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Trans studies in Asia endangered by university axe

Teaching, research and community engagement likely to end due to transphobia at university, academic alleges
Dr Sam Winter, professor of transgender studies at Hong Kong University

The University of Hong Kong has denied an extension to the work of an acclaimed academic in transgender studies.

Dr Sam Winter applied for an extension to his tenure which came to an end at the age of 60, but a university committee voted against him. He says the axing of his position, which includes key roles in support groups for trans people in Hong Kong and Asia, was an act of transphobia.

‘My head of division, which is the Division of Learning, Development and Diversity, made it very clear that this kind of diversity had no place in her division,’ Dr Winter told Gay Star News. ‘This lady is a staunchly conservative Catholic. I don't need to draw you a diagram. My teaching celebrates sexual and gender diversity, it would hardly be endorsed by The Vatican.’

A University of Hong Kong (HKU) spokesperson said that the decision not to extend his contract beyond retirement age was ‘completely unrelated to Dr Sam Winter’s areas of teaching and research’ and an ‘extension of appointment is not a right’.

The spokesperson pointed to the criteria for extension in the HKU Staff Handbook. It says that the ‘over-riding consideration behind whether or not an extension should be offered is whether it is in the University’s best interests to retain the appointee’s services’.

Dr Winter is skeptical about whether the decision was made with the University’s best interests as the over-riding consideration. He points to the fact that many other member of staff work past the age of 60, including the Vice Chancellor and other associate professors like him. He also points to his 'excellent' rating in his annual performance review for teaching, research and community engagement.

Dr Winter said the committee responsible for the decision not to extend his contract dealt a ‘heavy blow’ to trans studies. ‘None of this would really matter if there were other people working in this field but I'm the only one,’ he said. ‘There aren't actually many people working in sexuality in Asia. There's is a possibility I might have to go abroad where these sorts of studies are more valued.’

After an unsuccessful appeal to the Vice Chancellor and a petition on Change.org, Dr Winter says he’s ‘not hopeful’.

‘I think the best that I'm going to get out of it is that they keep me on for a couple of days a week teaching, but that's going to be a real problem for me. Sixty is the new 40 and I haven't reached the peak of my professional productivity yet. I want to be fully employed. I’ve got to figure out some way to continue the work that I do because I'm more determined than ever to continue this work.

'Trans people have a very tough time in Asia. HIV prevalence rates in transgender samples reach 40 or 50%. And I think in the last three or is it four years there have been 86 murders of trans people in Asia that we know about - and there will be plenty that we don't know about. Police violence is a big problem. It's not just that they experience a lot of harassment and violence, but very often the people who are supposed to be protecting the weakest in society are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.’

HKU confirm that they might be able to offer Dr Winter a part-time position in the coming weeks. The spokesperson said: ‘We greatly appreciate the work of Dr Winter and his contributions made in transgender studies. Our recognition of the importance of his areas of teaching and research is shown by the efforts we are making to ensure that these courses are taught, and taught by Dr Winter, in the coming years, so that future cohorts of our undergraduates can benefit from his expertise.’

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