How she became a hate figure

Joan Smith talks to Jo Phoenix:

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.

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”.

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”.

Why? Because she argues that trans 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.

The “colleague.”

In December 2019 Essex University cancelled an invitation to speak at a seminar, and it’s been downhill ever since.

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.

So she’s 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.


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