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Kathleen Stock: 'I won't be bullied into submission'

Kathleen Stock photographed for Holyrood by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Kathleen Stock: 'I won't be bullied into submission'

Growing up in the east coast town of Montrose in Angus, Kathleen Stock suffered relentless bullying at school. Too tall, too clever, too bookish and coupled with her blue NHS-issue specs, and an occasional headguard attached by rubber bands to a metal dental brace to fix her wonky teeth, there was no escaping the fact that she stood out. She was also Catholic. The added dimension of having ‘larger than life’ English parents, both academics at Aberdeen University, gave her tormentors further ammunition to pick on her for being English [despite being born in Aberdeen], a snob [she wasn’t] and a swot [she might just give them that].

And as a result, Stock learnt the hard way that being different can have painful consequences.
She describes the bullying – name calling, hitting, spitting, hair-pulling, kicking – as being on an “epic scale” and in a small town, there was no escape.

“I was frightened of people. I was really frightened. I mean, there were just so many of them and I was bullied on such an epic scale. It wasn’t just one group of people, it was like, everyone: people in my class, people in other classes, people in the year below, or above, like, everywhere, at school and wherever I walked around the town, I’d just be constantly waiting for someone to do something. So, in fact, just passing in front of people in the street had dangers and I would have to, you know, slow my footsteps down to avoid passing them. I was always trying to work out how to avoid groups of people and not go certain places. It went on for years and yes, I was pretty miserable. 

“I was very different to everyone around me, physically, particularly physically, I was really tall, I was six foot by the time I was fourteen, but you know, the way I dressed wasn’t exactly fashionable – knee socks, way past the time I should have still been wearing them – my hair, clothes, and just everything, really.

“To be honest, I reacted by sort of dissociating myself from what was happening to me. I was incredibly passive and just kind of hoped it would go away. I didn’t have any fight in me at all. It was just so overwhelming and there all the time, with no escape.

“I didn’t really explain what was happening to my parents because, I guess, part of me just thought that them being English and making a fuss, being more visible, talking to the teachers, it would all just make everything worse. This was a time, remember, when kids were still being belted at school, there was no discussion about bullying, so you didn’t know that this might be happening to anyone else, you just presumed it was about you, and you alone. Part of me was also so frightened about being belted that I thought if I retaliated in any way, I might get belted, so that was just another fear on top of the fear, and so I just sort of put up with it and accepted it was what happened to me.

“I don’t know if the teachers were aware, but I can remember once, after winning some prize or other, and the local newspaper came to take pictures and the other kids were saying things about me and a teacher said to me; “Remember, you are better than them”, and that made me wonder whether they knew and just did nothing. I don’t know if that is worse.

“I guess for me, it was a bit like having a post-traumatic stress disorder but living in it all the time, being hypervigilant. It made me very solitary, like, pathologically solitary in my mind. I still am. It made me nervous… not nervous of people, necessarily, but wary, very wary of groups and always trying to work out where people are coming from and what their motive might be. Yeah, it’s kind of altered my perspective on people. And given where we are now, perhaps these are handy traits to have in some environments.”

And where we are now is no less a frightening place than it was then. It’s a place where Professor Kathleen Stock, now almost 50, and a respected academic, has found herself as the poster girl for one side in a vicious debate about biological sex versus gender identity and whether one trumps the other. This gently spoken, thoughtful Scot, is an unlikely hate figure at the centre of an ideological storm rooted in reform of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) but which has become a much wider debate about what makes a woman and whether a man can just feel that he is one. 

It’s the taxing sort of intellectual stuff that would normally be grist to the mill for a professor of philosophy, but which has ultimately cost her her job at Sussex University [albeit, she left voluntarily] and along with it, a little of her sanity.

I ask Stock what I would have been interviewing her about had I met her just four years ago. She says we would never have met.

“I was completely boring,” she says. “An academic, I was lecturing, and I had just published one book by the Oxford University Press on imagination and fiction [ironically, given the nature of the current row] which had sold about 900 copies. I mean, you just wouldn’t have even known who I was. I was a totally unremarkable figure. I wasn’t an activist, and I wasn’t engaged in any big political debates. I had my views, but I didn’t feel the need to take them to social media or anything like that. So, it’s almost inconceivable you’d have been remotely interested in me.”

The whole idea of gender identity is unbelievably intellectually impoverished, as a set of thoughts. It involves magical thinking.

That all changed in 2018 when the UK Government launched its public consultation into reform of the GRA. Stock’s intellectual antennae were raised by the prospect of a meaningful debate, centred on the fundamentals of who we are and what identity means, and in preparation for that, she wrote a blog calling upon fellow philosophers to participate. 

“It just seemed exactly the kind of issue we should be involved in, something to really think about and discuss. The idea that a person’s inner ‘gender identity’, a feeling of being, should take precedence over their biological sex, that made no intellectual sense to me. The whole premise of philosophy is to find a logical, consistent, practically applicable position and this was none of those things, but people didn’t want to go anywhere near it.”

The view that changing the GRA to a process of self-identification, with no need for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria or any medical gatekeeping at all, as the prime minister, Theresa May, had then proposed, was framed by campaigners, such as the LGBT charity Stonewall, as a minor administrative change which affected no one other than trans people.

But Stock recognised that effectively redefining the material categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ had potential harmful implications, especially for women, particularly when it came to issues of safety, privacy and single sex spaces. 

“I was coming at this as a woman, as a gay woman, and as a feminist, but also with a clear philosophical angle because it’s about the nature of who we are, our identity, our essence. And all these philosophical concepts were being used to defend the trans activist position and specifically, around self-ID.

“I genuinely think that nearly every woman’s objection to this is not to trans women, as such, it’s to males. And what the whole discourse does or tries to do is to is to kind of confuse us into thinking that someone has stepped out of the male category somehow, including out of all the patterns of sexuality, and predation and sporting achievement, and anything else you’d like, that would normally be associated with males, because they’ve now, said, I’m a woman, or I’ve got a dress on, or whatever, and that’s nuts, no magical act has occurred.

“And that’s what people know because we are a sexually dimorphic species that procreate through reproduction involving two different kinds of human and we know what the difference between a male and a female is, instinctively we know. That’s not to say that sometimes we can’t tell, but most of the time, we know, and we’re being told to pretend we don’t know, and that magic has occurred and that’s just fundamentally disturbing to lots of people, especially when they’ve been told, you can’t talk about it, and you can’t complain about it, and you’re a bigot if you do.

“And some of this is also about relying on very old habits of women, and expectations of women, that we will always be the ones to make space for others and so generally speaking, it’s very hard for women to say ‘no’ and quite scary for others, as we see now, when a woman does eventually say, ‘no, I am not having it’.

“I came out as a lesbian very late, really late, aged 40, having been married to a man and with two children, so that gave me a different perspective on all of this, particularly the stuff about lesbians and how they now needed to be defined in a manner that would be about including males, apparently.

“And I guess, I had always just thought that feminists had this stuff covered, or the very least you could expect of a feminist organisation was that it would be focused on females, but to see feminist organisations telling women to shut up and accept this redefinition of their own category, and all the changes in rights and behaviours that that brought about, that just astonished me. So, at that point, I felt like I had to get involved.

“I think, in some ways, this has been easier for me because of my background as a philosopher because it was hard-wired into me what I had to do professionally, always being able to defend, with robust argument, your position. And yes, people do change their mind in philosophy, having debated and thought about things, and so for ages, when I got involved in this, I would initially only talk about females, I wouldn’t talk about women, because I knew there was an argument out there that said females and women are not, you know, exactly the same thing, and that some males could be women. I wanted to see what I thought about that, test that, before I actually pronounced on it, but eventually, I just thought, oh, this is ridiculous, of course, women have to be female, literally speaking, it makes no sense otherwise, but I did take a while to think about it and to say it out loud.

I could tell that it was really important for [Lorraine Kelly], for her brand, for her contacts, for everything she represents, to say there’s a line between us. And to be honest, I appreciated her having me on. I found her very friendly, both before and after, and even during.

“But really, I never thought you could change sex and I think anyone who understands what sex is knows that you don’t change sex through injections or through cutting your genitalia off or having them refashioned into other shapes. So, I never thought that. 

“And actually, going back to around 1992 when I was at Exeter College at Oxford, the bursar transitioned in my third year. And it was a shock because I’d never seen that close up before and honestly, although I went along with it, I did find some aspects of it slightly jarring. Like, from one week to the next, he was a she, and she was at women’s dinners, and she was a feminist, and she was being interviewed as a woman on women’s issues by my friends for the university magazine; I’ve still got the interview. 

“It was really fascinating, and we all accepted it, but I never thought that she literally was a woman. I thought that we were going along with something that was helpful to her and I was happy to do that. But then if you fast forward, and suddenly there’s these T-shirts from Stonewall that say, adamantly, that ‘trans women are women, get over it’, I thought, no, that’s completely different. That’s a very strident demand, that we accept something as true, as a fact, that we were doing before as a courtesy, as a kindness, but we shouldn’t be told that we must do that, that makes it a completely different ballgame and I won’t be told to say or accept things that aren’t true.”

There’s a steeliness, a resilience and a stoicism to Stock, perhaps born from the necessary armoury constructed during a childhood when she was tormented by school bullies. She effectively lived two lives. At home, she was loved by parents who also tested her intellect, and she was challenged by a father, also a philosophy professor, who would encourage her to argue and explore her mind, while in the classroom and playground, she was cowed by the ignorance, unkindness and limitations of others. 

Finding who she is, her own identity, has been a journey. By the time she was at secondary school, Montrose Academy, she had made a couple of good friends who she is still close to and by sixth year this “gawky, self-hating” teenager had “somehow got slightly cool”. She also had a boyfriend, Gregor. They continued a long-distance romance while Stock read French and philosophy at Oxford and Gregor did a masters in sculpture in Dundee. When she graduated, Stock returned to Scotland, doing a masters at St Andrews. And then aged 25, wearing her mother’s old wedding dress, she married Gregor.

Stock then won a scholarship to undertake a philosophy PhD at Leeds which led eventually to her first full-time job at Sussex. By the time she was 35, the couple had had two children and Stock was combining motherhood with teaching, writing lectures, and getting published. She was secretary of the British Society of Aesthetics, specialised in fiction and the imagination, and had built a solid reputation in a fairly niche world of philosophy.

Protesters against reform of the GRA gather at the Scottish Parliament | Credit: Alamy

Meanwhile, the marriage was falling apart. Aged 39, she found herself single for the first time in her adult life and signed up to dating sites with little success until she ticked the box for ‘F’ rather than for ‘M’ and went on dates with women for the first time. She says she had always been attracted to women but had downplayed it and describes eventually being with women as an “epiphany”. Realising she was gay has completely changed her life “like taking off a mask”, and she is now married to Laura and they are expecting their first baby any day now.

“I absolutely do understand changing the way that you relate to yourself and the world in a way that fits better because I literally did just that. I mean, I went from being a really quite awkward, quite feminine, in a sort of stereotypical way, 30-something woman, although I was quite self-conscious always, like touching my hair, touching my face, wearing heels with a skirt, and pulling the hem down, just feeling really awkward, never knowing where to put myself, really; drinking way too much, just not being happy.

“And then overnight, I just got rid of every single skirt and dress I owned. Got rid of all my size eight heels, stopped wearing makeup, I wore makeup every day before, you know, all of that... cut my hair short. Changed the way I walked. Not intentionally, but [I] just didn’t have to piss about with all the feminine stuff and I felt a million times better.

“So yeah, I see how leaning into an identity can feel incredibly exhilarating. And nothing I’ve ever said, as far as I’m concerned, is geared towards stopping people realising themselves in that way. But you know, we’re not just talking about that. I changed, but I’ve never made demands about, you know, which spaces I can now enter or which sports teams I can go into. Me changing my shoes doesn’t make a difference to anybody else and the way they live.

“What is said about me is that I hate trans people, that the only possible reason I could be doing any of this is that I am somehow disgusted by trans people, or by people who are non-conforming. I mean, they just don’t know my life. I’m surrounded by non-conforming women for a start, you know, severely non-conforming women, like much more radical than me. I have no fear or disgust of cross dressing, or what kind of sex adult consenting people have, or how they want to present to the world, or anything like that. It’s just not true about me.

“I believe that you should be able to express your identity in the way you want, but a man saying I am a woman, quite literally a woman, and you have to accept this, those two things are not the same. And there are consequences. Me realising that I have a sort of masculine part of me that I want to express and that I’m not happy with femininity, and it doesn’t suit me, and that I’m gay, none of that involves me saying I am a man or I’m not a woman. I mean, I haven’t got to distort reality in order to be me and that is what we are being asked to do, to accept fiction as reality.”

Just as Stock was coming out, postmodern gender theory was migrating from the classrooms and lecture halls of universities and finding its way into public policy. The idea that the concepts “male” or “female, “man” or “woman”, are not scientific categories but social constructs unconnected to one’s biological sex was already becoming evident in the conflation of sex and gender in language and in law.

And as a philosopher, Stock saw the appeal of these theories. “It means we can change reality through our words alone.’’ But she was appalled that gender theorists didn’t care about the real-world consequences of their ideas. “Their minds slide away when you say, ‘Yes, but hang on a minute, there are male rapists in women’s prisons because you changed the categories.’”
It is in voicing these inconvenient truths that Stock has sparked such controversy. Following that first blog, she was interviewed by a local Brighton newspaper in which, when discussing single-sex spaces such as changing rooms, she noted that the vast majority of trans women retain male genitalia. “That’s where the trouble really began,” she says.

Academics, especially in English and gender studies, began to organise. The chair of the LGBT staff network at Sussex co-authored a petition against her. Students formed a Facebook group to discuss how to get her fired and faculty members would post in solidarity. Blogs compared her support for single-sex spaces enshrined in the Equality Act to Jim Crow and racial segregation. Open letters condemning her started to circulate and in 2020 when she was awarded an OBE, 600 philosophers signed a denouncement.

And then came the pandemic. During lockdown, Stock started to write Material Girls, which seeks to analyse gender theory using philosophical tools. Material Girls was published in May 2021 to critical acclaim but when in-person teaching resumed last October, campus protests against her intensified. She was already aware of being given the cold-shoulder by colleagues and being snubbed in corridors but then an Instagram group called Anti Terf Sussex formed and upped the ante. Stickers and posters were plastered all over campus about her and students wearing balaclavas and masks protested at an open day letting off flares and chanting that she should be sacked.  

But it was the statement from the University and College Union that finally made her quit. The university’s outgoing vice-chancellor had belatedly supported her academic freedom but the UCU instead declared its support for trans students’ right to protest and, while opposing “summary sacking”, refused even to state her name.

Since her departure, she has been interviewed in newspapers and magazines at home and abroad, been interviewed on Women’s Hour and even appeared on the daytime television programme Lorraine, interviewed by Lorraine Kelly who told Stock they did not agree on everything – Kelly has previously stated that ‘trans women are women’. Pink News reported the broadcast as a win for Kelly.

I ask Stock why she didn’t push Kelly on that point. She laughs. “Because I could tell that it was really important for her, for her brand, for her contacts, for everything she represents, to say there’s a line between us. And to be honest, I appreciated her having me on. I found her very friendly, both before and after, and even during.

“I didn’t experience that interview the way quite a lot of people seem to have done and obviously, Pink News immediately reported it as a win for Lorraine Kelly and a loss for me. But as I told you, I grew up in an environment where people could argue and disagree with each other respectfully. I don’t know if it’s a bad thing or a good thing, but I let people have their own minds and I find on the gender critical side, as well as with the trans activists, there’s not enough of that. Lorraine Kelly disagrees with me. Fine. We can have a society where we can express disagreement. That’s not my problem. My problem is where they say you must accept this or else, or government says you must accept this or else. 

“And right now, I look at what the Scottish Government is proposing and I feel awkward about saying this as a Scot, because I am incredibly proud of being a Scot, of being from the country of The Enlightenment – David Hume was a big figure in my education and Adam Smith – I love the whole idea of The Enlightenment, I love the idea of Presbyterianism teaching everyone to read their own Bibles and that giving them the kind of equipment to be able to question things and by taking the priests out of it so they could go directly to God and work it out for themselves – I love all that background, but the whole idea of gender identity is unbelievably intellectually impoverished, as a set of thoughts. It involves magical thinking. It hasn’t got any relation to evidence, it’s full of contradictions and holes that doesn’t take into account lots of important people’s interests or groups of people’s interests. It’s profoundly stupid. And it’s all almost insulting.

“We’ve spent so long, so much energy fighting this profoundly stupid set of ideas. Basically, I’m bored of it. I’m really, really, really bored of it but neither will I be bullied into submission. I am also really sad because Scotland, this great nation, the one that gave birth to The Enlightenment, to great thinking, to new ideas, to challenging thought and innovation, seems so lost on this question and that’s a very sad place for it to be.”   

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