Fighting back in the precarious academy – FWSA address 2019

On 16 October I spoke at the 30th Anniversary event hosted by the Feminist and Women Studies Association UK and Northern Ireland (FWSA). This is the text of my short talk.

Thank you for having me, I am very honoured to be here today.

I was invited to speak about doing feminism in the academy through my research on trans experiences. I am a trans woman known for my research on trans health.

I am interested in how discourses of consent, autonomy, sex and gender circulate between patient communities, activists, and professionals, and how these are shaped by power relations. I also work on new approaches to healthcare that might centre patient knowledges, rather than patriarchal medical authority. At present, I am part of an international study of pregnancy and childbirth among trans men and non-binary people.

This research stems from my wider interest in gender, sexuality, and power relations within institutions. I have published empirical work on equality schemes in Higher Education, focusing specially on Athena SWAN. My research with Charoula Tzanakou shows how Athena SWAN places a burden on the very women it is supposed to help, through expecting them to participate in the extensive work of self-assessment.

I also have been involved in anti-casualisation campaigns, especially while working on hourly-paid contracts for six years at the University of Warwick. I feel it is important to recognise this as feminist academic work too, an argument I expand on shortly.

I am very often invited to speak about trans health. At least as often, I am invited to speak about being a trans woman.

I am very rarely been invited to speak about my wider feminist research or activism.

I know why this is. While our numbers are growing, there are very few trans people and especially trans women working in universities. I am used to being the only visible trans person in the room. I am painfully aware that I am frequently present as a token. I am also aware that if I am not present, often no trans voices are heard at all, let alone trans women’s voices.

I know it is important to talk about how a vast majority of trans staff and students face substantial barriers in Higher Education. These include rigid administrative procedures, plus high rates of verbal abuse, physical and sexual assault. I know it is important to talk about how transphobia is tied closely to misogyny, racialisation, ableism and class, and how the challenges we face are especially compounded for trans people who face intersecting forms of marginalisation, such as Black trans women and disabled trans people.

I know it is important to talk about how we currently face an unpreceded rise in open transphobia. Cis academics talk about stripping our legal rights in public lectures and newspaper columns. Trans studies scholars face constant abuse and harassment on social media, malicious freedom of information requests, and threats of legal action. I know it is important to talk about how anti-feminist talking points from the religious right, such as the supposed threat of ‘gender ideology’, are laundered through anti-trans groups.

Still, there are times I want to talk about other things.

There are times I want to talk about being a woman more than I want to talk about being trans. There are times when I want to talk about solutions as well as problems, about collectivity and solidarity rather than division.

New postgraduates frequently ask me for advice on surviving in departments where they are the only out trans person. My advice is always the same – build alliances across difference. You may be the only trans PhD student, but you will certainly not be the only student who faces marginalisation.

To quote Patricia Hill Collins: “Who has your back, and whose back do you have?

In 2015 the University of Warwick faced scrutiny over TeachHigher, a proposed wholly-owned subsidiary designed to facilitate the outsourcing of teaching at universities. These proposals were defeated by organised resistance within numerous academic departments, led primarily by casualised staff.

Our campaign relied on recognising how the economic precarity of casualization is also about the myriad ways in which many of us are additionally oppressed. As my comrade Christian Smith passionately argued, “TeachHigher is sexist, and TeachHigher is racist”. We knew that women and people of colour are disproportionately represented within the pool of casual labour on which our institutions rely. We knew that increased casualization only exacerbates conditions in which those who are already the most privileged are most likely to thrive. This was a feminist campaign, an anti-racist campaign, a campaign about class, a campaign against ableism, homophobia and transphobia.

In my department, where over 40% of teaching was undertaken by people on hourly-paid contracts, we organised a teaching boycott. None of us would sign up to teach the following year unless the department took an active stance against TeachHigher. This could only work if all of us agreed to openly sign a letter announcing the boycott – otherwise, we could be played off against one another. It took many careful meetings and discussions to organise. Many of us relied on this work to pay our bills, and in some cases, look after families.

In response to our letter, the Head of Department disparaged us in a departmental meeting, calling us “childish”. He proposed replacing our labour with PhD students from other universities. He said we would never win, that the university would never back down.

A week later, the university backed down.

So how do we claim space for feminism in the precarious academy?

By remaining aware of our differences, working with and across them to build alliances.

By campaigning through formal and informal unions as well as our research.

By speaking out and supporting our colleagues, especially if we are in a more secure position than them.

The university is not built for us. We know this in our hearts when we see the statues and paintings of worthy men around campus. We know this in our bones when we the climb steep steps to lecture theatres designed to centre a patriarchal pedagogy. We know this in the sharpness of our breath when men known for sexual abuse talk over us and claim responsibility for our work in departmental meetings.

It’s time for change on our campuses. Let’s make that change together.

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Gender statistic guidelines revised by HESA

The Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) have announced a welcome revision of their new gender and sex categories for student records within Higher Education.

I originally posted about this issue after HESA’s original proposed revisions – which appeared to ask about “legal” or “birth” sex and removed any possibility for the recognition of non-binary genders and intersex bodies – caused confusion and concern.

An impressive lobbying campaign in which trans people and allies emailed and tweeted HESA to explain our concerns has now led to a change in policy.

The revised fields contain the following categories:

SEXID (sex identifier)

1 Male
2 Female
3 Other

This replaces the current options (male, female, indeterminate) and the original proposed revision (male, female).

It is important to note that HESA acknowledge for the first time that the “other” category might be used to record non-binary genders in their advice to institutions:

The use of ‘other’ is more appropriate for people who associate with the terms intersex, androgyne, intergender, ambigender, gender fluid, polygender and gender queer.

As Jane Fae explains, this is an enormous step forward.

It’s also worth noting that institutions may, if they wish, institute additional gender options in their student record surveys (e.g. genderqueer, androgyne) and map these options onto the third category (“other”) for the sake of data provision to HESA.

GENDERID (gender identity)

Suggested question:
Is your gender identity the same as the gender you were originally assigned at birth?

01 Yes
02 No
98 Information refused

These revisions are a massive improvement, representing a step forward from the existing guidelines as well as the flawed original revisions. HESA certainly deserve credit for listening carefully and responding positively to the complaints they received.

However, there is still some ambiguity in the SEXID question. No doubt some institutions will title this question “sex” whereas some may title it “gender”, and students may still experience uncertainty when formulating a response. For instance, how are intersex individuals who define as female or genderqueer individuals who wish to note that they have been assigned a male sex meant to respond to such a question?

Moreover, it is important that trans activists based within Higher Education continue to lobby institutions to recognise gender identity within student records purely on the basis of self-definition – a matter that is largely out of HESA’s hands.

Update on the HESA gender statistics affair

Some clarification, new information and new developments have emerged since I posted about HESA’s gender statistic fail yesterday.

Background

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) is currently revising a number of data collection fields. The changes are not yet set in stone. 

Two new fields (student.SEX and student.GENDERID) will effectively replace the one existing field (student.GENDER) which is currently used to collect data on gender within higher education institutes (usually universities) in the United Kingdom.

The existing student.GENDER field has the following categories*:

1 Male
2 Female
9 Indeterminate

In regards to “Indeterminate”, HESA note that:

“Code 9 ‘Indeterminate’ means unable to be classified as either male or female. It should not be used as a substitute or proxy for ‘Not known’. The term ‘indeterminate gender’ is intended to identify those who are ‘intersex’ and is not related in any way to trans-gender.”

However, in practice a number of institutions have effectively mapped answers such as “other” and “prefer not to say” onto this third category within enrolment/re-enrolment forms in order to provide non-binary, genderqueer, intersex and other students to effectively “opt out” of the gender binary.

The new, compulsory student.SEX field has the following categories:

1 Male
2 Female

The new, optional (for institutions) student.GENDERID field has the following categories:

01 Yes
02 No
98 Information refused

A brief analysis of the harm in these changes can be found in my previous post.

Developments

It appears that HESA have received a number of queries and complaints from trans people: it’s uplifting to see so impressive and rapid a response!

The agency initially responded by noting that the changes were the result of “consultation with [the] HE sector and ECU“. Commentators noted that this consultation seemed to at no point involved actual trans students.

However, in the last hour HESA have provided the following statement from their Twitter account:

“Thanks for queries re. sex and gender in next year’s HESA record. Your input will help us get this right.”

The tweet links to correspondence conducted between HESA and trans activist Emma Brownbill – if you have the time, it’s worth a read!

Some key points include the following:

“The phrase ‘legal’ sex is only currently used in the Staff Record. The intention in the Staff Record is to match the data requirements of HMRC, which for tax and pension purposes only accept Female or Male.

The final coding manual and guidance for the Student Record in 2012/13 has not been published. From your own and other queries about the provisional guidance and consultation documents it is clear that the terminology of ‘legal’ sex may not be appropriate for the Student Record.

Similarly the binary choice of Female or Male, originally intended to match the Staff Record, is now the subject of further discussion with regard to the Student Record.”

So let’s keep at this – we’re really getting somewhere!

Also, thanks to everyone who commented on the previous post, your contributions were greatly appreciated.

Edit: the story has now hit Pink News.

 

*The numbers (e.g. 1, 2, 9, 98) are used within statistical analyses.

 

Gender recognition under threat in UK universities

I read a very disturbing internal email this afternoon. I’m not going to quote the majority of it in order to preserve anonymity, but the central content is of concern to any current or future trans student in Higher Education.

Earlier this year, HESA [Higher Education Statistics Agency] confirmed a series of changes that they would be making to the HESA Student Record for the 2012/13 academic year, which would have an impact on some of the questions that students are asked during the application and enrolment process. A number of these changes relate to equality issues and the 2010 Equality Act and I thought it would be prudent for us to consult […]

The key changes of relevance are as follows:

(1) There is an existing field Student.GENDER which will from 2012/13 be replaced with Student.SEX. The new Student.SEX field will reflect ‘legal’ biological sex at birth and we have been advised that there will be only two valid entries for this field, either Male or Female.

(2) To complement the new Student.SEX field there will also be an additional field, Student.GENDERID, which is intended to reflect the student’s gender identity based on their own self-assessment. A response to this question, should we choose to ask it, would be optional for students. The ‘suggested question’ from the Equality Challenge Unit for eliciting this information is “Is your gender identity the same as the gender you were originally assigned at birth?” and it would be possible for students to respond with ‘Yes’, ‘No’, or ‘Information Refused’.

At my university, the current student.GENDER field allows students to identify as “female”, “male”, “other” or “prefer not to say” following intervention from trans activists and past Students’ Union welfare officers. This system, and any similarly progressive approach from other institutions, will be overturned by the new HESA guidelines.

My concerns are as follows:

1) What is “legal” sex? Is it:
(a) my birth sex? (in which case I’m male)
(b) what’s on my passport? (in which case I’m female)
(c) whether or not I have a gender recognition certificate? (in
which case I’m male)

[edit: a skim of the HESA guidelines shows that (a) is not the case, with the university apparently using the phrase “sex at birth” in error]

2) If (a) or (c), then the University is going to revert my “sex” on its forms. This will disclose I am trans to anyone using their records.


3) If (b), then anyone wishing to update their gender will have to out themselves by walking into the university administrative building and presenting their passport.
I had to do this in 2005 and it caused all kinds of weird issues with the Students’ Union and my records. We changed the system in two stages (the last one is referred to in the letter) in order to prevent this from happening to anyone else.

4) The new system erases intersex people.

5) The new system erases people with a non-binary identity.

6) This whole approach has an extremely flawed methodology that will only invalidate the desired data!

I suspect my university doesn’t have much of a choice about how this is carried about, and neither will others. We urgently need to lobby HESA to reverse their policy on this.

I’ll aim to write a more coherent analysis of the situation (inc. the complex role of the Gender Recognition Act) when I’m feeling more coherent.

EDIT: HESA notes changes to the student.GENDER field here. Information on the new (binary) gender identity code can be found here.