Leeds’ open letter against Transphobia on campus: are universities doing enough to be gender inclusive?

Leeds University protests for explicit gender pronouns as transphobia on campuses is put into question.

Maud Webster
11th November 2021
The push to be gender inclusive in today's society has never been stronger. Image: Liberation News

CW: transphobia, suicide

Groups of students at many universities have called on their institutions over the past few months to recognise “a deeply entrenched culture of transphobia”. Notably, this includes an open letter written by students at Leeds University and sent in August to their Vice-Chancellor Simone Buitendijk, demanding a number of actions take place in order to make the university more inclusive.

Lots of these actions, including ensuring staff attend trans-specific training, making sure dead names, titles and previous gender markers are not kept and shared on IT systems, enforcing relevant policies and ceasing unnecessary demands to see gender recognition certificates, are moves universities across the country - including Newcastle - should be adopting.

Evidence was shared over the summer about these allegations.

The University of Sussex’s student body protested against philosophy academic Kathleen Stock earlier this year, with claims that Stock’s views on gender identification are transphobic, resulting in Sussex’s UCU branch calling for an investigation into institutional transphobia on campus. At Newcastle earlier this year, a survey was distributed amongst the student body containing transphobic views - this is unacceptable and the protocols and processes that allowed this to happen must be reviewed. This shows Leeds' is not unique in its issue with transphobia on campus.

As the open letter points out, ensuring an gender inclusive environment is maintained on campus is not just an Equality, Diverity and Inclusion issue, it is a Health and Safety issue: statistics show clearly that transgender and non-binary individuals are more at risk of finding themselves considering or attempting suicide, as well as suffering from depression, due to high levels of transphobia experienced. It is vital that universities do as much as they can to combat transphobia on campus. 

An academic on r/Leeds vocalised their opposition to specifically the request for academics to state their gender pronouns when introducing themselves at meetings, just a small element of the requests sought after by the group of students at Leeds, yet the one most of the press discourse discussing the letter focuses on. 

It is vital that universities do as much as they can to combat transphobia on campus.

They commented: “I'm an academic and I just don't want to be told what is and isn't acceptable to think, how to introduce myself and how to write my own emails by a very vocal minority of students [...].I have no problems with people adding pronouns to email signatures voluntarily, I might even do it voluntarily myself if I think there is a good argument to do so - I haven't really thought about it - is isn't something on my personal radar, I am a medical researcher. I do not want to be forced to do it in order to keep my job - which is where this is going, I guarantee.”

Whilst perhaps you can find an argument that if an individual does not feel sure in their gender identity then asking everyone to highlight their pronouns may be reductive, the importance of pronouns in ensuring an inclusive environment is created and to show you respect other people’s gender identities cannot be understated.

File:Parkinson Building, Leeds University, England ...
Leeds University is one of the best in the UK and part of the prestigious Russell Group.

More right-wing press outlets focus on headlines like “Leeds University students demand staff state their gender” (The Times) and “Students at Leeds University demand staff include their gender pronouns when introducing themselves at meetings” (Daily Mail). I find this very unhelpful, as the letter also raises many other very vital concerns affecting the trans community within the university and important demands, which these pieces tend to neglect to mention.

Newcastle and all education institutions should take note of the concerns raised by Leeds’ open letter and consider how inclusive the environments they have are currently, and what must be done to create trans-inclusionary campuses.

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AUTHOR: Maud Webster
she/they | third year architecture & urban planning student @ newcastle | co-head of culture for the 21/22 academic year

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