Writing by Anonymous. Artwork by Isi Williams.
In early December, a screening and discussion of the movie Adult Human Female was announced by the group 'Edinburgh Academics for Academic Freedom'. This group had been known among activists at Edinburgh University for a while, and is usually found in the replies of every UoE-related tweet about a topic that vaguely concerns issues they care about, promoting their reactionary politics. This group includes members such as Shereen Benjamin, a previously active UCU member - active until she ruined her relationships with people around her by dedicating her life to transphobia; Neil Thin, a disgraced anthropology lecturer who was removed from teaching and marking roles after being called out for racist and sexist comments and for marking down students who included progressive views in their academic work; Arianne Andreangeli, who is anti-choice and anti-sex worker; and Gale Macleod, who spends her spare time on twitter opposing critical race theory and claiming the term ‘white privilege’ leads to neglect of white children. This screening is not this group's first attempt at establishing a physical presence at UoE, but it was shaping up to be their biggest event so far.
Events like this function as a recruitment platform for extreme conservatives. Individuals (some with heavily bigoted ideology, others unsure about the issue) will show up, get reassurance that transphobia is reasonable and become organised through events like this. Holding it on a university campus in particular normalises these ideas and their practice. Knowing this, we all decided that we weren't going to stand by and let this group get a foothold in our community, and worked together in order to organise a response.
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We first hoped to get the screening cancelled through formal means. After all, if the university claims to have values, then it should stand up for those values. The president of Edinburgh University's UCU branch had written a letter to the principal asking him to revoke the event's permission to go ahead on university campus; the issue was raised with the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion committee at UoE, and many students and staff raised individual complaints. It's safe to say that people attempted to prevent this screening from happening by official means. However, it quickly became clear that these efforts would not work. Instead, we had to protect ourselves.
Our group came together through word of mouth as a mix of trans, cis, and unlabelled activists at our uni. We made multiple plans for how to disrupt the event, and due to amenable circumstances, we were able to go with one that we hoped would minimise the chance of direct contact and conflict: locking down the room. Once security noticed us, we gave them our statement and declared that we were not going to leave until we knew for sure the screening would not go ahead. One of us hung out outside pretending to have come to watch the film and updated those in the room with what was going on outside.
Through that person, we learnt that they were going to switch to a different room, and once we had a decent idea of what room it was, we decided to split into two groups, leaving one half to block room 1 while the other group blocked room 2. Then the university decided to move the event to a different university building a couple of streets over - which is pretty notable as it is very rare for large bookings, such as lectures, to be rescheduled at short notice! Group 2 ran ahead of the crowd and get to the third room, but were blocked from entering the room itself by security who were already positioned there, so decided instead to block the entrance from the outside.
During that stand-off, several of us were grabbed, pushed or otherwise physically intimidated by terfs. One trans person who was not involved in the protest, or the planned response had entered the crowd attempting to get to the toilet on that floor, which happens to be in that hallway. She suddenly found herself surrounded by people spouting abuse and vitriol and went to join the only trans people she could see- which happened to be us. In that blockade, a terf pushed her into the wall and repeatedly elbowed her in the chest. Despite her explaining that she had recently had chest surgery and the elbowing caused her a lot of pain, the terf continued grinning and elbowing her until one of us stepped in front and blocked their access to her. It was clear they targeted her for no reason other than being trans fem, as she was neither engaging with them nor blocking the actual entrance to the room. Around 8pm, security decided to clear out the hallway, cancelled the event, and asked everyone to go home.
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After the event, the response from transphobes on twitter was sudden and extreme- almost comically out of proportion. One user compared us to the Taliban, an embarrassing (for them) amount of people have accused us of being fascists, some even claimed "this is like 1930s Germany" and compared blocking this event to Nazi book burnings. The idea that denying terfs a platform makes us just as bad as fascists is a sleight of hand that divorces tactics from the political purpose the tactic is serving. What we are doing is preventing transphobes from being able to recruit and organise; to build communities based on the oppression of minorities. The accusation of Nazi book burning is especially ironic for anyone who knows which books were being burned in that very famous picture... But bigotry always has to present itself as being on the defence: defending women, defending children, defending truth and whatever else. This is why terfs immediately started lying about what happened, claiming that we assaulted or threatened them. All of this to hide the fact that at every step of that night, they were the aggressors. We responded to every abuse politely and calmly by us asking them to stop. Not because we didn't believe in our own right to defend ourselves, but because we feared for our safety when so significantly outnumbered. That hallway felt like a bomb waiting to go off, and none of us had any intention of lighting the fuse by rising to the bait.
Along with claims of being threatened also comes the usual spiel about attacking free speech. But it is not controversial to say that rights and freedoms are limited by responsibility to other human beings. "Your freedom to swing your fists ends where my nose begins" as the common adage goes. What's up for debate is where those limits should be, not their existence. Bigots just pretend to forget that for the sake of their argument, while liberals pretend only restrictions preventing ‘apolitical’ harm should be allowed on free speech, e.g. obscenity, copyright infringement, as part of punishment for incarcerated people, etc. As antifascists we reject the division between political and apolitical harm. We believe in no-platforming bigots like these because we value the safety of marginalised and vulnerable people more than the right of bigots to promote their ideas. People do distinguish between just and unjust curtailments on freedom of speech on the grounds of purpose. Our argument is simply that preventing terf organising should be on that list of purposes.
As trans people we are very aware of how violent and threatening terfs can be; we knew we had to prepare for the worst. We chose to physically take a stand to defend our own existence as trans people against a massive crowd of people who treated us with absolute contempt, and repeatedly spouted anti-trans views. Coming together as a community and being able to trust and support each other was vital for the success of this action. The more people turn up to contest these events head on, the easier it is to head them off without threat to vulnerable communities. But the fact that our university even put us in a position where this was needed is unconscionable- a conscience that universities far and wide seem to also lack. We hope our success can inspire people at other universities to act autonomously to stop their campuses from becoming terf recruitment grounds. While it might be a national news story the first time an event like this gets blocked, it won't be by the 10th time. We do have the power to change the status quo and make every university Vice Chancellor know that if they allow an event like this to go ahead, it will not happen without a fight.