Leeds University policy redraft leaves trans students and staff “betrayed” and “at risk”

Students and staff at the University of Leeds have expressed grave concern over updates set to be made to the Trans Equality Policy.

Designed to outline the University’s “commitment, intent and principles for trans equality”, the policy acts as a framework for protecting the trans community on campus and holding the institution accountable. However, a recent re-draft by the University’s Equality Policy Unit (EPU) has left many feeling that the rights and wellbeing of trans students and staff are at risk.

The revised draft includes changes in the language used to present the University’s policy, making commitments less firm and, in turn, more difficult to enforce.

Pledges to “undertake” inclusive measures are replaced by “aims” to. For example, the former policy stated that “the University welcomes and will provide inclusive facilities for trans students and staff groups”, whilst the revision merely “aims to provide appropriate inclusive facilities for trans students and staff”. 

Furthermore, there is no detail provided as to what will be considered “appropriate” facilities, and no clarification as to who will make this decision, leading to concerns that radical anti-trans ideologies could be used to deny trans people access to gendered spaces. Though the University say that the document is yet to be “finalised”, students feel the ambiguity of the provisional wording makes the policy seem like a “rollback”.

Indeed, in a live Q&A with LSTV last November, Vice Chancellor Simone Buitendijk said she was “fully supportive” of the existing policy and that adequate implementation of it is “absolutely vital”. So why, students and staff question, have changes since been made? “To me, there’s a really scary disconnect between what’s being said and what’s being done” says a trans member of staff.

“I find it disturbing that the University would seek to privately reduce its commitment to providing basic legal protections to trans people, whilst simultaneously using its connections to the trans community as positive promotional material on its public-facing websites and social media, during LGBT* History Month.”

– A trans student at the University

The new draft and its implications feel especially troubling for students and staff after links were made between the Vice Chancellor and anti-trans tweets in 2019*. “Many trans students have been deeply affected by the current anti-trans ‘culture wars’ happening in the UK media,” explains Chris Minas, the Trans Welfare Officer of LUU LGBT+ Society. “This [draft] has solidified the fear that trans students are not safe on campus and rubs salt in the wound of many vulnerable students just trying to survive.”

Throughout the initial drafting process, the University failed to consult any trans students or staff for feedback. “Our Trans Welfare Officer, Chris Minas, was only made aware of these drastic changes less than two weeks ago after being contacted by a member of the Staff Trans network, and told that the Equality Policy Unit (EPU) was having a ‘difficult time finding trans students to consult’,” a representative from LUU LGBT+ Society says. 

“The fact that the EPU couldn’t even spend 5 minutes of their time emailing the very public LUU LGBT+ Society to see if they could recruit trans students to consult, and instead making unrelated trans members of staff perform that unpaid labour, reflects embarrassingly on the EPU. We have difficulty placing trust in an institution that actively ignores our feedback in favour of vague, feeble promises about ‘supporting’ trans students.”

This sentiment is echoed by trans employees at the University. “I feel betrayed and let down by an institution I thought had my best interests at heart,” says one member of staff. “It seems the appearance of being an inclusive workplace is just a veneer, and that ultimately they are perfectly happy to throw minorities under the bus.”

After being made aware of the draft, LGBT+ Society has taken to social media to raise awareness of its implications. They call for pressure to be put on the EPU to scrap the draft, and for the University and the Vice Chancellor to be held to account for endangering trans students’ wellbeing and right to privacy. 

After reaching out for comment, a spokesperson from the University of Leeds said:

“Equality of opportunity, fairness and inclusion remain at the foundation of our University community and we are fully committed to continuing to support our trans community.

Our Trans Equality Policy and Guidance are currently under review and we are consulting and listening to a wide range of stakeholders within the University, including trades unions, the LGBT+ Staff Network and LUU. Nothing is finalised and we are happy to explore alternative forms of wording.

We recognise that our IT systems are not fit for purpose in 2021 and a case for very significant investment is this week going to our senior leadership board to address this – one consequence of this investment is that technical problems with supporting name changes, which are causing concern for our trans community, should be addressed. This is complex and will take a considerable amount of time, but in the meantime we are working with individuals to find workarounds.

We would welcome meeting representatives of the key parties affected to hear their concerns first-hand and to explain the technical issues we are encountering.” You can find their full statement here.

LGBT+ Society’s open letter and petition can be found here and here.

Featured image via Elle Palmer.

* Simone Buitendijk has since apologised via a public statement.