May 7, 2023 - 10:30am


An address from Stonewall founder Simon Fanshawe on Friday evening is the latest in a series of contested free speech talks hosted by Gonville and Caius College at the University of Cambridge. In October, college fellow Prof. Arif Ahmed hosted feminist writer Helen Joyce to discuss gender ideology and free speech; the event met with significant backlash and protest. 

Friday night’s event opened with an introduction from presiding chair Prof. David Runciman, who encouraged those with opposing perspectives to make themselves heard, extolling the virtues of “the expression of divergent points of view”. Then, as Fanshawe took the floor, a significant number of audience members walked out, each draped in a transgender flag and waving a sign. They joined the large crowd of students protesting outside, who were rattling the doors to the auditorium, banging drums, and shouting “No TERFs on Our Turf”. Their walkout prevented many students on the event’s waiting list from attending. 

Having founded Stonewall in 1989, Fanshawe is no stranger to criticism, opposition and abuse. Though he marched against the infamous Section 28, his fiercest opponents now come from within the LGBT community that he has spent much of his life advocating for. In 2019, Fanshawe was one of 20 activists who co-signed an open letter expressing concern over Stonewall’s transgender policies, alarmed by the charity’s encouragement of primary school children to “review their gender identity”. 

Since speaking out, Fanshawe has been largely unable to attend events like this without experiencing extremely threatening, sometimes dangerous, backlash. On Friday, he told the audience about a young woman he had encountered outside the auditorium. When he gestured to the protest and asked her, “What’s this all about?”, she responded, “Apparently, they’ve invited some awful transphobe to come and speak.” Twice, Fanshawe had to be talked out of leaving the room to engage with the dissidents outside. He noted that students are loaned £9,000 a year to attend the University, expressing regret that this opportunity was being squandered as students attempt to “protect” their peers from divergent opinions. 

In his address Fanshawe argued that the development of LGBT ideology over the last decade represents a completely “narcissistic” worldview. Central to the beliefs of certain activists, he observed, is the “idea of the individual as indomitable”. As such, Fanshawe suggested, we live in a world where demands have become rights: phrases like “Trans Rights are Human Rights” are used with little regard for their actual implications. Do these chants represent the simple idea that trans people deserve basic human rights, or do they, in fact, form part of an argument for a “right” to transition, or maybe even to self-identify to enter women’s spaces or compete in their sports? Representatives of this perspective refused, however, to engage constructively with the event, preferring to disrupt than debate.  

Stonewall’s problem is one born out of its success. I asked Fanshawe about the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2014, one of the charity’s most prominent victories. However, with this came an identity crisis and the need for the organisation to pick its next battle. While Fanshawe would have liked to see the charity devolve, supporting local councils to build grassroots alliances, it instead decided to “begin a path to trans inclusion”. The group has now changed so radically that Fanshawe has been told by a former chair that he has put himself “outside of Stonewall”. 

In 2020, Cambridge issued a statement on freedom of speech which supports the right to “express new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions within the law, without fear of intolerance or discrimination”. The University has since failed to live up to this principle. 

In October, the master of Gonville and Caius emailed students in response to Helen Joyce’s event at the college, announcing that “[Caius does] not condone or endorse views that Helen Joyce has expressed on transgender people, which we consider offensive, insulting and hateful to members of our community who live and work here. […] We will not be attending the event.” When professors at a world-leading university display this sort of intellectual cowardice, it should not surprise us that students follow suit. 

Despite this bleak picture, Cambridge still boasts many academics who consistently champion free speech. Ahmed has been consistently vocal on the subject, while Runciman, the host of the event, worked hard to foster debate from all sides. However, if a university degree is to mean anything, far more must be done to protect intellectual inquiry and academic freedom.

Lara Brown is a student at the University of Cambridge and a former president of the Cambridge Union.