Music academy professor who was ‘sacked for comments on drag queen femininity’ takes legal action
A lecturer at a major music academy has said she was forced out of her job after suggesting that flirting could be seen as sexist.
Cathy Boardman, a lecturer in cultural studies, had asked her class to reflect on the “woman’s face” – a critical term for female impersonation – and whether or not it was demeaning.
But bosses of the BIMM Institute, which has outposts across the country and links to the University of Sussex, told him it was a “deeply sensitive” subject and that students transgender people had been upset.
Ms Boardman was later removed from her post. The lecturer, who is now suing for wrongful dismissal, said she had already been warned by the college principal that a small group of students had “went out looking for her”.
“I could lose it all,” she told the Mail on Sunday. “I’ve been in precarious work all my life, but this salaried job has given me hope that I can get a mortgage and provide a better future for my boys.”
Ms Boardman claims she faces discrimination on the basis of her sex and her ‘gender-critical’ belief that sex at birth is unchangeable.
Cathy Boardman says she was forced to quit her job as a lecturer after encouraging students to discuss whether womanface (a pejorative term for female impersonation) was demeaning
She is one of a growing number of scholars and professionals to be attacked for challenging – or appearing to challenge – transgender orthodoxy.
Last year, philosophy professor and feminist Kathleen Stock was effectively forced out of her job at the University of Sussex after saying people could not change their biological sex.
Professor Stock wrote movingly in The Mail on Sunday after being the target of protests and graffiti after some students launched a campaign.
Tax expert Maya Forstater lost her job at a global development think tank for expressing a similar view, while lawyer Allison Bailey said she was called ‘transphobic’ by her colleagues because she believed that a person’s biological sex could not be changed.
Ms Boardman said: ‘Essentially I was fired for doing my job. We are meant to look at things from different angles. If we don’t, what is the use of the university? Educational institutions – and it’s not just BIMM – are doing students a disservice by claiming they are not capable of critical thinking or being challenged. The sad reality is that there is now a climate of fear on our campuses.
She fears the legal dispute could mark the bitter end of a five-year career. She started teaching cultural studies at BIMM as a freelancer in 2017 after earning a degree in social anthropology.
The college, which offers degrees in music and event management, is located in Manchester.
She said that for the most part she was respected by her colleagues and had a good relationship with students, describing her role as a teacher of cultural ideas as a “dream job”. Yet in November 2020, she found herself the subject of student complaints after giving a Zoom talk on the subject of sex, sexuality and gender.
Ms Boardman says she sought to start a debate by showing a stock image of a white performer appearing in “blackface” alongside a photo of a contemporary drag queen, along with the caption: “What what about womanface?
She wanted students to consider whether a parody of women could be considered offensive and criticized, the same way a parody of black people can be criticized.
It was a whole year later, she said, before she was told complaints had been received from students and a member of staff.
“I wasn’t suggesting that drag and blackface are the same — because they’re not,” she said.
“Blackface has always been racist. Drag is a grotesque caricature of femininity, but it began as a liberating form of entertainment for gay people ostracized for their effeminateness. I was just trying to draw parallels with members of more powerful groups in society parodying members of other groups for entertainment.
“I wasn’t pushing an agenda – I just thought it was a really interesting thing to think about.”
Ms Boardman fell into further difficulties in March 2021 after another conference on sex and gender. She says she decided to focus on the abuse of women because her presentation fell the same week as the vigil for Sarah Everard, who had been raped and murdered by a Metropolitan Police officer.
But it led to accusations of ‘transphobia’ from a small number of the 400 students she spoke to because her hour-long lecture failed to mention transgender people – an omission they found hurtful. . “When a student asked me why we didn’t talk about transgender issues, I said we didn’t have time to do him justice,” Ms Boardman said.
She then invited the student to focus on trans issues in her essay. A third incident took place in the staff room in November 2021. Ms Boardman said: ‘Someone asked me if I had seen [American drag queen] RuPaul.
“Then there was talk of us all going to a drag show and they asked if I was going. I was like, ‘Oh my god, no – I don’t want to see a drag show. I hate drag!” A lot of the humor associated with drag is being pissed off and offensive, which is fine – but I find it sexist.
“No one at the time commented on what I said. However, a month later a colleague complained.
Ms Boardman had been employed as a cultural lecturer at the Brighton Institute of Modern Music (BIMM), which has outposts across the country and links to the University of Sussex.
Ms Boardman said she was summoned in December to meet the director to discuss what was seen as his ‘trans-exclusive’ views. It was during this meeting that she says the principal told her that some students were “looking for her.”
Ms Boardman said she was told she had been in ‘bad academic practice’ for presenting a ‘provocative’ idea to students at a lecture without notice, or giving them the opportunity to discuss the matter beforehand.
She was later told that she failed to follow institute policy in a student welfare matter – a complaint she considers unwarranted. At the end of the session, she feared for her job and her safety.
“I didn’t know to what extent that meant students were looking for you,” Ms Boardman said. “So I was terrified the whole Christmas holidays. But no one inquired about my well-being.
She said things came to a head when the same group of students who attended her lecture on sex, sexuality and gender used an evaluation survey to critique her teaching.
“They even said I was homophobic – even though I’m a lesbian.”
In May this year, she was invited to another meeting with her superiors at which they informed her that she had “failed” to complete her probationary period as assistant course leader. A later letter said she had failed to meet the professional standards of her role due to her “inappropriate” expression of opinions, among other points.
Following the decision to fire her, she was told there was no need to return to work to complete her notice and discovered that she had been blocked from her email account. She tried to appeal her dismissal, but in June she was told the original decision to let her go had been upheld. “I’m afraid I won’t find another teaching job now,” she said. “Yet they did this to me in the name of inclusion.”
A college spokesperson said: ‘BIMM fully supports and defends freedom of expression, academic freedom and equality, and has rigorous policies in place to ensure that staff and students are treated fairly and in full compliance with these principles. It would not be appropriate for us to comment on the details of this case at this stage, given the ongoing litigation, except to say that the allegations of discrimination are strongly denied.
He said important facts surrounding Ms Boardman’s unsuccessful probation period were missing from his account.
Ms Boardman is raising money for her campaign here.