The vice-provost for education at Imperial College London, Professor Simone Buitendijk, has apologised for sharing anti-trans content on social media.
Buitendijk first offered her apologies to the university’s student newspaper Felix last Friday (May 10) in response to a letter by 86 members of the university’s staff and student body raising concerns about her “engagement with transphobic material and social media accounts.”
The letter referred specifically to Buitendijk following and ‘liking’ content from Twitter accounts belonging to anti-trans groups such as Transgender Trend—who campaign against supporting young trans people in their transition—and individuals.
“For trans students and staff within the Imperial College community these issues are important to address with immense care, as it impacts their ability to be open at work without fear of harassment, bullying, and harm,” the letter read.
What did Professor Simone Buitendijk tweet about?
Most of the vice-provost’s social media activity relates to promoting women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, opposition to sexism and misogyny and support for LGBT+ rights and related events such as LGBT+ History Month.
But a closer look at the content she engaged with revealed a certain hostility to trans rights activism.
Joanna Wormald, deputy editor of the Felix newspaper, collected more than 50 screenshots, spanning at least six months, attesting to the vice-provost’s social media activity.
Some of the tweets have since been deleted as part of Buitendijk’s commitment to choose a different platform to engage with these issues.
Among the content that the vice-provost has since deleted was a tweet dated October 30 in which she shared an article from The Guardian article titled: “UK universities struggle to deal with ‘toxic’ trans row.”
In her tweet, she wrote: “As a feminist, M.D. and child health researcher, I find the notion of sex being fluid and gender being biological, engrained and dichotomous deeply troubling. That does not contradict that as VP Education I should protect trans students’ rights. We need respectful debate.”
The statement was questioned by fellow Imperial College London academic Dr Ben Britton—who is also a trustee of the charitable trust Pride in STEM as well as one of the signatories of the letter—who replied to the tweet, asking her to explain the first sentence.
In their subsequent exchange, which remains visible on Twitter, Buitendijk responded attempting to explain the position of trans rights supporters, identifying them as “the trans lobby.”
By the end, she does however express support for “empowering people who are questioning the societal construct of their gender.”
Other content Buitendijk shared or tweeted on the topic of transgender rights remain visible on Twitter. Among these is an opinion piece published in The Spectator titled “Trans rights have gone wrong,” which she described as a “good piece on gender self identification and women’s rights.”
One of the posts Buitendijk recently ‘liked’ linked to a blog that prominently displays on its homepage the sentence: “Transgender identity politics are about men weaponizing the suffering of transsexual people in order to destroy women’s boundaries and undermine basic feminist analysis.”
Among the content she ‘liked’ were also various tweets rejecting the need to support trans children who want to transition—despite medical associations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics encouraging parents to support their children’s “self-expressed identity,” an approach that has been shown to prevent the development of mental health issues.
How did the letter signed by Imperial College student and staff come about?
Josef Willsher, a third year Physics student at Imperial College, first discovered Buitendijk’s apparent support for anti-trans views in April, by accident—Twitter suggested he followed certain accounts due to Buitendijk following them.
“I wasn’t the first to notice that but I was the first to consider writing a letter. I thought as a student it was my responsibility to bring this up,” he told PinkNews.
He approached the university’s Physics LGBT+ Allies Network, which he had joined soon after the group was formed last year, asking for advice on how to proceed. A few days after the group began drafting the letter and looked for backers, word of their effort reached the college management, who decided to meet with the network to discuss their concerns.
Buitendijk was present at two meetings, engaging in the discussion that, at times, became “quite heated,” in Willsher’s words.
“We appreciated the quick response from college and their willingness to meet with us. It was reassuring to see how they had taken it seriously and the discussions were productive,” he said.
The student also said Buitendijk got in touch via email over the Easter weekend—which fell in between the two meetings—to express how thankful she was that they came to her and how it was important they could raise the issue.
While they agreed to a resolution, Willsher felt it was important to bring the issue to the attention of the wider community. The letter was published in the student newspaper alongside statements from the university publicly acknowledging the issue, as well as Buitendijk’s apology.
The vice-provost’s office shared the statements with PinkNews when contacted for comment.
Buitendijk said: “Although I support the freedom of academics to follow and engage in debate in all areas, including on social media, on this occasion I now realise that social media is not the correct forum for such sensitive debates. I have elected to stop all engagement with these accounts and apologise for hurt or anxiety caused to members of our community. I fully support all trans staff and students and I hope that the open and honest discussion we have had can lead to improved collaboration to ensure a sense of safety and belonging for all trans students at Imperial.”
Professor Stephen Curry, Assistant Provost (Equality, Diversity & Inclusion), who also took part in the meetings, said: “I am determined to help create a diverse and inclusive environment at Imperial where all staff and students feel free to be themselves and all members of our community are free to express their views.
“We must uphold both the individual rights of all our members of our community and also the importance of universities remaining places of open and respectful debate. I was pleased that members of the LGBT+ community felt able to raise their concerns; the ensuing discussion was very constructive and provided a valuable reminder of the need to be mindful of the power dynamics in any form of public discourse.”
The university reinstated its commitment to equality and diversity, including the active support and inclusion of trans people in our community. “We are pleased that a significant body of students has expressed support for the trans community in response to this issue,” their statement added.
Willsher said he and the other members of the LGBT+ community at Imperial College believe they reached the best possible outcome.
“What we wanted to get out of this is to communicate how much this has hurt the trans community and how people felt excluded and she really understood that.”
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Wormald, who signed Willsher’s letter, however told PinkNews she is not fully convinced by the vice-provost’s statement.
She said: “I have doubts about whether she truly appreciates why her actions were harmful, especially as her statement seemed to frame this as a free speech issue. The bitter irony is that many of these tweets were in the middle of tweets promoting LGBT+ equality or supporting women in STEM. There’s enough transphobia from Imperial students as it is. The last thing we need is for senior staff to echo these views.”
Read the letter in full below:
Dear Prof. Buitendijk,
We represent members of the student and staff body at Imperial and we are concerned about your engagement with transphobic material and social media accounts. Specifically, we are writing to you about your previous following of Transgender Trend (@Transgendertrd) and others on Twitter and your engagement with some tweets which claim that provision of life-saving support and healthcare for trans children and teenagers is tantamount to abuse. Over the last month we have been communicating with you about our concerns, and are reassured that you have heard them and that the College is taking them seriously.
For trans students and staff within the Imperial College community these issues are important to address with immense care, as it impacts their ability to be open at work without fear of harassment, bullying, and harm.
In recognition of these challenges, the College Policy is significantly in support of trans individuals and makes the pledge “The College believes that, as a leading institution, it will benefit from employing trans people at all levels of responsibility, thus providing role models for staff and students who identify as trans.” Furthermore, the policy continues to state that there is a “Public Sector Equality Duty” which “gives public bodies legal responsibilities to take proactive measures to address equality.” As a senior figure within the college, it is likely that members of the college will look up to you and see you as a role model, and therefore to be in line with this policy it is important that you aim to act as an ally for the trans community. We urge you to recognise that many members of the Imperial College community have deeply personal experiences with their gender. For many students, university presents the first opportunity for them to be themselves. The 2016 APS Climate in Physics Report addressed the impact on trans researchers and found “30% of trans individuals […] characterized the overall climate of their department or division as uncomfortable or very uncomfortable.” and for trans individuals 60% had observed and 50% had experienced exclusionary behaviour. We must work to create an inclusive community for all our members, understanding the difficulties they face.
We understand you have unfollowed these accounts and appreciate the words of support you have expressed in meetings. We urge you and the college to publicly respond to the large number of students who have expressed concern over this issue and commit to further supporting the trans community at Imperial College.
We object to groups like Transgender Trend because their conception of equality excludes the most marginalised. We hope that as a member of the College community you can continue to work with members of the LGBT+ community and their allies within college to support trans-inclusive feminism.