Academic freedom is vital in a functioning and healthy democracy. But when it comes to questioning and debating ideas around gender identity and sex, many of my colleagues in academia do not appear to agree.
The latest glaring example of this came last week. An open letter, signed by over 600 of my colleagues, primarily in academic philosophy, suggested I was personally responsible for ‘transphobic fearmongering’, helping to ‘restrict trans people’s access to life-saving medical treatment’, and serving ‘to encourage the harassment of gender-non-conforming people’. Their pretext was my OBE for services to higher education and academic freedom, awarded in the New Year’s Honours List. Since 2018, I’ve written several pieces criticising the idea that an inner feeling of gender identity should overrule facts about biological sex in nearly all policy contexts. I’ve also written extensively about the fact that many academics agree with me, but are too intimidated to say so. This has made me a particular target for abuse.
It did not matter to those who signed the open letter that there was no evidence for their outrageous defamatory falsehoods; nor that I regularly affirm the right of trans people to live lives free of harassment and discrimination. Never mind as well that as a six-foot tall lesbian, working in a male-dominated academic discipline, I’m fairly gender-non-conforming myself.
The authors of this letter clearly believed they could see into my soul – perhaps even without actually reading my views. Amusingly, the authors of the letter were later forced to add a correction to their claim that I am best known ‘for opposition to the UK Gender Recognition Act’ (In reality, I have no objection to the existence of the Act, and have objected to proposed reforms to it in favour of gender identity).
The spectacle of paid thinkers, whose entire training emphasises the importance of sober argumentation, signing a document which wouldn’t look out of place in the Salem Witch Trial archive, makes one question particularly pertinent: what’s actually going on here?
How can these academics look at the parts of the gender identity debate that concern me – for instance, vulnerable female prisoners being housed with male sex offenders; young lesbian women like Keira Bell regretting the effects of puberty blockers and voluntary mastectomies by the time they are 20; a loss of academic data about sex-associated patterns of discrimination, and so on – and conclude that I’m not only wrong, but that I should be publicly shamed?
Though many of the signatories of the open letter against me were based overseas, 11 of the founder signatories were at UK universities. UK universities are at the forefront of trans activism in at least two ways. One is that relatively many students – otherwise known these days as paying customers – are trans activists, and this alone will tend to affect weaker-minded academic faculty. It also makes it harder for dissenting academics to push back firmly against the latest pronouncement from Student Unions about the existence of 100 genders, or about how objecting to larger male-bodied athletes in women’s sport amounts to ‘body-shaming women’. This lack of obvious dissent encourages zealots.
The second point is that universities themselves, via enthusiastic participation in Stonewall schemes like the Diversity Champions scheme and the Top 100 Employers Index are now, effectively, trans activist organisations at a managerial level, with Stonewall-sponsored policies to match.
For instance, an HR policy at Queen’s University Belfast tells staff to ‘think of the person as being the sex that they want you to think of them as’ (policies at Edinburgh and Leeds say something very similar). UCL tells its staff: ‘If a trans person informs a staff member that a word or phrasing is inappropriate or offensive, then that staff member should take their word for it, and adjust their phraseology accordingly’.
‘Good practice’ at Oxford University includes avoiding the phrase ‘identifies as a woman’ for a trans woman, because this suggests trans women aren’t ‘“real” women’. Policies at several universities, including Sussex and Aberystwyth, mandate that ‘any materials within relevant courses and modules will positively represent trans people and trans lives’ – so, not much room to discuss male sex offenders placed in women’s prisons there then.
The costs of this intimidation of academics sceptical about gender orthodoxies – whether via savage open letters or managerial policies controlling speech and thought – are high. Knowledge is lost and public understanding diminished. In my view, there’s a pressing need for academics to take a cold hard look at the havoc wreaked by pretending, on a national scale, that gender identity is more important than sex in nearly every context. This includes a need for philosophers: for a lot of current trans orthodoxy has very particular philosophical underpinnings, seeming to give it intellectual credibility where, in my view, there is little.
Take the academic writings of Bernadette Wren, who was head of psychology at the NHS Tavistock, which operates the Gender Identity Development Service for children, until 2020. They are steeped in her version of French post-structuralism. She has described the clinic’s work with children, partly involving the prescription of potentially life-altering drugs, as ‘making meaning’, and socially ‘constructing transgender in the intimacy of the therapy room’.
Or look at the evidence presented by Oxford sociologist Michael Biggs, that – almost fantastically – the English prison service’s move to prioritising gender identity over facts about sex has been influenced by what’s known as ‘queer theory’ – which means supposedly natural categories like ‘male’ and ‘female’ are nothing but fictions propping up pernicious power imbalances.
A world in which philosophers could have freely and aggressively interrogated these decadent abstractions and public policies which involve vulnerable women would surely have been a better one for detransitioners like Keira Bell or the victims of Karen White. Unfortunately, far too many academic philosophers are more concerned about silencing their colleagues for woke points than having any meaningful, evidence-based debate.