UCL formally cuts ties with LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall after ‘temporary’ withdrawal during Covid

Leaked Academic Board paper described the charity as ‘an organisation that has a tendentious ideological approach’

UCL revealed on December 16th that it “will not re-join Stonewall’s Diversity Champions Programme or make a submission to the Workplace Equality Index,” maintaining their decision to cut ties with the charity in February 2020, despite claiming it was a temporary decision for financial reasons. This separated them from many London unis that continue to participate in the schemes – including Royal Holloway, KCL, LSE, and Birkbeck.

The continued withdrawal was confirmed by UCL’s University Management Committee (UMC) with support from the Academic Board, who justified the decision by saying that “formal institutional commitment to Stonewall may have the effect of inhibiting academic work and discussion within UCL about sex and gender identity.”

But many student and staff groups on campus – including the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) committee, Out@UCL, UCL LGBTQ+ Equality Steering Group (LESG), UCL UCU, and Students’ Union UCL – are against the decision.

UCL LGBT+ Network, in particular, described the news as a “huge blow to the entire community of LGBTQ+ students at UCL, who feel less safe and supported in the wake of this decision.”

The London Tab obtained two Academic Board papers that may have contributed to the decision.

The letters claimed that Stonewall “endorses a politically contentious and legally incorrect understanding of equalities legislation,” “[fosters] an environment hostile to free speech and academic freedom by advocating a ‘no debate’ stance on matters concerning sex and gender-identity,” and is contentious for its “business model, its lobbying, and lack of impartiality.” The letter was signed by 66 anonymised academics. 

Screenshot showing the voting outcome of the Academic Board – supplied by Out@UCL

Being the first uni to join in 2006, UCL worked with Stonewall, a UK charity “campaigning as part of a global movement for [LGBTQ+ individuals] since 1989,” under the overarching framework called Diversity Champions Programme until February 2020. The charity assessed and guided administrative policies and practices affecting inclusion and diversity within the uni’s student and staff bodies with concrete measurements like the Workplace Equality Index. 

But with urges from student and staff groups on campus, UCL’s senior committees voted again in December 2021 to decide whether the uni should re-join the programme, where the results came overwhelmingly in opposition. The December 16th decision meant the uni will continue to abandon the “clear external framework to shape and measure [its] work on LGBTQ+ inclusion” for “the fundamental need to uphold academic freedom” – as they’ve described in a statement

The London Tab obtained two letters presented at the Academic Board discussion before they voted for the uni’s continued disaffiliation with Stonewall: an open letter by a professor and a final paper of the board signed by 66 academics.

In the former, the anonymised professor stated: “Affiliation with Stonewall contributes to a climate which encourages the harassment of staff and students who contradict the Stonewall line on sex and gender.”

They went on to claim that the charity is obstructing academic work as it “opposes data collection on sex, and has lobbied the Office for National Statistics and other public bodies accordingly.” 

Then, citing the infamous cases of Kathleen Stock (“who was harassed out of her job at Sussex”) and Jo Phoenix of Open University, the professor shared their own experiences of being “no-platformed” and claimed that all cases of Stonewall calling out transphobia “illustrate the fact that the individuals targeted are usually women, and disproportionately lesbian.”

Many of these views were reflected in the Academic Board’s final paper. It claimed Stonewall shifted its focus from “advancing gay rights” to “promoting gender self-identification” since 2014.

The 66 academics who signed agreed on this stance being contentious as it allegedly “extinguishes the important role of sex-based rights, using the slogan ‘No Debate’, alongside a definition of ‘transphobia’ which disallows discussion of sex as a real and potentially important characteristic.”

In a further claim that Stonewall “criticised lesbians who assert their boundaries as same-sex-attracted women,” the paper cited an external source to argue that the charity misinterpreted the Equality Act 2010 to promote “potentially unlawful actions by the university [… and] indirect discrimination against female staff.”

“Stonewall has not offered evidence that its scheme respects academic freedom and free speech on campus, takes measures to respect and protect it in practice, or has been misinterpreted by legally informed reviews like Reindorf. It has never condemned abuse, including violent threats, directed at academics and others simply for criticising Stonewall.”

The paper also referenced precedent and potential cases of UCL professors being “no-platformed” by the charity.

Despite the uni emphasising that LGBTQ+ rights will still be protected, many groups and individuals across campus are still concerned. 

The UCL LGBTQ+ Equality Steering Group (LESG) expressed worries on how “absolutely no trans representation and no recognition was given [to] LGBTQI+ members” during the Academic Board’s debate before their vote “despite a matter which directly relates to trans people’s experiences and rights at UCL being discussed in detail.”

Additionally, they emphasised how the decision “leaves UCL with no framework for LGBTQ+ staff and students,” despite the UMC proposing an “LGBTQ+ Equality Implementation Group […] tasked with understanding the concerns and priorities of members of the LGBTQ+ community at UCL in its diversity and with developing a set of recommended actions and a plan to address them.”

Students’ Union UCL also issued a statement saying that they think “removing [the Stonewall schemes] has the potential to create an environment where gender prejudice and transphobic language is justified under the guise of academic freedom,” which is concerning because “[all] trans people deserve to be treated with respect, dignity and humanity in our university – this is not an issue on which we can learn to disagree well.” 

UCL LGBT+ Network followed suit with a statement condemning the decision as UCL’s “unwillingness to truly challenge transphobia in academia” and encouraging students to show solidarity by signing its open letter. It also noted “a long-term plan to address this decision” that’ll be finalised and revealed in January.

Many students also spoke to The London Tab about their thoughts.

Lara (they/them) found the decision “incredibly worrisome.” They think the uni’s arguments about academic freedom and freedom of speech “effectively ‘greenlights’ the use and popularisation of transphobic language and arguments” and “legitimises anti-LGBTQ [and] anti-trans sentiments.”

“If your free speech promotes discrimination against an already marginalised group, how is it anything but hate speech?”

Echoing Lara, an anonymous student cited statistics like how 36 per cent of trans uni students experienced hostility from staff in 2018 to conclude that “Stonewall’s voice is badly needed in our university community, and abandoning it is nothing short of transphobic bigotry.”

In response, a UCL spokesperson said: “UCL’s decision not to re-join Stonewall’s Diversity Champions Programme or make a submission to the Workplace Equality Index does not mean that we are any less committed to upholding the rights of LGBTQ+ staff and students.

“Indeed, we will be re-doubling our work around LGBTQ+ equality and inclusion, with a particular focus on supporting trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming members of our community. This includes establishing an LGBTQ+ Equality Implementation group which will develop a strong programme of action to tackle all forms of inequality, marginalisation, and discrimination experienced by LGBTQ+ colleagues and students.

“We are unwavering in our commitment to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ staff and students and to work to ensure that UCL is a diverse community to which everyone can bring their whole self without fear of discrimination, bullying or harassment. We first developed our policies to support trans students and staff in 2010, long before Stonewall started working on trans rights.

“The decision was informed by thoughtful and respectful debates at both EDI Committee and Academic Board, which recognised the importance, complexity, and sensitivity of issues relating to sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex.

“The decision was taken following advice by UCL’s Academic Board about the fundamental need to uphold academic freedom and freedom of speech in an academic context – recognising that a formal institutional commitment to Stonewall may have the effect of inhibiting academic work and discussion within UCL about sex and gender identity.”

A Stonewall Spokesperson responded by saying their “work with organisations in no way impacts their ability to uphold free speech, it simply creates welcoming working environments for LGBTQ+ people – which in 2021, should not be a controversial act.”

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