A tribunal has attacked Open University staff for waging a campaign of harassment against her
By Sonia Sodha
Jan 28, 2024
Sometimes the people around you scramble reality to turn up into down, black into white and open into closed. That’s how Prof Jo Phoenix must have felt when she was subjected to what the courts described last week as a “targeted campaign of harassment” from her colleagues that was facilitated by her employer, the Open University, in a way that shut down her academic freedom and caused a judge to find she was constructively dismissed.
What put a mark on her back was her view, shared by a majority of people and enshrined in law, that whether someone is male or female is a matter of reality, not belief, and that someone’s gender identity, or belief about their sex, cannot supersede their actual sex for all purposes in society. That’s what paved the way for her fellow academics to miscast the harassed as harasser, and for her university’s management to delude themselves that by turning a blind eye to bullying they were protecting free expression, when they were really undermining Phoenix’s ability to exercise just that.
Phoenix is not the first woman to score a decisive legal win in relation to discrimination on the grounds of her belief that the reality of someone’s sex matters since a momentous 2021 ruling. With a number of similar cases working their way through the courts, she is highly unlikely to be the last. Two features of her judgment stand out as particularly important.
First, while the courts have already observed that campaigners who want gender identity to override sex are quick to accuse their opponents of being transphobic or hateful when they’re not, I have never seen a judge so clearly call out the sleight-of-hand assertion that the belief that sex is relevant to some parts of life is bigoted, or to deny the existence of trans people. There is a difference between defending important legal protections against discrimination on the basis that someone is trans – which Phoenix happens to robustly support – and the right of someone to impose their personal belief that gender identity transcends their sex on everyone else to the extent we are all forced to agree that sex can be divorced from reality.
The judgment is scathing about the way in which 368 academics signed an open letter wrongly implying that the gender-critical academic network that Phoenix helped set up was transphobic; about the academic who said watching back a speech Phoenix gave elsewhere made her “cry at work” despite the court finding it contained no upsetting content; about the colleague who groundlessly likened Phoenix to “the racist uncle at the Christmas dinner table”; and the childish hyperbole some academics deployed in their statement suggesting that to establish a gender critical research network was to put lives at risk.
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