This week in transphobia: Oxford does it again

Just after the UK government showed its true, transphobic colours, Oxford University managed to one-up them. Of course it did. While I will get into the specifics of Oxford’s actions, I think it would first be wise to establish what transphobia actually means (it seems that lots of people, especially those with transphobic views, are a bit confused about the definition).

In this piece, my language is a lot more impersonal than usual: this is because I’m still struggling to process my emotions regarding the University’s move. When you are repeatedly hurt, numbness starts to prevail. Hopefully, my lack of emotion will also help defend against the all-too-frequent accusation that trans people are ‘irrational’ or ‘deluded’.

There are many potential sources for definitions, and many transphobic people discount the opinions of “compromised” organisations like Stonewall and Mermaids. I like the Planned Parenthood definition for its clarity. According to them, “Transphobia is the fear, hatred, disbelief, or mistrust of people who are transgender, thought to be transgender, or whose gender expression doesn’t conform to traditional gender roles”. Note the words “disbelief” and “mistrust” — they’ll become important later on.

Further, transphobia can take the form of (and I’m selecting the most relevant examples here): negative attitudes and beliefs, aversion to and prejudice against transgender people, irrational fear and misunderstanding, and disbelief or discounting gender identity. For all the examples that I mention, I will be referring to this definition of transphobia, and these specific phrases. My goal is to make the transphobia as painfully and explicitly obvious to you as it is to me.

Now: what actually happened that has got me so up in arms? The Oxford Martin School has appointed Professors Selina Todd and Senia Paseta to lead a programme on Women’s Equality and Inequality, “focused on social mobility and education”. The Oxford Martin School is a research organisation that works with organisations like the Rockefeller Foundation and Citi to do work that has effects beyond academia: programme leaders are incredibly influential. Professor Todd has a history of making transphobic remarks and liking transphobic tweets; both Professors Todd and Paseta also co-signed a letter to the Labour Party arguing that they should not “[assert] gender identity over sex-based exemptions” and saying “We will not tolerate women […] being called ‘cis’ against their will”.

I have, in previous writing, mentioned a transphobic conference that was held in the Exam Schools last October, which I attended to try and engage in constructive dialogue (which failed, it seems). I refuse to name this conference because it simply gives them more publicity, but I will now say that Professor Selina Todd was one of the speakers there. In previous iterations of the conference, trans women were branded “horrible, hateful, misogynistic bastards” and similar rhetoric — this shows that the conference itself (regardless of Professor Todd’s participation) is transphobic in and of itself.

Having gone to the conference and taken notes, I also have some quotes from the organiser and other speakers at the specific conference at which Professor Todd spoke. The organiser opened up by talking about the toilets: “Gender neutral – as if that’s a thing”. So, from the off, there’s a denial of the existence of nonbinary people like me. A speaker then talked about “the myth of gender identity” — a great example of disbelief and discounting gender identity. The moderator, who is a prominent lawyer, said that “trans activists like to make examples out of women” — one of many instances of irrational fear and misunderstanding. There have indeed been shameful instances of trans-rights activists using violence, but to generalise to all trans activists is simply fear-mongering. All of these statements are examples of common transphobic narratives which are present everywhere, from media to the government. 

Another point that was made in reference to trans people was, “self identification leads to irrationality and intolerance”. This is an example of a common trans-exclusionist stereotype: that trans people are delusional, combative, and irrational. This stereotype in particular haunts me because it discounts not only my identity, but all the pain and emotion that has gone into discovering my identity and becoming comfortable with it. It also can delay trans people from seeking medical care, worsening our dysphoria. 

Another issue that was raised during questions at the end of the conference was the idea of ‘institutional capture’ — that trans people are targeting and taking control of important institutions to try and impose their will on the masses. Not only is this completely false, but it also sounds incredibly similar to the “deep state” conspiracy theories trumpeted by various rightwing groups.

To speak at a conference with that type of rhetoric without criticising it makes one complicit in transphobia, and hence, transphobic. Ditto ‘liking’ transphobic tweets. But Professor Todd has also made explicitly transphobic statements herself, such as “[questioning] the whole premise that someone can ‘transition’ from being a man to a woman or vice versa”, saying that “being a woman rests both on certain biological facts and on the experience of living in the world as a woman, from birth”, and arguing that self-identification would “harm the rights of women”. In the first two cases, she is again disbelieving the validity and identity of trans people (which is — you guessed it — transphobic).

The third example, about women’s rights, is a more insidious argument that is used by trans-exclusionists. This argument works by implying that trans rights and women’s rights conflict. This, in turn, suggests two things: that trans people are dangerous, and that “trans people” and “women” are mutually exclusive — ie, trans women aren’t women. The suggestion that trans people are dangerous, or that self-identification is dangerous, is false. I cannot stress enough that there is no evidence backing up these views. It is a transphobic narrative spun from the same yarn as the supposed “criminality” of certain racial groups.

The idea that trans women aren’t women is a denial of trans women’s identities: trans women are women. “Trans” is an adjective that narrows down which women are being referred to, but the overarching category is still “women”. To deny this fact is to deny the validity of trans identities. This form of transphobia can also be seen in the letter Professors Todd and Paseta co-signed — arguments about “sex-based rights/exemptions” and the antipathy towards use of the adjective “cis” are both transphobic dog-whistles whose underlying premise is that trans women aren’t women, and that trans identities are fake and/or dangerous.

The fact that two professors with a history of transphobic views will be leading a research programme on Women’s Equality is concerning because their views mean that trans women will potentially be excluded from the research. This amounts to a massive oversight for an institution as influential as the Martin School, which influences government policies around the world. It threatens to widen the gap between trans people and the rest of society, while making it clear that, in the eyes of the University and the world, trans people do not matter.

Zaman Keinath-Esmail

Zaman Keinath-Esmail (she/her) is an Opinion Editor at The Oxford Blue. She studies Physics, sits on various society and college committees, and generally advocates for equal rights for everyone. When not in Oxford, she can be found in Washington, DC.