Academics working in the field of gender identity have warned that hostility and threats from student activists are affecting their ability to research the possible effects of proposed reforms to the law.
Rosa Freedman, a law professor at Reading University, revealed last week that one student had called her “a transphobic Nazi who should get raped” because of her work on the legal implications of reforms that would make it easier for people to change their gender.
Selina Todd, a history professor at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, said yesterday that she feared a “witch-hunt” would target anyone who dared to challenge proposals to open female-only spaces — such as changing rooms and refuges — to men who identify as women.
Other leading lecturers have called on universities to defend their freedom after protests against academics who signed an open letter two weeks ago complaining they were being “harassed over research into transgender issues”.
Activists have tried to block an event that Freedman is organising on her campus tomorrow on the “legal implications of reforming the Gender Recognition Act” at which the feminist Julie Bindel is scheduled to speak. Bindel has been no-platformed by some student unions.
A Reading University spokesman insisted the event would go ahead and said the university would try to ensure “healthy and respectful debate”.
He added: “We respect the right of our trans staff and students to self-identify their gender and we have a track record of support for LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] staff and students.”
Todd has faced demands that she should not be considered for future membership of women’s committees because of her views on preserving women-only spaces. “First of all I was taken aback — now I feel angry,” she said.
“This feels to me like an attack on women’s rights and their right to speak. It feels like the beginning of a witch-hunt. I would like universities to strengthen academic freedom in the face of a few activists trying to stir up trouble.”
A fellow don at Oxford, Michael Biggs, another signatory of the open letter, said he had been “threatened with a formal complaint for transphobia”.
Students at University College London (UCL) complained about Julia Jordan, an English lecturer who also signed the harassment letter, describing her views as “alarming and disappointing”. They warned that their faculty could become a “hostile space” for trans students.
UCL said: “We would like to see respectful and constructive dialogue on the issues raised in relation to the Gender Recognition Act consultation.”