Transgender debate: After screening of Adult Human Female is cancelled amid protests, Edinburgh University has a historic choice to make – Susan Dalgety

One thing differentiates countries like Scotland from authoritarian regimes like Iran, and that is freedom of thought and speech.

Edinburgh University needs to consider its position on free speech and the transgender debate carefully (Picture: Rhoda Morrison)
Edinburgh University needs to consider its position on free speech and the transgender debate carefully (Picture: Rhoda Morrison)
Edinburgh University needs to consider its position on free speech and the transgender debate carefully (Picture: Rhoda Morrison)

But trapped in a narrow corridor with dozens of other women earlier this week, listening to an aggressive trans activist harangue me and my companions for our beliefs, I started to very much doubt that my homeland was the enlightened country I believed it to be. I had turned up at Edinburgh University – one of the finest seats of intellectual inquiry in the world, where students and their teachers have been debating ideas since 1583 – to watch a documentary, or so I hoped.

Adult Human Female focuses on the current, heated debate about the clash between transgender ideology and the sex-based rights of women and girls. Its directors, independent film-makers Deirdre O'Neill and Mike Wayne, describe it as “a 92-minute explainer about the issues, how far things have already changed for the worse for women and how difficult it has been to be heard, to be listened to”.

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And they hope that it will contribute to more people understanding the issues at stake, provoke discussion and “eventually transform the situation we find ourselves in”. I was keen to see the film, not least because several of my friends have “starring” roles, and there are interviews with other women like feminist campaigner Karen Ingala Smith and philosopher Jane Clare Jones, whose work I very much admire.

I could have watched it online, alone save for my constant companion, Twitter, but I wanted to see it with other people, to share our thoughts, argue a little even. Perhaps enjoy a gin and tonic after the show. All the normal stuff we did before lockdown and Zoom.

There had already been an attempt to stop the screening. The Edinburgh University branch of the UCU – the trade union for academic staff – called for it to be banned and highlighted a statement from the university’s Pride society that said how “appalled” they were at the university’s decision to allow the film to be shown in the name of “free speech”.

“The allowance (sic) of this screening to happen is nothing to do with free speech, as it endangers trans* people on campus… erasing their identities and encouraging the spread of hateful portrayals,” insisted Pride.

The popular event platform EventBrite had initially agreed to sell tickets for the show but, after complaints from trans campaigners, withdrew it from their schedule. The organisers – Academics for Academic Freedom – found another route for tickets and the university leadership stood firm.

Adult Human Female was scheduled to be shown at 6pm on Wednesday. It was cancelled at 6.30pm. We didn’t even catch the opening credits.

A handful of students occupied the original venue, and when the showing was switched to a lecture theatre in Old College, we found our entry barred by a group of students, some wearing masks, led by the aforementioned aggressive activist. “I am a trans woman, an adult human female,” she announced proudly to the crowd of women before her, some of whom tittered.

Robyn Woof is also the trans and non-binary liberation officer for the students association – a senior representative of the student body. She – and I will respect her identity by using her chosen pronouns – obviously believes in freedom of expression, but judging by her antics on Wednesday night, she clearly does not believe in freedom of speech, at least not for middle-aged women.

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The atmosphere started to get even chillier than the temperature outside as grey-haired women were jostled by students young enough to be their grandchildren. The police arrived, and reluctantly, slowly, we turned and headed for the door.

“The film will be shown,” promised lecturer Shereen Benjamin, who had organised the event. She added ruefully, “it won’t be shown tonight, but soon”, to a chorus of “women won’t wheesht”.

Later, in a newspaper interview, Benjamin criticised the university authorities for failing to stand up to militant trans activists. “Censorious bullies prevented a lawful and important discussion from happening,” she said, adding that there should be acknowledgment from the university that the event did not go ahead “because of those who were determined to stop people meeting and speaking”.

Conservative MSP Tess White – one of the women denied her right to watch the film on Wednesday night – has written to the university’s provost, Professor Kim Graham, to complain. “Last night freedom of speech was censored in the very environment where it should be sacrosanct. I urge the university to do everything it can to protect free speech in the future,” she wrote.

The university’s website proclaims – with some authority – that “following the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century, the university was positioned at the forefront of academia and critical thinking”. It continues: “Due to the determination and perseverance of a group of Edinburgh intellectuals, established facts about the world were being boldly and consistently challenged.”

Yet it seems in 2022, a handful of students are able to close down critical thinking and prevent bold challenges to a disputed ideology through the use of threatening behaviour and censorship.

The university has a choice. Side with those students who fear debate so much that they employ intimidatory tactics to close down discussion. Or stand up for the principles of free speech on which our modern society is founded. The leadership of Edinburgh University doesn’t have to agree with the premise of Adult Human Female, but they should rigorously defend my right to watch it. Anything else is cowardice.

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