The University of Edinburgh is ignoring institutional transphobia

Content warning: transmisogyny

Definitions:

Transgender (Trans): An individual who identifies as a different gender as the one they were assigned at birth

Cisgender (Cis): An individual who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth

Transmisogyny: The intersection between transphobia and misogyny against women; this intersection is the name of oppression towards trans women

From around October last year, individuals began to notice transphobic stickers around the city of Edinburgh, including on the University of Edinburgh’s campuses. These stickers specifically targeted the womanhood of transgender women. Stickers found around the university cited the definition of a woman as an “adult human female” and included phrases such as, “women’s sex based rights are not for penises.” Stickers have been found in campus toilets, where trans people could see them, and ironically on posters for the #NoExcuse campaign, a campaign run by the Student’s Association on tackling sexual assault and violence on campus. It is the university’s responsibility to create a safe space for marginalised students and staff and the continued presence of these stickers is evidence of their failure to do so.

Transmisogyny, the prejudice against trans women, has become more aggressively and visibly apparent to the general public in protest against the recent calls to reform the 2004 Gender Recognition Act (GRA).  Transmisogynists, who voiced their outrage over the reform, falsely claimed that the potential to change a person’s legal gender based on self-identification would facilitate men accessing women’s spaces to enact gender-based violence. This is despite a study proving that the phenomenon of cis men exploiting a self-identification system is only an imagined one, designed to inflame the general public. Transmisogynists have incorrectly included trans women in their definition of ‘men,’ claiming that trans women are socialised as male and have the same potential as cis men to enact gender-based violence.  Discussions around the GRA reform provided an ideal platform for people to discuss their transmisogynistic views in the guise of concern for women. If there was a genuine concern for women, they would be calling for laws that protect and support trans women.

The transmisogynists we are referring to are not some faceless entity, but fellow students and staff who do not value the womanhood of students who are trans women. These are people we walk around campus with, who we discuss ideas with in lectures and tutorials and go to the same societies we are a part of; they are our neighbours, our personal tutors, our rectors. This is what makes trans students in the university feel unsafe and removing the stickers does not resolve this. Removing the stickers does not stop these students and staff from holding these views. In fact, it makes them feel that we are taking away their right to ‘free speech,’ when actually removing the stickers is an attempt to protect marginalised groups from hate speech.

The stickers around the campus of Edinburgh University, around the city and other cities in the UK are just a physical sign of transmisogyny which came in the false guise of debate around the GRA in British politics, media and university campuses. It is important to understand transmisogyny existed before the reform; it just became a perfect excuse for people to voice their hate. Trans women were the clear targets for this public transphobia, as part of transphobia is erasing the existence of trans men and non-binary people.

Edinburgh University Students’ Association has provided a path to report these stickers. Vice Chancellor Peter Mathieson issued a letter expressing that the university has a zero tolerance stance on transphobia and will examine CCTV footage to find the perpetrators and contact the police.  However, these stickers are just a symptom of a transphobic society, and subsequently university, because the stickers simply express the sentiment that is upheld by many students and staff. Thus, the university needs to do more to address the core structural issues that plant, perpetuate, and protect transmisogyny.

Core structural transphobia is evident in the university’s lack of recourse for transphobic staff. In October last year, Ann Henderson, the Rector of the university, retweeted transphobic tweets. This prompted PrideSoc and the Staff Pride Network to reply to her on Twitter, in order to stand up against transphobia. The PrideSoc twitter received many transphobic tweets in response, causing those in charge of the social media account to step away from the account. The only way trans students from PrideSoc and staff from the Staff Pride Network could reach Ann Henderson was through a face-to-face ‘mediation,’ which highlights the university’s lack of recourse for the transphobic staff and students. Mediations are not appropriate solutions to transphobic incidents, as trans people should not have to politely sit down and discuss issues with their perpetrators who could pose a threat to them. In doing this, the university shifts the responsibility of resolving these issues from the institution and onto the victim, as if it is up to the victim to argue well enough to convince the perpetrator to switch sides. The university must take more decisive action against transphobic staff and students, instead of placing this responsibility on trans students and staff in order to create a safer space for trans university members.

Transphobia perpetrated by fellow students has also not been dealt with appropriately. Kerry Rush, a non-binary postgraduate student and head of Positive Change Arts Projects, was made to feel unsafe due to transphobic violence from classmates. Students from their class cornered and verbally assaulted Kerry in a pub, resulting in police involvement. Although reported as a hate incident, the university’s response was that Kerry would need to make a formal complaint. This would involve having to attend mediation with the offending parties. It was difficult to make the formal complaint itself, as it would have required getting the help of unsupportive tutors who had suggested to Kerry they leave the course if they could not cope with the situation emotionally. Kerry independently found staff allies in a different school and is currently pursuing a number of complaints.

Regarding this incident, Kerry commented: “To have found myself, a postgraduate Counselling and Psychotherapy student, being continually misgendered by teaching staff and members of the class for two years is astonishing to me. I used my personal time to write educational talks, which were subsequently presented to the class during Difference and Diversity modules, along with printing out HE guidance sheets about gender identity and offering staff and students the opportunity to email me with any questions around my trans identity. Teaching staff actively chose not to use inclusive language or educational materials, and by continuing to misgender me, they were giving those in my class permission to also misgender and disrespect me. It would be in the university’s best interest to educate all staff and students on the Equality Act 2010 and make the university’s own Dignity and Respect Policy mandatory reading.”

These two instances are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the treatment of trans and non-binary students and staff on campus. In order for the university to deal with on-campus transphobia effectively, the university needs to put the same energy that they have in removing stickers into addressing the structural issues that allow these hate crimes to occur with little to no recourse other than face-to-face mediation. It must re-examine the structural issues that place transphobic people in roles of authority, protect transphobic students and staff, and allow for effective action for anti-transphobia complaints.

Statements

Rosie Russell, the Staff Pride Network Trans & Non-binary Representative – “Recent transphobic acts on campus and across Edinburgh of some individuals have been upsetting for staff and students and are wholly unacceptable. In our experience when brought to their attention by the Staff Pride Network, the university management has taken quick action to resolve matters. More can always be done and we believe the university should aim to lead the way in all matters relating to Equality and Diversity so that our staff and students can flourish regardless of their gender identity. The Staff Pride Network welcomes the intersectional current “Don’t Cross the Line” Dignity & Respect campaign and we look forward to further proactivity from the University of Edinburgh.”

 

Sisters Uncut Edinburgh, a trans-inclusionary feminist collective that helped cover transphobic stickers with affirming ones for trans women – “We believe it is vital to call out the abusive and violent nature of the transphobic stickers and transphobia in Edinburgh. They are not exclusive to the university campus. This transphobia is coming from small, obscure groups that are given a disproportionately large platform by the mainstream media to spread their hate. This overt bias from the mainstream media gives these groups the disturbing appearance of legitimacy. These groups are not legitimate. Our stickers are designed to demonstrate that Edinburgh is a place where trans people should be welcome, included and visible. We have also started a website: forallwomen.scot to combat some of the myths and lies spread by transphobic hate groups. The rhetoric of the transphobic stickers is harmful to trans rights. When the rights of any marginalised group are threatened it doesn’t just harm that group, it harms us all. We must stand together against transphobia, for the rights of all women and for an end to gender-based violence.”

 

Image: Sisters Uncut Edinburgh 

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