The ancient seat of learning where the Edinburgh Seven – the first female undergraduates in Britain – matriculated in 1869 was celebrating Lesbian Visibility Week. But, it seems, not all lesbians.
It was made clear on Wednesday evening that middle-aged, grey-haired, check-shirt wearing lesbians were not welcome on campus. Nor indeed were 80-year-old women, nor smartly dressed professional women. Not any woman in fact who wanted to watch a screening of Adult Human Female, a documentary that explores the clash between women’s rights and trans ideology.
The film features several prominent lesbians, including journalist and feminist Julie Bindel, Professor Jo Phoenix, a celebrated criminologist, and Edinburgh University senior lecturer, Dr Shereen Benjamin, founding member of Edinburgh Academics for Academic Freedom, who had organised the screening – their second attempt to show the film.
But their voices were not to be heard on Wednesday night, drowned out instead by around 200 protestors waving flags and banners bearing legends like “Boy Pussy” and the ubiquitous “Trans Rights are Human Rights”. This was not just a group of rebellious students. The protest had been organised with the support of UCU Edinburgh – the trade union for academics.
Peppered in the crowd were university staff, like political scientist Dr Sarah Liu, keen to show her support for Edinburgh’s “amazing” students. “They bring us hope and they really are the future,” she gushed on social media.
And, barring the entrance to the theatre where the screening was due to take place, stood a dozen protestors, mostly young men. Hoods pulled down over sunglasses, black masks hiding their faces, they tried their best to look menacing. Aided and abetted by the university’s security staff, who had corralled them with barriers in a grotesque parody of a playpen, the students were able to stop people from entering the theatre.
With less than an hour to go before the event was due to start, the organisers sent an email cancelling it. “The university security team have advised there is no safe way we can get into the building, and the university have therefore advised the screening cannot go ahead this evening,” they wrote. The “amazing” bullies had won again.
Professor Phoenix responded immediately. “This is a shocking disgrace,” she said. “This is not protest. Protest is making sure your voice is heard. It is not the shutting down and shutting up of others. And that this is happening in a university, with the collusion of the academics' union, is beyond disgrace.”
Conservative MSP Tess White agreed. The following day, she raised the issue at First Minister’s Questions. “Does the First Minister agree that freedom of speech should be defended in our academic institutions?” she asked. “Of course, the issue is one for Edinburgh University,” responded Humza Yousaf, adding quickly that he was very proud of his support for trans rights. He was silent on those of women.
Four hundred miles away in Westminster, Edinburgh University alumni, proud lesbian and SNP MP for Edinburgh South West, Joanna Cherry, got to her feet. Referring to events at her alma mater, she asked for a parliamentary debate on the intimidation of lesbians in civic life, “including at universities”, she added.
A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting on gender ideology in schools in Portobello Library, which attracted a large group of protestors. At the behest of the city council, the hosts, a group of local parents, had secured the services of private security staff. They were joined by two or three local police officers.
The demonstrators waved their banners and sang their songs only a few feet away from us as we entered the building. When the meeting ended, the police ushered us out of the back of the library to avoid the hard-core protestors who remained.
Honour was satisfied on both sides. The trans activists were free to shout “fascists” at a group of concerned parents, while the mums and dads were allowed to discuss their concerns about gender ideology with an expert, without fear of intimidation.
In response to a complaint from Lisa Randall, one of the women stopped from watching the film on Wednesday night, and coincidentally one of the organisers of the Portobello event, Edinburgh University’s principal, Sir Peter Mathieson, expressed his “profound disappointment” that the screening had been cancelled again. “We are actively discussing next steps,” he told her.
If I may be so bold, I have some advice for Sir Peter. If he is genuine in his stated commitment to “provide an environment where opposing views can be expressed and debated”, then he should personally host a screening of Adult Human Female. Hire the biggest lecture theatre on the campus. Invite the 80-year-old woman stopped from entering the Gordon Aikman theatre on Wednesday night by boys young enough to be her great-grandchildren, as guest of honour. Chair a discussion between Dr Benjamin and Dr Liu on human rights. Ask the First Minister along to listen and learn. Show the world that Edinburgh University celebrates academic freedom.
More than 150 years ago, the Edinburgh Seven were persistently mocked by male students, insulted for daring to think women had an equal right to an education. They had to fight their way through protestors to sit their exams. And despite their academic success, the university refused to grant them degrees.
We thought times had changed. That women had won our right to be heard, to talk about our reality. To stand proud, equal with men. Wednesday night shows there is still a long way to go. Don’t give in to the mob, Sir Peter. Have courage.