I marked a strange anniversary this week: a year to the day since my resignation from the lectureship I used to hold at Sussex University. In the second week of Autumn term last year, a campaign of harassment began on campus, with my name on it. Apparently I was making students unsafe with my words. The obvious solution was to intimidate me into leaving.
Though at first I attempted to teach through the activity escalating against me — first on campus and then by Zoom — I soon realised my mental state was not up to it. For the first time ever, I phoned the doctor for a sick note. I told her I was undergoing some work-related stress: please could I be signed off for a while and also have some sleeping tablets? She asked me what the problem was. “Masked men at my workplace are demanding I resign or be fired.” There was an embarrassed laugh. I got my sick note.
The weeks before and after were a surreal blur, and not just because of the insomnia. It was like a cross between a siege and the 12 Days of Christmas. Never have I simultaneously experienced such hostility and kindness from strangers, each bewildering in its own way. In between fielding concerned emails, calls, flowers, food parcels, gifts, and cards, I spoke to various members of the police. Running the gamut from supportive to uncomprehending to positively judgemental, each told me something different about whether they thought the harassment was criminal or not, though all agreed I shouldn’t leave the house. A wonderful feminist managing a women’s refuge arranged to have security put in my home, paid for it, and agreed to deal with the police on my behalf from then on.
My carefully organised plans for the teaching term ahead vanished into nothingness. No, I would not have to write those lectures after all, or do that marking, or work that Open Day. I went through my calendar deleting events and marvelling at the acres of space that emerged. Instead of teaching courses in Feminist Philosophy and Ethics as I should have been, I sat at home alternating between hysterical laughter and tears, drinking fizzy wine and eating crisps, and watching daytime TV when I wasn’t talking to journalists or receiving visitors.
Once I announced my resignation publicly, things got even more intense. I seemed to be in a dark fairy-tale world. Outside the threshold were people who wanted to hurt me. Inside, it was like a continuous party, or perhaps a wake — but who or what was it for? Everything was in Technicolor and weirdly exhilarating. The sleeping pills were useless.
I was also having to get up to speed on media management very fast. Every day, my mum would pass on the day’s stories about me, sent her way first via Yahoo’s algorithms. Journalists were making aggressively charming pitches for interviews via every available communication route, many of them demanding exclusivity in return for what they claimed was large exposure. I tried to choose well according to parameters I barely understood.
A succession of photographers trooped in with bits of tech to capture me looking grim-faced but resolute in various corners of my house. As picture editors made their choices for stories, I started to realise how the same face could be used to sell readers what they expected to see: Ordinary Mum-Of-Two in the Mail; Slightly Sinister Middle-Aged Woman in the Guardian; Wild-Eyed Maniac in the Times (that picture editor was definitely a transactivist). The Times also gave me my most terrifying headline: “Boris Johnson backs Kathleen Stock”. As if things weren’t bad enough.
Eventually things calmed down a bit and I was left with the aftermath. The near-total impersonality from former colleagues I’d worked with for years — one kindly administrator being the exception — was a shock. I couldn’t read it properly. Was it embarrassment? Guilt? Indifference? Blame? I still can’t tell.
With my family, one weekend I drove to my office to get my things — another surreal moment. Though I was led to believe it had all been sorted in advance, the doors to my building were locked. I went to find a security guard to let me in. Suspicious (perhaps he had heard there had been a bit of trouble recently), he demanded to see my ID, before grudgingly wedging the door for me and saying I had to be out in a few hours. Conscious of my notoriety on campus, we threw books, posters, and mementoes from years of academic life into boxes and fled, putting it all in storage on the way home. As I left for the final time, I was suffused with memories of arriving there as a young lecturer — just as alone as I apparently was now, and with some of the very items I had just packed up. It felt like I had performed an enormous circle in time, only to end up at exactly the same place.
It took months after leaving work to shed the habits of mind associated with the schedule of the academic year. I would find myself thinking “Next time I go to graduation…” or “I should use that idea for my lectures next term” — and then get a jolt of recognition. I was also dealing with new public notoriety. On my way into the BBC for an interview, I passed a vacant shop on Oxford Street with my newsprint face plastered over the windows.
I quickly became grateful for the social permissibility of mask-wearing. A friend told me I was most noticeable because of my hair, so I bought a woolly purple hat that rarely left my head for the months afterwards, not even on train carriages. Attending prenatal classes by Zoom with my then-pregnant wife, I carefully set up the lighting and seating so that I was well back from the camera and my face was darkened. As we chanted hypnotic mantras and chatted about pain relief, I looked like I was in a witness protection programme giving an interview on Panorama.
Eventually though, as the months passed and my mind regrouped, I started to come out of my mental lockdown. There were invited trips to liberal institutions in Rome and Vienna to talk about free speech and transactivism. A variety of interesting new writing projects luckily came my way, including — of course — this column. I got my OBE and met Princess Anne. (I wish I could tell you whether she is gender-critical or not, but what happens in the throne room stays in the throne room).
I was also invited to become a Founding Faculty Fellow at the new University of Austin and went to Texas, where I spent a marvellous week teaching varieties of feminism to very sweet and engaged students, many of them from quite conservative backgrounds. While there, I publicly debated with trans economist Deirdre McCloskey. We sparred robustly and hugged at the end. At the close of the week, my students gave me a card full of enthusiastic messages, salving some of my hurt at having had teaching taken away so suddenly. One young man touchingly wrote that I had converted him to political lesbianism.
The hat eventually came off. It now languishes in the boot of my car like some artefact from a distant time. Though most encounters with the public are entirely positive, it’s true that sometimes I experience hostility. The other day, while on the platform at St Pancras with my teenage sons, I looked up to see a large adult in a dress scowling and giving me the finger through a train carriage window. I nudged my sons, who started to laugh nervously. Visibly affronted, the individual turned to type furiously into his phone. I found the predictable tweet later — apparently, my presence at the station had made him feel unsafe. On the upside, he tweeted, he had done very well at a Warhammer workshop that day.
Elsewhere, however, I still face the challenge of dealing with the fact that sections of my former profession and the press have a vested interest in winning the disinformation war about what a heinous villain I must be. Though I tend to insulate myself well from idiots, in occasional moments of weakness I take a look within the Twitter bubbles of others and immediately wish I hadn’t. Reading Academic Twitter can be like encountering your most critical inner voices spread out on the screen for everyone else to read too — except that for some reason, my inner voices now speak in fake American accents. They say “y’all”, and talk about “trans folks”, and call me a “grifter” for continuing to make my way in the world without collapsing into ignominy. I close the laptop and remind myself that there are various ways to be in a mental prison.
I did nothing much to mark my odd anniversary this week — I was too busy doing other exciting things. I was only reminded when I accidentally saw an anonymous transactivist account in Brighton — who may or may not have had something to do with the original action against me — talking about it. With characteristic nonsensical doublethink, Reclaim Pride Brighton tweeted: “A year ago the Trans Movement drove out Stock, and her TERF ideology, without violent escalations. We won’t stop until all others are gone with her, by any means necessary. We have strengths they will never match.”
While I concede that this account holder does indeed have strengths I will never match — mainly, an uncanny ability to write like a modern-day Adrian Mole — I remain sanguine. Despite the best efforts of my critics, I have survived my annus horribilis and have much to look forward to. It may be a cliché, but it still applies: sometimes speaking the truth really does set you free.
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