It’s hard to imagine a more agreeable place to work than a charity bookshop. Staffed by civic-minded volunteers, the shelves groan with musty old paperbacks, lovingly donated in the hope they’ll find a new home and also raise money for good causes.
For Maria, the chance to work for one of Oxfam’s global outreach programmes, helping to end violence against women in the workplace, was a dream come true. And for a few years, it was — right up until the moment a fellow co-worker asked on an internal messageboard if Oxfam shops should ban the sale of J.K. Rowling’s books.
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Three years ago, the Harry Potter author found herself accused of transphobia for having supported women who have “concerns around single-sex spaces”. During a discussion on Oxfam’s intranet, Maria had come to the defence of Britain’s most popular living author, asking for evidence of Rowling’s supposed transphobia. It was a decision that prompted a gruelling internal investigation, one in which Maria struggled to clear her name, led to her having a nervous breakdown and leaving both her job and the country.
Oxfam eventually offered a grovelling apology for the “procedural mistakes” that caused Maria such upset, but she is still struggling to make sense of it all. Speaking for the first time about the episode, she reveals: “My life has been torn apart. It drove me to a breakdown, I lost my confidence and, worst of all, I began to doubt myself.”
What Maria endured is part of a wider woke culture in the charitable sector, where female employees are silenced and treated like bigots for believing that sex-based rights matter. Certainly, Maria is so convinced that her career remains in danger — that any woman accused of transphobia will be blacklisted by much of the charitable sector, even when they have been exonerated — that she has agreed to speak to UnHerd under a pseudonym. “This will hang over me for the rest of my life,” she says. For decades, Oxfam — which was formed in 1942 to send food supplies to starving mothers and children in Nazi-occupied Greece — was one of the UK’s most respected charities, providing international aid to end hardship around the globe. But in recent years, its reputation has been tarnished. In 2018, evidence emerged that senior staff had paid survivors of the 2010 Haiti earthquake for sex, and that the use of prostitutes during the relief effort was covered up by the charity, allegations that Oxfam denies.
It was Maria’s concern for vulnerable women that first drew her to work for Oxfam: “I have experienced rape and domestic violence in the past, so I wanted to help others in the same situation.” Born in Spain, where she had worked as a pre-school teacher and volunteered at a sexual assault centre, she moved to the UK in 2017.
“I loved my job,” says Maria, “being able to see how Oxfam’s work improves the lives of other women and children.” Three years after joining the charity, she was promoted to a co-ordinating role within the women’s rights team, whose remit was to ensure that female equality was reflected in Oxfam’s work.
She realised almost immediately how impossible that aim would be, given the growing dominance of a pro-trans mindset within Oxfam. Along with many other charities and institutions, it had capitulated to gender-based ideals, ones that asserts that “trans women are women” and that the categories of male and female are on a spectrum, rather than biological realities. On the advice of Stonewall — the discredited charity whose workplace diversity scheme sought to “recognise and celebrate the efforts of leading employers to advance LGBT inclusion” — Oxfam advised its employees to state their pronouns in meetings and on correspondence. “It was regularly using Stonewall materials to advise staff on LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workplace, with a heavy emphasis on transgender ideology above all else.”
Maria says that she initially toed the party line on the matter, staying silent when trans issues were discussed. “But then I began to see how women’s rights were attacked, particularly because it was obvious that single-sex spaces, such as rape crisis centres, were labelled as ‘anti-trans’.”
Oxfam staff were invited to join company-wide online groups related to their interests, and Maria joined the LGBTQ+ group. In September 2020, a charity shop manager asked the group: “What is your opinion on selling J.K. Rowling books?” The employee, who is a transwoman, worried that the writer’s latest thriller, Troubled Blood, written under her pseudonym Robert Galbraith, might be “highly transphobic”. She wondered whether it might be covered by Oxfam’s “unsuitable for sale” policy.
Several staff engaged with the forum thread, widening the debate to include Rowling’s suitability as an Oxfam-stocked author, and added their concerns about her supposed transphobia, until Maria asked the question: “Can you explain why she is transphobic or why the book is transphobic?” When her query went unanswered, Maria went on to express concerns about banning books by “one of the most important woman writers in the UK”, before adding: “Actually, we are selling books from paedophiles and rapists. We are selling religious books. Stopping selling something we don’t like is called censorship and is the opposite of freedom of speech.”
The manager then left the conversation, and Maria thought that was the end of the matter. “She had said she was uncomfortable with the conversation and did not want to discuss it any further.” But following the exchange, Maria discovered she had been labelled in private chats as a transphobic bigot by other members of the LGBTQ+ group. Another manager sent her private messages, suggesting that Maria could lose her job after posting her comments. “They felt threatening to me,” says Maria. “She said my views were ‘incredible’, and that she would be reporting me. There is absolutely no way I am anti-trans. I am merely pro-women’s rights.”
In the next few days, members of the LGBTQ+ group encouraged colleagues to complain about the discussion, stating that “transphobia is not tolerated here”. “They did not name me, but it was obvious who they were referring to,” says Maria. Next, a petition signed by 70 staff members was sent to all staff via the intranet, calling for Oxfam’s leadership to “take a stand” and “communicate a zero-tolerance approach to transphobia”.
Senior management replied to the petition authors, saying: “No one in our organisation should be subjected to hate speech, discrimination or other forms of harm” and “It is of great concern that members of the wider LGBTQIA+ community have felt intimidated by workplace conversations.” Oxfam’s CEO got involved, and gave a “no-debate” steer, adding: “We value the experience of our trans and non-binary colleagues, friends and partners and we do not expect their experience to be debated in our workplace.”
Three days later, Maria was invited to a meeting with her line manager and a member of Human Resources and told that she was under investigation because of her “transphobic comments”. Maria says: “They should have told me what the actual topic of the meeting was, and I could have brought a union representative with me. I apologised for upsetting anyone and tried to outline the rationale for my views and beliefs, but they refused to accept it.” Signed off sick with anxiety and depression, Maria felt alone and scared of losing her job, particularly in the middle of a pandemic. “All my family and relatives were in Spain and the borders were closed.”
Six weeks later, two days before Christmas, Maria learned that she’d been found guilty of misconduct and was issued with a final warning. Oxfam told Maria that her comments online “breached the requirement of the Code of Conduct to treat all persons with respect and dignity”, and reminded her that “transgender people are protected from discrimination under the Equality Act 2010”. The letter did not give a definition of transphobia or say how her posts were transphobic. Refusing to accept that finding, Maria appealed. “As a woman I have always had to fight for everything,” she says. “I knew that if they beat me then they were trampling on all of us.”
Three months later, Maria was informed she had lost her appeal. The letter informing her of this decision also offered, for the first time, a definition of transphobia (not for want of asking): “Oxfam refers to Stonewall definitions to support our understanding, which states transphobia is the ‘fear or dislike of someone based on the fact they are trans’.” Feeling she was left with no choice but to resign, Maria took Oxfam to an employment tribunal. “I became determined that this should not happen to another woman,” she says.
Maria claimed constructive dismissal and belief discrimination. In July last year, during judicial mediation, both parties agreed to settle, with Oxfam issuing a public apology for its handling of the process. “We believe that each member of our community has a right to their own religious or philosophical beliefs, including the belief that ‘sex is immutable’ and ‘sex is important’. We acknowledge that in dealing with your case and during the disciplinary process we made mistakes. We acknowledged that it was not appropriate to give you a final written warning, and we would like to offer our sincere apologies for the upset that this has caused you.”
Earlier this year, Oxfam updated its language guide, which is an internal document advising staff how to speak about its work. The document includes the instruction that, rather than using the phrases “biological male” and “biological female”, “AMAB and AFAB” (assigned male/female at birth), should be used instead; and when talking about “expectant mothers”, use the phrase “people who become pregnant”.
“I hope every single woman, especially those stronger and richer than me, fight every time this happens within the charity sector,” Maria says. “Oxfam is supposed to be protecting women and girls in the most vulnerable situations all over the world, and this ideology will ruin it.”
In response, an Oxfam spokesperson said: “We are sorry for the procedural mistakes we made in the handling of this case and we have apologised to the individual concerned. We fully support both an individual’s right to hold religious and philosophical beliefs and a person’s right to have their identity respected, regardless of their gender identity and expression, sex, or sexuality. We believe LGBTQIA+ rights are human rights.”
Now back in Spain, Maria has just finished an internship at a refugee camp in Greece, with the aim of a career in humanitarian work. “I lost so many friends,” she tells me. “I lost my job. My mental health suffered. Enforcing the views of the trans lobby, at all costs, seems more important to Oxfam than meeting their actual charitable aims.”
She says she often thinks of the author who changed the course of her life — and believes the way Rowling has been vilified for simply supporting and defending the rights of women who have suffered domestic abuse and rape is proof that misogyny has no limits. “No matter how much money or power you have achieved, if you are a woman, you will always be a target,” says Maria. “I fought my case so that all women know they can fight, and win, against this crazed ideology.”