THE University of Edinburgh has once again been accused by a trade union of hosting an event which “contests the legitimacy of trans people and their rights”.

On Wednesday (October 11) the university is set to host a launch event for an anthology of essays titled ‘Sex and Gender: A Contemporary Reader’ published by academic publisher Routledge. 

However, the Edinburgh branch of the University College Union (UCU) has sent an e-mail to principal Peter Mathieson and senior management staff condemning the event and calling for it to be cancelled.

In the e-mail, which was also sent to all members of UCU Edinburgh, the union accuses university management of failing to protect transgender staff and students from transphobic abuse and harassment by allowing the event to take place. 

In April, a second attempt to screen the film Adult Human Female on campus, organised by the group Edinburgh Academics for Academic Freedom, was thwarted after a small number of activists unconnected to a protest endorsed by UCU blocked the entrance.

The e-mail criticises two of the book's contributors - Jo Phoenix and Jane Clare Jones - who also appeared in Adult Human Female. 

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It claims their comments in the film attempt to connect transgender people with increased levels of criminality and sexual fetishism. 

The UCU also criticise Shereen Benjamin – a founding member of Edinburgh AFAF and a senior lecturer in primary education at the university.

They say her framing of transgender people and their rights as “gender ideology” seeks to delegitimise their existence.

The e-mailed continued: “It [the book] also includes Shereen Benjamin, who continually uses the strategy of framing trans people and their rights as ‘gender ideology,’ with the fait accompli that trans people’s existence – like any ideology or theory – can be ‘debunked.’

“The book being launched at the event continues with this strategy by using this false framing that trans people’s identity represents an 'ideology' and/or 'lobby' and that anyone supportive of trans people’s rights (i.e. typically the vast majority of trans people and any ally) is a ‘gender-identity theorist’ or part of the 'gender identity lobby.'

“This persistent attempt of the book at dehumanization and reducing trans people to an abstract anomaly or sinister cabal whose existence can be debunked or exposed not only represents a form of harassment in its implication for trans people’s legitimacy but goes against the recognition by human rights organizations such as the European Court of Human Rights (2002) as well as the U.K.’s Equality Act (2010) that trans identity constitutes a legally recognized and protected characteristic with fundamental rights.

"It is time that the senior management of the University of Edinburgh demonstrated its support for its trans staff and students against these campaigns and connected events, in recognition that trans people are not an ideology to be debunked, but a vulnerable minority as underlined by both the protected characteristic of the 2010 Equality Act and the very policies you have in place." 

'Astonishing demand' 

Speaking to The Times, Benjamin said she was “horrified” by the e-mail and fiercely criticised the union.

She said: “The individuals in charge of the branch have used their position to try to suppress legitimate academic discussion where it challenges views they personally hold, by exploiting policies intended to make the university a decent, fair environment, and smearing anyone who disagrees with them.

“I have said in many places that I think people who identify as transgender properly have the right to live, work and study free from harassment and discrimination, and that universities are morally and legally obliged to uphold those rights.”

There are concerns a protest may be planned for the event on Wednesday evening.

The co-editors of the book, Alice Sullivan and Selina Todd, have written to Mathieson and accused the UCU of making libellous allegations against Phoenix, Jones and Benjamin.

The National: A small group of protesters blocked the second attempt to screen Adult Human Female at the university in AprilA small group of protesters blocked the second attempt to screen Adult Human Female at the university in April (Image: Ross Hunter)

They said: “This is an astonishing demand which suggests that opponents of pluralism, rigorous scholarship, and open discussion at the University of Edinburgh have been pandered to and emboldened.

“The letter from Edinburgh UCU has also been sent to the entire branch mailing list, which we are told covers over 2,000 people. The letter makes libellous allegations directed at the authors of the book as a whole, and also singles out named individuals: Shereen Benjamin, Jane Clare Jones and Jo Phoenix.

“These libellous allegations of transphobia and denying trans people’s existence constitute harassment and contribute to a hostile and discriminatory environment for staff and students at the University of Edinburgh who have the protected characteristic of gender critical belief, which can be summarised as the belief that sex is real and sex matters.

"The allegations against Professor Jo Phoenix are notably idiotic and indefensible.

“We appreciate that the university does not control UCU communications. Nevertheless, the university has a duty of care to staff and students.

“It cannot be acceptable to allow staff to send mass defamatory emails which are intended to prevent academics from organising events and from expressing factual and evidence-based views. It cannot be acceptable that staff face no consequences for such unlawful and bullying behaviour.”

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“We suggest that there is a positive opportunity here for you to send a message supporting the event and stating that university channels must not be used to make libellous allegations.”

A spokesperson for the University of Edinburgh said: "The University attaches great importance to freedom of expression and academic freedom and would not seek to influence any lawful events held on our campus.  

“Given the size of our community, it is inevitable that there will be differing views and opinions.

"We always encourage respectful debate and discussion, and we remain steadfast in our determination to facilitate a safe environment where challenging topics can be explored. We also firmly uphold the right of people to take part in peaceful and lawful protest.  

“As with all events hosted on our campus, we work with event organisers and put measures in place to mitigate safety concerns wherever possible.” 

A separate event run by the university’s Staff Pride Network will be taking place on Wednesday evening on the subject of misinformation surrounding the public discourse on transgender people.

TJ Billard, an executive director of the Center for Applied Transgender Studies in Chicago, will speak at the free event titled: ‘Cisinformed: Disinformation and the Media War on Transgender Rights’.

Jo Phoenix, Jane Clare Jones, Edinburgh Academics for Academic Freedom, and UCU Edinburgh have been contacted for comment.