Raquel Rosario Sanchez is taking the University of Bristol to court for allegedly failing to protect her from trans activists
A report by Peter Stanford for London’s Telegraph.
In today’s culture wars around trans issues some, like JK Rowling, have walked knowingly into the firing line in the battle between those who maintain our biological sex is fixed and those who conflate it with gender, and argue it is fluid.
Others get caught up in it almost by accident. That is what happened to Raquel Rosario Sanchez, who will be in court on Monday, suing the University of Bristol – where she is a PhD student – for allegedly failing to protect her from bullying and harassment. Or, in her words, for her “[refusal] to be silenced” by trans activists.
“When I came to Bristol at the end of 2017,” says the 32-year-old, “I felt like I was on cloud nine. Everything was aligning perfectly.”
She was joining the university’s Centre for Gender and Violence Research, working specifically to end violence against women. There is an irony that, four years on, she will make the case that she herself has been the victim of abuse.
It all began within weeks of arriving, when Rosario Sanchez was invited to chair an event run by feminist organisation Woman’s Place UK. “It was open to the public. No exclusion. It was women talking about policy and feminism,” she says.
In her words, the event, which took place on February 8, 2018, was certainly not designed to be provocative. Quite the opposite. “It was kind of boring. The vast majority [of people] there were women; middle-aged, grey hair.”
Yet from the minute it was announced, it became a target for militant trans activists among the university students – who objected to Woman’s Place UK’s stance on gender recognition issues, and demanded the event be cancelled.
Why? “The issue they had was with the meeting taking place at all,” Rosario Sanchez replies. “They didn’t want women to have these conversations.”
The contested territory between such feminist groups and trans activists is well documented. The core issue of sex, gender and gender self-identification has developed into arguments about practical matters, including all-women safe spaces.
As well as Rowling, others caught up in the row include MP Rosie Duffield (who stayed away from last year’s Labour Party Conference after being threatened) and academics Kathleen Stock at Sussex University and Jo Phoenix at Open University who have both left their posts following campaigns by trans activists.
Having failed to stop the meeting from going ahead, trans protestors began to target Rosario Sanchez on campus. She will tell the court about repeated threats of violence, intimidation, and being greeted by a chorus of “scum, scum, scum”.
Such a hostile environment means that she rarely goes into the university any more, and only when accompanied by friends, because she fears for her safety. But she is reluctant to be drawn on the impact.
“I don’t like to dwell on how difficult it has been for me because that is exactly what a bully wants to hear. So I try to remain level and measured,” she says.
How far the university that welcomed her as an overseas student (Rosario Sanchez is from the Dominican Republic) has failed to protect her is what will be examined in the Bristol court, where – in a case paid for by a crowdfunding campaign via her supporters – she will accuse it of sex discrimination, negligence, victimisation, harassment and breach of contract.
In 2018, she filed a complaint with the university about her treatment. A disciplinary hearing was begun in June 2019 but, when the activists whom she alleges intimidated her appeared, their supporters, some wearing balaclavas, disrupted proceedings. The university ended the hearing on security grounds.
“They washed their hands of what had happened,” says Rosario Sanchez. “It sent out the message that the bullying and harassment of me is OK.”
The university contests this. “All concerns about harassment or bullying are taken seriously and action taken in accordance with our policies,” it said in a statement. “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.”
That doesn’t cut any ice with Rosario Sanchez. “They were cowardly. They made my allegations go away by not investigating them properly. It came across like they were scared of trans activists.”
Was she ever tempted to keep quiet for an easier life?
“I haven’t done anything wrong,” she responds. “I decided to chair a public meeting about women’s rights. It is lawful for women to have meetings, freedom of speech, freedom of association.”
There is, she adds, a bigger point. “I feel adamant that the public must be made aware that this is how academic institutions are treating feminist students when nobody is watching.”
Not just feminists. “Recently I was told by a woman who went with her young daughter to a university-run swimming pool that she found men dressed as men, with male bodies, naked in the swimming pool changing room that was for females. When she complained, she was told that this was the university policy.”
Her refusal to retreat has seen a second front open up. In March 2020, as president of Women Talk Back, one of several feminist groups at Bristol university, Rosario Sanchez risked a rare foray to campus to organise a women-only meeting at the student union.
“It was to discuss personal issues like menstruation, male violence against women… our attendees said they would be uncomfortable doing so in the presence of people who are of the male sex,” she explains.
Two activists – one a trans woman and the other a trans man – wanted to join. It resulted in a 45-minute stand-off. “It felt like a deliberate provocation,” recalls Rosario Sanchez. “I just kept repeating to them that the Equality Act of 2010 allows for single-sex meetings and spaces.” There were only, she adds, half a dozen other attendees. She even invited the trans man (biologically female) to join.
It was to no avail – the protestors reported her to the union. Rosario Sanchez was required to stand down as president and barred from joining any committee of a union-affiliated group for two years. Women Talk Back members were asked to undergo diversity and inclusivity training.
If it sounds disproportionate, then Rosario Sanchez has decided to test the verdict in a second court case, to be heard later this year.
“All of our student societies wishing to affiliate agree to comply with a set of policies, processes and rules,” says a spokesperson for Bristol Students’ Union. “Where a complaint is lodged alleging a breach of those rules the SU has a complaints process by which matters are investigated.” Of Rosario Sanchez, they add: “we will continue to seek a dialogue where possible.”
Rosario Sanchez is at pains to stress that she is not transphobic. “I’m so careful with the words I choose, but it doesn’t matter how careful you are, the problem is that you are a woman who dissents. Women having these conversations is beyond the pale.”
That is what she is fighting for. She worries aloud that too many people, looking from the outside at such episodes, will simply look away or keep silent. “A lot of people feel ‘I don’t want to get involved’. They don’t want to be in the firing line.”
That, she argues, allows cancel culture to triumph to the detriment of our democracy. “The only way out of this polarised and vitriolic state of affairs is for more people to speak up. Bristol wants the problem to go away and they see the problem as me. And I am not.”