The University is at risk of complicity in an anti-transgender bullying campaign


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By Sage Brice, Fourth Year PhD Human Geography

Last year's controversial talk from A Woman's Place UK (WPUK) has left its mark, with one student awaiting a hearing on May 15th following their letter opposing the event. The process surrounding this has been flawed, ignoring the safety of minority students.

In recent years, the University of Bristol has been understandably concerned about three things: the mental health and wellbeing of its students, diversification of its community, and the health of its reputation. All three affect the University’s ability to flourish as a centre of higher education. It is important to remember, however, that no one of these priorities can stand alone.

Many readers will have forgotten that in February 2018, an event was organised in Bristol by the controversial campaign group A Woman’s Place UK (WPUK). The organisation opposes reforms designed to improve legal recognition for trans people. Their events are billed as a platform for ‘debate’, with obvious common-sense appeal, but sadly their actual content shows they are a one-sided platform for dissemination of hate-based narratives and scare tactics, peddling the outdated notion that recognising trans people’s human rights somehow presents a danger to cisgender women.

To most of us, that one-off event is a thing of the past, although the so-called ‘debate’ is ongoing. But for one student, ‘Q’, it seems to be lasting an inordinately long time. For more than a year, the University of Bristol has been engaged in a disciplinary process against Q for speaking out publicly against the event, leaving them caught in protracted uncertainty about their study status, supervision arrangements, and future as a PhD student at Bristol.

The case hinges on a letter opposing the WPUK event, considered controversial because it identifies WPUK as a hate-based campaign, associates the University with the event itself, and calls on the University to cancel the event. Charges against Q have been inconsistent, but include vilifying another student, suppressing freedom of speech, and bringing the University into disrepute. The particulars are complicated, but my aim here is not to debate the charges themselves. Rather, I want to set the case within a broader context, and flag up some serious concerns about the disciplinary process itself.

The University, faced with a complaint by one student against another, must clearly follow due process. However, the University must also consider its responsibilities to the health and safety of its minority students, especially where external parties are involved. The University cannot discharge this duty without recognising the climate within which it operates: trans people are exposed to organised public harassment and cyberbullying on a daily basis. WPUK positions itself as the representative of an embattled minority, but the campaign against transgender rights is powerful, vocal and well-resourced. This public ideological battle negatively impacts the lives of trans people, including students at the University.

More worryingly still, anti-trans campaigners are engaged in a sustained campaign of targeted individual harassment against transgender advocates. In one well-publicised example at the University of Milwaukee, former far-right poster-child Milos Yiannopoulos publicly exposed the identity of a trans student to a large public audience, in a series of disgustingly personal and incendiary remarks. Closer to home, anti-trans campaigners resort to similar tactics, publishing pre-transition photos and personal details, and harassing trans people at their places of study. The UK has seen a marked rise in anti-trans hate crimes in recent years.

In this context, I want to raise concerns about the process through which this disciplinary hearing came about. The case against Q rests on sweeping claims about their individual character, based on ‘evidence’ gathered by trawling personal social media accounts. While this already raises alarm bells about internet stalking, the situation is worse than it immediately appears. First, although the initial complaint was made by another student at the University, that student is an active participant in the campaign group WPUK - an external organisation. Second, the accuser has stated openly in an e-mail to members of staff that WPUK actively assisted in compiling evidence from Q’s personal media accounts - evidence which is now being used in an ostensibly internal disciplinary hearing.

Recently, after protracted silence and at least one missed deadline, the University again announced that it won’t drop the charges against Q – the hearing is on May 15th. To spend the best part of a year in suspended animation is potentially detrimental to any student’s mental health. To experience this trauma at the behest of a group who are actively engaged in a hate-based campaign against your basic human rights is surely even worse.

It is conceivable the University remains largely unconscious of these considerations in its execution of disciplinary procedures. Even if so, however, it seems imperative to challenge the narrowness of vision that can enable it to continue on its present course. Indeed, the University has found itself unprepared on a number of counts in recent years, attracting criticism for its handling of various issues including student racism, mental health, and minority inclusion.

Transgender rights are currently at the forefront of popular awareness, and future students will want to know the institution can be trusted to look out for its trans students. If the University is serious about recuperating its name as a leading global institution of higher education, it would do well to remember its duty of care for students vulnerable to targeted abuse. Specifically, the University must consider carefully whether it is at risk of allowing its internal complaints procedure to be instrumentalised by an external campaign group, in order to target individually one of the University’s own  transgender students. How the University is seen to treat its own students may prove just as important to its public image, as any actions a student might conceivably have taken to ‘bring the University into disrepute’.

Featured image: Epigram/Ffion Clarke

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