Kathleen Stock: ‘On social media, the important thing is to show your tribe that you have the right morals’

When Kathleen Stock opens the door she is friendly, but a little on edge. She has just had extra security installed at home, she explains, a reminder that a year in the eye of a toxic public storm has its price. She leads the way down stairs lined with cheerful children’s photographs (having come out as lesbian relatively late in life, 49-year-old Stock has two sons by a previous marriage; her wife, Laura, is expecting a baby in February) to make tea. Once settled on the sofa, she attempts to make sense of a rollercoaster of a year that began with an OBE for services to education and ended with her resignation as professor of philosophy from the Brighton-based University of Sussex, amid angry protests over her stance on gender and transgender rights. Along the way, she published Material Girls, her book explaining why she believes biological sex matters and cannot be changed, and had what she calls “a bit of a mini-breakdown”.

“I’m excited in a weird way, excited about my future," lei dice. There is relief, pure, at escaping what she felt was an “aggressive, intimidating environment” at her workplace of 18 anni. Interestingly, while some blamed the Sussex standoff on a generation of students unable to tolerate views they dislike, Stock tells a different story. “Most of the students I encounter are completely open-minded and even if they disagree with me, which I’m sure a lot of them do, they wouldn’t hold it against me as a personal character flaw.” The problem, lei dice, was her peers.

Stock first became active in academic debates over what constitutes a woman, and what that implies for access to single-sex or lesbian spaces, four years ago. But the backlash really began with un 2018 interview she gave to the local paper in LGBT-friendly Brighton, arguing that while most trans women wouldn’t dream of harming anyone, they shouldn’t have unrestricted access to places where females undress or sleep because “many trans women are still males with male genitalia”, words some find instantly offensive. Under the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall’s preferred definition of the term, denying a trans person’s stated identity is transphobic. Stock, tuttavia, insists she is doing no such thing; she supports trans people’s right to legal recognition of their identities and protection from discrimination, violence and harassment, lei dice, but doesn’t think that requires accepting people can literally change sex. “I don’t think womanhood is a category that gets changed even by surgery, let alone inner feelings – I think it’s to do with biology and sexual maturity – but that doesn’t mean I’ve got any ambitions to remove the laws that give people the right to an acquired gender in certain contexts.”

Several Sussex colleagues publicly denounced her on social media, although strangely, lei dice, not to her face. “No peer ever said to me: ‘Look, I really object to what you’re saying and I’d like to discuss it with you.’ They immediately went to Defcon 1: ‘She’s a bigot… arguing for single-sex spaces is like the Jim Crow laws [that historically enforced racial segregation in the American south].’” She remains fascinated by the performative aspects of social media debate. “The important thing is to show your tribe that you have the right morals and you could show that by saying, ‘I’m not with her.’”

Stock got used, lei dice, to being snubbed in corridors at Sussex. But the only time she becomes visibly distressed is describing a research talk she was due to give her department in April. Some graduate students organised a rival trans solidarity event, with a guest speaker critical of Stock, e 40 of her colleagues chose that event over her talk. She went off sick, unable to function. “It just got me. I can’t really even say why, but the things that get me are when it’s your tribe” Yet she says she never really considered retreating. Anziché, a maggio, she became a trustee of the controversial LGB Alliance charity, formed in protest at the consequences of Stonewall’s decision to campaign for trans as well as gay rights. Where does that defiance come from? “I was bullied a lot as a child, so I think I’ve got a high tolerance for it,” shrugs Stock, who grew up in Scotland as a “gawky, self-hating” teenager, the daughter of two English academics.

Despite all the negative attention, Stock is adamant she doesn’t consider herself “silenced”; indeed, she refuses to be. But that isn’t, per lei, the point. “The point is why should anyone have to go through this in order to be able to say the relatively moderate things I’m saying? So there are hundreds of other people who are silenced because they cannot face this. That’s the problem.”

Although she is booked for a few weeks’ work at a new pro-free speech university in Austin, Texas, Stock doesn’t expect to return to academia, but she’s planning another book, either on feminism or social media.

She consoles herself that her life now has more “meaning and purpose” than it did. “I did find teaching valuable, but honestly I did not find writing about imagination and fiction particularly valuable. I enjoyed itI’m not saying it was nothing – but a lot of my friends do work that I think is obviously interesting and valuable in a way that I never felt mine was.” In leaving a job, Stock has perhaps found a mission.

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