Response to ‘Stonewall is stifling academia’ letter to the Sunday Times

Written by Joseph Dempster, LGBT Members Officer, UCL UNISON

Under the guise of “academic freedom”, the ‘Stonewall is stifling academia’ letter to the Sunday Times (June 16th 2019) reads like a dog-whistle for transphobic, Eurocentric, and reactionary readers against our trans, intersex and non-binary colleagues and students. One cannot but wonder, although I sincerely doubt, whether signatories would have defended with such candour the outrageous eugenics conferences that took place at UCL between 2014 and 2017, in the name of “academic freedom”.

It appears to also infer that movements to improve trans students’ and colleagues’ experience in the university, are somehow an imposition on staff’s “freedom of thought”, I am certain that such resistance would not be expressed for other marginalised groups. Having attended UCL Arena’s Trans Awareness session, my training’s facilitator was very open and welcomed questions from attendees. The information shared was not radical, and rather than trying to shut down freedom of thought, he was importantly elaborating on trans experiences of life in the UK, trends in language and terminology, legal protection, how the university can work to accommodate trans people, and how to overcome discriminatory practices.

The letter is particularly troubling as it comes at a time when we are seeing an increase in homophobic and transphobic violence here in the UK, in what seems to be a global trend. Last November, I took part in the UCL LEAG (LGBTQI+ Equality Advisory Group) Trans Day of Remembrance vigil. LGBT+ colleagues and allies read out the names of trans people from across the world who had been murdered in the year before. I was asked to read out the names of victims from Mexico. The list was over three pages long. It was harrowing to read aloud the names of our trans siblings killed for who they were, and even more so to read aloud the many “Unknown names”. That day, we also remembered Naomi Hersi. She was a trans woman from London, who was stabbed to death in March last year. Trans people in the UK face high levels or hate crime and sexual violence, victimisation in the workplace, worse treatment by professionals in all settings, as well as significantly poorer educational and health outcomes. A Stonewall survey found that more than a third of trans university students have experienced negative comments or conduct from staff in the last year, and that one in eight trans workers have been physically attacked by colleagues. Trans people go through humiliating experiences for what cis people take for granted as normal and every day; even going to the toilet can be fraught with anxiety or expose them to risk of violence and sexual assault. Such experiences are even worse when trans identities intersect with other marginalised ones such as race and disability. I also think back to last year’s rise in public transphobia: the open jeering of TV personality Piers Morgan on morning programming; attempts by transphobic groups to hi-jack London Pride; and humiliating protests at the Hampstead Heath women’s pond. I will confidentially posit that the so-called “intimidating atmosphere” of academics pales in insignificance to the daily experience of trans people across the UK, in universities and outside. Disappointingly, the tone and insensitive timing of this letter clearly adds to the hostile and violent environment that trans people face.

UNISON and our branch are proud to welcome all trans colleagues as comrades and partners in the fight against injustice in the workplace and outside of it. I call on the signatories of the letter to engage with the trans community, to hear their plight, and to work to include all people who are used to being excluded due to their identity.

This pride month coincides not only with our National Delegates Conference, but also with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the founding moment of our pride movement (in which two trans women were vital actors). I am pleased to support the rule change at National Conference, to rename our UNISON LGBT group to LGBT+, to insure we welcome and include all our members. I hope all delegates will support this rule change to bring UNISON in line with TUC and further our support of marginalised LGBT+ groups.