Trans University Students Say They Feel Unsafe Over A Professor’s ‘Transphobic’ Website

Trans students and faculty at the University of Melbourne have reported feeling unsafe on campus after a professor launched a website where people can anonymously submit anecdotes about being impacted by a perceived encroachment of “women’s spaces” by trans people.

Melbourne University trans

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The launch of an allegedly transphobic website by a professor at the University Of Melbourne has left trans students and faculty feeling unsafe on campus.

The website, titled ‘No Conflict They Said’, purports to offer a space for cis women to anonymously air their grievances about the increasing presence of trans women in “women only spaces”. The professor, Dr Holly Lawford-Smith, says she created the website as a response to efforts governments are making to affirm and support trans and gender diverse peoples, which she believes have been done “without consulting [cis] women”, an apparently obvious move given that “women should have a say when women-only spaces are opened up to men”.

The website’s introduction states, “If we can’t collect data, we can at least collect stories,” implying that the issues of encroachment must be systemic. Stories posted there include, most recently: a sexual assault survivor feeling disturbed that a women-only hospital ward employed several male nurses; a “man” who “identified as female” joining a “females only” yoga class “touching his genitalia” and getting an erection; a teacher feeling angry that their female students were being taught to accept a trans girl who excelled in sports and expressed her struggle through art that was later applauded; and a woman upset that she was made to use a unisex bathroom at a cafe, noting that she had “been followed by a creep before”.

None of these stories point to anything further than people unfamiliar with trans people feeling discomfort in their presence, or simply people dissatisfied with The State of Things.

Lawford-Smith believes the website, its supporters, and other “gender critical” feminists, are simply criticising the orthodoxy of the left, for daring to stand up against the notion that “men who identify as women belong in women-only spaces”.

Repeatedly, she refuses to acknowledge these “men who identify as women” as trans women — she does not distinguish between sex and gender, and believes male and female (and therefore men and women) to be immutable biological categories. It’s unclear where intersex people fit into her ideology.

Lawford-Smith and other “gender critical” feminists, often also called Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) though this label is rejected by the group as a “slur”, have nearly singularly fixated on the issue of single-sex spaces. Lawford-Smith’s personal activism has been the subject of many on-campus protests in recent years. While trained as a philosopher in climate ethics, she began her foray into “gender critical” feminism shortly after she began working at the University of Melbourne in 2017.

In 2019, she took part in a panel called The Future of Sex Based Rights held in the sprawling Carillo Gantner lecture hall, discussing the same issues about women-only spaces that the website is concerned with, met with the same backlash by trans and queer students and staff. This occurred around the time the Victorian Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Bill (2019), which allows transgender people to change the sex marker on their birth certificate without medical intervention, was passed.

Back then, trans staff, students, and allies circulated a petition calling for the University to “Provide a Safe Environment for Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Individuals”. They expressed to Farrago that they felt unwelcome at the University, due to people like Lawford-Smith using their authority as staff to advance transphobic arguments as legitimate points for debate. At the time, the University defended Lawford-Smith, expressing that “a commitment to the rights of LGBTQI people and a commitment to freedom of expression are not automatically in conflict”.

A nearly identical process has played out this year. After the broader University community learnt about the website, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) launched into action. Over 2,000 signatories, including staff, students, and alumni of the University have signed an open letter calling for an end to the promotion of transphobia at the University of Melbourne, addressed to Vice Chancellor Duncan Maskell and Dean of Arts Russell Goulbourne. The letter emphasises that signatories’ concerns are “not merely with regard to issues of intellectual disagreement”, but more to the heart of the values of the University and the commitment to safety and wellbeing of LGBTIQ+ students and staff.

“[The website] deliberately pushes a harmful ideology not supported by scholarship or ethical research practice,” it states.

Further, the NTEU and UMSU, alongside the National Union of Students, organised a snap rally of around 200 on Wednesday, March 3, to send a message to the University’s Chancellery.

“When a staff member with a sizeable platform abuses their power to spread fear, they will inevitably legitimise violence against trans students,” Amelia Bright, an Office Bearer for the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) Queer Department and a trans student, said. “We want the Chancellery to stop selectively applying Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech Policies to protect hate speech and hateful misconduct.”

These are the same policies that campaigners in 2019 cited, which the University has fallen back on again. The University has repeatedly insisted on its commitment to the diversity, inclusion, and wellbeing of the community — Vice Chancellor Maskell said, in a statement sent to Junkee via a spokesperson, “One of our core values is that there must be a genuine and deep culture of respect for everyone at our university and of course this includes being completely respectful towards the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community. This is non-negotiable.”

Andie Moore, a longtime trans activist at the University, says they are frustrated about the hypocrisy. Moore was Queer Officer back in 2019, co-founded the UMSU Queer Political Action Collective, and is currently an NTEU delegate and on the frontlines of the recent snap rally.

“The University constantly talks about commitment to diversity and inclusion, but they’re not seeing the transphobia they effectively subsidise. We just want the University to listen and act, and enforce their own policies against transphobia, but they seem so hesitant on doing the basics.”

The University of Melbourne has a history of hiring people with similar views to Lawford-Smith. In the past, the University employed retired professor of political science Sheila Jeffreys, notorious for her transphobic views. The University recently promoted Jeffreys as an expert on transgenderism, which trans staff members have likened to promoting anti-vaxxers as vaccination experts.

Despite repeated attempts, students and staff concerns are falling on deaf ears. Maskell said, “We must all recognise the right for alternative viewpoints to be expressed within our community.  Equally, we must ensure there is no place for disrespectful comments or behaviour towards individuals or particular groups on University of Melbourne campuses or in the broader community.” It is difficult to see how repeatedly calling trans women “men” and repeating falsehoods about the trans community do not constitute disrespectful comments or behaviour.

Both Bright and Moore say they have felt heightened anxiety about coming to campus since the website and subsequent campaigns.

“It has made me more hesitant to involve myself fully at the University. Having people like Lawford-Smith among the teaching staff worries me, as a transgender Arts student, about whether the classes I enrol in are going to be safe for me,” Bright says.

Moore reports seeing transphobic graffiti on a window, which they note was present back in 2019 as well, in women’s bathrooms: “I was just furious. Every time academic transphobia makes the headlines, these vague debates about the nature of gender translate into targeted intimidation against trans people which encourages violence against them. When the University doesn’t combat transphobia, it intensifies — that’s precisely what I saw.”

“I refuse to be blocked from attending my workplace though. It’s our human right to be able to work and study in peace. I personally won’t let the University’s inaction or the noisiness of transphobes stop me from doing so,” they say.

Hannah McCann, a staff member at the University who brought the website to the attention of the broader public when she wrote about it from her Twitter account, is also primarily concerned with the wellbeing of community members on campus.

“I feel worried that this undoes the years of work so many staff and students on campus have done to make the environment safe and welcoming for all LGBTIQ+ people. I feel angry that this could happen at all.”

Lawford-Smith’s reaction to the on-campus actions is one of nonchalance: “I don’t think anything will follow it, except more radical and gender critical feminist students feeling marginalised on campus.”

It remains to be seen what the University will do to protect and support its trans and gender diverse students beyond empty words, if anything at all.

Stevie Zhang is a Melbourne-based journalist. They are currently with First Draft, a misinformation nonprofit, and the ABC’s The World program.