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UCU needs to defend freedom to discuss sex and gender

Universities need to be able to facilitate public discussion, which is part of their civic duty, without hostility, writes SHEREEN BENJAMIN

EARLIER this year a motion supporting academic freedom to discuss sex and gender was narrowly defeated by the University and College Union (UCU) at its Higher Education Sector Conference.

At first glance this seems baffling — why would a union representing academics vote against academic freedom?

Indeed, why was it even considered necessary to bring such a motion to conference when support for academic freedom is one of UCU’s core principles?

For anyone following current disputes over sex and gender, part of the answer will be only too apparent.

The notion that gender identity — conceived of as an individual’s innate sense of being male, female or neither — should trump biological sex as a means to distinguish between men and women, has rapidly gained ground on many university campuses.

While this is at heart a philosophical question, relating to how we categorise individuals, its acceptance as uncontested truth would herald profound changes in law, public policy and a range of social arrangements, and would potentially undermine women’s sex-based rights and protections.

Unsurprisingly, there is opposition, in particular by those feminists who hold that biological sex is a material reality, and that gender is a set of social, cultural and political expectations reproduced through male dominance but always subject to challenges, which feminists have constantly made.

This sounds like a classic philosophical dispute. But unlike most philosophical disputes, conducted according to well-established rules of academic engagement, this one has come to be characterised by an insistence from gender identity proponents that anyone arguing to retain biological sex as a politically important category is motivated by transphobia and bigotry.

And if your opponents are bigoted, it follows that their speech can be declared to be hateful, and the usual rules of academic engagement and academic freedom are suspended.

UCU’s position on academic freedom to discuss sex and gender is at best ambiguous.

In a statement issued in 2016 UCU confirmed its support for the rights of members to “contribute to social change through free expression of opinion on matters of public interest,” including in the case of “sensitive or controversial issues.” 

So far, so helpful. The statement goes on to recognise that “academic freedom also comes with the responsibility to respect the democratic rights and freedoms of others,” and refers to UCU’s Rule 6.1 requiring all members to refrain from harassment, prejudice and unfair discrimination.

It’s hard to imagine that any serious trade unionist would disagree.

But the issue here is that there are two progressive social movements — feminism and trans rights activism — with conflicting agendas, underpinned by a conflict of rights between two oppressed demographics — women and transgender people — with specific needs and vulnerabilities.

Trade union activists need to respond in solidarity to both movements, and that requires informed debate, conducted respectfully.

What we are seeing on the ground is the debate on sex-based rights shut down through knee-jerk accusations of transphobia, with local UCU branches struggling to respond in solidarity and, in some branches, a failure to defend feminist members against attacks.

At the University of Edinburgh’s UCU branch, the need to find a practical response has opened up deep divisions among branch officers and committee.

Having rumbled on for some months, these divisions culminated in response to an event I co-organised in June, a panel discussion on the future for women’s sex-based rights.

It’s worth noting that the preceding months had seen a number of on-campus trans rights events at Edinburgh, including discussions, seminars and a two-day conference, none of which was subject to any criticism or protest.

The discussion at the women’s sex-based rights event was respectful, evidence-based and informative.

A packed audience, including several MSPs, were able to hear about, for instance, the legal position, the ongoing realities of male violence against women and girls and the impact of recent changes in policy and practice in Scottish prisons.

The speakers made it clear that trans people’s rights should be clarified and enhanced, but that there are places where the needs of two different protected characteristics — sex, and gender reassignment as currently phrased — are not identical.

If there is to be any resolution, this is the very discussion we need to see: calm, rational consideration of specific points where rights are in conflict and need to be defined and defended.

But outside of the discussion itself, all was far from well. As soon as we released the publicity for the event, a campaign of intimidation began.

Trans activist groups tried to sabotage the bookings system. There was a barrage of smears, unfounded allegations and threats online, including a petition that dubbed the discussion as transphobic and hateful, made allegations against the speakers and used catastrophising language to raise the temperature on campus.

A rally for trans rights was organised as a counter to the event: while a protest would not in itself be problematic, its banner headline of “No TERFs on our turf” and the false and unsubstantiated claims in its publicity were a direct attack on the organisers and speakers.

TERF, standing for “trans exclusionary radical feminist” has become a slur associated with misogynist abuse, and the phrase references attempts to get gender critical academics fired from their posts.

In other words, we did not face traditional academic criticism for the event, based on engagement with the ideas discussed.

We faced a gloves-off concerted attempt to stop it from going ahead and thereby silence a discussion of women’s rights.

It didn’t succeed, but the costs were tremendous for all involved.

The speakers’ reputations were damaged by unwarranted allegations. Insults and allegations of bad faith were deeply demoralising for the organisers.

And the security arrangements and extensive security presence that the university (rightly, as it turned out) insisted upon were beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.

Where was the Edinburgh UCU branch in all of this? Its one positive intervention was a careful and neutrally worded blog post on respectful dialogue and trans rights.

Most of the officers and committee were opposed to the event, and the branch members’ Facebook page was used to disseminate the petition and advertise the rally.

There was no request from the branch to the rally organisers to desist from using “No TERFs on our turf” despite it presenting a clear threat to UCU members.

With some very strong, often opposing, views among branch committee members, making decisions about when and how to intervene (or not) was gruelling and drained everyone’s energy.

The Scottish government recently indicated its intention to produce further equality impact assessments and consult again on proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act.

It is in the public interest for academics to be able to contribute research findings to the discussion without fear of defamation, smears and threats.

Universities like Edinburgh need to be able to facilitate public discussion, which is part of their civic duty, without hostility.

In this context, there are three compelling reasons why UCU needs to step up to the plate and robustly defend academic freedom to discuss sex and gender. First, it has a duty to support all its members. 

Openly “gender critical” feminist academics routinely face threats and harassment when speaking out about sex and gender, but union support for them is inconsistent and too often dependent on the position of their local branch, and at national level, UCU has failed to condemn the attacks. 

This is not good enough. Second, allowing rifts to open up in branches is deeply destructive, hoovering up time and emotional energy and damaging relationships. 

Third, the principles of academic freedom and solidarity across progressive social movements should not be sacrificed for a weak, emotive and unevidenced claim that critical discussion of sex, gender and gender identity is transphobic. 

Respectful, evidence-based dialogue on sex and gender is essential and needs to be defended. It’s time for UCU activists to consider how our union should play its part in moving forward a debate that has become far too toxic.

Shereen Benjamin is a branch committee member and former branch officer at UCU Edinburgh, writing in personal capacity.


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