Daily Telegraph, Thursday 4 November 2021
Jo Phoenix is a widely respected academic. Since 2016, she has been professor of criminology at the Open University, where her focus is on vulnerable women in the criminal justice system. Phoenix does not think of herself as vulnerable and she certainly never expected to be where she is now – diagnosed with acute PTSD and suing her employer for failing to protect her after what she describes as two years of harassment from colleagues.
“I’m exhausted,” she tells me – and she sounds it. Phoenix, 57, is highly articulate and speaks with only a trace of her original American accent. But there is no doubt that her experience has left her hurt and shaken – “overwhelmed” is the word she uses.
Her voice breaks at some points in our conversation, as she describes how she became a hate figure, metaphorically put in the stocks by colleagues who accuse her of that contemporary catch-all offence, “transphobia”.
It is the charge hurled at anyone who believes in the reality of biological sex or questions the right of transgender individuals to access women-only spaces, even though “gender critical” views are protected in law following a landmark decision in the case of Maya Forstater by an employment appeals tribunal earlier this year.
No one should be in doubt about the threat an accusation of “transphobia” poses to academic freedom: after masked protesters gathered on the campus of Sussex University, demanding the dismissal of Professor Kathleen Stock, another gender critical academic, she stepped down from her role at the university last Thursday.
In a powerful interview with BBC Woman’s Hour, Stock described the “medieval experience” and suggested the views of a small number of academics had inflamed the student protests by “radically misrepresenting my views”, saying: “I don’t know if the student activity would have been there if the colleague activity hadn’t already been there,”
The “intense” student activity came at the end of “three-and-a-half years of low level bullying, harassment and reputation trashing” by colleagues, which began, she says, when she first started to write about gender identity policy and escalated after she recently published a book questioning the idea that gender identity is more “socially significant” than biological sex.
At the end of last month, somewhat late in the day, the OU seems to have finally woken up to the fact that one of its own staff might also be at risk. “While we are not aware of any current issues at the OU”, an email from a senior figure informed Phoenix, the university’s head of security would be happy to discuss “any concerns” she might have and conduct a risk assessment.
This, despite the fact that Phoenix has become a pariah at work. The OU Gender Critical Network, which she founded, has been denounced as “fundamentally hostile to the rights of trans people” in an open letter signed by no fewer than 360 colleagues. “The signatures came from across the university, including people I directly work with,” Phoenix tells me. “I received threatening emails from anonymous senders.” When I ask her to elaborate, she says she was told that activists “were out to get me” and “I ought to watch myself”.
What has exposed her to this torrent of abuse is her argument that transwomen – male-bodied individuals who identify as women – should not share intimate spaces with female prisoners. It is a view widely shared by feminist organisations, who point to the fact that a transgender inmate sexually assaulted two women while on remand at a women’s prison in West Yorkshire in 2017.
Even so, Phoenix has been pilloried. A couple of years ago, after she gave a talk for the campaigning organisation A Woman’s Place UK, a colleague got in touch to express disappointment that she had disrupted the “smooth family functioning” of their workplace. What does that even mean, I ask? Her reply is staggering: “I was told I was like the racist uncle at the Christmas dinner table.” When Phoenix started to cry, the colleague gave her the number of the OU counselling service.
It is one of many examples Phoenix gives me of decidedly uncollegiate behaviour. In December 2019, Essex University suddenly cancelled an invitation to speak at a seminar, claiming it was necessary because of the threat of protests against her. In fact, the only person who was at risk was Phoenix herself, via a flyer bearing an image of a cartoon character with a gun and the words “shut the f— up terf” (a common slur used against feminists).
A report on the university’s handling of the incident by a barrister, Akua Reindorf, concluded that Essex had breached the rights of Phoenix and another gender critical academic, Prof Rosa Freedman of Reading University, to freedom of expression. The vice-chancellor, Prof Anthony Forster, duly apologised – but then appeared to change his mind, issuing a bizarre second apology about the “very negative impact” of the Reindorf report on “trans and non-binary staff and students”.
“We know now that was an unlawful cancellation,” Phoenix points out. “But relations [at the OU] soured significantly from then on.” The hostility did not let up even when she found herself on sick leave after surgery on her spine. “My mother had just died,” she says. “I had just had my spine fused. A senior colleague called to check in on me. During the course of the conversation, she said one of her regrets was that she was never able to deal with the toxic environment at work.”
It was a classic piece of victim-blaming – and hard to imagine how Phoenix has managed to carry on working in such a hostile atmosphere. She is frank about the effects of the last two years. “I was struggling with extreme anxiety, sleeping less than two or three hours a night. The doctor prescribed sleeping pills. I found it difficult to sustain conversations. Looking back, I was barely functioning. I am still awake most nights every couple of hours. This morning I woke at 4am.”
Some people at the OU have been in touch to offer support, she says, but they dare not say anything publicly. Senior academics from across the country have told Phoenix they would like to be on the mailing list of the Gender Critical Network but, again, they dare not be open about it. It is not hard to understand why, after what has happened to Phoenix and Stock. In a surprise intervention, the latter received support from Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who endorsed freedom of speech for academics in a message to a recently-founded charity, the LGB Alliance.
Phoenix is now back at work, but allowed to do “research duties only – I was advised not to go into my office”. It is clear that her “dream job” at the OU has become a nightmare, her life made impossible by strident accusations of “transphobia” at every turn.
It is all the more galling, she says, because of her background. “I’ve been an out lesbian since 1979. I’ve never in my life been transphobic. The word is meaningless.” She says she is happy to support people expressing any sense of gender identity they choose. “Why wouldn’t I do that? I have tattoos. I have short hair. I ride a motorbike.” What she does not support, she says, is the idea that if you criticise the LBGT organisation Stonewall – widely criticised for giving incorrect advice about the law to a number of organisations – you must automatically be transphobic.
When I ask her why she thinks universities have been so slow to speak up on behalf of their staff, she suggests that managers “do not want to come down on one side or the other. People like myself are left to slug it out at the individual level. It’s a tactical choice.”
Now she has had enough. On 17 October, she announced that she was crowd-funding legal action against the OU at an employment tribunal, in the hope the case will force universities to “protect female academics from the vicious bullying perpetrated by those who disagree with our beliefs in sex and gender”. After only four days, she had raised more than £60,000 – on Tuesday, she “cried with relief” as she hit her £80,000 target and her case against the OU was filed with the employment tribunal yesterday.
A spokesman for the OU said it was “open to any member of our community to raise concerns under our internal processes and these will be investigated in line with our procedures”. It is not hard to imagine what Phoenix makes of that, but she has already survived more than most. In the preamble to her crowdfunder, she discloses that she was raped by two men when she was a teenager in Texas.
“I dropped out of school with nothing – and I suspect many thought I would not make 21. I am not a victim, capital A, capital V,” she insists. But she says that if there is a hill she has to die on, it is the protection of vulnerable women in prison – and the right to freedom of expression at British universities.
“How can this happen at the OU?” she demands, recalling that it was a female MP who was the driving force behind the founding of the university in the Sixties. “The OU has a history,” she says sadly. “Jennie Lee would be turning in her gr