making more of a active statement of support”.   

Furthermore, a trans UCL student, told us that they felt as if trans students were being used as “political footballs” in the Stonewall debate as well stating that they would rather that the fees they pay to this university does not facilitate meetings for people who undermine trans rights. The leaving of Stonewall has subsequently created a vast gulf in the necessary infrastructure in supporting trans and non-binary students. Whilst UCL claims to be supportive and inclusive of all people, as well as being dedicated to allowing people to express themselves freely, the rejection of Stonewall has signified a trend to UCL becoming a more hostile and harmful environment to trans students specifically as well as the wider LGBTQ+ community. Additionally, it has also shown that UCL is tolerant of such transphobic rhetoric, if it is perhaps hidden under the veil of academic freedom, and as UCL professor states “revealed that there was a lot more bigotry than we thought there was.”

With UCL indicating no sign to re-join Stonewall, despite outcry from students as well as petitions and protests, the issue of UCL’s lacklustre and lethargic approach to diversity and inclusivity within its campus will remain a persistent problem for marginalised people. As Dr Tim Levine also stated that UCL’s approach to Stonewall was also rather bizarre and nonsensical as “joining a club and speaking from within a club seems to me to be much preferable to standing outside the club where no one knows why you’re standing there.”  Furthermore, UCL’s approach to Stonewall will undoubtedly discourage LGBT students from applying to study here due a perceived diminishing of UCL’s reputation as a champion for diversity and inclusivity. 

These fears can, unfortunately, only grow worse. As indicated in their letter to UCL’s Council Members, UCL’s LESG also highlighted worries following the rejection of Stonewall due to being “concerned that this is the first stage in a process of dismantling UCL’s commitment to any external benchmarking in the EDI arena.” This is exemplified during the academic board meeting that rejected the Stonewall schemes that there was clear expression and desire to also leave the Race Equality Charter and the Athena Swan Schemes so as to not outsource EDI work. UCL’s trend towards an outright rejection of third-party benchmarks in relation to the practice of Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion within the workplace and academia signals a slippery slope and is perhaps a consequence of a lack of diversity amongst the most senior members within the institution. The issue of this was further highlighted by a UCL professor who stated: “If you’re not prepared to commit yourselves with other institutions, then you shouldn’t really be in the business of running a university.”

Whilst UCL has failed to provide a necessary or adequate substitution for leaving the Stonewall scheme, the increased leaning towards leaving other important and essential schemes to protect racial, gender and sexual equality is alarming for a lot of students and staff. With politics frequently using transgender and non-binary people to fuel their culture war, UCL should be taking extra care of its trans students, not facilitating gender critical debates that undermine their place in society.

Therefore, with UCL showing no signs to rejoin Stonewall and its shift towards a rejection of third- party schemes to protect vulnerable minorities and safeguard equality on campus, the repercussions of this shift will no doubt be significant to the lives of many students and staff at UCL. Regardless of the fairness or the grounds for leaving Stonewall, the fact still remains that UCL is now still sitting on the outside whilst many LGBTQ+ students and staff continue to feel disenchanted and disillusioned with a university that claims to champion the practice of equality, inclusion, and diversity for all.