Petition Calls for Review of ‘Transphobic’ Melbourne University Subject

2 June 2021

(content warning: transphobia)

A petition has been launched by the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) Queer Political Action Collective calling for the review of the second year Winter Philosophy subject Feminism, over concerns that the subject includes transphobic rhetoric.  

The petition outlines concerns over the subject’s content, as well as the conduct of teaching staff, which the UMSU Queer Political Action Collective claims is a violation of  the Student Charter. 

Their demand for the review of the subject centres on beliefs that its continuation would be harmful to the welfare of Transgender, Intersex and Gender Diverse (TIGD) students.  

“What we are demanding… is that the subject is suspended until it undergoes this formal review. One of the preliminary recommendations is to change the subject leadership. We don’t necessarily want the whole  subject to be scrapped because it could be a good subject,” stated UMSU Queer Officer, Amy Bright. 

“Dr. Holly Lawford-Smith is the head of the subject and we understand that she has a pretty strong public platform on which she engages in hate speech.”  

Earlier this year, Dr. Lawford-Smith launched a website where cis women were able to anonymously comment on times when their experience in “women-only” spaces was impacted by the inclusion of transgender women. The website was labelled “transphobic” by fellow University of Melbourne lecturer Dr. Hannah McCann.

Dr. Lawford-Smith finds the current allegations in the petition to be “pretty outrageous” and said,  “Philosophy is all about asking questions about controversial things… the issues explored  throughout the subject are extremely difficult, highly contested social issues, but ones that we  should be talking about.”  

Srishti Chatterjee, the UMSU Women’s Officer and a trans student, disagrees with  Dr. Lawford-Smith’s belief.

“After a point of time you need to stop talking about this as a  political debate because the identity and the experience of trans people is not a contest.”

They went on to say that the subject is “very hurtful and causing trauma, pain and grief to so many.”  

One of Bright’s and Chatterjee’s main concerns is the readings that Dr. Lawford-Smith has chosen to include in the subject. 

While Dr. Lawford-Smith has included some trans affirmative pieces, Bright takes particular issue with the inclusion of “very clearly transphobic pieces” by contentious authors, Sheila Jeffreys and Janice Raymond.  

Geraldine Fela, a History PhD candidate at Monash University who writes on  LGBTIQ experiences, believes that a blanket ban should not be put on the inclusion of  Raymond or Jeffrey’s texts in the Feminism reading list. However, she emphasised that the  context in which they are taught matters. 

“Does it concern me that an academic who uses their public platform to campaign against trans rights, lining up with right-wing, anti-trans activists like Mark Latham, and sexist commentators like Peta Credlin, is teaching a course called Feminism that promotes these texts? Absolutely.” 

So, given its growing criticism, how did this subject get approved in the first place?  

A spokesperson for the University of Melbourne stated that “Every new subject  proposal within the Faculty of Arts goes through a rigorous approval process. A student  representative from the UMSU is a member of the BA Course Standing Committee, where  new undergraduate subject proposals are assessed.”  

This approval process was criticised by Bright, who argued that “if this subject has gotten through in its current state, then it cannot be that rigorous.” 

She attributed the subject’s approval to the lack of trans representation in these high decision-making bodies. 

“I would say that having one student representative on the committee, who is most likely not trans or gender diverse, is not a reliable check and balance.”  

However, she has hope that the petition will lead to the review of the subject. 

“I do believe it will happen. We are meeting with the Dean of Arts [Professor Russell Goulbourne] who is sympathetic to the cause… I don’t think he would have much problem with it going to a review.”  

Dr. Lawford-Smith claimed that “it would be absolutely outrageous and  unprecedented for a course that has gone through all of the layers of University bureaucracy  to get approved… to then get pulled.” 

She added, “if they tried to do an ideological review of  my subject because a small group of student activists do not like it… then that would open up a lot of courses on campus to be reviewed.”  

Bright believes that reviewing the subject is the “easy” part, but for the institution to  “confront a culture that has allowed and essentially enabled the University of Melbourne to become a breeding ground for trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERF) ideology… that’s much harder.” 

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