Dear FGEN members,
FGEN is an international network of feminist academics and others whose aims are wholly political in that we seek to oppose transphobia wherever it becomes apparent – whether in a university in Central London or on the prairies of the midwestern United States. We aim to promote the human rights of trans and gender diverse people worldwide to end the exclusion of trans people, and to provide an authoritative voice against the increasing transphobia masquerading as scholarship in academia. To these ends, we have, as you know, planned a 2-day international conference on April 1st and 2nd at Shoreditch Town in London.
The global attack on trans people’s human rights from Texas and Idaho to the UK and Russia is tightly organised and well-funded by the extreme right. One of the main ways it does this is by pushing anti-trans narratives in the media while systematically excluding the voices of trans people and allies while still claiming, loudly, that we are ‘silencing’ them. It is now evident from the actions of the EHRC and the Republican regimes in parts of the US that the intention is to re-orientate state power to oppress trans people, including targeting trans children, one of the most powerless groups there is. The actions of organised transphobia in higher education form part of this campaign, as we have seen recently in UCL and other universities. This relentless campaign needs to be opposed by whatever means trans people have at their disposal, and this opposition needs to be happening now, not next year or the year after that.
Last week it became apparent that some of our academic members felt that we should not go ahead with our conference due to the recent announcement of further strike days called by the University and College Union (UCU) over the ‘four fights dispute’: (pensions, precarity, pay gaps and workloads). These disputes have been going on for five years and many members of FGEN, our conference team and steering committee have been, and are, active in this industrial action, which includes strike days and on-going ‘action short of strike’ (ASOS), meaning no work outside of contracted hours.
After ten days of strikes in February of this year, further strike days were announced for March and April – to take place either this coming week or the next (some universities are on strike next week, others the following week). The first wave of strikes had been announced with significant notice enabling us to plan the conference around these dates. The second wave, however, was announced on the 4th March. By this time, we had organised the conference, booked and paid for the venue and tech, and organised and paid for international speakers’ travel and accommodation. Many of our members and presenters had also paid for their own travel and accommodation.
As a steering committee and conference team, our view was that we would not be strike breaking by going ahead because of the following reasons:
- While we have many academic members, we also represent a large number of non-academic members, both nationally and internationally.
- We are not affiliated to any particular university. Indeed, we have, as an organisation, chosen not to be a university affiliated organisation in going forward – by for example, becoming a community company rather than a university research centre – in order to retain autonomy.
- Our conference venue is not a university building.
However, some of our members disagreed and have argued that we are strike breaking because:
- Academic presenters will be talking about their ‘research’ – i.e. benefitting their academic institution.
- The conference is being funded by Sally’s grant ‘Living Gender in Diverse Times’
We feel that the first point links to the nature of links between academia and activism and that this is an issue for personal reflection and decision by our academic members. For example, they may decide not to attend or refigure their paper to be more of an activist one.
The second point about the funding is complicated. This project has been going on for five years. It has met all of its outputs/impact targets – i.e. it does not ‘need’ the conference. Due to events that did not take place due to Covid, there is money remaining that needs to be spent by the end of March or it will be returned to the university/funder. This is why we cannot postpone the event as it would have been the ideal solution. If we don’t hold the event now, we will not hold it. We will not be able to fund it again.
Since the 4th March we have been attempting to communicate with UCU officials but no definitive response has been received. We have therefore spent a significant amount of time deliberating on whether or not to cancel the event. We have asked all members (whether they were due to attend the conference or not) for their views and the response is very mixed. Importantly, the mixed response is evident among UCU members and across career stages of academic members. While a minority of non-academic members urge us to cancel the event, most encourage us to go ahead. Most of our international members want us to go ahead. Most of our trans or non binary members want us to go ahead.
In light of our deliberations and consultation and discussion with our members, we have decided to go ahead with the conference on both the Friday (1st) and Saturday (2nd) of April.
We are very aware that we will be going against the wishes of a significant number of members and would like to stress how difficult this has been. Our decision is based on the following:
- The need for FGEN to represent its diverse membership as a non-University affiliated organisation.
- The fact that the conference venue has no links to Higher Education.
- The lack of a definitive view within UCU/trade union members.
- The crisis of trans hostility in the UK and the urgent need to organise against this
- The financial implications for delegates – especially low or unwaged – who have paid for travel and accommodation out of their own funds.
- The fact that we cannot postpone – it is now or never.
- The fact that if we cancel, any money recouped will simply be returned to the very institutions that UCU members are in conflict with.
- That we feel that we would be ‘fudging’ matters if we cancelled Friday only and went ahead as a one-day conference on Saturday – as many of those wanting us to cancel have suggested we do – as if we believe we are breach of industrial action, this would contravene ASOS.
- Questions we have asked ourselves and been asked about the ‘greater good’ – who reallybenefits or loses out from us cancelling? Overall, we do not believe that university managers and the pension scheme owners (USS) will significantly benefit from us going ahead with the conference. Overall, we do believe that trans communities and allies will benefit from us going ahead. The transphobes have not stopped their activism, neither should we.
The purpose of industrial action is to put material pressure on management of higher education institutions. Stopping teaching and related activities is the most important of these, and not allowing individual universities to accrue reputational benefits from academic research is another. To this end FGEN has moved its conference to a non-academic venue, from Goldsmiths, at the request of Goldsmiths UCU, and has made the decision not to hold it at UCL, at the request of LGBTQI+ students and staff there. No university will benefit from this conference either reputationally or financially. Cancelling the conference will not increase material pressure on management to settle the four fights dispute or the local dispute at Goldsmiths. If we cancel now the effect will be purely symbolic, a symbolism that will go largely unnoticed.
- We have also needed to consider the other ramifications of cancelling the conference, if we accepted that it did constitute strike-breaking, which we do not, then we would have to abandon all the actions that FGEN is considering over the next few years, including starting a new trans and non-binary-led peer-reviewed academic journal in which all articles about trans and/or non-binary people are reviewed by at least one trans or non-binary peer-reviewer, and working to develop fully gender inclusive equalities and diversity policy in HE. We will also campaign against the exclusion of trans people from places where decisions affecting trans people’s lives are taken by ensuring that the expertise we have in our communities is available.
FGEN is an organisation that has grown very quickly and which now has the opportunity to give its activities a kick-start with our first conference, and to bring activists and academics together to move forward. Ultimately our aims must include increasing representation of trans and non-binary people throughout academia and in the governmental organisations and QUANGOs that govern trans people’s lives and which are currently problematic, from the EHRC to WPATH. We feel that we cannot afford to delay.
We respect the decisions of any delegate or presenter who makes the decision not to come to the conference on either the Friday or/and the Saturday. We are in solidarity with you and indeed will be on strike ourselves at various periods over the next fortnight.
Over the course of this week’s discussions, some of our members have also raised issues about our communications, transparency and accessibility as an organisation. These are points that we are taking very seriously and are going to act upon with urgency. We are a very new organisation, which has grown at an unexpected pace. Most organisations have the opportunity to start small and grow in a way that does not outstrip their capacity in terms of governance. FGEN didn’t get to do that. We are learning – and having to learn very quickly. We realise that there is no perfect solution here. We accept that some of our members will feel that we have made the wrong decision and we respect their views and decisions.
Our next full Network meeting will take place on April 22nd at 3pm (moved from April 19th due to Easter bank holiday). A zoom link will be sent out nearer the time. We planned to discuss future goals and hear full reports from our research and working groups though we will now give the meeting over to members in a discussion centred around the future orientation, structure and workings of FGEN. By then we also hope to have cleared the bottleneck existing in our GDPR process. This will mean that we can move members’ email addresses and our correspondence processes onto the website, enabling greater transparency. The delay here has been due to FGEN being entirely reliant on unpaid labour. We are moving forward as quickly as we can to do this. We also strive to improve accessibility. Please bear with us – and join with us – to help us learn and grow as an organisation that can effectively organise against transphobia and gender conservatism.
With very best wishes,
Sally and Natacha, and the FGEN Steering Committee and Conference Team.