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URI says it does not support professor’s statements that ‘espouse anti-transgender perspectives’

Gender and Women’s Studies Professor Donna Hughes, who wrote an essay decrying “the trans-sex fantasy” and comparing “the gender identity movement” to right-wing conspiracy theory QAnon, calls the university’s criticism “an egregious affront to my free speech and academic freedom rights.”

URI's statement said the university was committed to “transgender rights and the need to eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence aimed at transgender individuals and the LGBTQIA+ community.”
URI's statement said the university was committed to “transgender rights and the need to eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence aimed at transgender individuals and the LGBTQIA+ community.”Steven Senne/Associated Press

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The University of Rhode Island published a statement on its website Tuesday condemning a professor’s anti-transgender statements while saying it “honors and respects” her right to freedom of speech.

“The university does not support statements and publications by Professor Donna Hughes that espouse anti-transgender perspectives and recognize that such discourse can cause pain and discomfort for many transgender individuals,” read the statement.

Hughes, a professor and director of graduate studies in URI’s gender and women’s studies program, is one of the founders of the academic study of human trafficking. She is also the editor in chief of “Dignity: A Journal of Analysis of Exploitation and Violence,” an open-access, nonprofit journal hosted by the University of Rhode Island.

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The university statement did not offer details about Hughes’ “statements or publications,” and a representative was not immediately available for comment. But Hughes responded to a Globe reporter Wednesday, saying that she wrote an essay for a “feminist website.”

“I said that a person could not change their biological sex. I said that children are not ‘born in the wrong body’ and I said that children cannot have the brain of one sex and the body of another,” Hughes said in an email to a Globe reporter. “I called claims that these things are true ‘fantasies.’ I made no anti-transgender statements. None-the-less, the university had decided to criticize me for speaking these truths.”

Hughes published an essay in late February on 4W, an online platform that describes itself as a fourth-wave, radical feminist outlet “outside of the liberal mainstream.”

“The American political left is increasingly diving headfirst into their own world of lies and fantasy and, unlike in the imaginary world of QAnon, real children are becoming actual victims,” she wrote in her essay. “The trans-sex fantasy, the belief that a person can change his or her sex, either from male to female or from female to male, is spreading largely unquestioned among the political left.”

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The essay describes hormonal and surgical interventions as “horrors that de-sex” young people, and asserts “Pharmaceutical companies, clinics, and doctors are profiting from these disfiguring treatments and procedures with no regard for the future of their victims.”

“The biological category of sex, particularly women’s sex, is being smashed,” she wrote. “Women and girls are expected to give up their places of privacy such as restrooms, locker rooms, and even prison cells.”

She added that, with President Joe Biden’s Executive Order on Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity of Sexual Orientation, “the fantasy has the weight of the federal government behind it” and, like QAnon, flies “in the face of rationality and truth.”

URI’s statement, which was not sent in a press release or in an email to students but was posted on its website, said the university was committed to “transgender rights and the need to eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence aimed at transgender individuals and the LGBTQIA+ community.”

“The university recognizes that faculty have the same rights, obligations, and responsibilities as other American citizens,” the URI statement read. “The university honors and respects the right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment for all citizens, including our faculty, without censorship or retaliation. The university also recognizes that its faculty have the general right to ‘academic freedom’ in their teaching and scholarship.”

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“A faculty member’s First Amendment and academic freedom rights are not boundless, however, and should be exercised responsibly with due regard for the faculty member’s other obligations, including their obligations to the university’s students and the university community,” the university’s statement read.

While Hughes told a Globe reporter that “URI has not said anything” about redacting or removing any statement or publication, she said the university’s response to her essay “is an egregious affront to my free speech and academic freedom rights.”

“I have the right as a public employee to speak as a private citizen on matters of public concern,” she told the Globe. “It’s sad that we have reached a point in society where difficult issues cannot be freely and openly discussed without resort to personal attacks and calls for censorship.”

Hughes said university faculty members are afraid to speak out on a wide range of topics, for fear that they will be criticized by students and that URI’s administration will “throw them under the bus.”

The Gender and Sexuality Center at the University of Rhode Island did not immediately respond to a Globe reporter’s request for comment, but its weekly Trans and Non-Binary Support Group meeting was still scheduled for Wednesday night. It was unclear whether a special meeting had been called to address Hughes’ essay.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.