Twitter mob attacks LSE LGBTQ+ network and students after drag event

Published On: May 4th, 2023

On 4 May 2023, the LSE LGBTQ+ staff network Spectrum was forced to make its twitter account private, after a non-academic LSE staff member (update: now a leadership committee member of the LSE Academic Freedom Group) posted a tweet that tagged Spectrum and was followed by a transphobic twitter mob attack against them. The attack happened just months after the LSE’s withdrawal from the Stonewall LGBTQ+ rights charity.

The mob also attacked the LSE women’s network Power, a visiting guest speaker who is a trans woman and drag artist, and an LSE PhD student who hosted a panel discussion with her.

To protect the LGBTQ+ community, Spectrum’s volunteer social media manager blocked 68 accounts who were posting homophobic and transphobic abuse to Spectrum’s Twitter account for over 12 hours, and then took mental health leave. The guest speaker said it was the first time she had experienced a twitter mob attack, and had to leave social media as well to avoid abuse.

A complaint letter was sent to the LSE School Management Committee (SMC) co-signed by Spectrum and Power, which we have obtained and reproduce below, although no official reply was received. In one day, anti-trans twitter mobs simply became “within acceptable practice” of free speech on campus at the LSE.

This report and the internal LSE emails below were sent to us directly by people who received them. All screenshots were obtained via public websites.

Drag event at the LSE

The attack was in response to a staff social event called Gender’s a Drag, which took place on 15 March in the LSE Old Building. It was co-organised by both LSE Power, the women’s staff network, and LSE Spectrum, the LGBTQ+ staff network, and featured a drag performance by prominent London drag artist Velvet Caveat, followed by an academic discussion between her and a PhD student in LSE Gender Studies.

Gender's a Drag performance at the LSE

The event was attended by nearly 100 people and was a happy, successful academic social, which ended uneventfully. It was a cathartic event for LGBTQ+ people and allies at the LSE, who had been deeply disappointed two months earlier by the School’s announcement that it would disaffiliate from the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall. It moreover showed that there need not be any contradiction between women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights, despite the senior managers’ suggestions to the contrary.

Twitter attack

Trigger-Warning: Extreme transphobic tweets are displayed below.

The next day, LSE Spectrum tweeted their thanks to participants and organisers. This post was retweeted by an LSE Librarian, who uses her right to free speech to post gender critical and anti-trans material on her twitter account. Her statement that “I have nothing else to say” feigned innocence, but can be interpreted as a dog-whistle call to her followers to be outraged by the event:

Anti-trans twitter mob attacks the LSE

Her post was retweeted widely, quickly gathering hundreds of likes and thousands of views, which was followed by an outpouring of transphobic hate in Spectrum’s twitter feed:

When a user retweets, rather than taking a screenshot, it “pings” the Notification Centre of the original account, and invites others who comment to do the same. The original poster has the option to delete offensive tweets when they appear, but did not do so. Instead she “liked” many of these responses, which soon became even more extreme.

Many of the worst abuse poured directly into Spectrum’s twitter feed, with no word from the instigator of the attack:

The LSE PhD student academic panelist who wore traditional Sri Lankan clothing was attacked as well.

LSE Librarian initiates twitter mob attack

After blocking and deleting as many comments as possible, the Spectrum social media manager had to take mental health leave. The panelist Velvet Caveat, who had trusted the LSE’s invitation came with a minimal assurance of a safe space, took leave of social media as well. This was significant, since as a performance artist social media account is closely connected to her income.

trans woman attacked by LSE-instigated twitter mob

She followed this with a response to the attack, which referenced one of the questions she had received as an LSE discussion panelist and invited speaker the previous day.

The LSE Spectrum twitter account remains private to this day.

Complaint and LSE School Management Committee (SMC) Response

LSE Spectrum and LSE Power worked quickly to report this event to the School Management Committee. We have received a copy of their letter from a committee member, which included the following.

This internal LSE email was forwarded to us by an original recipient.

From: Spectrum
To: LSE Directorate
Sent: 06 May 2023
Subject: report on a transphobic incident at the LSE

To the LSE School Management Committee,

On Thursday, 4 May 2023, an assistant librarian at the LSE instigated a Twitter mob attack against the LSE staff networks Spectrum and Power, a PhD student in the Gender Studies department, and an LSE guest speaker who is a trans woman. The online attack was in direct response to an LSE staff network event on 3 May, co-organised by Spectrum and Power, entitled “Gender’s a Drag”, which was a peaceful and successful. As a result:

  • Staff networks Spectrum and Power were targets of a barrage of transphobic bigotry.
  • An LSE student was made the target of racist and transphobic attacks.
  • An invited LSE speaker and trans woman leS social media due to extensive online abuse.
  • A Spectrum volunteer managing our social media had to take mental health leave.

We are asking the SMC for urgent action to protect the LSE community, including:

  • Release a statement reassuring the community that the LSE supports trans-inclusive events and its LGBTQ+ and women’s networks, and is firmly against employees of the LSE creating online spaces for transphobic and racist bullying of LSE people.
  • Take action against employees who encourage online harassment towards LSE staff and students.
  • Take action to prevent the recurrence of an environment in which gender critical activists at the LSE feel entitled to encourage bullying of women and LGBTQ+ people here.

We have included a more detailed account of the incident in the attached Appendix. Thank you for your attention.

Sincerely,

Spectrum Committee Members [Names Redacted]

Power Committee Members [Names Redacted]

No reply was ever sent from senior managers to these committee members. Only one committee member received a personal reply, nearly a month later, which we have obtained thanks to a Freedom of Information Act Request:

From: Stafford,C
Sent: 06 June 2023 08:55
Subject: RE: signatures by Power and Spectrum

Dear ABCDEFGHI,

Thank for you for the follow up to your original message about this incident, which I fully appreciate has been upsetting for you and other colleagues. Please also accept my apologies for the additional delaying in replying. As discussed when we met in person, however, I strongly prefer that we have an open dialogue about these complex matters rather than sending emails back and forth. Your original message was read and discussed by members of SMC, but we do not think that ongoing email exchanges with the various networks and groups in the School is a very productive way of proceeding. You and I spoke about how more substantive discussions between different parties might be organised and as you know I am personally very keen for this to happen. Let’s work together to figure out how best to organise it – I’ll email separately and we book a time. Please be assured that all of the School Management Committee remain fully committed to supporting everyone at LSE, which must and does include all LGBTQ+ staff and students. If any colleagues feel that they need support – e.g., from wellbeing teams or our colleagues in Communications Division regarding social media – please do access the relevant assistance and/or guidance. If you need my help in facilitating support, please let me know.

All the best
Charles

No disciplinary action or reassurance was ever offered following this event, which left deep scars in the LSE LGBTQ+ community.

We received a report that the head of the LSE Communications division media team emailed the women’s network POWER to ask if they are ok, and to report if any media approached them. But, they did not email Spectrum, who was the main target of the attack. Members of the SMC were later reported to explain to students and staff in an LGBTQ+ Action Plan meeting that the incident doesn’t qualify as harassment, and because they are not responsible for what happens on Twitter, although LSE harassment policy does include social media within its scope.

Following the LSE withdrawal from Stonewall, there was no external accountability structure in place through which to evaluate this incident.