Current Affairs

Oxford Union stands by decision to platform Debra Soh, despite student criticism

The Oxford Union has chosen to invite Debra Soh to speak at the society this term, a decision which is being called deeply transphobic by students.

Soh is a Canadian science columnist, author, political commentator, and former academic sex researcher, set to speak at the historic society on 19th February.

However, she has long been accused of transphobia due to her opposition to bans on conversion therapy for the transgender community. In 2017, Soh authored an article entitled, “Why bans on conversion therapy are misguided” and more recently, in September 2020, Soh wrote an article called “How the nonbinary trend hurts those with real gender Dysmorphia.” On a show hosted by Fox News’ Laura Ingraham last December, Soh even stated that “There is definitely no science to suggest there are more than two genders.”

This has stirred much controversy amongst students, with the Union’s current Librarian-Elect stating that she was “deeply hurt” by the Union’s decision to platform Soh. The sitting Treasurer has also refused to share the term card until this issue is acknowledged and plans on bringing it up to the society’s governing body.

The President, James Price, however, stands by his decision. He commented to The Oxford Blue saying:

”I’m proud of the work of so many people for putting together such a diverse, broad and hopefully thought-provoking term card that includes speakers across the political spectrum. The Oxford Union champions free speech, alongside robust scrutiny and debate. It is, was, and will be a place that debates important issues, and no one will ever be allowed to speak without being robustly challenged and taken to task for their views. We will always welcome the help and advice of anyone who can help us better do that, and we will always ensure, even in a virtual term, that members will be able to have their questions put to every speaker.”

One Union member, Pierce Jones, emailed the President with his concern that, “Anyone who seeks to deny the legitimate identities and existence of transgender individuals is transphobic. By inviting her, the Union is giving Soh a platform to advance a viewpoint which actively harms minority members of our community. Transgender people suffer from extraordinarily high levels of suicidal thought and hate crimes have risen in recent years, especially towards trans people of colour. The Union is contributing to this discrimination.”

He was, however, also met with a similar response that “Whilst [Price has] listened to clips of her speaking and read passages of her works, [he does] not claim to know her mind. This is precisely why [he is] in favour of interviewing and challenging her in one of [their] virtual events.” Thus, Price goes on to say that “[He] shall not be rescinding the invitation to Dr Soh.”

This comes after The Union also invited, and then uninvited, IT Crowd Creator Graham Linehan, who also holds transphobic views. The Union has additionally had a history of hosting controversial speakers with figures such as Marine Le Pen, Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson having given addresses or participated in debates in recent years, all of which drew criticism and led to demonstrations outside the Union. 

Oxford University Student Union (OUSU)’s LGBTQ+ Campaign have released the following response:

“As another term arrives, it seems inevitable that it brings a new Oxford Union term card and a fresh controversy over whichever bigot they have decided to invite to speak this time. This term the Union has invited Debra Soh, a Canadian neuroscientist who made her reputation studying paraphilias (that is, sexual fetishes and associated behaviours) before leaving academia and taking a hard turn into criticising the idea of gender identity, supposed early transitions in trans youth, and efforts to outlaw conversion therapy. She is not an academic, and when she was, trans health was not her field; she is hardly qualified to comment on these issues and her positions are unequivocally transphobic.

“But this is not the point. The point in inviting her is for the Union to excite controversy: they invite a defender of conversion therapy, who has written for the far-right journal Quillette, and it quickly becomes the talk of social media, promoting their event for them. What Soh gets out of it is the chance to air her harmful anti-trans views and launder her reputation by associating it with the Union and, further, the University. As queer activists, it is hardly worth our time to engage on this issue with an organisation that has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness to change, but we note that this is not even the first time this year we have been compelled to comment on the Union’s practice of inviting anti-trans speakers. That transphobia is viewed by the Oxford Union’s leadership as an acceptable belief to platform, even a reliable source of attention, continues to exemplify a culture at this university that is profoundly anti-trans. This culture will not change until the university and the student body, as well as the Oxford Union, take steps to understand the damage that their decisions to tolerate, tacitly support, or even encourage transphobia causes to trans students, to our studies, and to our lives.

“If you are a member of the Union, it is your money that helps perpetuate this atmosphere. You might consider donating to charities that work to support LGBT people, especially young people, who are most at risk from conversion therapy, such as the support line Outline, youth group Gendered Intelligence, or the UK Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group, which aids LGBT people from all over the in the application process for asylum in the UK.”

Note: This article was amended at 22:52 GMT on 21st January to include the section about the positions of the sitting Treasurer and Librarian-Elect.

Anvee Bhutani

Anvee Bhutani is the former Managing Director of The Oxford Blue, having also held a variety of roles on the editorial and business teams. She is a penultimate year student at Magdalen College reading Human Sciences and is originally from San Francisco, California. To reach out to her, please email anvee.bhutani@magd.ox.ac.uk