Reflections on Trans Academia panel

Content note: institutional transphobia; Islamophobia; sexual assault mention



Tuesday 17 November 2015,  1900–2100
Main Building, City University, London

From the facebook event page: “This panel explores some of the complexities of transgender and academia as they intersect”

Host: Sahra Ray Taylor (she/her)

Panel: Natacha Kennedy (she/her); Charlie Oughton (they); CN Lester (they)


Natacha was very professional and a strong speaker despite some sound difficulties at the start. She opened by discussing the fragility of white liberalism, demonstrated by its cries of “censorship” at university students platform-blocking Germaine Greer and other transphobes (while ironically supporting the arrest of Bahar Mustafa for tweeting #killallwhitemen, whose right to free speech was not invoked by her institution). Most of her talk was spent discussing her research on discrediting the alleged comorbidity between autism and gender dysphoria, and her studies of young trans people’s experiences coming out which often take place in the university setting. Trans students, she said, research gender studies as a defense against discursive delegitimization—by necessity we arm ourselves with Butler. Because its the site of so many people’s coming out, the university needs to be a safe/r space for trans people.

Charlie was impassioned and their energy was defined by them saying, “I’m taking a risk, but damnit it needs to be done”. They talked about the importance of not preaching to the choir and bringing the uninitiated in to trans discussions, and making discussions on trans issues comfortable for people who may not know the right vocabulary. They also off-handedly, hypothetically, pitted “hardcore Muslims” against “American lefty queer” students, and noted that we all get offended by something these days (is it Political Correctness Gone Mad?); the “oppression olympics” was also cited. Most of their time was spent discussing how their institution refuses to change their name on institutional documents, and bar them from outing themselves to students. The law is on their side, but it’s not helpful to them if they lose their job in taking legal action. During the Q&A I raised the point that it shouldn’t fall on the trans students/lecturers to provide a “safe space” to discuss and dissuade transphobic opinions, and that it’s extremely empowering for trans people to bluntly shut down transphobic comments and demonstrate that they are unacceptable.

CN apologized at the start for being sick, but they still spoke articulately. They highlighted that transphobia isn’t only external (e.g. Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel), it’s within classrooms and institutions. They gave the example of a professor at CUNY (New York) sexually assaulting a trans student and claiming victimhood because he expected her to be cis; he was fired but has since been appointed at King’s College London and given tenure. Trans academics are apparently obligated to not only be experts in their fields, but to be up to date on trans/gender studies too. They made many other good points, but I failed to note them down because I was too busy vehemently agreeing.

Each of the panelists gave grave examples of transphobia that they had experienced within the academy: difficulty in getting names and pronouns recognized; third, non-binary gender options being unavailable; being the only trans person in LGBT student organizations; and using transphobia as a teaching opportunity. The event ended with an excellent comment from an audience member asking how we can utilize the power of the intersectional trans experiences and bodies in the room to find solutions to academic transphobia, and how to make academia more accessible to those outside of the academy; it was met with some defense, and ultimately unrealized.

Despite the few problems with this discussion I was so happy to go to a trans-led event about trans issues, and sit among a mostly (entirely?) trans audience. and I hope there will be many more. We should not only be visible when we are gender studies scholars, but also when our research has nothing to do with gender because—as should be obvious—our identities and interests are not limited to our transness.

“Japanese Security Policy” at RUSI: Event Review

Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Kongō class destroyer | Image: Wikipedia

Event details

“Japanese Security Policy”
The Royal United Services Institute
Vice Admiral Ito, Japanese Self Defense Force Joint College
Chaired by Peter Roberts
Open to the public; lecture on the record, Q&A off the record


The event began with a food and drinks reception at RUSI’s stately 51 Whitehall. Present were the usual suspects from the big think tanks, students accompanying Admiral Ito from the Japanese Self Defense Force (JSDF) Joint College, members of the press, the generally aged and very white RUSI members, and a few plebs from the public. I talked to a JSDF student who told me—in fairly good English—the he thinks Shinzo Abe is not especially nationalistic and that he worries China might “eat” Taiwan, especially if US commitments in the region falter.

The lecture took place in one of the reading rooms. Admiral Ito spent the majority of his time detailing the history of the JSDF and its evolution from a force only used in war time to one which assists with humanitarian crises, ensures regional stability and prevents power vacuums, and asserts itself against non-state threats (terrorists) in a post- 9/11 environment. He described the JDSF is a tool of “military diplomacy”, engaging in bi and multilateral training exercises and UN peacekeeping operations. It also serves as a deterrent, ready to protect Japan from North Korean missile launches or Chinese attempts to shift regional “balance of power”.

Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) during a bilateral training exercise with the US, 2008 | Image: Wikipedia

The Q&A was—unfortunately—off the record. Suffice it to say that Ito’s JSDF was brought abruptly into the present with difficult questions on complex issues.

The whole event was a bait for RUSI’s upcoming International Sea Power Conference, which unfortunately has a large financial barrier to entry (£195–£1,079).

“Prospects for Change in North Korea”: Event Review

Event details

“Prospects for Change in North Korea”
House of Lords, Committee Room 4A
Lord Alton of Liverpool (David Alton)
Hosted by the Centre for Opposition Studies
Open to the public


Lord Alton began by admonishing the impotence on the international community which has so far failed to act in any meaningful way on North Korea’s gross human rights violations, which were passionately enumerated in his powerpoint slide show. Memories of the Holocaust were evoked. American civil rights activists were quoted. We were reminded of the evils of [Soviet] communism, and the BBC was exalted as a beacon of hope for those trapped within the oppressive regime—a regime, we are told, which is comparable to present-day North Korea. Just as Soviet Ukrainians and Jews hoped for the collapse of that hellish communist command, so too the North Koreans hope and pray for change (apparently actioned by a benign external arbitrator). “In defeating communism we did so with wisdom and strength”, Alton clumsily asserted, and Kim Jong-un’s North Korean regime no doubt requires the same Manichaen treatment.

To his credit, Lord Alton offered a list of actionable items which would allegedly create an environment for the DPRK state to redeem its human rights record. This included: formalizing diplomatic relations between the US and DPRK, and ROK and DPRK; diplomatically engaging with the DPRK; protesting human rights abuses and promoting human rights initiatives; breaking the information blockade; encouraging peace talks in Beijing and Seoul; informing ourselves about the human rights situation in the North Korea; and “building bridges” where we can.

He concluded that, after a long history of human rights abuses, the North needs a face-saving strategy: that the regime will not last for long unless it pursues peace and advances rights.


I’ve very much enjoyed going to the Palace of Westminster for these DPRK events, though I’m sorry to say that the setting was far and away the most satisfying aspect of this talk.

The Lord’s Cold War perspective came across as foolishly triumphant and hopelessly outdated. The notion that North Korea needs “saving” by a benign Western allied force is patronizing and othering on top of being unhelpful. Grand narratives (“good capitalism defeated evil communism”) and reductive binaries (good/evil, us/them) demonstrate a clear misunderstanding of a very complex problem.

Alton seemed unaware of the numerous failed attempts at regional peace talks, and the work of human rights organizations already considering this issue. The idea that North Koreans could be empowered to change their system of government—rather than change being imposed upon them externally—completely passed him by.

Finally he failed to appreciate that—moral responsibilities aside—the DPRK’s neighbors are keen to preserve the status quo for the sake of regional stability.

The most interesting bit of the talk was when Alton alluded to potentially creating a DPRK government in exile headed by North Korean refugees in the South, but he did not elaborate on this.

A few minor but nonetheless insufferable points:

The lives of some one thousand fallen British soldiers in the Korean War were tastelessly given prominence over the several hundred thousand Korean dead, the victims of the 1990s famine, DPRK refugees, and those still-living in the North.

There was an unfortunate focus on the prosecution of people practicing Christianity—excluding that of the more commonly practiced Korean Shamanism (16%), Cheondoism (13.5%), or Buddhism (4.5%)—a thinly-veiled attempt at engaging his religious peers and/or appealing to a constituency which can’t empathize in the absence of religious commonality.

There was also one Churchill quote, which is one too many.

That Lord Alton is the Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on North Korea worries me. He is obviously passionate about ending the suffering of North Koreans, but his failure to acknowledge complexity coupled with his apparent “white man’s burden” does not bode well for the DPRK’s “prospects for change”.

“Japan’s Maritime Disputes”: Review of the Chatham House Event

Event details

“Japan’s Maritime Disputes”
Chatham House
Talk by Professor Tom Berger, International Relations at the University of Boston
Open to the public, on the record (Chatham House rule not in effect)


Prof. Berger opened by stating the US-Japanese relations are having a “schizophrenic moment”—that the American pivot is sincere and it’s a productive time for trade and security, but there is a harsh ideological clash, and Abe and Obama “are not natural soul mates”. He goes on to say that a combination of geostrategical changes and geocultural changes are lend themselves to this, the ideal environment to develop the US-Japanese alliance wherein the tension commands attention but remains a manageable problem (for now).

The geostrategic situation has shifted from hegemonic American air/maritime power and Japanese isolation but potential for great power status to a new regional balance where China is rising as America declines, and where Japan no longer fears an American-led war by entrapment but where America fears being pulled into territorial squabbles.

The principle geocultural change is a “rising tide of nationalism”, though Prof. Berger was keen to point out that the “hydraulic model” employed by journalists is reductive. Abe is not an old-style (imperial) militarist, and Japan’s not too nationalistic; rather it’s not nationalistic enough. Nationalism and unity allowed Japan to rise until World War II, and its 20th century defeat was institutionalized, militarily and morally, and reinforced by the Japanese left. Since the 1950s Japan has sought to rediscover its unity: constitutional changes were made imbuing the education system with nationalism, and military policy was altered to allow Japan to become more independent (and by extension less dependent on the US). Abe’s support then comes from: perceived Chinese aggression on the Senkakus and the resulting sense of threat; and “Abenomics” (economic reform). That is, the conservatives supporting Abe are not ideological nationalists but pragmatists.

This geocultural shift toward nationalism is also present in South Korea and China, as these countries come into their increased strength. Both states have anti-Japanese sentiments and South Korea in particular can’t politically continue to ignore Japan’s imperial war crimes, but likewise both China and the ROK have set aside political concerns in favor of pragmatism, especially in trading.

During the Q&A Prof. Berger was asked about the nuclear issue, Japanese domestic politics, and the motivations behind the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. He finished by remarking that nationalism in Japan is taboo and therefore seductive, and it’s more likely to fuel anti-Korean sentiment via kimchi boycotts than militarization.

Prof. Tom Berger speaking at Chatham House, June 12, 2014 | Image: Morgan Potts
Prof. Tom Berger speaking at Chatham House, June 12, 2014 | Image: Morgan Potts


Pardoning Prof. Berger’s casual ableism (“schizophrenic moment”), the talk was compelling. Berger acknowledged the plurality of Japanese perspectives and implicitly noted that it is from plurality and competing voices that states arrive at their “national interest” which directs policy.

However it also seemed fundamentally contradictory: is Japan experiencing a “rising tide of nationalism” under Abe, reflected in the Senkaku dispute and desire to lessen security dependence on America? Or rather is Japan not nationalistic, putting aside ideology and nationalism for pragmatism?

I would suggest that Japan is in fact nationalistic in its foreign policy, especially regarding the island dispute: if Japan (and China, it takes two after all) were pragmatic instead of nationalistic, the two states would table the issue of sovereignty and agree to jointly develop the resources within the EEZ of the Senkaku/Diaoyus, much as China and Vietnam have come to a fishing agreement in the Tonkin Gulf. Instead, the two nations exploit the dispute over otherwise meaningless barren rocks for their nationalistic effect on domestic populations—if this continues, Abe might rediscover Japanese unity after all.

All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea event: Jang Jin-sung

westminster eye

Event details:

House of Lords
Jang Jin-sung, with Shirley Lee translating
Organized by the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK)
Open to the public


Jang Jin-sung is a North Korean defector, poet, and the founder of New Focus International. This event was a short talk by him on the various organs of the DPRK state, including the reveal of the henceforth secret “OGD”, followed by an altogether disappointing Q&A. Rather than detail the dialogue here, I’m offer the minutes from the meeting.


The event was essentially a book launch for Jang’s Dear Leader. While the ODG reveal would be huge news in North Korea watch circles, Jang provided surprisingly little about the organization: only that it supersedes both the military and Kim Jong-un, thereby “controlling everything”. I suppose the talk was a teaser for the book, which ostensibly provides more depth, but my interest was not sufficiently piqued.

New Nuclear Initiative talk by Women in War and International Politics

Yesterday evening in the Kings College Maughan Library was a two-part event by Women in War and International Politics on being a woman in nuclear studies and so-called New Nuclear Initiatives. The panelists were:

  • Andrea Berger, Research Fellow in Nuclear Analysis at RUSI
  • Heather Williams, Research Fellow on Nuclear Weapons Policy at Chatham House
  • Dr. Jenny Nielsen, Research Analyst in Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at IISS
  • Dr. Nicola Horsburgh, British Academy Post-Doc Research Fellow at Oxford


The first part of the event was off the record, but suffice it to say that the panelists gave frank advice on what can be expected in nuclear work as someone with a uterus. While slightly depressing, it was encouraging to see four successful women who had tackled academia, think tanks, and defense departments on the panel in front of me.

New Nuclear Initiatives

M. Berger began the second half of the talk by outlining the lack of leadership in the P-5 process: no state seems comfortable or interested in spearheading a public discussion on nuclear disarmament. While the UK began the initiative in 2009, it now is only interested in a supporting role; US domestic stakeholders are disinterested; Putin continues to benefit from taking a tough stance toward Washington and so won’t engage in bilateral disarmament; France  prefers to have nuclear discussions in private rather than public; and China is disinterested. The result is stagnation.

M. Williams focused on US-Russian arms control and outlined three possibilities for disarmament: unilateral reduction in nuclear arsenal on the part of the US; pressure for bilateral US-Russian disarmament from non-nuclear states; and status quo. Unilateral disarmament is attractive because it lends itself to informal discussions and potential reciprocity while bypassing a lengthy debate in Congress (see H.W. Bush’s Presidential Nuclear Initiative); however any reduction of US missile defense in Europe would require NATO’s approval. Additional difficulties lie in Russia’s national identity as a nuclear superpower, and the declining credibility of Congress in Moscow (and elsewhere).

Dr. Horsburgh discussed China’s nuclear history and its current stance on disarmament. China was a “late-comer” to nuclear politics, but has since become a skilled and confident actor. Only possessing approximately 240 nuclear weapons, China does not consider the technology to be special in the same guarded way other P-5 states do. China’s approach to nuclear policy is supportive of the NPT regime but not the PSI, which it sees as too aggressive; weary of multilateral arms control, and as such is fairly obstructionist; and it is not an initiator in nuclear politics, excluding the No First Use Treaty. China is currently developing a glossary of nuclear terms, which sounds fluffy until you realize that the P-5 do not agree on the definitions of “warhead” and “fissile material”, impairing negotiations. Finally, China is less worried about nuclear terrorism than about a civilian nuclear accident which would affect economic growth.

Dr. Nielsen examined the humanitarian initiative with an eye toward the NPT review in 2015. States supporting the humanitarian initiative fall into two camps: those who promote salience regarding nuclear weapons and “ban fans”; while the former wish to prepare for the use of and potential accidents involving nuclear technology, the latter seek to challenge the role of nuclear arms in security doctrines, contesting the social construct of deterrence. She suggested that if the ban fans want to keep the P-5 on board with the humanitarian initiative, they should be careful and slow or else the P-5 will block it, as France as done with the February 2014 conference in Mexico.

Following questions from audience, the panelists discussed France’s difficulties regarding the Iran nuclear deal, the opaque nature of P-5 nuclear policies and the lack of confidence building measures taken by P-5 states, Egypt’s strong position regarding the Middle-East WMD-free zone, and the false distinction between “nuclear” and “non-nuclear” states. Finally, they summarized that any dialogue between P-5 states is a success, and that the NPT review in 2015 won’t make or break the regime but we should not expect much progress.

UK PONI Roundtable

Last Tuesday evening the UK Project on Nuclear Issues (UK PONI) hosted a roundtable event with British nuclear policymakers on the subject of Trident. Participants included:

  • Rt Hon Margaret Beckett, MP – Labour MP for Derby South since 1983. British Foreign Secretary from 2006–2007, and first female to hold the position. Served in Blair’s Cabinet. Involved in the 2009 MP Expenses scandal.
  • Rt Hon the Lord Browne of Ladyton (Desmond “Des” Browne) – Labour MP for Kilmarnok and Loudoun (Scotland), 1997–2003. Secretary of State of Defence, 2006–2008. Secretary of State for Scotland, 2007–2008. Served in Blair and Brown’s Cabinet. Signatory of Global ZeroRejected as UK Special Envoy to Sri Lanka.
  • Rt Hon the Lord Owen (David Owen) – Labour Crossbench Peer in the House of Lords since 1992. British Foreign Secretary, 1977–1979. Co-founder of the Social Democratic Party (which after a merge became the Liberal Democrats); Leader from 1983–1987, 1988–1990. EU co-Chairman for the Conference for the Former Yugoslavia, 1992–1995. MP (various constituencies), 1966–1992.

The event was chaired by the Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, professor at Queen Mary’s. The Tories were notably absent (that is not a complaint). The event took place in the House of Lords, only slightly uncomfortable choice of venue on the 5th of November.

The roundtable was introduced by M. Richard White of the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), stating that the roundtable was a forum of tech-heads meet policymakers. Below are what I thought to be the highlights of the discussion.

Owen, charismatic and entertaining, opened up the dialogue by saying he is confident that a nuclear weapons accident is inevitable. His assessment of Trident was that nuclear deterrent usually goes way over budget, and that it is impossible to justify the high cost of a submarine fleet which does nothing else. He also pointed out that the US contributes 85% of NATO’s budget and that NATO will not subsidize the UK’s deterrent. He closed the comment by suggesting nuclear cruise missiles as a possible alternative to Trident.

Beckett came across as quite the hawk with a confident air reminiscent of another Margaret in British politics. She began by stating: “I left the CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] when it became pacifist, because I’ve never been a pacifist.” She went on to say that the greatest threat of the 21st century is climate change (“expect massive Chinese migration”), and though she doesn’t advocate Trident, the motors are made in her constituency and she’s not too bothered about what they’re used for once they’re made.

Browne began with the solemn thought that after the Cold War ended politicians stopped worrying about nuclear weapons. He went on to describe the shocking matter-of-factness with which people talk about the weapons, as though they’ve forgotten the massive damage they can cause.

He then made the point that Trident was renewed in 2006 because naive policymakers (himself included) were told that if it wasn’t renewed, the boats would wear out before they could be replaced.  This illustrated his point that independently verifiable expertise is crucial to nuclear policymaking, and the disparity in knowledge between experts and policymakers is too wide. In short, nuclear technology is not so special or inaccessible that policymakers cannot understand it.

Questions from the Audience

The first question taken was from a young Tory woman (I’m pleased to note that this audience was much more diverse than the last event I reviewed): “Who does Trident deter now?” The panel answered that it was indeed a Cold War holdover, persistent as part of the status quo in an international environment still seen as anarchical and uncertain. Owen said that the US should reassure the UK that scaling down its nuclear deterrent would not cost the British their international relevance or their seat on the UNSC.

Another RUSI intern noted that the UK already has less nuclear weapons than most nuclear states, and that the cruise missile alternative might increase uncertainty through miscalculation. Browne disagreed, saying that duel-capable systems were effective deterrence. Beckett was unconcerned about war through miscalculation, worrying instead about India-Pakistan. Owen replied that the MoD lies, and we need to have an honest debate.

The question of disposing of retired nuclear weapons was raised – Browne said they could be treated like land mines or chemical weapons, Beckett reminded us that it’s been done before (see South Africa).

An American woman was appreciative of this debate she feels is absent in the US. Owen said that the reduction in conventional weapons spending has generals challenging the high costs of deterrence, implying that the US has a much larger defense budget and so does not need to choose between convention and nuclear weapons.

Hugh Chalmers of UK PONI asked: “How easy is it to work toward the disarmament goal?” Beckett replied that politicians must be engaged, and too often they are distracted by other issues (namely elections). Browne said that we are stuck in the status quo, and we need space, time, and political capital to change it (but that there’s none left after the 2008 financial crisis). Owen said that the CBTB was close, and he believes that eventually someone will get elected in the UK on the platform of nuclear disarmament, supported by the armed forces who want a bigger slice of the defense budget.

Power, Law and the South China Sea: IISS Panel Review

This afternoon the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) held a panel discussion on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The panel was held in the Ascham Room in Bloomsbury House, a large open space on the 2nd floor with views of tall leafy trees, with US Naval War College Professor Peter Dutton and Australian National University Associate Professor Katherine Morton, Chaired by IISS Senior Fellow Christian Le Mière.

The main debates which emerged focused on different methods of dispute resolution in the SCS, China’s adherence (or selective lack thereof) to international law, the influence of the US in the region, and the domestic tension in Chinese politics regarding territorial claims. Both panelists argued that China will not use military power to defend its disputed territories, but rather a blend of economic and diplomatic pressure, which should also be viewed as an exercise of power.

M. Dutton explained the preferred methods of dispute resolution for the involved states: regarding diplomacy, China prefers bilateral resolutions; “others” (presumably ASEAN members) prefer multilateral negotiations; and the Philippines has launched an arbitration case to be resolved by an international tribunal. Non-diplomatic methods were universally deemed power-based, either through armed conflict or non-militarized coercion (economic and political). M. Dutton argued that China won’t use armed conflict as a dispute resolution technique because it might clash with US interests (Taiwan and the Philippines are American allies), and because China wants to adhere to international norms in its so-called peaceful rise to power.

Dr. Morton opened by remarking that China is and will remain a conservative stakeholder of international law and that the motivation for China to become a maritime power is historical. China rejects the UNCLOS on the basis of historical entitlement, and Beijing sees international pressure for multilateral negotiation as an excuse for foreign intervention. Dr. Morton suggested that there is a “rightful” and “limited” Chinese maritime perspective: the former argues that China deserves maritime power and jurisdiction based on historical presence, and will be bullied by other major powers if it doesn’t aggressively seize maritime opportunities; and the latter posits that China should not defend its disputed territories militarily because it is in China’s interests to focus on economic opportunities instead. She concluded that China has adapted to the “ASEAN way”, and now we shall see if ASEAN will adapt to the Chinese way.

The audience in attendance was a half-full room of middle-aged men with a few middle-aged women, plus me. All the questions were taken from men in the front row; as always with these events, there is only ever time for about 3 and the rest are relegated to the dustbin.

In the end we were left with lingering questions: Will the Philippine arbitration move China to more meaningful negotiations? Is the US neutral? (Answer: No.) How will the US presence in the region influence the outcomes of these disputes? How are tensions between law and policy generally resolved, and how does that apply to the SCS?

As an IR theorist my main frustration is the continued obsession with “balancing” of state power. I would have preferred an analysis of the geography of the SCS (continental shelves, resource distribution, naval traffic), the subtle ways in which states utilize language in their diplomatic negotiations, or a challenge to the assumption that China makes territorial claims based entirely on nationalism. If you’re going to focus on states and power, at least give us a detailed overview of the naval hardware.