Members of the Imperial community have come together to write a letter calling for Imperial College’s Senior Management to confirm its full support of the transgender community and condemn transphobia. This comes after it came to light that Imperial’s Vice Provost (Education), Professor Simone Buitendijk, had been engaging with material on Twitter which many considered transphobic.
The staff and student body collaborated to write this letter, which is addressed to Professor Buitendijk and currently has 86 signatories.
3rd year Undergraduate Physics student, Josef Willsher, who took the lead in writing the letter, bringing this situation to attention and engaging the staff and student body, first discovered the offending tweets on 11th April. He told Felix: “The first thing that happened was I came across this account, @Transgendertrend, which is a particularly nasty account, which spreads lots of hurtful and misleading information about trans people; including calling trans women ‘men’ and stuff like that.” After then going through some of Professor Buitendijk’s likes and follows, Josef noticed a worrying trend of online engagement and brought it to the attention of people in the Physics LGBT Representation Network - an “allies” network set up last year to better represent LGBT students in Physics. Following this, Josef engaged academics and staff in the Physics LGBT Representation Network and, with the support of academics, staff and other co-signatories, started writing the letter addressing their collective concerns to Professor Buitendijk.
Professor Buitendijk has since apologised, deleted the offending tweets and unfollowed the accounts in question.
The issue was particularly sensitive because many of the posts with which Professor Buitendijk had engaged were TERF-related. TERF, or Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist, is a category of feminism which “seeks to exclude trans women”. Josef explained to Felix: “Lots of trans women we’ve spoken to about this are very aware of how damaging that sort of rhetoric can be. It’s a really harmful debate to be having and unfortunately it’s dominated the public discussion about trans rights in the UK.”
In addition to the Physics LGBT Representation Network, many of the letter’s co-signatories are from Imperial 600, the College’s LGBTQ+ network for staff and postgraduate students, IQ, Imperial’s LGBTQ+ society, as well as Imperial’s political societies, including Labour Society and Left Forum.
Early drafts of the letter were leaked to College Management and an initial meeting was held on 16th April between Professor Buitendijk, Professor Stephen Curry [Imperial’s Vice Provost (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion)] and those who had expressed concern. This meeting has been described by some as “very political”. Although debate on campus is to be supported, Josef shared, “we were trying to explain to them how LGBT people and trans people are very sensitive to this cry for both sides because both sides means supporting and also condemning your actual identity”. There has since been another meeting, held on 29th April, and both College and those concerned have agreed a suitable resolution to the issue.
Felix approached Professor Buitendijk for a response to staff and students’ calls for her to distance herself from the offending tweets and re-confirm her commitment to inclusivity and diversity, to which she replied: “Yes, I want to do that. The last thing I want is to cause anxiety or harm. That is, of course, absolutely not my intention. I’ve apologised about any potential or real harm and anxiety that I’ve caused and I really understand now, much better than before, the dangers of having these kind of very complicated exchanges of opinions of Twitter. I’ve totally taken a step back from all of that and we’re hoping that we can continue the conversation and work with Imperial 600 to make sure that we do right. I’m hoping that we can use this as a good way of mobing forward. I’m hoping we can do something together so we’re not seen as being at odds with eachother.”
The staff and students’ letter to Professor Buitendijk and the College’s statement in response can both be seen below.
Josef ended the discussion with Felix by noting: “Simone represents College Management and College Management has an obligation to protect trans people and has an obligation to support them. Using her public Twitter account to engage with tweets and to share articles… we really didn’t think it’s the place to do that. A respectful debate, if you want to have that, means something else.”
STATEMENT IN RESPONSE TO LETTER
Prof Simone Buitendijk and Prof Stephen Curry have confirmed their full support for trans students and staff and their commitment to working together and maintaining an open dialogue on these issues. This follows productive discussions between Prof Buitendijk, Prof Curry and representatives of the student and staff LGBT+ community. The meeting came after concerns were raised by students and staff about some social media accounts that Prof Buitendijk was following and some engagement with these accounts.
Professor Buitendijk said: “Although I support the freedom of academics to follow and engage in debate in all areas, including on social media, on this occasion I now realise that social media is not the correct forum for such sensitive debates. I have elected to stop all engagement with these accounts and apologise for hurt or anxiety caused to members of our community. I fully support all trans staff and students and I hope that the open and honest discussion we have had can lead to improved collaboration to ensure a sense of safety and belonging for all trans students at Imperial.”
Professor Curry, Assistant Provost (Equality, Diversity & Inclusion), said: “I am determined to help create a diverse and inclusive environment at Imperial where all staff and students feel free to be themselves and all members of our community are free to express their views. We must uphold both the individual rights of all our members of our community and also the importance of universities remaining places of open and respectful debate. I was pleased that members of the LGBT+ community felt able to raise their concerns; the ensuing discussion was very constructive and provided a valuable reminder of the need to be mindful of the power dynamics in any form of public discourse.”
Imperial College London is committed to equality and diversity, including the active support and inclusion of trans people in our community. We are pleased that a significant body of students has expressed support for the trans community in response to this issue.