Monday, 10 September 2018

Free Speech

You may be aware of the current academic discussion, deciding who gets to be called a woman. Some professors are speaking publicly, defining their view of women as one that excludes people with transgender histories. As a transgender person and woman at Oxford University, it has an impact on me personally and such discussions are enabled by the fact that the Equality Act of 2010, the Act, is vague enough to allow this.

To be clear, I think we should be treating people like people, not academic exercises. The idea that we can go after a group of people based on 'technicalities', academic loopholes, feels wrong to me. We should not use excuses to put a group of people in a less advantageous, possibly dangerous, position. Yet for some reason, trans people are not given the same equality as other protected groups. This is because of the prevalent thought: that being transgender or gender non-conforming is a choice. If we say it is a choice then it is easy to shift the blame for hardships onto those trans people.

Still, some professors take the ambiguity of the Act to academically discuss and define 'what makes a woman'. Others use whatever tools they have to oppose that, as demonstrated by Natacha Kennedy I understand the frustration she holds. This is not a choice between free speech or silencing people. British Universities need to be clear and define what dignities we give to our staff and students. What protections do I really have as someone who is transgender? What limits allow others to discuss who or what I am? 

From a cynically POV, as we drive to improve diversity in universities, these clarifications become vital as they will impact the opinion of an institute.

I think we allow discussion of trans people on a loophole: the difference between sex and gender. The Act protects my gender as female but different guidelines cover sex, and at no point are these equated. James Morton suggests these terms need to be treated as one to prevent legal ambiguity It is implied that the sex of any trans person is protected in line with their gender but it is not explicit, which becomes problematic as the Act states that gender reassignment does not need be medical.  

Practically, Oxford University has policies that say I should use the bathroom in line with my gender identity, yet a professor may argue that a woman’s bathroom is for women: something predefined at birth that cannot be changed. Selina Todd states “I then began to question the whole premise that someone can ‘transition’ from being a man to a woman or vice versa. You can’t change sex – biologically, that is impossible”. The impact of this statement is that I am a man, as gender and sex are not legally linked. Todd is a co-convener of Women in Humanities, a group that specifically trying to further gender equality. Such a group leads world class research so the idea that a head does not include trans people within the scope of the title means that I will avoid their events.

Because we are often told that views made on blogs (like mine) are personal and in no way represent that of the employer. Here I have to ask, can a person separate their private views from their work? If a colleague stated on their personal blog that women should only hold jobs as determined by out of date gender stereotypes, would you be happy to work side by side with that person? If they share racist tweets, would you be comfortable working with that person as they only think that 'off the clock'? This is no different. When comments are made openly, in public, with university affiliations, those views will surely be considered to be representative of the community at that university.

I also read articles discussing whether or not we should respect gender terms other than male or female, such as It is true, presently people use many terms to describe their gender. I personally see this as a wonderful thing, the evolution of the English language. In Philosophical Investigations (1953), Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that “Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods;". Language evolves and discussion of gender and sex is no different. Some terms will fade and others will rise to prominence. The Act may not specify other gender identities but policies like that at Oxford University do. Whether we like these terms or not, they are in common (if not widespread) use and many places have guidelines stating that they should be respected. A lack of understanding of new language as a reason to not use newer terms feels like a weak argument, especially when made by academics.

Of course, the argument often returns to ‘we cannot have more than two genders as we only have two sexes’. Professor Stock stated, "That intersex people exist doesn’t seriously threaten this category, since most categories have statistical outliers." The most robust statistics we have currently estimates that intersex people make up 1.7% of the population: over 1.1 million people in the UK alone Ironically the estimated population of trans people in the UK is much lower. The numbers vary, but the highest estimates are around a third of a million, significantly lower than those thought to be intersex. So, if 1.1 million people are statistical outliers then the trans population is even more so. Either we talk about the trans population as statistically insignificant or we must concede that intersex people are significant and sex is not binary.

Stock also states that we need to preserve the integrity of statistics for male-on-female violence. I agree, we need the best statistics, I just disagree how we get them. The aim of the data in question is to get a real impression of how many men attack women. I firmly believe this needs to include any trans people attacked because their attacker saw them as women. If we start removing those with a trans history, we get a distorted sense of how prevalent male-on-female violence is. 

Until UK law provides clarity on sex and gender, we need our universities to be clear about their stance. We need to look out for our trans students and colleagues. Gender dysphoria is not a mental illness, as medical experts worldwide now acknowledge. My dysphoria is not the result of a disturbed upbringing and I do not need psychiatric help for it. But trans people do need support. No matter how often some dispute the statistics, time and again we see that trans people, young and old, are at much higher risk from hate crimes, depression and suicide than non-trans people. These results have been repeated time and again and prove robust. I know first-hand the abuse I receive: writing this I expect academic push-back, but I also expect a lot of school yard abuse from online sources.
Universities are under immense scrutiny right now to improve the diversity of their student intakes. In short, we need to appeal to a broader spectrum of people. Writing fantastic guidelines and policies is not enough, we need to see the conviction of a university to know that they mean them. The private views of their staff has an impact on that. I would not apply for jobs where the person I would be working with is openly racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist or transphobic. If those people were lecturers I would, as a student, choose to be taught by professors whose values I agree with (as much as I was able and complain where I had no choice). When looking at universities with openly x-ist professors, I would choose a different university. (Note, people can change. If they own that, go about it correctly, then we can forgive those people within reason).) If we want to improve diversity, we need to listen to complaints raised by people from diverse communities. 

The current ‘debate’ of “what is a woman” is an interesting test for these convictions.

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