TERF out Transphobia: The IOE and “Academic Freedom”

Mads Brown

Students have finally had enough of the transphobic rhetoric which runs rife at UCL. On Friday 24th November, the chant: “Rejoin Stonewall or go to hell, no transphobes at UCL!” echoed across the University’s main quad.

In support of trans students, members of Gender and Feminism society, the LGBT network, and Student Socialist Alternative organised a walkout in order to speak out against gender violence and transphobia. This is yet another demonstration in a series of protests which exemplify just how dissatisfied UCL students are with the stance that their University is taking on social and political issues.

At the walkout, a member of Student Socialist Alternative informed The Cheese Grater of the reasons UCL decided to leave Stonewall – a charity which advocates for LGBTQ+ rights and equality within education:

“In 2021, UCL became the first UK University to disaffiliate with Stonewall, a decision that came about after pressure from transphobic academics claiming to be advocating for academic freedom. […] This has been opposed by both the UCU and UCL Students’ Union. For us, the fight for trans rights and women’s rights are part of the same struggle.”

Students who took to the main quad to protest for LGBTQ+ rights ex- pressed equal frustration at UCL’s recent policy decisions. “Leaving Stonewall sets a precedent that UCL will not support their trans students”, one third-year PPE student told The Cheese Grater.

This anger and disappointment is not to be forgotten once the chanting has stopped and the posters are folded up in recycling bins.

Rie Rauting, a trans, non-binary Hijra¹ activist studying at UCL, does not feel safe or comfortable walking around campus. She told The Cheese Grater that they feel accepted by “five to seven individuals” at UCL, a University home to thousands of students.

“There’s always this thing in my heart when I’m walking past the gates, because the security guards are always staring at me – I’m always like: ‘Oh, are they going to stop me now? […] Even in student spaces like the gradu- ate hub, or cafes, I feel uncomfortable.”

Rauting puts this down to a lack of queer visibility. At UCL “trans visibility is absent”, she says, ‘so there is no safe space where I feel accepted.”

From Rauting’s comments alone, it is clear that trans students at UCL are seriously in need of a community space in which they are able to fully express their identities and explore their understanding of gender in an environment where they feel accepted.

When Rauting tried to organise a panel event where a group of students would speak about South Asian, trans- gender, and Hijra history, they asked the organisers if it could be a queer-only space. This request was declined on the basis of the “UCL inclusion policy”.

Yet, groups such as UCL Women’s Liberation have managed to cultivate a “space  for conversations about sex, gender identity, and the rights of women and girls” – a space which excludes trans individuals. This gender-based hypocrisy negates any claims that UCL makes for an inclusive, accepting environment. The above statement was taken from the UCL Women’s Liberation “X” page, a medium through  which members of the group are able to inform the public of events that they believe endanger the safety of women.

On the 8th August 2023, UCL Women’s Liberation reposted a comment from Freya Vanadiss on “X” which actively condemned the actions of trans rights activists. Accompanying images of protestors holding signs such as “Rejoin Stonewall” and “Trans lives are not up for debate” is this statement:

“We were surrounded in the room we were in – men screaming abuse with young women copying as they banged on the windows, scaring many of us and causing workshops to relocate.”

Not only does this statement misgender the trans women taking part in the demonstration, it also presents a peaceful protest which simply advocates for the rights of LBGTQ+ students at UCL as something to be fearful of.

This is certainly not an iso- lated  example. Just a month earlier, on the 9th of July 2023, UCL Women’s Liberation reposted a tweet from Professor Alice Sullivan.

Beside another image of a peaceful protest Sullivan claims that a trans woman (whom she misgenders) was “inciting violence against women” and “shouting misogynistic abuse”.

Alice Sullivan is a Professor of Sociology at UCL. On the 13th November 2023, she launched her book: Sex and Gender: A Contemporary Reader, at the University’s Institute of Education (IOE). Throughout her career, Sullivan has written a series of academic papers which are clearly indicative of her critical stance on transgender identity.

One article titled: ‘How Can Universities Promote Academic Freedom? Insights from the Front Line of the Gender Wars’ has been published by UCL Discovery. Throughout, Sullivan push- es transphobic rhetoric in favour of academic freedom. She refuses to accept the simple fact that trans women are women, claiming that this is a “polite fiction”.

The article also argues against Stonewall’s own definition of transphobia, stating that it is “open to interpretation, particularly given the lack of clarity and public understanding regarding the notion of gender identity”.

Professor Sullivan’s book launch was not the first time that the IOE provided a space for transphobia. On the 28th April 2023, a conference titled Time to Think: The Inside Story of the Collapse of the Tavistock’s Gender Service for Children showcased guest speaker Hannah Barnes.

The conference gave voice to Barnes’ critical opinion on the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) at The Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust. UCL Women’s Liberation’s com- ment on Barnes’ novel functioned to affirm the manner in which this critique of GIDS was used to facilitate transphobia:

“GIDS has been the site of a serious medical scandal, in which ideological concerns took priority over clinical practice […] the result is a disturbing and gripping parable for our times.”

The most infamous of all transphobic events held at the IOE was the Education for Women’s Liberation conference which was held on the 4th February 2023. This was organised in collaboration with Women’s Place UK (WPUK), a group known for their trans-exclusionary radical feminism (TERF-ism).

As highlighted in their article ‘A Woman’s Place is in the Press’, WPUK pushes transphobic rhetoric in support of individuals they term to be “gender-critical women” who face “discrimination” from “trans rights activists and sympathetic journalists”.

The Cheese Grater accepts all allegations of sympathy to- wards trans people, and believes anyone else to be entirely incorrect.

WPUK are even trying to change the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) Code as they believe that:

“Newspapers should be able to identify someone by their biological sex in stories where not to do so would be nonsensical or confusing to the reader. This is particularly the case in stories involving male-to-female transgender criminals.”

Thankfully, this is not a UCL- wide issue, as groups such as Gender and Feminism Society (GenFem) support women’s rights through the means of trans-inclusive feminism.

GenFem’s LGBTQ+ officer, Lilly Bartsch, told The Cheese Grater that “we can’t practise feminism without thinking about how everyone is affected by it, not just cis-gendered women.” The society have also actively spoken out against UCL Women’s Liberation, stating that:

“Transphobic staff need to be held accountable for their actions. […] The Women’s Liberation Conference that was organised by WPUK and took place at UCL last year featured incredibly strong transphobic ideals. UCL cannot provide a space for these types of organisations.”

In light of this, it is evident that UCL has put certain structures in place to aid trans students. For example, a policy and guidance page for students who are transitioning provides the details of a Student Support and Wellbeing team for students who are transitioning and states the appropriate language to be used when addressing trans students.

The page takes note of the The Gender Recognition Act (GRA), which prevents discrimination against trans students and enables them with the freedom to change their legal gender.

Further to this, in April 2023, UCL’s LGBTQ+ Equalities Implementation Group (LEIG) announced a fund to help students and staff with projects that make UCL a more inclusive space for the LGBTQ+ community.

Despite this, when the Students’ Union (SU) spoke to trans, non-binary, and gender-diverse 

students across the University, it became evident that these students do not feel accepted.

Johanna Novales, the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Co-ordinator for UCL Engineering, voiced their opinions to the SU:

“There’s a fair bit of anti-trans rhetoric at UCL, I think sometimes it is ignored or protected under the name of academic freedom. I think it makes people feel un- safe and UCL needs to address that more.”

Yet, the lack of inclusivity which Novales speaks to is something which the SU claims they will address in the LGBTQ+ 2023-25 Action Plan, launched on the 26th October 2023.

In light of UCL’s recent decision to leave Stonewall, there has been some understandable scepticism amongst students surrounding the plan. Rauting, who found the statement inaccessible and brimming with false promises, told The Cheese Grater:

“I read it and I’m like, this looks like dog shit wrapped in golden paper. […] it’s bullshit because you’re going to use big words [but the] first thing should be that you shouldn’t back out from Stonewall. You should fund it in some ways, because you’re a huge university.”

One of the key aims of the plan is to “establish […] LBGTQ+ role models at UCL”, the rationale for this being that a “lack of visibility is an issue for students, especially for those who are trans and non-binary”.

Yet, the provision of role models for LGBTQ+ students at the University is clearly infringed upon by the employ- ment of staff members who hold transphobic views, and are given a platform to voice these opinions on UCL campus.

Currently, students do not feel like there is anywhere they can express their gender identity safely. One third-year student at the walkout told The Cheese Grater:

“I myself have had people target me at UCL for being transgender. I’ve had people say “you can’t change your sex” and other transphobic comments. There is currently no channel, no way for us to report that sort of violence and hatred at UCL”

It is equally unlikely that when, or if, UCL does platform LGBTQ+ role models, that they are going to be representative of all students. “There are other Dalit² trans people who have stud- ied in the UK universities before, but if you’re not out, that’s not representation”, Rauting informed The Cheese Grater, “there’s no space for me in the trans network, queer spaces, Socialist Alernative […] because even just giving an opinion or correcting somebody is taken as an act of aggression.”

Rauting told The Cheese Grater that the few LGBTQ+ role models that UCL do currently have are not being given the space to express their queer identities, be that due to misgendering  or  other  microaggressions.

Due to the lack of “visibly trans people” present at UCL, Rauting told us that she feels like “a freak”, when in actuality they’re “just a student who’s in the university [she’s] paying for”. Moreover, the trans and non-binary staff that are employed by UCL are “misgendered left, right and centre by their other colleagues”, said Rauting.

The LGBTQ+ Action Plan also contributes to the “disagreeing well” debates, and intends to introduce “clearer definitions” of terms such as this in order to protect marginalised groups from discrimination. Previously at UCL, the defence of “academic freedom” has been used as a guise for transphobia.

This weak defence was used in 2018, when six UCL academics opposed changes to the Gender Rec- ognition Act. They signed a letter in The Guardian stating that any further changes would stifle academic research by labelling it as transphobic.

When asked if they thought academic freedom was suppressed by expression of gender identity, students were in unanimous disagreement. “I feel that suppressing a freedom to express gender identity is suppressing academic freedom. I find discussion of gender can be extremely enlightening”, was one UCL student’s response to an anonymous questionnaire sent out by The Cheese Grater.

Not only does this prioritisa- tion of academic freedom leave students feeling secondary to UCL’s research aims, it is also a “very Eurocentric” argument, stated Rauting. “Trans people have existed in Europe, but not as com- munities as they have in Hawaii, as they have in India, as in Pakistan, Australia.”

When we don’t talk about trans people as having “existed for years and years”, she said, we are not only invalidating their individu- al identities, “but also the culture itself, their culture, their lived experiences.”

In an interview with The Cheese Grater, Bartsh was unconvinced of UCL’s plan to roll out “allyship training with specific focuses on transphobia, homophobia and biphobia” to a “certain percentage” of the UCL community.

“There’s a lot of training that needs to be made available and not just for a certain percentage”, she told us. This is because “we need to unpack how we talk about gender in academic circumstances. Especially in medicine and other STEM courses where sex can be a recurring subject of discussion”.

It is incredibly alarming that one of the aims of the Action Plan is to “undertake an audit of UCL systems and processes, ensuring that these are trans inclusive”. The fact that this has not already been achieved is a failure to trans students, who are often not registered with the correct name and pronouns. This is what happened to Rauting:

“I was speaking to an admin person via email and I said: ‘Hi, you know, I go by this name and I have this query.’ This person just referred to me by the name I don’t use, and they’re like: ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, it was just your email ID’. But I’m like, yes, but I’ve literally written a whole email about being trans, how can you ignore it?’’.

At the moment, UCL students are able to add their pronouns onto their Outlook profile, but it’s not compulsory to do so. “One red asterisk with pro- nouns could start a conversation, because people are like: ‘‘why pronouns, I don’t have pronouns?’ Everybody has pronouns”, Rauting told The Cheese Grater.

However, aside from this, there is language which needs to be monitored on campus that does not necessarily fall under the audit. Even outside of online systems, stu- dents still feel the need to express their gender identity, with one UCL student stating that: “there is no way for me to express my non-binary identity beyond telling staff directly about my pronouns which I am not comfortable with at this stage of my journey.”

In terms of UCL’s internal processes, the University may have been relatively effective in catering to the needs of trans students, but it’s simply not enough. One third-year PPE student commented:

“I think that UCL does have a very good transgender fund, which I have used myself, but that is just the beginning. […] We need to continue to help support our transgender students. […] The limit of the transgender fund was £100 per student. We all know UCL has much more than that.”

Students interact with staff on a day-to-day basis, and so even if all of UCL’s online systems are updated to be trans inclusive, trans students could still run into transphobic rhetoric.

This is particularly relevant when it comes to staff members, who have the capacity to impact the mental health of LGBTQ+ students under their guidance. Several students at UCL are of the opinion that there should be some form of repercussion for staff members who exhibit transphobic beliefs. In response to The Cheese Grater’s anonymous poll, one UCL student said:

“Everyone – from the student body to the president to the cleaners – should make sure that they feel very silly. […] Repeat offenders should be made to feel even sillier.”

As The Cheese Grater have learnt from the recent suspension of the Marxist Society, UCL is well within its rights to shut down any organisation whom they interpret to be using hate speech or inciting violence.

This raises the question as to why the University is yet to take any action against Womens’ Liberation, who use UCL premises to spout trans-exclusionary sentiment, refuses to correctly gender trans individuals, and titles their research: “The Gender Wars”.

UCL’s release of an LGBTQ+ Action Plan feels incredibly performative in an environment where transphobia is so rife and such a threat to student wellbeing.

One student protesting at the walkout commented on what they termed the “baseless” nature of the University’s trans activism:

“It’s like they’re trying to cover their tracks. Look at us, we’ve put up a trans flag, we’re definitely not transphobic. But if your trans students, your LGBTQ+, students don’t feel safe, don’t feel like they’re getting representation or respect, then there’s no point. It’s just ridiculous.”

Ultimately, it feels as if UCL is not taking transphobia seriously. As one anonymous UCL student told The Cheese Grater:

“Transphobia kills, and it feels many people underestimate the impact  it  has  on  trans  people”.

In leaving Stonewall, UCL “sent a very clear message to all LGBTQIA+ students, especially trans and non-binary students, that we are not a priority”, Bartsch told The Cheese Grater.

This is most certainly not mitigated by the tokenistic gestures made by the University. Putting the trans colours “on a lanyard and charging six pounds for them […] doesn’t do anything” stated Rauting.

If UCL are indeed intent on remaining separate from Stone- wall, then it is essential that they now consider other means by which to support their LGBTQ+ students.

¹ (in South Asia) a person whose birth sex is male but who identifies as female or as neither male nor female.

² a member of the lowest class in the traditional Hindu social hierarchy

Additional reporting by Sirjan Narang / Graphic by Tess Meerson