Response: ‘What is Transphobia?’ from Edinburgh University

We have become aware of an article on the University of Edinburgh’s official website in the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion section titled “What is transphobia?”. The article presents itself as an authoritative resource for students, and gives the impression that it is the settled, agreed position of the University. In fact it is a political piece, promoting highly contested ideological arguments as though they are undisputed facts. Many students and staff within the university do not share the views of the author and are concerned that one side of an ongoing public debate is being endorsed by the university. This has the potential to further escalate tensions on campus between those with differing viewpoints.

In a response to the Scotsman, the university stated:

“The web-page in question was designed as a resource to support students, inform discussion, and help promote a respectful, diverse and inclusive community.”

“Given the size of our community, it is inevitable that the ideas of different members will often and, quite naturally, conflict. We encourage members of our community to use their judgement and openly contest ideas that they oppose, and feel protected in doing so.”

Unfortunately, many students do not feel able to openly contest the opinions put forward within the article as a result of the intimidation targeted towards those who hold “gender critical” views. In 2019, Julie Bindel was assaulted on campus after giving a talk at a university event on sex and gender. Speakers for this event were described as having “a history of transphobia” in an email and blog published prior by the staff pride network. Many women on campus witness events like this and self-censor for fear of reprisal. By posting this article, and endorsing the views it expresses, the university makes it even less likely that women students and staff will feel protected when advocating for our legal rights.

XX are a feminist network, including students at the University of Edinburgh, who oppose these ideas.

This document opens by providing a definition of transphobia: “Transphobia is the hatred, fear, disbelief, or mistrust of trans and gender non-conforming people.” This definition is broad, stretching so far as to encompass belief. What does “disbelief” mean in this context? In the university’s Trans Inclusion Policy, students and staff are advised to “Think of the person as being the gender that they want you to think of them as.” Could not thinking of a person as their desired gender be considered “disbelief” and therefore constitute transphobia? It’s worrying that a university is stating how individuals ought to think in official policy. Section 12.4 of the university’s Student Code of Conduct describes “Conduct which unjustifiably infringes freedom of thought or expression whilst on University premises or engaged in University work, study or activity;” as examples of misconduct and yet it encourages this behaviour in its policy. The author of this article suggests the existence of three genders; many proponents for gender identity theory take this even further and argue for the existence of hundreds. These are contentious and unproven theories that are rejected by many in various fields from across the political spectrum. “Disbelief” is not evidence of prejudice, it’s evidence of freedom of thought and expression.

The author goes on to claim that there has been a “resurgence of transphobia” linked to government proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) but fails to mention the fact that these proposals were accompanied by consultations in which the public were invited to share their views. The proposed measures correctly identified as “self-declaration” would allow for individuals to change the sex on their birth certificate through an administrative process, removing the current requirement for a medical diagnosis and the oversight of a specialist panel. No clarity has been provided as to what rights are conferred by obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) and what the impact the ease of access provided by the removal of gatekeeping will be. The GRA describes the consequences of obtaining a GRC as the following:

“Once a full gender recognition certificate is issued to an applicant, the person’s gender becomes for all purposes the acquired gender, so that an applicant who was born a male would, in law, become a woman for all purposes.”

The Equality Act (2010) specifies exemptions where a person with the protected characteristic of “gender reassignment” can be excluded from single-sex spaces and services should it be deemed a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. Women are frequently demonised as transphobic for pointing out that in some instances there are conflicts of rights arising from the two pieces of legislation, and for asking for those conflicts to be explored and resolved. In “What is Transphobia?”, there is a similar attempt to paint women’s arguments as simply “dogwhistles” for bigotry. These “reasonable concerns” (concerns over the collective redefinition of your social and legal category tend to be reasonable) are described by the author as “a way to limit the rights of and marginalise trans and non-binary people”. Here, the “right” to self-declaration is presupposed, while women’s boundaries are portrayed as hostile and women’s right to speak on issues affecting them is dismissed. Outside of the University, things have been changing, and women have been rightfully acknowledged as stakeholders in discussions surrounding gender recognition reform. For instance, the feminist scholars Professor Kathleen Stock OBE, Professor Rosa Freedman and Professor Alice Sullivan were invited to provide evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) inquiry into the issues surrounding self-declaration.

The article then resorts to the trope that feminists are demonising trans people by “distorting statistics of male violence to imply it is a characteristic of trans women”. This argument was addressed by Dr Stock in her submission to WEC:

“Up until now, it has been uncontroversial that we exclude all males, including all the innocent ones and the majority of reasonable people, on the basis that we want to exclude a few malfeasant people. That has been perfectly well understood that it was never a character reference. It was never supposed to say that all males were bad because they clearly are not. Exactly the same logic applies with self ID and the thought about spaces. In other words, it is excluding the many innocents in order to focus on a few. There is no reason to think that, once you self-ID as a woman, you become less subject to the statistical generalisations that apply to the male sex. Having said that, you should look again at the evidence submitted in the last trans inquiry by the British Association of Gender Identity Specialists and the British Psychological Society, which are very trans-friendly organisations. I can check again and send it. They both say that, of course, there are circumstances where people will identify for malfeasant purposes. Of course there are; it is human nature. Of course that is not all trans people but equally it very strange to rule that out a priori. It is completely strange.”

The possibility that this system may be open to abuse cannot be ruled out and it’s important that any possible risks are assessed before proceeding. It’s more than likely that vulnerable women in rape shelters, hostels and prisons will not be in a position to bring forward test cases. When women do object to natal males in their spaces, James Morton, from the Scottish Trans Alliance, has argued that they should be “educated” into consenting.

Later in the WEC evidence session, Professor Freedman references a Swedish study that suggested transwomen exhibit a male pattern criminality. Dr Stock points out that this study only refers to those who have undergone medical and hormonal treatment — there is a lack of evidence surrounding the impact of self-declaration. In 2017, Fair Play for Women published a report, since confirmed by the Ministry of Justice, that revealed that 41% of trans prisoners were sex offenders, while 19% of all prisoners are serving time for a sexual offence. Presumably, these are the “distorted statistics” referred to in the article. These figures are not distorted, they are facts, and it’s intellectually dishonest to pretend otherwise. We cannot ignore statistical realities just because they are politically inconvenient. Admittedly, there are gaps in the evidence base, and this needs to be addressed. But reliable evidence can only be gathered if data on both sex (male/female, defined by biology) and gender reassignment (or identity) are collected. The obfuscation of language in the area, and reluctance on the part of organisations and institutions to insist that sex is dimorphic, fixed and immutable, present considerable obstacles for researchers wanting to gather, analyse and use data for the purposes of understanding the significance of sex and gender respectively on crime patterns.

Another key claim in the article is that “misinformation” is being spread to create fear and moral panic” over gender identity services. This is false. The Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust’s Gender Identity Service (GIDS) has seen an exponential rise in young women presenting to the clinic over the last twenty years. These figures are publicly available on their website. In 2004, Susan Evans raised concerns about the rapid rise in referrals of young people to the endocrine clinic. Evans says “nothing really changed” despite recommendations being made after an internal inquiry. The Tavistock has since been the subject of multiple Newsnight reports which have revealed failures in safeguarding and highlighted rushed treatment decisions. Sonia Appleby, Named Professional for Safeguarding Children and the Safeguarding Children Lead at the Tavistock, has launched a legal challenge against her employer over the issues. David Bell, a former staff governor at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, “sent an internal report to its leaders in 2018, urging them to suspend all experimental hormone treatment for children who wished to change gender until there was better evidence of the outcomes.” Professor Christopher Gillberg, a global expert on autism, has warned that girls who are autistic or anorexic appear more likely to identify as transgender. Keira Bell and Sinead Watson are part of a growing number of “detransitioners” who feel that they were rushed by doctors into the decision of transitioning without proper consideration for underlying factors like mental health. Bell later brought forward a judicial review against the Tavistock, challenging its use of the “affirmative” model and Gillick competence. Last year, after reviewing the evidence base, the landmark ruling from the High Court concluded:

“The conclusion we have reached is that it is highly unlikely that a child aged 13 or under would ever be Gillick competent to give consent to being treated with PBs. In respect of children aged 14 and 15, we are also very doubtful that a child of this age could understand the long-term risks and consequences of treatment in such a way as to have sufficient understanding to give consent.”

“One of the issues raised in these proceedings is the non-existent or poor evidence base, as it is said to be, for the efficacy of such treatment for children and young persons with GD”

By this point, the rapid rise in adolescent referrals, safeguarding failures and poor evidence base for this experimental treatment have all been well documented. This is not “misinformation” or “moral panic” but well-evidenced concern that vulnerable young people are being put on an irreversible medical pathway that they might later regret. This has nothing to do with the tactics “used by campaigners against same-sex marriage who cited concerns about how the reform would pose a threat to families”. The deliberate conflation of these causes is partly why many have been afraid to question this emerging medical scandal. In light of Bell and Mrs A v The Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, the inaccurate claim of “misinformation” within the article must be amended.

The author does not provide any references to support their claims and yet makes the bold statement that transphobia, which it has depicted as any arguments in favour of retaining biological sex as a political category, is akin to racism or homophobia. In other words, it appears that the University’s agreed position is that anyone arguing that women should have rights pertaining to sex, as enshrined in the Equality Act, is transphobic, and their desire to study, research, discuss and advocate for their rights should be considered as unacceptable as arguing for racism or homophobia. Many of the women expressing views such as the ones briefly outlined in this statement are lesbians themselves and would meet the university’s definition of trans: “choose to dress in the clothing typically worn by the other sex.”

We are concerned that students may reasonably conclude that this information has been fact checked and approved by the university given its publication on the official website. We would recommend that a disclaimer is added above the article clarifying that the views expressed belong to the author and do not reflect the official views of the university. We also suggest that university managers investigate how the article came to be published in its current form, and take steps to prevent a re-occurrence.