by: Mikhail Yakovlev
Last week, MDI posted a brief Twitter thread in reaction to online harassment of our partner Stop Funding Hate UK. Stop Funding Hate recently launched a campaign asking Nationawide UK to divest from the Mail on Sunday, after the paper published an op-ed claiming that “trans trolls are a threat to our democracy” after Oxford University Professor Selina Todd reported that she needed to be accompanied by security, due to comments she made about transgender people on her website and social media profiles.
However, this op-ed did not tell the full story. In our thread, we mentioned that Selina Todd has been called out for retweeting transphobic tweets on Twitter—which, seeing as how she is a public figure, has been interpreted as a form of bullying by a number of Oxford university students. We also tweeted several articles about how much the way the media reports on trans* people matters—like any minority group, the media can have a huge impact on public perception and mental health. Nevertheless, we received an unexpected response on Twitter—many claiming that we were not adequately listening to Todd’s side of the story, and had been too quick to accuse her of bullying. We decided to dig into it. Could Todd’s tweets be construed as bullying? What are her words’ impact on her students and her following? On one hand, it is her right to publish what she wishes within the law—on the other hand, anyone in a position of power and influence must be responsible with how their words can impact others.
Were we too quick to judge? It matters to us that academics have the freedom of expression to say what they wish—but it also matters that what they say does not offend, discriminate or otherwise harm others, particularly students.
Most of all, it matters to us to provide a space to have a healthy and civil debate about something which is clearly an important—and very sensitive—issue.
First, who is Selina Todd? Professor Selina Todd is a Professor of Modern History at St Hilda’s College, University of Oxford. On her website, Todd claims to be a “gender critical feminist”—but she elaborates that this means that in her opinion, “men and women are defined by their sex, not by culturally constructed gender norms. You can’t change sex – biologically, that is impossible.”
Naturally, this has raised the ire of many—some found that she is blatantly denying the existence of transgender individuals. According to the BBC, Todd heard about the threats from transgender activists from two students that warned her they had seen threats made against her on email networks that they were a part of. A few days later, The Telegraph reported that Todd “has been given security guards to accompany her to lectures after receiving threats from transgender activists.”
However, the exact nature of the threats is unclear, and likely far more mild than what the Daily Mail would lead readers to believe. Todd herself said as much, while explaining that she would rather be safe than sorry.
If the threats are minor, why would the Daily Mail blow them out of proportion? Their language was misleading—and also blatantly transphobic.
But what about the accusations that Todd herself has published transphobic content—and retweeted transphobic tweets? While it is her right to express her academic work, and personal opinions, she also needs to understand her position as an influencer in the world of gender, and critical gender theory.
Two local Oxford newspapers, Oxford Mail and The Oxford Student, report that some Oxford University students have lodged complaints against Todd for allegedly re-Tweeting transphobic accounts, including British Gay Eugenics, Women’s Place UK and Fairplay for Women. Both these newspapers claim that Todd retweeted the following two British Gay Eugenics Tweets:
“Please join our MASSIVE thanks to @stonewalluk, @ruth_hunt, Gendered Intelligence, & Mermaids UK for helping #transawaythegay.
Parents, there is an alternative to having an embarrassing gay son or lesbian daughter! All it takes is timely intervention!”
“Here are lots of success stories as we #transawaythegay. Emmett wasn’t allowed to be a lesbian and had to wear skirts and makeup. But when he realised he was supposed to be a boy and started taking testosterone, his church accepted him. All better now!”
It could be argued that these tweets are “bullying”—they deny the very existence of trans people and undermine their dignity. The hashtag “#transawaythegay” is itself discriminatory, as it unfairly implies that organisations that support trans people somehow have an anti-LGB agenda.
According to the article, Todd retweeted these tweets in the spring of last year. However, it appears that she has since deleted the majority of her Twitter history. Even though @selina_todd has been active on Twitter since 2012, the earliest Tweet visible on her account today is from 29th August 2019.
It is thus difficult to verify whether she actually re-posted these Tweets. We regret jumping to any conclusion.
Given that that we also have no proof of threats made against her by trans activists, MDI believe it was appropriate to reference these allegations to rebalance the debate. Of course, much of the nuance in our argument was lost to Twitter’s character limit.
However, she does frequently retweet the other transphobic organisations mentioned in The Oxford Mail and Oxford Student articles. In another Tweet from 21st November 2019, Todd herself acknowledges the article in The Oxford Mail. Weirdly, she does not mention British Gay Eugenics.
Instead, @selina_todd emphasises that Womans Place UK “is not transphobic.” However, the fringe Oxford-based group has been called out for using bullying phrases like “horrible, hateful, misogynistic bastards”, “parasites” and “rapists” to describe trans people (here, here and here).
Woman’s Place UK denies some but not all of these claims. They argue that trans activists use these accusations to silence self-declared feminists and/or women’s rights campaigners. It is a common theme amongst a certain brand of “feminists” that are critical of transgendered women for drawing attention away from cis women’s struggles for gender equality—sometimes couched as the claim that cis women are “silenced” by these groups.
In light of what happened with Selina Todd—and accusations of her own transphobia, and the transphobia that ensued from the Daily Mail’s press coverage of her—this brings us back to the fundamental question: what does ‘freedom of speech’ really mean?
Professor Todd has complained about being silenced. But in the last 12 months alone, Todd has had the chance to speak at a variety of academic events, give an interview on BBC Radio 4 and to author op-eds newspapers and magazines, including an editorial in The Standpoint.
After The Telegraph broke the story of the (unnamed) threats she faces, there was an outpouring of support from British media, some academics and social media users.
Make no mistake, Todd should not have to endure these threats. However, in the same way that many—such as her old colleague Douglas Murray, James Kirkup and Martin Robinson—have stood in solidarity with her, more people should stand in solidarity with the many trans women who have their stories of violence and discrimination scrutinised, and the gender non-conforming students whose are forced to listen to openly transphobic views, such as Todd’s, in an academic environment.
At the same time, UK media, institutions and ordinary people alike should stop giving the benefit of the doubt to certain groups of people in positions of institutional (racial, socio-economic, religious) privilege, while unfairly doubting marginalised people and communities. You only have to look at the stark difference in British media framing of Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton.
Is it by chance that a white, socio-economically privileged Oxford professor has her story of some unnamed threats believed by British while the Crown Prosecution Service drops thousands of rape cases, deeming that victims lack credibility?
We published our thread to reframe, and rebalance this debate to what we think matters.
All too often, mainstream British media and self-described feminists ignore the voices of trans people. In the original thread, we provided links to two pieces where trans people explain how it feels to be excluded from media conversations. These are Paris Lees’ ‘Trans people already face a hostile world. Now the media is making it worse’ published in The Guardian and Owl Fischer’s ‘Fair and accurate media coverage really could improve the lives of transgender people like me’ in The Independent.
Moreover, The Daily Beast’s Samantha Allen emphasises that media transphobia is a phenomenon peculiar to the UK. Last year, we published our own review of transphobia in the British press. More recently, Stop Funding Hate have produced a video asking trans people to explain how media narratives make them feel as if they are not really human, as if their lives do not matter.
At Media Diversity Institute, we ask: how can we contribute to a debate that ensures that everyone is treated as if they matter?