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Kathleen Stock: life on the front line of transgender rights debate
Sussex philosophy professor on why she continues to speak out despite facing online abuse and ‘hostile environment’ at work
January 7, 2020, By Jack Grove
“It is quite a strange situation to work somewhere where people make it clear that they loathe you,” reflected Kathleen Stock, professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex, on the backlash she faced for her views on gender identification.
As one of the UK’s leading gender-critical feminists, who has insisted that an individual cannot change their biological sex, Professor Stock has faced relentless criticism and abuse over the past 18 months – with blogs, petitions and Twitter users regularly demanding her dismissal for her allegedly “transphobic” views. In late November, a failed campaign to bar her from speaking at the Royal Institute of Philosophy’s annual debate generated 6,300 likes on Twitter, but just five emails from outraged complainants.
But it is at traditionally left-wing Sussex where Professor Stock has encountered some of her biggest critics: students have made several formal complaints against her, while some colleagues have made it obvious that she is not welcome, Professor Stock told Times Higher Education.
“I’ve found it quite a hostile environment – [some] have claimed my position is bigoted and I should be sacked,” she explained. Recently, she was asked to teach in a different academic building and arrived to find numerous transgender pride flags hanging from office doors near her teaching room. “It is a grey area where, in apparently being kind [to one group], you can get away with some very targeted behaviour,” said Professor Stock.
An internal Sussex email which was shared on social media after the publication of this article suggested that the flags were distributed in 2018 as a gesture of solidarity with trans people following media coverage of proposed legislative changes in the UK and international repression of LGBT rights.
Increasingly, however, the debate is less about whether Professor Stock’s views are right but whether she should be allowed to voice them at all. To question the idea that a trans woman should be treated as a woman in all contexts is an act of “hate speech” that seeks to “erase” her identity, Professor Stock’s critics contend. Writing anonymously on Medium in May, one PhD student claimed that she was leaving philosophy, in part, because she could “easily imagine running into Stock or some other transphobic philosopher” at a conference.
Avoiding controversial issues because of such sensitivities is anathema to Professor Stock, she admitted. “I was always encouraged to discuss fundamental things like identity and social kinds, but now we are being told to accept a highly ideological view that a person is whatever they feel they are,” she said.
“Even when it has massive ramifications for society, philosophers are being told to stay silent,” continued Professor Stock, who objected, in particular, to the idea that discussion of the limits of transgender rights should be halted because it could cause some individuals to self-harm or take their own lives.
“I’m interested in the evidence that this is happening,” she said, adding that it relies on “dodgy statistics that have not been independently verified”.
“It is appropriate to engage in fiction for some contexts, but we are now losing the ability to talk about these issues because of this passive-aggressive way of arguing,” Professor Stock said, adding that “many women are devastated by what is happening in this area and their opinions matter”.
While unpopular closer to home, Professor Stock’s views are seemingly striking a chord with a larger audience outside academia – with 24,000 accounts following her on Twitter. Last month her blog on the employment tribunal ruling against Maya Forstater, the tax expert who lost her job after claiming that transgender women could not change their biological sex, was liked by more than 3,300 people.
According to Professor Stock, the judge’s claim that Ms Forstater’s belief was “not worthy of respect in a democratic society” was a precedent that “sent the message” to UK employees that your “job will not be protected” if you espouse this view – a concern later echoed in a tweet by Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling, who referenced Professor Stock’s post.
That decision followed the withdrawal of invitations to feminist speakers at three UK universities in November and December after receiving complaints over their support for gender-critical groups, such as Woman’s Place and the LGB Alliance.
Professor Stock is now involved in a campaign to mount a legal challenge to the policies of Oxford Brookes University, which postponed a November talk by feminist artist Rachel Ara, who draws a distinction between biological sex and gender identity. A crowdfunding campaign has raised more than £6,000.
However, while some hailed 2019 as the year that gender-critical feminism reached the mainstream “thanks to the tireless efforts of many women”, Professor Stock was less optimistic that colleagues were listening. “Most academics only read the BBC or The Guardian which refuse, in general, to talk about these things, so the issue is still badly understood in academia,” she said.