UCU backs down from transgender rights showdown on legal advice

Lawyers say congress motion urging action against gender critical feminists could have breached Equality Act

May 27, 2022
London, UK. November 9 2021. Four new crossings with transgender pride flag colours have been unveiled on Marchmont Street and Tavistock Place in Bloomsbury, in support of the transgender community
Source: iStock

The UK’s main higher education union has backed down from a bitter showdown over its stance on transgender rights after it received legal advice.

Members had been due to debate a motion calling on the University and College Union to take a stand against “gender critical” feminists – those who believe it is not possible for people to change their biological sex – at its congress next month.

But key passages from the motion – and an associated amendment – have been struck out “following legal advice that the clauses could not be implemented consistently with the Equality Act 2010”, according to an update to the order paper.

These passages would have mandated the union to “oppose ‘gender critics’ and transphobes promoting ‘gender ideology’ and trying to undermine trans and non-binary people’s rights” and would have congratulated branches that were “challenging ‘gender-critical’ views”.

Some union members had warned that this could expose the union to legal action from those who felt discriminated against, referencing the case of Maya Forstater, who won a High Court ruling in June 2021 that gender-critical beliefs should be protected after her contract at the Center for Global Development, a thinktank, was not renewed.

It appears that the UCU’s lawyers have agreed, with the updated agenda recording details of a “special meeting” of the congress business committee held on 25 May.

“Following discussion, [the committee] determined that [the clauses] could not be ordered into the agenda, following legal advice that the clauses could not be implemented consistently with the Equality Act 2010,” the update says. “The committee’s decision was not unanimous.”

Holly Smith, who is coming to the end of her two-year term on the UCU’s national executive committee, welcomed the climbdown.

“I’m delighted to see that UCU has heeded legal advice that motion 38 is incompatible with the Equality Act as it advocates for harassment and discrimination against anyone who doesn’t believe in gender identity ideology,” said Dr Smith, a lecturer in higher education at UCL.

“The question for UCU now it has woken up to its legal responsibilities is how many other actions and statements which advocate for harassment of those who think sex matters are equally unlawful. I hope a full review of UCU’s responsibilities in this area will follow.”

Transgender rights have been a particularly sensitive issue within the union since the resignation of Kathleen Stock, a philosopher who has insisted that individuals cannot change their biological sex, from her professorship at the University of Sussex. Professor Stock claimed that a statement from the Sussex UCU branch that called for action against “transphobia” on campus had “effectively ended [her] career” at the institution.

The motions as now amended would, if passed, welcome the foundation of the Feminist Gender Equality Network, “committed to opposing transphobia on campuses and more broadly”, and order the union to “continue building internal union campaigns and resources and campaign publicly for LGBT+ liberation for all LGBT+ people”.

A UCU spokesperson said the union was “a proud and unequivocal supporter of the rights of trans and non-binary people”.

“We are clear that the defence of trans and non-binary people is central to improving the conditions of all staff and students in post-16 education, and look forward to UCU’s 2022 congress reaffirming this position,” the spokesperson said.


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Reader's comments (2)

Thank goodness. Freedom of thought and free speech must prevail to have a democratic society. As must intellectualism be grounded in physical, biological reality.
Freedom to express opinions, yes... accompanied by the freedom to challenge those opinions should one disagree with them. I reject your reality and substitute my own :)