TRANSGENDER students at the University of Edinburgh have said they feel “alone” as a result of the university’s decision to host the screening of a film which discusses whether transgender people represent a threat to women’s rights.

In December, a screening of the film Adult Human Female, organised by the Edinburgh Academics for Academic Freedom group (EAAF), was cancelled after LGBT+ activists occupied the lecture theatre.

The film claims to be the “first UK documentary feature to look at the clash between women’s rights and trans ideology".

A rescheduled screening is set to go ahead on Wednesday evening despite calls from the student association, the Staff Pride Network and the Edinburgh branch of the UCU academic union for it to be cancelled.

Following last year’s cancellation, EAAF denounced the individuals who had blocked entrance to the theatre as “censorious” and insisted that the film made an “important contribution” to the discussion of women’s rights.

But one transgender student at the university, who did not want to be identified, told The National that engaging with the topics discussed in the film was “harmful”.

They said: “What incentive is there for a trans person to get into a debate about whether or not they should exist?

“That’s what it comes down to, which makes it really difficult to enter into any kind of discussion in a way that isn’t harmful.

“A discussion which involves the questioning of your human rights isn’t healthy.”

EAAF state that issues of “sex, gender and gender identity need to be carefully, respectfully and openly discussed” and that academic freedom permits them to do so on the University of Edinburgh campus.

This was confirmed by vice chancellor and principal Sir Peter Mathieson earlier this month at a Q&A session which saw senior figures within the university grilled by students.

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When one student accused the university of “providing a platform for transphobic rhetoric”, Mathieson said that “the decision to allow it [the film] to go ahead is the correct one” and added that “it’s not the case that we are not listening; it’s a case that we disagree”.

A case of academic freedom?

However, another transgender student – who also wished not to be identified – told The National that claims this was about academic freedom were dishonest.

They said: “Framing this discussion in the language of ‘academic freedom’ is a rhetorical strategy. It allows people to campaign against minorities without saying they are doing so because they’re ‘just asking questions’.

“That’s why it’s so frustrating because how do you fight against that? Who doesn’t like freedom of speech? It’s the foundation of liberal democracy.

“But when this language is being manipulated by academics in Edinburgh to go after a particular minority, it’s frustrating because I would expect the vice chancellor and his advisers to be more knowledgeable about what’s actually going on here.

“Yet they’re just stepping back and saying that academic freedom is valued above all else – even when we know that isn’t the case. There has to be responsibilities as well as free speech.

“It just contributes to feelings that we really are alone in this. We’ve got no support against these kinds of campaigns.

“Where does this end? Where is this going? Well, if you look at America you can see where this is going: it ends up in justifications for rolling back trans rights.”

'Deeply concerned'

A spokesperson for the Staff Pride Network – a group of around 700 LGBT+ staff members, including both academic and non-academic workers – said that it wasn’t appropriate for one group to act as the arbiters of “academic freedom” and that allowing screenings like this to occur risked damaging the university’s reputation.

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“I’m deeply concerned about this group claiming ownership of academic freedom because that can have an impact on other staff,” they said.

“Is it fair that if we’re not members of this group we’re framed as being against academic freedom just because we don’t agree with them?

“And the real issues of academic freedom at this university – for example, the kind of pressure some staff receive when teaching students from China or Russia – aren’t being discussed by this group.

“To them, academic freedom is really only about being allowed to express their thoughts about trans people. “It also risks real reputational damage to the university. I’ve been at conferences where, when I say I’m from Edinburgh, I see eyebrows raise and I know I’m coming up against someone who is concerned that I’m transphobic.”

The protest

A protest has been organised by the Staff Pride Network to coincide with the screening of the film, which will include musical numbers from Cabaret Against The Hate Speech.

“We’ve opted for a non-confrontational, very peaceful protest,” they added. “We’ve tried to collaborate as much as possible with other groups to make this a joint effort to ensure the safety of all involved and to create a space to celebrate our community.”

Members of the socially conservative Scottish Family Party – whose leader was recently criticised for being interviewed by far-right group Patriotic Alternative – may also be in attendance to counter-protest in support of the screening.

What the organisers say

A spokesperson for EAAF said: "Universities should be places where ideas and claims can be questioned, explored and discussed. That applies especially to controversial social issues.

“Adult Human Female is a serious attempt to explore some of the conflicts of rights that arise when the belief that gender identity - an individual's self-declared sense of maleness or femaleness or something else - should be the only way to categorise them as a man, a woman, or something else.

“Enshrining this belief in law and policy has implications for everyone, and particularly for women's rights. For instance, should rapists who self-identify as women be housed in the women's prison estate? We've seen in recent months that public opinion in Scotland is overwhelmingly that they should not. 

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“The film does not question the right of any trans-identifying person to exist. Nor does it make any suggestion that the right to live free from discrimination and harassment currently protected under the characteristic of gender reassignment in the Equality Act should be rolled back.

“Instead, it considers some of the places - such as prisons, rape crisis centres and hospitals - where a conflict of rights has emerged, and seeks to contribute to calm, reasoned discussion of that conflict in order to understand and resolve it so that everyone is protected.

“We will only resolve the current flashpoint on sex and gender through respectful dialogue, and that is what we aim to do."

On social media EAAF also stated that while they support everybody’s right to protest, they do not align with or endorse any of the groups protesting or counter-protesting.

What the directors say

However the film’s directors, Deirdre O'Neill and Mike Wayne, claimed transgender activists posed a threat to academic freedom.

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They told The National: “The nub of the issue is that we and gender critical women do not believe that men who identify into the female sex should be treated in policy and law as women. That is detrimental to the rights of women.

“Trans people are entitled to all the rights that everyone should have. However, trans rights activists make additional rights claims which cannot be defended in our view, either in terms of science or women's rights.

“This is a disagreement but by claiming our film is hate-filled and 'transphobic' the other side want to make our criticisms completely illegitimate.

“Our film shows that women have been asking for a debate around this issue of conflicting rights for a very long time. But because feminists have been labelled as equivalent to fascists, the trans-rights activists have got away with the 'there is no debate' mantra.

“The reason that trans-rights activists are a threat to academic freedom is not because they disagree with us, but because they have hounded academics on university campuses. There is an atmosphere of fear on university campuses and students also dare not discuss it.”

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What the university says

A statement from the University of Edinburgh read: "We are aware of the planned protest by the Staff Pride Network in collaboration with ‘Cabaret Against the Hate Speech’, which is due to be held concurrently with the screening of ‘Adult Human Female’.  

"We support the right to peaceful and lawful protest, and of our staff and students to convey their opposition to this event, in accordance with the University's Dignity and Respect Policy. This policy will also apply to the conduct of staff and students attending the screening of ‘Adult Human Female’.   

"As set out in the University’s Statement on Freedom of Expression, we do not expect members of our community to act in ways which are intended to disrupt the event or deliberately obstruct the freedom of others to express their views.  

"We acknowledge the strength of feeling this event causes in some members of our community. However, by permitting events such as the ‘Adult Human Female’ screening to take place on the University campus, as well as peaceful and lawful protest in response to such events, we ensure that our campus is a place where challenging topics can be debated and discussed." 

"In doing so, the University is not endorsing or taking a stance on any particular views expressed as part of these activities, but rather upholding our commitment to freedom of expression."