Several academics at UEA have expressed concerns over the ‘pain and distress’ felt by members of its trans community, following the publication of opposing letters to The Guardian. The letters raised concerns about the manner in which accusations of transphobia are weaponised to prevent academic research.
The initial letter, titled ‘Academics are being harassed over their research into transgender issues’, set out to represent the concerns of ‘a newly formed network of over 100 academics, most of whom are currently employed in UK universities.’
The letter has been co-signed by over 50 academics from prestigious institutions across the country. Included in the list of co-signs were UEA Philosophy academics Professor John Collins and Dr. Rupert Read.
The letter raises concerns regarding the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act and the way they may affect the Equality Act, namely the way in which trans people will be allowed to self identify. This is due to the belief that allowing people to self identify will enable the ‘suppression of proper academic analysis and discussion of the social phenomenon of transgenderism, and its multiple causes and effects’.
Consultation for the reform of the act began in July due to the number of people that have legally transitioned standing, significantly lower than the number of people that identified as trans in last year’s largest government LGBTQ+ survey. It is believed that this is due to the process being ‘too bureaucratic, expensive and intrusive’.
A response letter, was published a week later in the Guardian by four UEA lecturers in humanities, Dr Victoria Cann, Dr Francisco Costa, Dr Miriam Kent and Dr Helen Warner. The letter notes the collective’s deep disappointment that there are academics present at UEA that support the views proposed within the original letter.
The response seeks to emphasise the ‘support and commitment to the trans community both within higher education and beyond’. Additionally, it is implied that transgender people are being placed into the category of otherness rooted in ‘scaremongering and moral panics’, faced by other minority groups in the past (Muslim people of the 2000s, gay men in the 1980s and black people in the 1970s).’
The response concludes in dispelling the notion that having procedures in place to support trans people within higher education is not ‘ideologically driven’, proposing that it is instead ‘policy-driven and evidence-based.’
Many other cosigns of the original letter have faced more overt disdain for their involvement, with one student confronting Reading University Professor Rosa Freedman to express that she is a “transphobic Nazi who should get raped”. As well as this, University of Sussex Philosophy Professor Kathleen Stock has been declared ‘transphobic’ by Sussex’s’ own student union.
Speaking to Concrete in a joint statement on the matter, Collins and Read expressed that the current practices surrounding gender in academia ‘make it impossible for us to be philosophers’. They asserted that the letter was ‘primarily a plea that researchers be allowed to pursue inquiry free from smear, abuse, threats, innuendo, invidious personalisation, and any other form of intimidation’.
“That the background to this situation is the complexities arising from the proposed changes to the GRA is not the point, as the same principles would be at issue whatever the situation. Freedom of speech is not a political stance or an excrescence of being a researcher but a precondition for inquiry. It should go without saying that holding to this truism suggests no prejudice whatsoever against any individuals or any questioning of their right to live their life as they see fit free from harm or discrimination before the law.”
The role gender identity plays in academia has been widely debated in recent years, with NUS statistics revealing that of the estimated 28,000 transgender students within UK universities, half have considered dropping out and a third have been harassed or bullied.
Much has been debated within the media about the extent in which universities cater to the needs of their trans students, with most reports find that not enough is being done to fulfill this supposed action. UEA’s first action to meet the needs of its transgender students came in 2012 with the installation of gender neutral toilets, and have since developed a LGBT caucus to provide a platform for students to discuss their concerns. In addition to this, the Equality and Diversity Committee released and comprehensive guide for students who are transitioning in October 2017.