Is Oxford a Welcoming Place for Trans Students?

On the 21st April 2023, the Oxford Union released its termcard for Trinity Term 2023, containing an invitation for philosopher Kathleen Stock to speak at the Union. The invitation was met with near-instant condemnation by multiple LGBTQ+ students, welfare societies, and advocacy groups affiliated with the University of Oxford.

Stock has gained prominence through her gender critical views, arguing that proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act threatened a “secure understanding of the concept ‘lesbian’” and womanhood more broadly, and that “many trans women are still males with male genitalia”.

The University’s LGBTQ+ society was first to respond, releasing a tweet that stated it was “dismayed and appalled” that the Oxford Union decided to “platform” Stock, arguing that, the Union was “disregarding the welfare of its LGBTQ+ members under the guise of free speech”. Stock retweeted their statement, saying that it was “probably defamatory”, leading to more than 1 million views on the society’s social media page. Within the statement, the society alleged that Stock had campaigned “against trans rights”, “supporting conversion therapy”, and supporting “hate groups” like the LGB Alliance.

Soon after this, a pile on ensued. The Telegraph wrote about the personal details of the society’s President Amiad Haran Diman, and Zoë-Rose Guy, the society’s Secretary and de-facto Vice President. GB News ran multiple segments on the ‘no-platforming’ of Stock. This led to members of the society receiving thousands of hateful messages, and eventually the committee took down posts on social media for fear of retribution.

This led to members of the society receiving thousands of hateful messages, and eventually the committee took down posts on social media for fear of retribution.

Both Diman and Guy noted that the society, until recently, had a “policy” of not getting involved with politics, and was instead a “welfare society”. However, when the Union invited Stock, Diman and Guy both felt a responsibility to speak out. Diman commented that “my interpretation of queer welfare […] is that it is also about making our trans members know someone is backing them and making sure there is a community that can stand up for itself. Threats to our community are threats to queer welfare.”

Diman also lamented that what they perceived as a local student issue had been “cynically exploited by the national media” to fuel what is perceived as a national culture war. They also added that it “does change the debate because people are more scared of putting out a statement now, even about local issues, because it can become a national issue where a million people will see it”.

Union President Matthew Dick first stated in a Union Standing Committee Meeting that he didn’t “feel responsibility for any wider thing” regarding this treatment. The Union has since issued a statement stating that they “respect the right of speech of those who disagree with our hosting of the event and condemn the doxxing and harassment that some of them have faced”. 

Union President Matthew Dick first stated in a Union Standing Committee Meeting that he didn’t “feel responsibility for any wider thing” regarding this treatment.

Following this outburst of controversy, Oxford Union President Matthew Dick defended Stock’s right to her views, arguing that she had a valuable “academic stance” on trans rights. Since the meeting, the Union have also pledged to allow anonymous questioning, prioritise LGBTQ+ questioning to challenge Stock’s views, and distribute “additional welfare resources”.

Evie Craggs, current Faith Representative of the SU LGBTQ+ campaign, criticised those perspectives. Craggs stated that “if you look back historically, you’ll have people using academics to justify slavery… academics and hate speech actually commingle a lot more than we think they do”. Rosalie Chapman, incoming SU Vice-President for Welfare, pointed out that while Stock is a published academic on several issues, her work in her book Material Girls is “not peer reviewed and not based on empirical research and facts.” Chapman went further, and stated that Stock was using her position to “legitimise hatred”.

Craggs also added that it is a “personal act getting up there against the weaponry” of the culture war, noting that the fear alone of challenging a speaker who had a legion of supporters willing to attack trans voices would dispel many potential LGBTQ+ attendees. Guy stated that even with the proposed framework, the event amounts to “debating the existence and the rights of an entire group of people”, arguing that “it wouldn’t be acceptable for any other minority group either”.

The feeling that the Union debates the existence and rights of minority groups was expressed in several interviews, and not just in the context of the Kathleen Stock event. Those involved in LGBTQ+ advocacy stressed the importance of peer support systems and the work of individual JCRs/MCRs as the most useful and effective welfare systems for trans students, separate from those of colleges, the University, or the Union.

Those involved in LGBTQ+ advocacy stressed the importance of peer support systems and the work of individual JCRs/MCRs…

The 2018 Trans Report, conducted by the LGBTQ+ SU Campaign with 52 responses, cites a 2016 Welfare Report in which 43% of students said their first port of call for welfare were their JCR representatives, with 83% of students suggesting they were satisfied by the support they were given. While many perceive colleges as conservative, JCRs/MCRs present opportunities for support towards trans students, which is reflected in the provision accessible at this level.

A Gender Expression fund is available at 22 of 29 undergraduate Colleges surveyed in an unpublished SU Campaign document of LGBTQ+ provisions seen by The Oxford Student. A wide range of funding is available depending on the college. Wadham, for example, has a cap of £70 per request for reimbursement, while Exeter is the only College with an unlimited amount available to students.

At present, several JCRs have passed motions condemning the Oxford Union for “platforming” Kathleen Stock, with a motion passed by St Anne’s College stating: “All committee members involved must take responsibility for the recent harm that they have caused and must proceed to act in solidarity with the trans community.” The Oxford Student can confirm that similar motions have also been passed at St Hilda’s College and Mansfield College, while a number of other Colleges are also in the process of passing similar motions. At Exeter College, the JCR is in the process of proposing a motion to condemn the Union and call on its students to boycott the Union in protest of Stock’s invitation and other welfare concerns.

“All committee members involved must take responsibility for the recent harm that they have caused and must proceed to act in solidarity with the trans community.”

There was also a general agreement that while students are broadly accepting of trans people, institutions and staff can cause more discomfort and create barriers for trans students. Joel Aston, current co-chair of the SU’s LGBTQ+ campaign, stated that an important figure in their College previously said that they were “choosing to be the target of all of this because [they’re] out and present”. According to the 2018 report mentioned above, only 12% of trans students said they would know how to report a member of administrative staff for transphobia, while the figure is only slightly higher at 15% for academic staff. We spoke to many students who generally agreed that attempts to increase trans visibility and report instances of concern were often ignored or neglected. 

Only 43% of students felt that staff were able to deal with these issues. These statistics generally point towards the idea that on average, trans students lack confidence in their Colleges to be supportive environments for them to express their trans identity.

What interviewees recognised as causing difficulty in more traditional support networks, is the reality that much of the abuse students receive comes from external sources, with social media being particularly important. Looking at the examples of Diman and Guy, students are put at risk online for their gender identities and allyship, but it is often more difficult for welfare systems to find ways to support them. The burden in this case fell on other students to expose abuse and give help to students in need, in the face of unprecedented danger. Joel Aston, current co-chair of the SU’s LGBTQ+ campaign, stated that “students have to do most of the work when it comes to changing these institutions”. 

…much of the abuse students receive comes from external sources, with social media being particularly important.

The general trend of trusting peers and friends more than the staff in place to give support speaks volumes of the openness and welcoming nature of Oxford’s students towards trans issues. Discussions around trans issues have been improved and much progress has been made at times where trans issues dominated national headlines. Following the murder of Brianna Ghey on the 11th February 2023, a candle-lit Vigil was held in Radcliffe Square in which hundreds of allies attended out of solidarity. The event included speeches by numerous trans students and activists who discussed their frustrations at the constant battles faced by trans people in order to fight for their right to exist. A high turnout and participation from various activist groups, namely the LGBTQ+ SU Campaign and OxACT (Oxford Against Conversion Therapy), reflected the notion that when national discussions have impacted Oxford, there has been a sentiment of solidarity and support from fellow students and allies.

Joel Aston, current co-chair of the SU’s LGBTQ+ campaign, emphasised the importance of that allyship in letting trans people live. “When things have changed, it’s been the people who have been at the top of that power structure, the people who’ve been in that privilege who started advocating, fighting, and listening to those communities.”

The Oxford Union said in comment to the Oxford Student that, “the Union entirely condemns all harassment LGBTQ society members have faced since opposing this event.” and that “the Union believes that free speech is a two way street and respects the views of those, who might oppose to this event going and condemns those who might try to harass anyone voicing this opposition. 

Additional reporting by Daisy Outram.

Image credit: delfidelarua7 on commons.wikimedia.org

Image description: Christ Church College’s Tom Quad