Sociology students denounce Department transphobia

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Image Credit: Tom Gould

Students have been responding to the reaction from the sociology department at the University following a series of transphobic tweets were revealed by The Oxford Student.

The head of the sociology department sent an email to students saying that, whilst they could not comment on the specific allegation, they “would like to reassure [students] that the Department is fully supportive of tolerance and respect for everyone as well as of free speech within the law and academic freedom.”

They added: “The Department aims to be an inclusive learning environment and workplace, free from discrimination, harassment or victimisation, where everyone is treated with equal respect. We aim to anticipate and respond positively to the needs of trans and gender variant (prospective) students, staff, or alumni. The Department follows the University’s equality policy and transgender policy. All forms of abuse, harassment and bullying will be dealt with under the University policy on harassment and bullying.

“The Department is committed to support academic freedom, debate, and contestation within the law.”

In response, a sociology student has requested that people send an email to the head of the sociology department, Christiaan Monden, and the head of the social science division, Sarah Whatmore, concerning the allegations against Michael Biggs.

Meanwhile, other postgraduate students have started a petition which states: “We, as postgraduate students in the Sociology Department, are writing to express our condemnation of the transphobic statements made by Professor Michael Biggs on Twitter (under a pseudonym), as well as the subsequent response from both Professor Biggs and the department.

“We request that the department immediately and publicly denounce Professor Biggs’ statements; that the department takes immediate action to ensure trans and gender-nonconforming students feel safe and welcome within the Sociology Department (in consultation with organizations like TransOxford and the Oxford University LGBTQ+ Society); and that the department affirm that Professor Biggs’ tweets do not represent our views of the transgender community.”

It continued: “As Oxford students, we deserve to know that our interactions with professors are not undermined by our sexual orientation, gender identity, race, or any characteristic that does not lend itself to one’s excellence in academic pursuits. Professor Biggs’ anonymous Twitter account illustrates that this is not the case. For these reasons, we demand immediate response from the Sociology Department.”

One of the department’s students told The Oxford Student: “The Sociology departments [sic] response so far has been woefully lacking. 

They added: “The Sociology department is regressive in its views. There have been complaints made about treatment of individuals with mental health issues for example. One Professor referred to a group of people as ‘the crazies’, such ablest language is unacceptable.

“The Sociology department might be one of the best in the world for research but the growing dissatisfaction with the culture needs to be addressed in order to uphold this reputation and to, quite frankly, get with the times.”

Another sociologist told The Oxford Student: “The lack of response from the Department so far has been concerning, since these allegations, if true, run counter to the norms and standards set by the University’s Transgender and Equality policies.

“Students have the right to feel safe and respected in their seminar and lecture rooms, especially by figures of authority, and I hope the University will use everything in its power to ensure that.”

Another student said that whilst they “of course, value the principle of academic freedom, [they] believe the framing of this issue in this way to be completely incorrect. Assertions such as “Transphobia is a word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons” have nothing to do with Michael Biggs’ professional study, and calling them out as hate speech should not be considered as an infringement of his academic rights. The fact that he decided to use a fake name further reinforces this. In terms of the department’s reference to its support for ‘tolerance and respect for everyone’, such statements become utterly void of meaning when expressed in a context in which a member of staff is propagating transphobic hate speech with seemingly little consequence. The department is not currently a space of ‘tolerance and respect for everyone’, but one in which professors with considerable teaching time are able to be openly transphobic. A ‘safe space’ of tolerance and respect can only begin to be built through departmental action, not through empty words.”

In emails seen by The Oxford Student, one student who said they would now feel uncomfortable attending Professor Biggs’s lectures was told that they did not need to go. When they responded that this would disadvantage them in their exams, the tutor repeated that it was their own choice whether or not to go to lectures.

Professor Biggs, after being confronted by students in an MSc/MPhil Sociological Analysis class, maintains that he “hasn’t seen any compelling evidence” that the Twitter account belongs to him.

A representative of the department told The Oxford Student “We cannot comment on allegations involving specific individuals

 “The department of Sociology takes seriously its duty of care to its students and staff. Where individuals have expressed concerns either about online comments made or the need to defend freedom of speech, the department has ensured they are listened to and given appropriate support.’