30 academics across the UK – including Lancaster University’s Dr Katie Alcock – have called upon UK universities to reconsider their alignment with the LGBT+ charity Stonewall via the Stonewall Diversity Champions programme.
In their letter to The Times, they “urge Stonewall to clarify that it fully supports academic freedom of thought” and, failing this ask universities to “sever their links with this organisation altogether.”
Stonewall CEO Ruth Hunt responded in a statement in which she highlighted the effectiveness of her organisation’s work. She expressed Stonewall’s surprise over the letter by these academics and that their concerns “provide ample evidence that there is so much more for Stonewall to do.”
Stonewall is an LGBT rights charity in the UK, founded in 1989. Its
In their letter to The Times, the academics expressed concern over Stonewall’s requirements of Diversity Champion universities, stating that such requirements are “in tension with academic freedom.” The letter makes no issue of equality for LGBT+ people, but rather addresses what these academics perceive as “specialist trans policies.” Associated universities must – in addition to general equality policies – prohibit “transphobic” teaching and research material. The letter takes issue with this, stating that there is “no clear definition of what would count as such.” It maintains that Stonewall’s objection to universities inviting speakers who would deny “that trans people are the gender they say they are” is an “unacceptable restriction upon free academic debate.”
In response to the petition to universities in their letter to The Times, the 30 academics who signed the letter have faced opposition by over 3,600 UK academics in a counter-letter arranged by the University of Sheffield’s Dr Caroline Dodds Pennock. Their letter states “As academics and other colleagues working in higher education, we are writing to register our support for policies and practices which are inclusive and supportive of our trans colleagues and students.” Though the letter also adds “critique of policies and programmes that promote inclusiveness, such as Stonewall Diversity Champions, are not in and of themselves unwelcome.”
Dr Katie Alcock of Lancaster University’s psychology department was one of the 30 academics to sign the letter to The Times.
Lancaster University LGBTQ+ Facebook page posted a statement which was highly critical of the letter from Dr Alcock and her fellow academics. When asked why she thought the response from this Facebook page was so extreme, Dr Alcock said, “As I’m a psychologist, I’m aware that the frontal lobes – which are the areas of the brain which inhibit automatic and poorly thought through responses – don’t mature until the mid-20s, and I’ve been in academia long enough to know that it’s our job as academics to expose students to a range of alternative ideas, logical thought, and nuance.”
Dr Alcock said that “Stonewall claims to represent lesbian, gay, and trans people, but their attitude… that lesbian women are same-gender attracted, not same-sex attracted, would need to change.” Dr Alcock would like to see “training on all aspects of the equality act… including sex; race & ethnicity; religion & belief; sexuality; and, maternity” – arguing that, currently, equality training is disproportionately focused.
The letter Dr Alcock signed conveys the signatories’ wish to “explore and question” the “affirmation model for gender-questioning children”, among other things. The affirmation model is a method of therapeutic care designed to alleviate mental distress and involves facilitating the transition of children into their self-proclaimed gender selves, no matter what age. However, Dr Alcock doesn’t think it’s helpful “to say that the affirmation of someone’s idea of themselves… is necessarily going to be a positive thing for their own mental wellbeing.”
As a research developmental psychologist, Dr Alcock assists clinical psychologists in working out what people (and in her case children) understand about their own thinking. This enables clinicians to alleviate mental distress in their patients. “When a patient sees a clinical psychologist, or a psychiatrist, or a doctor, they may have decided that their distress is caused by gender dysphoria and that treatment of that dysphoria by gender affirmation will relieve their distress.”
Dr Alcock warns that while “some people feel that not affirming [the self-proclaimed gender identity of trans people] is causing them mental distress… if something else as well – or instead – is causing them mental distress this needs to be explored.” She said that clinicians at the gender identity development service “have expressed serious issues with [the affirmation model] because of their clinical experience that children with many other causes of distress are appearing at the service, expecting that only their gender dysphoria will be treated.”
Dr Alcock is “happy for people to
proclaim their own gender identity” and, in fact, has “deep misgivings about
society’s response to those who do not appear or behave in their dress, roles, and
interactions with others as society and the patriarchy wishes them to do so
based on their biological sex.”
Where Dr Alcock and her fellow academics see the unusual requirements made by Stonewall of Diversity Champion universities as a threat to freedom of speech and thought at UK universities, the counter-letter argues that “until all LGBTQIA+ people can live, work and learn in our universities without fear or intimidation, it is vital that we stand up and say that we support the rights of trans and other gender-diverse people to be who they are.” The question of which fear – that of the threat to free speech, or the threat to the acceptance of LGBT+ people – should take priority is perhaps the most important question of our time.
The Lancaster University press office was contacted for a statement and are yet to respond. This is an ongoing news story.