Raquel Rosario Sánchez should be graduating this month with a PhD from one of the UK’s most prestigious universities. Instead, she will be in court, suing the University of Bristol for allegedly failing to protect her from bullying and harassment.
Like many women in this country, Rosario Sánchez has been targeted by trans activists, some of them fellow students. Within weeks of beginning her research on men who pay for sex, she started to receive online abuse and was accused of being a Terf, scum, trash and a bigot. The campaign of vilification has continued for four years, delaying her PhD and putting a question mark over her visa, which she needs if she is to stay in this country and graduate.
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Rosario Sánchez’s story would be extraordinary if it did not follow an all-too-familiar pattern. She has joined a growing list of women who have been let down by British universities: from Professor Kathleen Stock, who resigned last year from Sussex University, to Professor Jo Phoenix, who is taking action against her former employer, the Open University. What is different about Rosario Sánchez is that she is a young woman, still only 32, and a postgraduate student — albeit one with degrees from universities in Utah and Oregon State.
Rosario Sánchez is also an immigrant, who knew no one in this country when she arrived from the Dominican Republic to begin her research. “I started my PhD programme very late, at the end of November 2017, because of problems with my visa,” she says. “The only person I knew was my supervisor, who had met me via Skype. I was very isolated.”
Yet Rosario Sánchez was never going to slip through academia unnoticed. She already had an international reputation as a feminist campaigner and was soon invited to chair a meeting in Bristol by Woman’s Place UK, a feminist organisation that campaigns against gender self-identification and has repeatedly been smeared as a ‘hate’ group.
The meeting was scheduled for February 2018, but the lies and abuse began before it had even taken place. An ‘open letter’ was posted on Facebook by someone claiming to be a Bristol student, calling for the meeting to be cancelled. More than 200 people signed the letter, some of them adding abusive comments. “I cannot believe someone from the Centre for Gender Violence Research is organising this,” one student wrote. “It’s atrocious. Total TERF shit. Signed and shared.”
Rosario Sánchez was not the organiser and the meeting had no connection with the university’s Centre for Gender and Violence Research — but facts don’t matter to trans activists. In a later post, the author of the open letter boasted about wanting to “punch them terfs [sic]”. Someone else posted a link to the WPUK meeting, suggesting that “trans allies” should target the meeting with eggs. “Oh and feel free to slap a TERF upside their bigoted, hateful face,” the message continued.
Concerned about her physical safety and afraid that the open letter might lead to her losing her PhD place, Rosario Sánchez made a complaint to the university, pointing out that the posts breached its “unacceptable behaviour” policy. To her relief, the meeting went ahead without incident, but only because WPUK managed to keep the venue secret.
But it wasn’t a secret for long: days later, a motion explicitly targeting free speech was tabled at a meeting of the Bristol students’ union. Its stated aim was to “prevent future Trans-Exclusion Radical Feminist – Terf – Groups from holding events at the University”. The motion was passed; those students who objected were swiftly shouted down.
This sequence of events stirred the university into action. It issued a statement, reaffirming its “commitment to freedom of speech and to the rights of all our students and staff to discuss difficult and sensitive topics”. Ominously, however, the statement repeated false assertions about the WPUK meeting from the open letter and included this sentence: “We believe that calls for this event to be banned were largely founded on the sincere desire to show support and solidarity for transgender people in our society and in our university community.”
Unsurprisingly, Rosario Sánchez did not feel supported. Feminists are used to hearing excuses for the appalling behaviour of trans activists, but here was an academic institution explicitly downplaying threats and abuse levelled at one of its students.
“Every aspect of my life was centred around the university, which exacerbated the situation,” she tells me. She chose Bristol over other universities that offered her a place because she believed the city to be an open and welcoming environment. So the hostility from fellow students came as a shock: “In my case, it was like they couldn’t comprehend that I was a woman from the Caribbean who was not compliant. The Dominican Republic is a very conservative country politically but conservatives and religious people would never try to get meetings cancelled. The right of freedom of speech for feminists is guaranteed.”
What Rosario Sánchez didn’t know, when she arrived in the UK, was that Bristol has some of the most vocal trans activists in the country. A couple of months later, another feminist event in Bristol, attended by prominent feminists including Julie Bindel, was disrupted by masked protesters. Rosario Sánchez could not attend the meeting but she recognised the author of the open letter, known as AA in legal documents, in video footage. It allegedly shows AA trying to force entry to the meeting and being forcibly removed by the police.
Rosario Sánchez had not complained specifically about the behaviour of this individual, but AA was the only student who faced disciplinary proceedings. A hearing was scheduled for June 2018 and Rosario Sánchez cancelled a speaking engagement in Chicago so she could take part. According to her lawyers’ submission, she asked the university to consider how to protect those attending, but masked protestors turned up and intimidated her outside where the hearing took place.
During the proceedings, Rosario Sánchez was cross-examined by AA’s barrister, an experience she found “distressing, intimidating and demeaning”. The student, she says, was not questioned at all. Although the hearing was supposed to be confidential, it was followed by a barrage of social media posts against Rosario Sánchez, to the point where she became afraid of travelling alone at night.
One of her most explosive claims relates to a subsequent meeting that took place without her knowledge, when a representative of a hate crime charity is alleged to have argued that the disciplinary proceedings should be dropped because AA identified as trans. According to Rosario Sánchez’s lawyers, the university applies a policy of “not sanctioning students who rely on ‘trans rights’ activism to justify their conduct”. In July 2018, around three weeks after the disciplinary hearing where Rosario Sánchez was cross-examined, the university published a press release announcing it had signed a “pledge” in support of trans people.
The next few months were a miserable period for Rosario Sánchez, in which meetings with the university authorities were scheduled and then cancelled, causing her growing distress. She did not discover that proceedings against the student had been dropped until June 2019, when a Twitter account bearing AA’s name posted a topless photograph with this message: “The face (& nipples) of someone deciding what new hobbies to pursue, now that the University of Bristol have dropped their transphobic joke of a disciplinary case. So many options…. Eat your hearts out WPUK.”
On the same day, Rosario Sánchez was informed that a decision to drop the disciplinary proceedings against AA had been taken several weeks earlier. In December that year, her wider complaint about bullying and harassment was dismissed. And so she believed that the only course open to her was to pursue legal action. She accuses Bristol University of victimisation, indirect sex discrimination and sexual harassment, the latter on the ground that her views on sex and gender reassignment are protected under the 2010 Equality Act.
A university of Bristol spokesperson told me: “We are committed to making our University a place where all feel safe, welcomed and respected, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, disability or social background.” Would Rosario Sánchez agree? Since she was first hounded, she has been diagnosed with a “prolonged adjustment disorder” whose symptoms include loss of concentration, energy and motivation. “I don’t particularly like to dwell on the negative aspects,” she says, “but one of the reasons it’s so important for me to be vocal is so other women get the message.
“You don’t have to be afraid. You can endure this and survive and get on with your life. That’s what trans activists don’t want. They wanted me to see the campaign of violence and shut up forever. I decided I’m going to do the opposite.”