Professor Jo Phoenix, who was likened to a ‘racist uncle’ over her gender-critical views breaks her silence after winning harassment case against the Open University – and likens tribunal to surviving rape when she was 15

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Jo Phoenix (pictured) was likened to a 'racist uncle' over her gender-critical views and won a harassment case against former employer the Open University yesterday

A professor of criminology, who was compared to a ‘racist uncle’ by university colleagues over her gender-critical views before winning a harassment case against her employer, has compared the tribunal to her experience of surviving rape.

Texas-born Jo Phoenix received an ‘onslaught’ of death threats after setting up the Gender Critical Research Network (GCRN) while working at the Open University in the UK.

The GCRN olds the belief that sex is biological, immutable, and should hold significance over gender identity, but colleagues launched an open letter accusing the society of transphobia and inciting the murder of trans people.

Jo asked bosses for help after receiving an ‘onslaught’ of criticism and death threats, but the Open University (OU) did not help out of fear of repercussions, it was ruled.

In conversation with Emma Barnet on BBC Woman’s Hour, Jo revealed how her beliefs made her feel like a ‘pariah’ and how she found the experience at the tribunal in Watford comparable to the impact of being raped when she was 15.

Jo Phoenix (pictured) was likened to a ‘racist uncle’ over her gender-critical views and won a harassment case against former employer the Open University yesterday 

‘It has been the hardest four to five years of my life, six years, and anyone who has read my witness statement will know I’ve had quite a background already,’ Jo said.

‘Since everything started in 2019… it affected my mental health, as I said I’ve gone to some very dark places,’ she continued.

‘I grew up in Texas, and when I was a teenager, I was raped,’ she said.

She fought for justice and navigated the ‘whole criminal justice process as a teenager at 15’, which ‘blew apart’ her ‘ability to do anything’.

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‘I was run away having to survive, and I say survive, my early life, and to then be at a point in my later career, where I’m looking at my own employer and saying: “Please believe me that these awful things are happening to me”… it was kind of like insult upon insult upon injury upon deep hurt,’ Professor Phoenix said. 

‘I broke down on the last day I was being cross-examined, and the judge kindly gave me some time to collect myself.’

‘As I sat there in the box being cross-examined, in the back of my head I was just going through the tactics that are used in a rape trial and going “tick”.’

The professor of criminology claimed that the tribunal process bared similarities to a rape trial she experienced at 15

The professor of criminology claimed that the tribunal process bared similarities to a rape trial she experienced at 15 

She concluded: ‘And the thing I am most proud of was, after all of that, I walked back into that hearing knowing that I was going to get another extreme cross examination, and I was able to sit through three weeks of that.’

Jo’s views came under fire in 2019 when the OU cancelled a conference hearing from the Centre of Crime and Justice Studies because the director faced accusations of transphobia by several of Jo’s colleagues after tweeting ‘Happy human female day’ on International Women’s Day, Jo said.

Jo campaigned against the university’s decision and communicated her gender-critical stance to colleagues.

She signed an open letter in 2019, raising concerns about the introduction of self-identification for trans people who wished to undergo gender reassignment.

Her signature on the letter, signed by 53 other academics, caused a ‘hostile’ response from some colleagues.

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As a senior professor, she felt she ‘had no choice but to take this fight’ and said it was her ‘duty’ because ‘many of my younger colleagues’ didn’t feel in a secure position in their careers to speak out.

She told Woman’s Hour: ‘There are no questions that should be off limits even if those questions are politically unpalatable for some.’ 

Talking on the podcast show, Jo said the past few years have been the hardest of her life and her mental health has been in a very dark place. (The above picture of Jo was taken on the last day of the tribunal)

Talking on the podcast show, Jo said the past few years have been the hardest of her life and her mental health has been in a very dark place. (The above picture of Jo was taken on the last day of the tribunal)

Later, Professor Phoenix was reduced to tears after a colleague castigated her for her views.

The tribunal in Watford heard: ‘Professor Westmarland said to [Professor Phoenix] that, ‘Having you in the department was like having a racist uncle at the Christmas dinner table’. 

‘Professor Westmarland was effectively telling [her] off for expressing her gender-critical beliefs.’

Professor Phoenix also set up a Gender Critical Research Network – a group of academics who believe biological sex is real. Colleagues then wrote to the Vice-Chancellor, calling for them to withdraw support for her network.

Professor Phoenix was then targeted with tweets and retweets from colleagues describing her as transphobic. The tribunal heard that by June 2021, she was working in a ‘hostile environment’. In December 2021, she resigned, claiming she felt like a ‘pariah’. The tribunal upheld almost 20 of Professor Phoenix’s claims.

Jo claimed her mental health and good working relations failed as a result.

The experience led Jo to suffer from a ‘post-traumatic break’. She wrote a grievance letter to the university to complain of the lack of academic freedom and the ‘hostile campaign’ she faced. Jo said she is still waiting for a response.

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The Open University (OU) did not help, out of a fear of repercussions if it was perceived as supporting Professor Phoenix's views, it was ruled

The Open University (OU) did not help, out of a fear of repercussions if it was perceived as supporting Professor Phoenix’s views, it was ruled

The professor described the past six years as the ‘hardest’ of her life and that the state of her mental health wound up in a ‘very dark place’.

Employment Judge Jennifer Young said: ‘[The OU] failed to protect [her] because they did not want to be seen to give any kind of support to academics with gender-critical beliefs.’

Despite the tribunal ruling in her favour, Jo compared the experience to the impact of her rape case.

Jo, who was raped by two boys, one from her school, at the age of 15 said: ‘It blew away my ability to do anything,’ she said. 

She compared the process of asking her employer to believe her statements about the ‘awful’ treatment she received to surviving rape and the trial that followed. 

She concluded the interview by stating that she strongly supports people’s right to identify as they wish.

Her compensation will be decided at a later date. Professor Tim Blackman, Vice-Chancellor of the OU, said: ‘We are deeply concerned about the wellbeing of everyone involved in the case and acknowledge the significant impact it has had on the claimant, the witnesses and many other colleagues. Our priority has been to protect freedom of speech while respecting legal rights and protections.’ 

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