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Stonewall and the silencing of feminist voices at universities

20 May 2021

1:54 AM

20 May 2021

1:54 AM

This week a game-changer of a report released by Essex university led to its Vice Chancellor abjectly apologising for the university cancelling two feminist academics for their views on gender identity and sex.

Both professors Jo Phoenix and Rosa Freedman have views which accord with our current laws on gender identity, and yet they had a number of talks cancelled by Essex university and Freedman was potentially rejected from a job after they were labelled ‘transphobes’ by a mob of intolerant academics and students. Now Essex has been forced into issuing a humiliating apology and admitted that its treatment of the professors infringed on their freedom of speech.

So how did the university end up in such a mess? The answer clearly lies in the stranglehold that the campaigning organisation Stonewall has over 850 public and private institutions in the UK, via its much criticised ‘Diversity Champions’ programme, which has led to the silencing of feminist voices and a creeping McCarthyite culture in universities and workplaces over the issue of so-called ‘trans rights’.

The report makes it clear that the Stonewall Diversity Champions programme is in tension with academic freedom. Stonewall’s programme requires university members to ‘instigate specialist trans policies, in addition to general equality policies, which outlaw “transphobic” teaching and research material but offer no clear definition of what would count as such,’ points out the report.

‘If the university considers it appropriate to continue its relationship with Stonewall,’ the report concludes, it should devise a strategy for countering the drawbacks and potential illegalities’ of the programme.

The chain of events that led to Phoenix and Freedman being de-platformed is a familiar one, including to me. In December 2019, Phoenix, professor of criminology at the Open University, was invited to speak on ‘Trans rights, imprisonment and the criminal justice system’. Then the usual protests began. Students threatened to barricade the seminar room and the talk was cancelled on the pretext that the university could not guarantee the safety of those attending.

Phoenix was asked to supply a copy of her talk so that the department could discuss whether it was transphobic. When she refused, Phoenix was informed that her invitation was permanently rescinded.


Following complaints by Phoenix, the Vice Chancellor announced an external review of the events that lead to the cancellation of her seminar, which also included events involving Rosa Freedman.

In 2018, Freedman, professor of law, conflict and global development at the university of Reading, was invited to give a talk on the UN and human rights. Students claimed that Freedman was anti-trans and there were protests. In 2019, Freedman applied for a job as professor of international human rights law at Essex but ultimately no one was appointed. A Subject Access Request (a written request made by or on behalf of an individual for the information under the Data Protection Act) showed that Freedman was almost not offered an interview because the university was so worried about protests.

There is also clear evidence that when Freedman was given an interview this was leaked to the LGBT society, which then prompted complaints. ‘One can only imagine that they didn’t appoint someone else because I was most qualified for the job,’ says Freedman, ‘and would have been able to take them to an employment tribunal.’

Freedman, who is Jewish, was asked to speak at the university’s January 2020 Holocaust Memorial Day event about anti-Semitism and human rights, but the organisers later claimed she was not a confirmed speaker. A senior member of staff, Dr Daragh Murray, then tweeted a comparison with Freedman’s views on sex and gender to Holocaust denial. The university has not confirmed whether Murray was disciplined for doing so.

During the protest that led to Phoenix being de-platformed, a flyer, which has not been made publicly available but which was sent to me by a student at the time, read:

‘Jo Phoenix is a transphobe who should not be invited to this university. You can’t call yourself a feminist if you don’t respect trans women! Delegitimising trans people is part of a misogynistic, colonialist and violent ideology… She is covering up her bigotry in academic jargon and claiming to just “raise questions”, but this is a typical disguise for prejudice. Along with other bigoted academics, Jo Phoenix signed a letter to the Guardian claiming that “research into transgender issues” (ie academic transphobia) is being silenced. It isn’t but it should be!’

The university did not investigate the origins of the flyer at the time, and not one student was called to task for any of the threats and protests.

‘The report is a vindication that I was treated unlawfully by the university,’ says Phoenix, ‘not just in terms of disinviting me but also in relation to asking that I provide a copy of my presentation so that the department could discuss whether my views were politically heterodox.’

Discussing the tensions between trans rights and sex-based rights is not hate speech. The report makes it very clear that Stonewall’s guidance is in tension with the Equalities Act and its implementation can unintentionally create the impression that questioning gender ideology breaches equalities policies in universities. This is generating a culture in universities in which people are quite literally afraid to discuss trans rights or present gender-critical views.

Stonewall commented that it was ‘incredibly proud’ of its relationship with Essex university and argued that its ‘advice on the Equality Act is based on guidance provided by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which was recently reaffirmed in the High Court.’

But the conclusion of the Essex report states that the university’s policies had the potential to create indirect discrimination against women. ‘As for indirect discrimination, the decision taken in relation to Prof Phoenix may contribute to indirect sex discrimination against women at the University, on the basis that more women than men tend to hold (and publicly express) gender critical views.’

Despite Stonewall’s refusal to acknowledge the tension between trans and women’s rights, discussion about these conflicts is legitimate. Gender identity is not a protected characteristic and by presenting it as such in harassment and bullying policies, universities are contributing to the so-called chilling effect on gender critical views.

Stonewall lists 121 universities as members of its ‘Diversity Champions’ scheme. Similar stories of academics and students being investigated for expressing ‘gender critical’ beliefs are surfacing across the UK. It is about time that Stonewall is forced to lose its hold over so many of our public institutions.
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