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University Calls Off Conference Amid Protests From Transgender Activists

Incident is latest in which academics say they are facing hostility for views that do not conform to those of activists.

March 21, 2019
 

Threats by transgender rights activists to disrupt an academic conference on prison reform over the organizer’s allegedly “transphobic” views on how inmates should be segregated have led to its cancellation.

More than 300 people were expected to attend a two-day conference on prison abolition in Britain at the Open University’s campus in Milton Keynes at the end of May, but delegates have been notified that the event has been called off.

The organizers, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, an educational charity, did not explain the exact reason for the sudden cancellation to delegates, but Times Higher Education has learned that it was scrapped after activists vowed to target the event over the group’s policy that transgender prisoners should be incarcerated separately from cisgender female offenders.

Its advice, published in February, follows the case of transgender prisoner Karen White, who was jailed in October 2018 for sexually assaulting inmates in a women’s prison while on remand for rape charges.

However, campaigners have claimed that the center’s recommendations support “state-sanctioned murder,” given the suicides of several transgender prisoners in men's prisons.

A leaflet distributed by the Trans Liberation Assembly -- a collective of militant feminist groups -- describes the “abhorrent transphobia [of] so-called respectable academics at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies” as a “sinister factor in this increasingly violent treatment enacted against trans women who are victims of the prison estate.”

That literature, which criticized “measures [that] demonize trans women as posing an inherent threat to ‘real’ women,” was handed out as 50 protesters occupied the Ministry of Justice on International Women’s Day on March 8.

With reports that the same protesters intended to target the Open University event in May, organizers emailed delegates on March 9 to say that the conference had been canceled after one of its partners -- the Open University -- had been “subjected to concerted pressure by those intent on disrupting the conference.”

In a statement, the Open University suggested, however, that it had canceled the event over “concerns that discussion around this conference was moving away from its main, originally intended, focus -- to debate the past, present and future of prison abolition.”

The event’s cancellation is the latest in a series of flash points over academics’ views on gender self-identification and whether transgender women should have access to areas, such as prisons, where vulnerable women are housed. In December, Rosa Freedman, professor of law, conflict and global development at the University of Reading, told how her office door had been covered in urine and how she had received threatening anonymous phone calls after debating proposed gender law changes.

One activist group, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, has claimed that CCJS director Richard Garside, a senior visiting research fellow at the Open University, is guilty of propagating “sustained transmisogynist pressure” in the media by supporting “transphobic measures to segregate incarcerated trans women.”

Kathleen Stock, professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex, who has faced hostility from students over her views on gender identification, said that the cancellation was the latest example of how pressure from transgender campaigners was having a “chilling effect on the richness of discussion” in this area.

“Richard Garside’s views on this are incredibly moderate and well considered, so if you can’t make statements like these, then something is really up,” said Stock.

“People have stuck things to my office saying I am not welcome on campus and students have held placards on campus saying that I am transphobic,” Stock added. “I think the worry about no platforming can be exaggerated, but it is happening in this area.”

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