Fight for Academic Freedom of Speech to discuss Sex and Gender

by Rachel Ara

Fight for Academic Freedom of Speech to discuss Sex and Gender

by Rachel Ara
Rachel Ara
Case Owner
I'm an artist who was silenced by a University for speaking out about women's rights & gender id on social media. I'm fighting for academic freedom and the right to discuss gender without prejudice.
on 11th December 2019
pledged of £12,000 stretch target from 212 pledges
Rachel Ara
Case Owner
I'm an artist who was silenced by a University for speaking out about women's rights & gender id on social media. I'm fighting for academic freedom and the right to discuss gender without prejudice.

Latest: Jan. 10, 2020

Freedom of Speech has been Upheld.

We are very pleased to say that following our legal  representation to Oxford Brookes University, they have now officially acknowledged their public duty to uphold academic freedom and re-extend…

Read more

I’m Rachel Ara, an artist who has exhibited work internationally, and been artist-in-residence at the V&A.  I'm know for my large scale works that intersect feminism, technology and question systems of power.  I’ve been part of the LGBT scene for over 35 years. As a feminist, I believe that biological sex matters socially and politically and should be protected legally. In November 2019, as a response to hostility towards me on social media for expressing these views, Oxford Brookes University no-platformed my guest lecture. 

I’m asking for your help to apply for a judicial review, to bring Oxford Brookes University to account for no-platforming me; and, for having policies in place which threaten academic freedom and inhibit critical discussion of sex and gender. It’s because of the culture these policies have created that I feel intimidated at the possibility of returning to speak again at Oxford Brookes (or any other institutions that are adopting such policies).

The Background

In January 2019 I was invited by a senior member of the Fine Art Department at Oxford Brookes to give a guest lecture to Fine Art students, and to offer some tutorials beforehand. In their approach, they told me about prestigious past speakers in the same lecture series, offered me a small honorarium, and noted that in past months they had been “especially interested in using these lectures to explore new technologies, as well as issues surrounding gender and identity”. I accepted with pleasure, planning to talk about feminist issues in relation to my art and the challenges that women face building larger scale works.  The event was scheduled for November 19th. Several follow-up emails then confirmed arrangements.

The day my lecture was due to take place, following hostile social media tweets about me from an anonymous account called “TERFS OUT OF ART”, I was contacted by the organiser to say that things had “blown up” their end and my guest lecture was not going ahead. TERFS OUT OF ART had apparently targeted me because of my belief that biological sex, and not an inner feeling of “gender identity”, should be recognised in law and policy; and for my past public support of organisations that share this view. Such views are falsely interpreted by TERFS OUT OF ART, and apparently by Oxford Brookes too, as “transphobic” and hostile to trans people by definition. I strongly reject this. (“TERF” is a slur, standing for “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist”, and was recently described by a judge in the High Court as “a derogatory term used by those who seek to de-platform those who hold different views.”).

The fact that a University could be so quickly swayed into cancelling an academic event was shocking to me. I had always assumed Universities to be neutral facilitators of controversial academic discussions in the public interest. Oxford Brookes’ swift response revealed to me that I was wrong. Meanwhile, the public and humiliating cancellation of my lecture exposed me to reputational damage and was celebrated on social media as a triumph by my original critics. Prejudicial reporting of the incident followed in the press, describing me uncritically as “transphobic” and causing me further distress.

Oxford Mail, 19 November, 2019

The Times, 19 November 2019

Two days later, on the 20th November, Oxford Brookes released a statement, claiming that the University had postponed the lecture “as it had not been booked through the usual process for external speakers”. Given the formal nature of the invitation I received, and extensive subsequent correspondence from the Fine Art Department in my possession, I consider this to be a false statement designed to mislead the public about what the real reason for the cancellation was.

Though they have not communicated with me directly about it, Oxford Brookes have now stated publicly that I will be re-invited to give a lecture at a later date. However, I now feel intimidated by what I have been through at their hands, and have serious concerns about returning to speak. Instead, as I’ll now explain, I’m requesting that Oxford Brookes retract some formal University policies of theirs, which I consider to have been instrumental in their initial no-platforming of me, and so which threaten my and others’ academic freedom.

The influence of Stonewall on Oxford Brookes’ policies

Since the cancellation, I’ve looked at Oxford Brookes’ website and seen that they are a member of the Stonewall Diversity Scheme, an influential scheme run by the LGBT charity Stonewall. This scheme gives Universities public recognition, in return for their committing to so-called “trans-friendly” policies and training programmes, on terms dictated by Stonewall. Stonewall are famously heavily committed, not just to the desirable goal of protecting trans people from discrimination (which I share), but also to advocating for the protection of “gender identity” in law and policy, the “Acceptance Without Exception” of gender identity in all circumstances, and for dismissing any dissenting view as “transphobic”. Indeed, Stonewall explicitly define “transphobia” in their online Glossary of Terms and other literature as “the fear or dislike of someone based on the fact they are trans, including the denial/refusal to accept their gender identity.” Along with other feminists, I consider these goals to be in direct tension, in many contexts, with the goal of talking about biological sex and its social and political impact for women.

Oxford Brookes’ formal University HR policies, like those of many Universities, seem to me to bear the hallmarks of Stonewall’s influence. In my view, their “Transgender and Gender Identity Equality Policy” goes well beyond reasonable measures to protect transgender staff and students from discrimination, apparently positioning critical scrutiny of the idea of “gender identity” itself as unacceptable. For instance: this formal University policy says that Oxford Brookes

  • “recognises that current legislation does not cover a fully inclusive definition of trans identities”
  • “seek[s] to go beyond legal compliance in our approach.”
  • will “adopt a broad and inclusive definition of gender identity, as well as positive language about gender identity affirmation”;
  • “seek[s] to ensure that the curriculum promotes awareness and positive representations of trans identities and does not reinforce stereotypical assumptions of gender identity or contain transphobic material”.

In conjunction with Stonewall’s inherited definition of “transphobia” as including “refusal to accept.. gender identity”, this policy interferes with staff and students’ academic freedom to explore questions about prioritising gender identity over biological sex.

Meanwhile, Oxford Brookes’ student web pages also say that:

  • “If you are transgender, you can access ‘men-only’ and ‘women-only’ areas – such as changing rooms and toilets – as you feel appropriate. This may mean that you change the facilities you use at the point when you start to live in your affirmed gender.”

This explicit invitation to self-identifying transwomen at Oxford Brookes to enter female changing rooms, rather than third spaces, is another mark of Stonewall’s influence. In a press release on their own website, Stonewall recently controversially denied that the Equality Act allows service providers to offer single-sex changing rooms.

In this sort of climate, with their acquisition of Stonewall branding, and with these policies, it is not a surprise to me that Oxford Brookes cancelled my talks so hurriedly. Indeed, their act of no-platforming me is apparently in line with what Stonewall explicitly recommend in its documentDelivering LGBT-Inclusive Higher Education”, which says (my italics) that “Speakers who hold strongly anti-LGBT views, such as…denying that trans people exist as the gender they say they are, cause LGBT people to feel deeply unsafe.” The atmosphere at Oxford Brookes is clearly one in which people with views like mine are actively discouraged from speaking about them, and it goes to the highest level of University policy.

Indeed, all over the University sector, academics who wish to be critical of the idea of gender identity are facing abnormal harassment and interference. Stonewall-backed trans policies. such as those at Oxford Brookes, significantly create the environment for this harassment, and constitute an impediment to free academic thought in this area.

With your help, by applying for a judicial review, I will hold Oxford Brookes accountable for the way they have let a lobbying group influence their academic mission in this way. This case will send a powerful message to the University sector as a whole: while protecting trans staff and students is your business, intellectually advocating for a political position on “gender identity”, and discouraging dissent about it, definitely is NOT your business. I want to demonstrate in court that Universities must put some distance between themselves and Stonewall (and other similar lobbying groups), to fulfil their duties with respect to academic freedom.

How much are we raising?

Initially I am seeking to raise £10,000 to start legal proceedings, pay for initial advice and begin our case preparation. I will then need to raise considerably more to cover all the associated costs of the case, so your support is critical.  Any excess funds will be pledged to another gender critical case of this nature.

This is a crucial case both for academic freedom and for the rights of people to intellectually dissent from gender identity ideology. Universities are the place where attitudes are formulated, hypotheses are tested, public policy is constructed, and from which influence and impact is radiated. Academics MUST be free to investigate theoretical and practical matters concerning sex and gender, without prejudice. Please help me to ensure this happens.

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Update 4

Rachel Ara

Jan. 10, 2020

Freedom of Speech has been Upheld.

We are very pleased to say that following our legal  representation to Oxford Brookes University, they have now officially acknowledged their public duty to uphold academic freedom and re-extended the invitation for me to speak. For the moment, assuming this event will go ahead smoothly and with adequate protections, we will therefore not be pursuing the application for a judicial review against them.

We trust that our action has put UK Universities - especially those which are members of Stonewall Diversity Champion scheme - on notice. University events involving gender-critical and feminist speakers must be allowed to proceed in a supported environment, without capitulation to twitter mobs, petitions, colleague or student complaints, or other kinds of pressure. The world is watching.

We have therefore ended the CrowdJustice Funder.  We’re incredibly grateful to those who donated so generously to fund this action. Legal fees are expensive, and a lot of preparation went into getting the case even this far.  Any remaining money will be used to fund similar actions, in defence of gender-critical thought, by the same legal team. (For instance: this team is currently involved in cases against Oxfordshire County Council for trans guidance in schools, and against the Tavistock Gender Identity Service. A case against Bristol University is also being explored).

I will keep you updated about when the talk is going ahead, if anyone wants to attend.

Thank you again to all our supporters.  

Update 3

Rachel Ara

Dec. 24, 2019

Update on Fundraising Status.

We had a large donation that had to be cancelled as it could not be verified by the Crowdfunder team.  We therefore still have to push to reach the initial 10k target. This covers the preliminary costs and research all due to the law firm.

In the new year we will be meeting with the lawyers to decide our next step with the potential of launching a new Crowdfunder to cover the costs of the court case.

Thanks again for all your support and have a merry Christmas.

Update 2

Rachel Ara

Dec. 20, 2019

We have a response from Oxford Brookes

We have now received a response from Oxford Brookes and are consulting with our legal team. We will be back in touch early in the New Year with news of our next move.

In the meantime, I wish you all a very merry Christmas and what promises to be a very busy New Year !

Update 1

Rachel Ara

Dec. 12, 2019

Thank you and we're now awaiting a response from Oxford Brookes

We have reached our initial funding target in two days.  I am incredibly grateful for all the support so far. We have sent a lawyer's letter to Oxford Brookes University, setting out the terms of our case. They now have a limited time to respond. At that point (18 December) we will update you all with further developments. 

As we have already reached our 28 day target, we have decided to suspend our push for fundraising from now till the 18th, though the funder remains open.

There was also a great letter of support in the The Times this week and a couple articles in the news including  The Daily Mail and The Times.

Thank you again.

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