Law student's degree is at risk because she said women have vaginas
My degree is at risk… because I said women have vaginas: How a mother-of-two law student is facing disciplinary action from a university after speaking out during seminar on transgender issues (in a woke new world you thought couldn’t get crazier)
Mature student Lisa Keogh went back to full-time education — to get a law degree — partly because she wanted to set a good example to her children.
She has two sons, aged nine and seven, who are learning about the birds and the bees at school. Previously, she would never have considered this to be a controversial subject — ‘It’s biology, isn’t it?’ — but not now.
Lisa, 29, is facing disciplinary action by Abertay University in Dundee after saying during a discussion on transgender issues in an online seminar that women were born with female genitals and the difference in physical strength between men and women ‘was a fact’.
The student, in her final year at the university, was reported to academic chiefs by classmates and faces a formal probe for alleged ‘offensive’ and ‘discriminatory’ comments.
There are also suggestions her behaviour in the seminar was abusive — which Lisa denies.
Like many of us wrestling with what language is deemed acceptable in this increasingly ‘woke’ world, Lisa is bewildered about what we can say and where.
Lisa Keogh (pictured), 29, is facing disciplinary action by Abertay University in Dundee after saying during a discussion on transgender issues in an online seminar that women were born with female genitals and the difference in physical strength between men and women ‘was a fact’
‘I was chatting to another mum the other day whose little girl had come home from school saying they had been learning about how women have vaginas and men have penises. I said to her, ‘I don’t want to be mean, but I’m not sure we can say that now.’
‘How is it OK for a child to be learning that women have vaginas at school, but not OK for me to say it in a university seminar? It doesn’t make sense.’ She’s not alone in voicing alarm.
Britain’s new equalities chief Baroness Falkner of Margravine this month vowed to fight for women’s right to challenge transgender activism. The 66-year-old peer said women must have the right to question transgender identity without being abused, stigmatised or risk losing their job.
Her comments couldn’t be more timely. For this week — in which Lisa sat her final exam and handed in her dissertation — a panel at Abertay University was meeting to decide if she should be disciplined.
It is a serious matter. If the complaints are upheld, the university could withhold Lisa’s degree.
‘If that happens, all my hard work will have been for nothing,’ she says. ‘I can’t even believe I am in this position. I have kept my head down for four years.
‘I have juggled my studies with caring for my children. I haven’t got involved with any of the cliques. I haven’t even socialised because, with my responsibilities, I don’t have time. Now I’m in this ludicrous situation.’
Lisa said: ‘I was chatting to another mum the other day whose little girl had come home from school saying they had been learning about how women have vaginas and men have penises. I said to her, “I don’t want to be mean, but I’m not sure we can say that now”.’ (Above, Abertay University)
Her crime? To have voiced opinions she thought were mainstream and still believes to be ‘sensible and true’.
‘I was asked to define what a woman was and I said someone with a vagina. A biological fact, I thought — and still think — but apparently it is now unacceptable to say it. The whole thing descended into a row. It became quite toxic. Because I had dared to question anything about transgender rights, a target was on my back.’
There were other complaints. In another part of the seminar, Lisa tried to offer an opinion related to sports, and whether trans women should be allowed to compete alongside women born biologically female.
‘I was shot down. I was trying to make the point that there are physical differences. Women tend to have smaller hands and smaller frames, and mostly aren’t as strong.
‘Before I had my boys, I trained as a car mechanic. I completed an apprenticeship and I was the only woman in a garage of 12 male mechanics. I offered up as evidence — because it’s what we do as law students — my observation that I wasn’t physically as strong as the men. There were things I couldn’t lift. A woman’s centre of gravity is in a different place.
‘Not all women will be weaker, but it’s simply not true that there is equality. We were talking about the issue — which is legally important —of trans women taking part in women’s sport. I used evidence to support my arguments. Some of the others turned on me. I was accused of being a white, cis woman who was speaking from a position of privilege.’
Cisgender, or cis, describes someone whose gender identity corresponds to that person’s sex at birth.
While Lisa was shaken at how personal the attacks in the seminar were, she was not unduly bothered.
‘I didn’t log off or anything. People might not agree with me, but I didn’t think I’d said anything wrong.’
Four weeks later, however, Lisa received an email from the university informing her that a formal complaint had been made and that an investigation was under way.
‘This email came, out of the blue, headed: URGENT ACTION NEEDED, in capitals, and I couldn’t believe it when I read I had been accused of making ‘offensive and discriminatory’ comments. I’ve never been offensive to anyone in my life. I actually didn’t know, at first, what I was being accused of.’
She adds: ‘When I logged on for the meeting, I asked directly, and the investigator said she would get to that. It took a while for the penny to drop. I actually felt sorry for her when she had to say, ‘Is it true you said women have vaginas?’ What a silly thing to have to ask anyone. Yes it is true. I said it. I would say it again. I don’t think I made her job any easier, because I might have laughed.
‘I still feel that it’s almost funny — or would be if it wasn’t so serious, because it is serious. This farcical situation could cost me my degree, and there is a bigger point, too, which is why I want to speak out. If we really are at a point where saying that women have vaginas is offensive, then I think it’s very worrying.
‘There is an increasingly rigid intellectual orthodoxy at universities and if you stray from it, some students will claim they’ve been harmed by your views.
‘Even if I am exonerated, that won’t mean free speech is alive and well. What people who haven’t been through one of these investigations don’t understand, is that that process itself is punishment.’
Lisa is now in limbo. She has been under investigation since April 16, and the panel met on Tuesday, on the day she sat her final exam. But instead of dismissing the complaints, they referred the matter to the Abertay student disciplinary board ‘to consider the alleged misconduct’.
‘I was asked to define what a woman was and I said someone with a vagina. A biological fact, I thought — and still think — but apparently it is now unacceptable to say it. The whole thing descended into a row. It became quite toxic. Because I had dared to question anything about transgender rights, a target was on my back,’ said Lisa
Initially, the university refused to comment, but yesterday released a statement suggesting it was not just what was said in the seminar that was being investigated, but the way in which it was said.
Changing the goalposts, insists Lisa, who is adamant she was told she was being investigated for what she said, not how.
‘And in any event, I stand by it. Yes, things got heated. It was a debate. And things were being said that I found offensive. What about my right not to be offended?’
On Wednesday, she handed in her dissertation — on the subject of human rights. ‘The irony,’ she says.
Indeed. This week barrister Joanna Cherry QC, the SNP MP for Edinburgh South West and deputy chairwoman of the Lords and Commons joint committee on human rights, intervened on Lisa’s behalf.
She called the situation ‘farcical’, and has asked how it protected student rights to freedom of speech under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Toby Young, general secretary of the Free Speech Union, which has been supporting Lisa, called the case ‘particularly egregious’. ‘Universities like Abertay often say they believe passionately in free speech but that has to be balanced against the right of the students to feel safe and not discriminated against.
‘Very little ‘balancing’ takes place and the student activists know this, so if someone challenges their woke ideology they make a complaint.’
Lisa’s family and friends — all at sea in this uneasy new world — are just as incredulous.
‘My partner said: ‘What?’ He just can’t get his head around it. I’ve been trying to explain what I’m supposed to have done to his grandmother, who is 80. She says she’s very glad she doesn’t have children to bring up these days. My children are too young to understand any of this, but what are we supposed to tell them?’
Lisa’s full account of what happened poses serious questions about the levels of ‘wokeness’ within British universities.
There is increasing conflict over transgender issues, often with more traditional feminist groups clashing with activists. This scenario, though, is different. Lisa insists she does not belong to any feminist groups at university.
‘I am a mum. I go to classes. I rush home to pick the kids up from school. I make tea. I might go to the gym. That’s it. I’m not even on social media, so until this week I wasn’t fully aware of what being ‘woke’ even meant.’
Is she a feminist? She’s not sure now. ‘I would always have said I was, but my sort of feminism is not the sort that was on display in that seminar. I don’t know what that was, but it wasn’t my feminism.’
This week barrister Joanna Cherry QC, the SNP MP for Edinburgh South West and deputy chairwoman of the Lords and Commons joint committee on human rights, intervened on Lisa’s behalf
Lisa never used to consider herself very academic and left school at the earliest possible time when she was offered her apprenticeship. She’d ‘always loved cars and I was fascinated by how they worked’.
Lisa became a fully qualified mechanic but the job didn’t live up to the dream. ‘It was too much like hard work,’ she admits, confessing she found it at once demanding, yet not stimulating enough.
She stopped working in the garage when her children arrived and, for a while, did admin work in her partner’s diving business. It was he who encouraged her to think about studying full-time.
‘He said I should do something I was passionate about, and I was very interested in doing something worthwhile, like law. I knew it would be a big undertaking but once the children were at school, I knew I could commit to a degree.’
For four years, she studied hard, and without incident.
Is it significant that she wasn’t in what she calls ‘any of the cliques’? Possibly. ‘I wouldn’t say I was a popular student. I wasn’t unpopular but probably talked to only three or four others on my course.’ During Covid, lectures and seminars moved online. Even then, Lisa was one of the quieter students.
‘Often, I would just log on and not have my camera on. But the whole point of the seminars was that they were debate-based, so I knew I’d need to speak.’ The seminar that proved contentious was on transgender issues. Views differed hugely from the off.
‘The lecturer said something like ‘all men are rapists and we should lock them up after 6pm’. I took offence at this. I have two boys and a partner who is a man. I don’t think all men are rapists. Of course they are not.
‘All this is about rights. What about men’s rights to not be called rapists?’
Maybe the lecturer was putting forward a provocative argument to stimulate debate?
‘Perhaps, but I got the impression she meant it,’ Lisa says. ‘That was the tone of the whole seminar. The other girls pitched in. It was men-hating. I was appalled.’
She says there were 12 or 13 students involved in the seminar, most of whom had their cameras on if they were talking. ‘It was all women, apart from one who I think was a boy, but I’m afraid to even say that now. He didn’t speak.’
At times it sounds as if Lisa is describing an unruly mob, rather than sober law students.
‘What I actually find terrifying is that they were talking about men as if they were guilty. We are law students. Above all else we believe in the principle of innocent until proven guilty. Or we should.’
As soon as the group moved on to talking about transgender issues, she says, ‘things got really heated. I made the point about sport — again, all my points were valid and based on things I knew about or had researched. I was basically accused of being transphobic.’
There was another altercation when she tried to comment on the idea of safe spaces. ‘It got onto talking about women-only changing rooms, and one girl said categorically that trans people do not do bad things. I thought this was at best naïve, but also wrong. I cited a case where a rapist had been put in an all-female jail, but I was shot down and told I was a privileged, white cis woman, and what did I know.
‘I found it offensive then, and I do now. Those students don’t know anything about my background. If I said things they don’t agree with, then fine. We don’t have to agree. But to run and tell the teacher? And to put this awful spin on everything. It’s wrong.’
Lisa says she would have said the same even if there had been a transgender person in the seminar (there wasn’t, to her knowledge).
‘The thing is, I have since read transgender people’s online content and some have even been in touch to say they support me. So this is crazy. Who do those girls think they are speaking for?’
Her gripe is not with the students, though. It is with the university. ‘The timing is awful. It’s been so stressful going through all this during the final weeks of my degree. I understand they have to investigate, but for goodness sake, if I got an email saying someone had said women have vaginas, therefore they must be punished, common sense would have prevailed.’
On a wider point, she says, the repercussions are terrifying.
‘Do we really want a society where we cannot even state biological fact, without being reprimanded?’ she asks.
Abertay University defended the probe last night: ‘To be clear, all Abertay students are free to express their views on campus, as long as this is not done in an intolerant or abusive way which would breach our code of student discipline.
‘Press reporting and social media commentary around this case has centred around gender issues and statements such as ‘women have vaginas’ and ‘men have penises’, which are lawful statements and would categorically not lead to any University misconduct investigation, if expressed on campus in a reasonable manner.
‘Our code of student discipline does not police freedom of speech or the nature of views put forward during classroom discussion or debate. We believe that all universities should uphold freedom of speech within the law and we are proud that Abertay is a place where difficult and controversial debate can take place within an academic environment.
‘Scottish universities are required by law to investigate all complaints, whether by students, staff or members of the public.’
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