Feminist student societies can exclude transgender women, university students’ union chiefs have admitted after “landmark” legal action.
Bristol Students’ Union (SU) caused anger by disciplining Women Talk Back (WTB), its own feminist group, for excluding male-born trans women from talks on rape and sexual assault.
The society had hosted women-only meetings at the University of Bristol to discuss male violence and argued that the presence of trans women could make attendees fearful of speaking out. However, a student later complained.
Following an investigation, in Feb 2021 Bristol SU demanded that Raquel Rosario Sanchez, its president, stand down before banning her from leadership posts for two years and ordering an “equality, diversity and inclusion” course for the society.
In response, four members of WTB took legal action, arguing in Bristol County Court papers that Bristol SU had “denied them their rights under the Equality Act, discriminated against the claimants, subjected them to detriments, treated them less favourably, harassed and victimised them”.
Now, Bristol SU has backed down and admitted that “affiliated clubs and societies may lawfully offer single-sex services and be constituted as single-sex associations” under the Equality Act.
In an out-of-court settlement this month, the students’ union confirmed that it “understands that Women Talk Back was seeking to operate in this way” and “WTB could, should they wish to do so, re-apply for affiliation to the Union on that basis”.
Bristol SU’s statement added: “In doing so, WTB would set out in their constitution the Equality Act 2010 definition of ‘women’ being ‘a female of any age’ instead of the byelaws definition.”
This marked an about-turn for Bristol SU chiefs, who had initially told the society that their byelaw definition of women, “all who self-define as women”, meant they “do not allow a group to restrict their membership to cisgender women” so they could not be single-sex.
On Saturday, WTB hailed the “landmark” outcome for setting a legal precedent for universities across the UK which “make it easier for women like us in academia to breathe”.
Ms Rosario Sanchez, who is also a PhD student at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Gender and Violence Research, told The Telegraph: “Trans activists in academia thought we would wither away if only they bullied and intimidated us enough. But we refused to cower, disassemble or quit.
“Through our experience, we’ve inspired the first recognition of single-sex societies as lawful in academia. Our story is about young women using their voice to make positive change that benefits all students, regardless of sex.”
‘A step forward’
The society, which has 73 registered members and has had hundreds more attend its meetings, crowdfunded £52,000 for its legal action.
Elizabeth McGlone, a solicitor at Didlaw who represented WTB, told The Telegraph: “WTB and BSU reached agreement earlier this month with BSU recognising that WTB was seeking to operate as a single-sex service in accordance within the lawful exceptions under the Equality Act 2010.
“BSU has updated its guidance on affiliation and reaffiliation as a result of this case.
“I consider this is a step forward in respect of the protection of single-sex spaces which, in specific circumstances are lawful under the Equality Act 2010, on the basis they are a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, such as privacy or prevention of trauma.”
Trans activism in campus
It was the latest clash between gender-critical feminists and Left-wing activists on British campuses.
Last year, The Telegraph revealed how the women-only Swansea University Feminist Society had been “purged by trans activists” for supporting women’s sex-based rights, with its email accounts shut down and members quitting for their safety.
This prompted Toby Young, the founder of the Free Speech Union, to warn that “the gradual erasure of feminist societies in Britain’s universities is a national scandal”.