On a grey and characteristically dreary Oxford afternoon, Bonn Square was transformed into a place bursting with colour, light and life. Students and staff from all walks of life came together in order to protest the Union’s platforming of the notoriously controversial philosopher, writer and apparently “gender-critical feminist” Kathleen Stock that evening. The trans rights protest, the counter-protest and the conveniently timed release of Channel 4’s controversial documentary Gender Wars, starring Stock herself, all coincided on Tuesday 30th May. Since then, national and even international media has been awash with coverage of the events leading up to, during and following this day. Somewhere along the way, the issue has devolved into a discourse on free speech. Stock’s supporters rail vehemently against the alleged conspiracy to subdue their trans-exclusionary opinions. For those of us on the other side – dubbed the “woke mob” by the Daily Mail – this has never been about anything more radical than the freedom to exist.
For weeks, tension had been brewing. The Oxford University LGBTQ+ Society first issued a statement criticising the Union for their invitation of Stock. In a statement posted online, the society said it was “dismayed and appalled” by it and urged the historic debating society to rescind their offer. Many JCRs and MCRs followed suit. 44 Oxford dons signed an open letter in her favour. Over 100 signed one against. The media leapt at the scent of a sensationalist story. Billboard Chris – a vocal gender critic- spent a day around the Radcliffe Camera with a provocative sign saying “Children cannot consent to puberty blockers”. Even Prime Minister Rishi Sunak weighed in with the warning that “a small but vocal few” should not be allowed to shut down discussion and debate. Everyone had an opinion.
On the day of the Stock event, the LGBTQ+ Society organised and promoted their own – ‘Oxford Trans + Pride’. The day consisted of two panels hosted at Lincoln College titled ‘Between Free Speech and Hate Speech’ and ‘Trans+ Joy Across Generations’, followed by a ‘mass rally’ at Bonn Square, then a march to the Oxford Union in order to stage a peaceful protest outside. During the rally, two-minute speeches from speakers such as Max Van Kleek – an associate professor – were interspersed by a trio of organisers teaching the crowd some chants that would be used during the protest. Our voices were heard: it is reported that the “fracas” was easily heard within the Chamber. The media coverage of the protest has been laughably self-contradictory – singing and dancing to Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ or Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’, waving rainbow flags and wearing flag capes, handing out leaflets and bottles of water, organising welfare spaces in the nearby St. Peter’s College and Frewin Annexe is somehow simultaneously the behaviour of violent “militants” and, according to Stock herself, “actual babies”.For those of us protesting, the emphasis was very much on the peaceful celebration and amplification of trans voices and joy rather than the hatred and bigotry Stock and her followers thrive on.
Freedom of speech is not synonymous with the right to a platform, just as misinformed ignorance and blatant hate speech are not the same as scientifically proven facts. TERFs like Kathleen Stock will always have a platform in the digital age. This was never about her right to speak, it was about the privilege of speaking at the Union – a prestigious space with weight behind its name. In a world where trans discourse is constantly weaponised, the Oxford Trans+ Pride protest was a joyful though impassioned assertion of our power, our unity and most importantly, our simple right to exist.