There’s a duplicitous game of sleight-of-hand that is taking place in discussions about freedom of speech in academia and the public square.
Here’s how it works: at first, a person fishes for controversy by saying several things that they know will offend people. If this garners enough attention, then the process recurs organically — say, whenever a politician wants to reference the controversy as a coded dog whistle to their base, or when a teaching assistant replays a recording in class because she thinks the discussion is interesting and challenging.
And the moment the people targeted by that discussion get angry and protest, they’re described not as being upset about the content of what is being said, but rather their protest is reframed as opposing freedom of speech itself. Whether you see that as accidental or deliberate probably depends on how cynical you are about the whole issue. Continue reading Free Speech, When The “Debate” is You (and You’re Not Invited)
Although I’ll be remarking on the passing of Bill C-16 elsewhere, I wanted to post Bill Siksay’s closing speech from February 7, 2011, back when the bill was in its third incarnation (of five), Bill C-389. To me, it’s a profound moment to look back on, and realize just how far we’ve come.
It took 12 years to pass this bill. For the first six, it was completely ignored, as was the trans* rights movement. Shortly after this speech, the bill did pass at Third Reading, and the effort finally was taken seriously… but was then very hard fought. This speech was the moment (if there was any single one) that things changed.
I hope that Mr. Siksay’s efforts are remembered now. Trans* people have usually been told to wait their turn, that legislation is incremental, that we should work for gay rights, and then the LGBTQ movement would come back for us. This was a rare exception in which someone actually did come back. Continue reading Trans* Human Rights Bill C-16: A Look Back
A little over a week ago, a University of Guelph student union drew international ire for condemning Lou Reed’s 1972 song “Walk on the Wild Side” as transphobic. This occurred after the Central Student Association apologized on social media for playing the song at a campus event. Although this might seem like a minor thing to get upset about (especially in the outrage-saturated age of Donald Trump), and most of the reaction has focused on the historic roots and intent of the song, the controversy is actually a noteworthy reflection of the changes that take place as a social movement — in this case, trans* activism — matures.
This brings to the surface a lot of mixed feelings for me, as a former activist who chose to be visible and vocal at a time before trans* people were taken seriously, let alone had much in the way of public acceptance. “Walk on the Wild Side” was an inclusive part of the subculture; one of the rebellious anthems we rallied around and took pride in.
It shows how profoundly things can change as a marginalized class of people becomes better understood and more enfranchised: even those things that had once been welcome and validating can become sour and invalidating. It also says much about how social movements evolve, and how each generation inevitably repudiates the last, as they seek to distinguish themselves.
It’s a process I came face-to-face with several years ago, while trying to form a trans-specific support organization in Alberta. One of the town hall participants took me aside and tried to impress upon me that in order for the trans* movement to advance, the “dinosaurs” (which included me, apparently) needed to “make way for the new age.” As hurtful as the discussion was, they did have some points that resonated in the years that followed, and ultimately contributed to my decision from withdrawing from trans* activism and (mostly) from writing about trans* issues. Some of the concerns they raised were painfully pragmatic (i.e. needing to have leaders who didn’t bring with them the baggage of bitterness and ill will of having fought the lesbian and gay establishment for inclusion in LGBTQ activism), some insulting (i.e. suggesting that one had to be younger, academic and/or trans-male in order to be an acceptable “face” of trans* activism), but other arguments were the byproduct of recognizing the changing language we use to communicate trans-ness… and the tide of acceptance that was coming with it.
After all, the activism I was accustomed to was a kind of triage, of coping with and trying to educate traditionally hostile medical, governmental and social institutions, while directing people in need to safe, welcoming inroads and pushing those institutions behind the scene to provide better options and opportunities. I’ve often likened the experience to dashing ourselves against the rocks in the hopes of blunting them enough for the next people to come along. But the activism that was quickly becoming needed was more direct — lobbying, legal challenges, public actions — and although I started making some of those changes in what I was doing, there was a danger that by trying to be an intrinsic part of that activism, I might inadvertently hold it back by defaulting to the triage-style efforts I’d been accustomed to. In the end, I realized there was some important truth to this.
My point, of course, is that along with awareness about trans* people, the movement toward trans* human rights is undergoing a generational metamorphosis.
I raise this as a point of language because before a movement can fully coalesce, the language it uses to communicate itself needs to be rethought. Until trans* people had a language to communicate their own experiences, they had to cope — often with a lot of frustration and awkwardness — with the language that was imposed upon them. In my lifetime, trans* women and trans-feminine persons were conflated with gay men (particularly effeminate ones); trans* men and trans-masculine persons were conflated with lesbians (particularly “butch” dykes); trans* people were defined and categorized by medical practitioners who constructed stigmatizing models of mental illness to explain them; pornography and second-wave feminists alike defined trans* women as “she-males” (usually with the implication that ‘she’s really male’); social conservatives wielded terms like “crossdresser” and “transvestite” to reduce peoples’ entire experience to a clothing fetish… and even those terms were imperfect and evolved unexpectedly. For example, in the 1990s, a lot of trans* women actually did refer to themselves as “crossdressers” and used that as a label to rally under — it was the limitation of the language people had available to them at the time.
It wasn’t until trans* people were able to assert their right to define themselves and determine for themselves what their words meant that the old stigmas could be shed and better-fitting terms and their definitions could be settled upon. Some of that is still taking place, and it may seem strange at times — but it is a necessary process (I, for one, welcome and embrace it — as long as no one tries to redefine my own self and experiences, in the process). Even now, there are still disagreements about using words like “transgender” as umbrella terms (which I why I personally prefer “trans*” — it provides a much more open-ended acknowledgement of the diverse range of experiences being discussed).
But some of the earlier problematic use of language still remains in the things that were written about us — both by cis* (non-trans*) people, and by we trans* “dinosaurs.”
I won’t go into too much depth about the particulars of the song “Walk on the Wild Side,” since a lot of that is public record. Reed wrote the song as an intended tribute to some of the trans* folks he knew as a part of Andy Warhol’s clique at The Factory, particularly Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling. It’s also probably historically relevant that Reed had a lengthy and enigmatic relationship with a trans* woman (who has unfortunately faded into obscurity), which had a profound effect on him.This doesn’t change the fact, of course, that the song has some lyrics that now tread into potentially misgendering and transphobic tropes (“… Plucked her eyebrows on the way / shaved her legs and then he was a she….”) The content hasn’t changed — but the context given those lyrics certainly has. And even if there is a consensus right now it that the University of Guelph Central Student Association is on the wrong side of the issue referring to the song as transphobic, the evolution of trans* activism and the lesson of histories of other social movements tell me that the student union’s statement is more in line with where that activism is headed.
This is true of a great many things that used to be a part of what used to be the trans* subculture. Some of the things that we consider offensive now were embraceable or rallying anthems even ten or fifteen years ago, if only by the virtue that trans* people were so stigmatized and made to hide that anything that acknowledged our existence in even a mildly sympathetic way felt like progress.
Today, the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar is likely to bring up heated discussions about the differences between drag queens and trans* women — if not angry division about whether drag is a kind of trans* “blackface.” In 1995, it was a celebration of a culture that was often one of the few safe-havens and opportunities to come out of the closet that trans* women had (although how welcoming the drag community was varied by region), even if it meant being willing to be a bit of a self-caricature.
In 1987, Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like A Lady)” was sometimes taken as an affirmation, despite its misgendering — and in a twisted way, this may even have been in part due to the uncomfortably sexualized form of acceptance implied in the repeated refrain to “do me.”
In 1992, it was hard to know how to feel about the treatment of the character of Dil in The Crying Game, given Jody’s obvious love for her and the well-developed and nuanced relationship that she forms with Fergus… yet that is starkly contrasted with the jarring pivot of the movie, which has the latter vomiting upon the discovery of her trans* status. Today, the movie is seen as the progenitor of the “vomit shot,” a recurring trope in an enormous amount of offensive material that portrays sex with trans* women as sickening.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch had a cult following that still largely adheres to the play and film, despite the fact that both [spoiler alert if it’s needed] end with the protagonist’s detransition — though to be fair, Hedwig has a second trans* character who doesn’t, so the decision is fairly painted as an individual one, rather than a morality tale that should apply to everybody.
Probably most notoriously, The Rocky Horror Picture Show periodically inflames division for centering around a character who was recently described as a “cannibalistic-murderer-mad-scientist obsessed with constructing the perfect Adonis to submit to Frank’s erotic pleasures,” while the original film (and theatre participation that went with it) is also paradoxically fondly remembered as peoples’ first opportunity to present themselves in public as their identified gender, and for its affirming themes like “Don’t Dream It, Be It.” Of all historic trans-related media, RHPS probably has the most chequered baggage, and isn’t helped any by being written by someone who somehow found a way to be both gender diverse and transphobic simultaneously. In 2017, RHPS might be slightly rehabilitated by its campy intent and a remake starring Laverne Cox (which sadly makes it one of the few films about trans* people that the media industry saw fit to cast an actual trans* woman in), but I suspect that the future will not be as kind.
We’re even seeing this in the Twin Peaks reboot:
“When Denise first appeared on the ABC series in 1990, she was a trailblazer. Then (and today), trans people were practically nonexistent on network television. So to see a trans character like Denise who was smart, capable, and more than one-dimensional was a breakthrough moment for representation.
“… Jenny Boylan, a trans activist and cochair of the GLAAD board of directors, posted on social media that the scene “made me squirm.”
“25 years later the David Duchovny trans character in #twinpeaks ep 4 lands really differently, made me squirm. I’m not your dancing dwarf,” Boylan posted on Twitter…”
In Canada, we tend to value freedom of speech very highly, and it’s often said that the best way to counter objectionable speech is with more speech.
That’s the first thought that crosses my mind in the case of U of T professor Jordan Peterson, who declares in a series of YouTube videos that he will not honour trans* peoples’ chosen pronouns, and opposes trans* human rights protections, all in the name of combating “political correctness.”
Of course, that would be an ideal world. In the real world, it’s still not that unusual for discussion of trans* issues to devolve into a “balanced” debate between pro- and anti-trans* academics over whether they exist at all, without any annoying context like actual trans* people being present to discuss their lived experience of, well, existing. In the real world, there are real problems about who gets to speak, and how widely they can be heard… and the marginalized are often not given much voice to matters that affect — and are specifically about — them. In fact, the established and prolific voices in today’s media are more often quick to reject attempts to “inflict” change, or energetically create a lopsided portrait.
Speech is not a truly universal and equitable thing in the first place. Rather, it is something that is dependent upon access to favourable platforms, and is usually pre-emptively muddied by characteristic value judgments made about the speaker’s class, gender, race, etc.
Nevertheless, we strive for it as best we can. And in doing so, we arrive at the next irony: the very act of protesting ignorance with speech becomes itself heralded as evidence of censorship — as if the only way one’s speech can be truly free is for everyone else to remain silent.
The outcry and protest of ignorance [edit: example removed, was based on bad information – M] is speech, too — that of the protestors. But in a disparate society, privileged speech is defended, while protest of it is often minimized, marginalized and dismissed as rowdiness, whinging, totalitarianism (!), censorship, and noise. It becomes: “a little free speech for me, and a little shut-up-and-take-it for you.”
But let me back up for a moment.
Jordan Peterson is a University of Toronto (UofT) psychology professor who began his rants — especially about, but not limited to, trans* people and a “radical leftist ideology” — in late September, saying from the beginning that he felt he could face consequences, and even feared government or university reprisal because of existing human rights and hate speech laws. He told Postmedia:
“I think (Bill C-16) risks criminalizing discussion about aspects of human sexual behaviour and identity that we need to discuss,” said Peterson, explaining that there are layers to C-16 — the biology of sex, gender identity and gender expression, for example — that could cause problems down the road.
One of his top stated concerns has been with the inclusion of trans* people in existing hate crimes legislation. The thing that people forget about this when it pertains to speech, though, is that the law has already been tested and shown to apply only exceedingly sparingly. If Bill Whatcott’s homemade but mass-distributed “anal warts” flyers equating LGBTQ people with pedophiles, and lyrical invitations to “kill the homosexual” skirt the edges of hate speech — some permissible and some not — then Peterson probably has nothing to worry about. Speech can indeed be hateful, and yet still not be legally actionable as hate speech.
But given that he seems only (or at least primarily) worried about human rights and hate crimes legislation when it pertains to LGBTQ people, one has to wonder if the concerns are cover for fears about the growing acceptance of trans* people in society. He stated from the beginning that he will not use non-binary pronouns for other people, even if they request that. He also said in his first video that he is “scared by the people behind the doctrines,” and attributes them to a radical Marxist ideology (reminiscent of the “cultural Marxism” panic making the rounds among social conservatives). He even compares the latter to Naziism, because of what he considers “murderous” and “Marxist” policies around the world.
Peterson frames his views in an academic and perhaps libertarian perspective, rather than a religious perspective, but he has been enjoying the support of religious conservatives. This is probably because his views are quite compatible with the right-wing narrative that accepting and acknowledging trans* people as they need to live is (as enunciated regularly at LSN) a “disservice” and “false compassion because it’s not true.”
Peterson’s remedy to all of this dreaded political correctness — and what he calls upon listeners to help him with — is to propagate a “No PC” sticker campaign across the campus, and beyond.
The response to his videos has been mixed, with fierce supporters and opponents. It has reportedly spawned threats, and affected some students’ class attendance. In recent days, personal information about trans* students was circulated in far right subreddits, and protesters were nearly overwhelmed by an angry mob that allegedly included neo-Nazis. This puts the University of Toronto in a quandary, as calls for reprisal — including possibly firing Peterson — have arisen.
From my perspective, reprisals like firing are not really a preferable end goal. We do value freedom of speech in Canada, after all — especially in academic settings — so there is that kernel of validity, even if Peterson’s speech is disrespectful or hateful. He’s entitled to his opinion, and also to be a jerk about it, on his own time. Restrictions on freedom of speech are too often used to oppress minorities rather than people of privilege, anyway — much like the “homosexual propaganda” ban in Russia, which conservatives are still trying to figure out how to lobby for in North America. It’s that extra step that Peterson wants to take it with students and colleagues which makes the question particularly difficult.
When I say this, though, it’s also partly because I’m an avid reader of social conservative media, and understand the undercurrent of persecution narrative activism. It’s why I can recognize what likely motivates someone who — without anyone ever asking him to respect trans* people in the first place — took it upon himself to loudly and energetically pursue free speech martyrdom anyway.
And personally, I see no value in giving it to him. Peterson’s actions — whether deliberately or by coincidence — are destined to place him in a growing collection of social conservatives who self-immolate for a few moments of anti-LGBTQ fame. It’s become trendy to seek a place on the Kim Davis speaking circuit, alongside Fundie cake bakers, and the twice-suspended Alabama Chief Justice who tried to singlehandedly overturn marriage equality in the United States. Free speech martyrdom is also Ezra Levant’s entire schtick (which he’s still trying to parlay into a media network), so it also has just as valid and active a presence in Canada outside of overtly religious circles. Whining that someone’s “special right” to dignity and equality is trampling your perfectly ordinary right to discriminate seems to make you a far right folk hero, these days. One of the end objectives of this, of course, is to insert a special religious exemption in human rights laws, so that people can practice their faith by refusing to sell to, hire, or otherwise co-exist with heathens (I might have got the precise wording wrong on this, because I don’t remember the particular scripture where Jesus commanded his followers to willfully disrespect and refuse to do business with sinners — I keep getting hung up on the “love one another” and “give unto Caesar” parts, for some reason).
Anyway, free speech martyrdom will allow Peterson to play hero… or at least until some other dupe comes along. After all, the whole value of the Kim Davises and Melissa Kleins to conservative activists only lasts as long as they’re useful to the two legal groups (Alliance Defending Freedom and Liberty Counsel) trying to etch anti-LGBTQ discrimination into American law, plus the allied think tanks, religious organizations and media outlets that are parasitically fundraising off both their successes and their failures. The Kleins, for example, recently closed their bakery, ruined because they thought that refusing to do business with a lesbian couple was a noble idea — and now they’re almost forgotten, except by the vaguely-phrased legend of the cake bakers. In that circuit, the fate of someone like Jordan Peterson is irrelevant. The point of beatifying the speech martyrs is to entice more dupes into creating more situations that help build a narrative which frames LGBTQ peoples’ rights to live, work and do business as automatically and inherently persecuting to people of faith… something that Peterson’s firing would fit into just as beautifully as any technical victory he might (though it’s a longshot) find some way to score.
Either way, giving Peterson the glory he seems to seek really only feeds an ongoing anti-LGBTQ political tactic — even if deceptive — and gives it power.
Yet, there does have to be some form of limit. There’s no denying the destructive effect of cumulative aggressions and microaggressions. It’s one thing to be told by someone that they think you’re deluded and that they refuse to respect you. It’s quite another to be told that in billionuplicate, at every turn, by several people you don’t know (and even worse: some you do), without you ever having done anything to warrant the hostility. If you pay attention to news related to trans* people, you know that stories of suicides due to bullying and harassment arrive on a weekly basis… and that’s only the reported instances.
Because as valid as the need to protect free speech is, it is also very often weaponized, and used to gaslight entire communities that just want to be able to participate in society and be accorded the same dignity and respect as anyone else. It’s used to minimize them, tell them they ask too much, and shame them into going away — back into their closets would be just fine, for example. Remember what I said about free speech in the real world being often a one-sided or lopsided thing.
But where to draw the line on hateful speech is almost impossible to determine. It’s easy to limit speech in cases of libel and direct harassment or incitement. Cumulative hatefulness, though, is difficult to realistically pin on an individual, especially given that an individual doesn’t always intend the hostile fallout generated by their supporters or the like-minded. I don’t know that it can be done legislatively, except in extreme and / or intended instances.
What has to happen is a mass awakening, and a mass rejection of ignorance — and unfortunately, the pace of that kind of change is glacial. Of course, mass backlash will still be framed as persecution and censorship, but it will be better recognized widely as a reasoned response to bigotry. And that takes time and awareness… and continual revisitation.
And if there is no clear legislative solution, then there’s not a lot of guidance outside the court system, either. So I understand the position this puts the University of Toronto (and potentially the Ontario Human Rights Commission, if it came to that) in… particularly with the issue of pronouns.
The thing to keep in mind about pronouns is that deliberately misgendering someone is itself an act of hostility — an act of asserting that you know better than someone else who they are, what they need and what their life experiences mean. It’s putting your inconvenience of having to adapt ahead of the reality of their entire lives. It’s not just about invalidating one’s choice of pronoun — it’s about claiming the right to authoritatively invalidate everything that they know about themself(/ves)*.
[* And if you paused for less than five seconds to look at that, understood it — however awkward that pronoun might have looked — shrugged and moved on, then congratulations: you’re far better able to cope with gender neutral and / or singular “they” pronouns than a UofT prof!]
Allowing Peterson to speak his opinions about “gender ideology” is one thing. Having him publicly vow to deliberately antagonize and disrespect students and other faculty members is quite another. And as the increasing tensions and threats over the course of his campaign have shown, sustained, hateful free speech can have serious consequences.
So what is to be done? The best scenario would be if Peterson would recognize where he has stepped beyond speech into deliberate antagonism and borderline incitement, maybe apologize, or at least leave things be, but that’s obviously not going to happen. Probably, the only result that both he and trans* advocates and supporters will be satisfied with is some form of free speech martyrdom, in the form of firing or some lesser kind of censure.
And this will inevitably once more feed the conservative persecution complex, and the dreams of a Trump-like saviour to free them — in the words of the inimitable Samantha Bee — “from that prison, and the cruel shackles of empathy and mutual respect.”
(Crossposted to rabble.ca)
In addition to reducing the required wait time between having sex and donating blood to one year for gay men, Canadian Blood Services is poised to release its first-ever guidance on how CBS personnel should respond to potential trans* donors: if it’s in you to give, then drop your pants. While the policy has not yet been released officially, it was leaked to Buzzfeed, and is being corroborated by the health organization’s representatives on Twitter.
Oh, you don’t have to literally drop your pants. Canadian Blood Services doesn’t actually want to see your junk — they just want to know what’s there. Because that’s not invasive at all.
That is, I assume that no one is checking your junk. But it depends on whether voluntary information is sought by CBS, or some other proof. Identification doesn’t help verify genital status, because most provinces allow ID changes prior to surgery. Requiring surgery proved to be discriminatory, prohibitive and created significant hardships for lengthy stretches of trans* peoples’ lives, if not indefinitely. [There is an interesting historical fact about that: surgery-based ID policies followed a precedent set by Sweden, where lawmakers in the early 1970s deliberately chose that benchmark, because it would ensure that sterilization occurred.]
The reasoning to the new CBS policy is that if your partner is male and you’re a pre- or non-operative trans* woman, post-operative trans* man, or a not-medically-inclined-at-all gender diverse person who has a penis, then CBS considers you to be a man who has sex with men (MSM). Besides seeming very reminiscent of ultra-conservative judgments about what constitutes a “real” woman or man, it also makes presumptions about one’s partners — i.e. insisting that a straight male who dates a trans* women is actually gay — and other judgments that are potentially shaming in nature.
It does raise some questions, though. For example, why would it take a year following genital surgery to become safe enough for trans* women with male partners to donate blood (by contrast, genital surgery would be immediately disqualifying for trans* men with male partners)? And if a potential trans* donor has slept with trans* partners, does the surgical status of everyone need to be disclosed?
The change follows a similar policy enacted for gay men in the U.S. last year, although that policy honoured trans* peoples’ own self-identification and considered their self-disclosed sexual history, rather than demanding intimate medical information.
Incredibly enough, this is actually an improvement over the previous situation with Canadian Blood Services, in which the ability to donate blood was mostly dependent on the subjective decision of clinic staff, and often saw trans* people of either and / or neither gender automatically classified as “MSM” — and sometimes, the sex of their partner(s) or whether they’d been sexually active at all were considered altogether irrelevant details.
Probably nothing better illustrates just how arbitrary and regressive abstinence-before-donating policies and adherence to narrow-sighted MSM classification are. The change is also very poorly-timed, following the shocking massacre at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which saw the community hardest hit by the violence — predominantly Latinx LGBT people — unable to donate blood to help their loved ones and siblings-in-spirit (despite some misinformation circulating at the time).
Now, to be entirely fair to the Canadian health agency, this mode of thought didn’t originate with Canadian Blood Services.
For example, “Men who have Sex with Men (MSM)” terminology originated with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other early public health organizations. It was ironically intended to be more inclusive than only focusing on gay men, but had the (theoretically unintended) result of invalidating trans* peoples’ gender identification. For the longest time, though, international health NGOs resisted acknowledging the existence of trans* people, and stubbornly insisted the classification was adequate… which only reinforced the impression that the invalidation was deliberate.
In fact, “MSM” language, thinking and subsequent HIV activism and education (aside from whatever mitigation occurred at the grassroots level) has a history of alienating trans* people, and confounding safe sex initiatives, outreach and data-gathering among trans* populations — a tragic situation for a community in which infection rates remain significantly high. Even LGB(t) organizations perpetuated the problem, although this gradually improved around the start of this decade. [I first wrote about this (albeit with imperfect terminology, too) back in 2010, after being excoriated by an LGB(t) organization representative collecting data, who launched into a tirade saying that by declining to push a horribly-phrased survey on trans* people, I’d be “‘guilty of the murder of’ every transsexual woman who perished from HIV who might have benefited from the study.” Yes, things have not always been amiable.]
Canadian Blood Services came into being specifically because of the scandal raised in the 1980s and 1990s resulting from screening failures of NGOs like the Red Cross during the AIDS crisis. Its policies are directed by Health Canada.
Being fair to CBS also requires one to acknowledge a few further facts:
- There is a short window of time (roughly a couple of weeks in most cases, but sometimes up to a few months) in which HIV still evades detection, and
- Penile-anal intercourse (PAI) remains a high-risk mode of transmission.
Of these, penile-anal intercourse — the premise on which the “MSM” policy is premised — notably also occurs with some frequency among heterosexual partners, while not all gay men engage in it. On the other hand, targeting specific communities instead of activities has created an inherent bias, and allows homophobic and transphobic organizations and figureheads to perpetuate stigma.
The number of sexual partners one has had in the previous year is also a crucial factor, which “MSM” screening on its own fails to account for.
Before forming government, the Liberal Party had petitioned to end the blood donor deferral policy altogether. When the one-year deferral policy for men was released, Health Minister Jane Philpott was quoted as saying:
“The desire is to be able to have those deferrals based on behaviour as opposed to sexual orientation.”
This statement, of course, is the right direction.
The new practice, on the other hand, is destined to be an embarrassing anachronism.
As incremental as it may be, the policy that has been issued for (non-trans*) gay men fails, exactly because it continues to fixate on who is donating, rather than what their specific sexual history and risk factors are. And when the attempt is made to extend that same policy to trans* people, its shaky logic disintegrates altogether.
(Crossposted to rabble.ca)
Everyone’s familiar with the old adage, “be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.”
Which is why the Evangelical leaders who held a press conference on Parliament Hill calling for greater religious freedom laws and schmoozing with Conservative politicians last month might do well to remember Indiana.
“Unfortunately, Christians in this country find themselves under attack. This is a violation, and we are calling on the Canadian government to stop this type of violation across this country…” — Charles McVety
Because almost to the day that the collection of Canadian religious leaders held a press conference at Parliament Hill, Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed a piece of legislation that was exactly the kind of thing they meant. And it went over like plutonium-based paint.
For anyone who missed the ruckus it caused, the State of Indiana proposed a “religious freedom” law that was very similar to those existing in other U.S. states and federally — except that by the omission of a small phrase, it essentially made it illegal for any government body to intervene in cases of discrimination, provided said discrimination was motivated by a person’s religious freedom of conscience. Put simply, it would legally sanction religiously-motivated discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* (LGBT) people (and for that matter, just about anyone else), while making it illegal for any government body to intervene. And the State of Indiana did so because of an outcry from religious groups struggling against marriage equality (with no shortage of drama) claiming that legally protecting LGBT people from discrimination is tyranny:
“This is tyranny, and it has not come to the United States from an invading nation with tanks and rockets. It has come wrapped in a hijacked-rainbow flag, under the banner of “diversity” and “nondiscrimination.” At this point, only the most uninformed and deceived among us cannot see that the radical homosexual movement—a movement based purely on lies and sin—has at its heart the wicked goal of tyranny over Christian freedom, expression and conscience. Don’t doubt it. While this particular case does not necessarily involve a Christian employer, ultimately Christians and Christianity are the true targets of this hell-born movement. But, these activists will gladly target anyone who resists their dark agenda, as this company, Tower Loan, is sadly discovering.
“The culture in our nation today is steeped in immorality and moral relativism to the point that far too many people have no perception of the grotesque reality of homosexual behavior and how the activists and their supporters in this sexual anarchy movement are using sodomy and “transgenderism” as a foundation to create new “rights” for those who engage in these base behaviors. These new “civil rights” for sodomites are for the purpose of destroying the rights of the majority of the American people…”
The State of Arizona had attempted a similar thing last year, until people started realizing that it might allow medical professionals who were Jehovah’s Witnesses to deny patients blood transfusions, and other unpredictable consequences. Moreover, the clear intention had been to disenfranchise and target a specific group of people, which proved not a very popular idea with the commercial sector. Boycotts were threatened and travel to the state was likely to become embargoed in places, while the law’s proponents demonstrated just how aggressively they intended to use the law (while still denying that it constituted a form of special rights). Arizona backed off, and the Governor refused to sign the bill.
In Indiana, though, Governor Pence did so happily, with a smile, a flourish, and a special fringe group photo-op.
The backlash was instantaneous. Several states and local governments banned the use of taxpayer money to fund city employees’ travel to the State. Celebrities canceled shows and declared a boycott. NASCAR, the NFL and other sporting figures put pressure on the State. The Gap, Twitter, Apple, Angie’s List and several other companies spoke out with condemnation. Ten religious groups decried the law, including the Disciples of Christ, which threatened to move its annual convention. The Indianapolis Star published a front page with the top half black, and bearing the words, “Fix This Now.” And the Indiana-based NCAA made it known that they were questioning whether to hold the long-awaited Final Four tournament in Indianapolis, if not make greater changes in the future. Eventually, the State amended the law to remove the freedom to discriminate portion (although notably, Indiana still does not actually have state-wide LGBT human rights protections, so the issue is actually not over, even if the state government wants to sweep it under the rug). Other states have had mixed reactions to the spectacle, however, and groups and individuals have taken a certain amount of inspiration from Indiana’s trial run:
“In an interview with WOOD-TV, Dieseltec owner Brian Klawiter said he is a Christian and that he doesn’t ask his customers if they are gay, but “If you want to come in here with your boyfriend and you want to openly display that, that’s just not going to be tolerated here. We don’t believe that here.”
“In the rant, posted on Tuesday, Klawiter lamented the discrimination white heterosexual Christians face everyday in the U.S. and said he is no longer going to take it…”
To be fair, the March 25th delegation of Evangelicals didn’t call upon Prime Minister Stephen Harper for an Indiana-style “religious freedom” law per-se. By the time they got to the Hill, in fact, they’d figured out that all of their complaints were in jurisdictions outside federal control. So they asked for a statement.
And they didn’t get it. Instead, they came away with a lone MP who left the Conservative caucus and used the opportunity to give a weird rant in Parliament about scientists being “gagged over a false construct related to the theory of evolution.” Not the wisest way to politically self-immolate, I suppose.
“There’s a whole generation of kids being taught that what they’re taught in Sunday School or in church is garbage, it’s wrong, it’s false, and it’s simply a form of bullying that’s no longer acceptable. It’s not scientifically tenable, it’s a disservice to science… it’s not freedom of religion if your views are put down by your peers.” — MP James Lunney
But it’s not the first time that ideological groups have called for religious-based special rights, and it’s certainly not going to be the last. If anything, the effort seems poised to grow. In the U.S., some states are pressing forward with new bills of the sort, while more than one Republican Presidential contender has vowed to make it a priority. The view from the American side of the border, at least, is that LGBT acceptance and Christianity are simply incompatible:
“When two diametrically opposed and incompatible value systems (namely Christianity and hedonistic humanism) come together in the same place, there can be no peaceful coexistence. One will necessarily dominate, while the other is necessarily subjugated. We saw that quickly happen in Indiana last week.” — BarbWire commentator Bob Ellis
(It’s worth adding a reminder that I personally try not to use “Christian” to describe these folks, despite their rallying behind the term, because I consider it questionable whether they actually are… at least when it comes to “loving one another” by trying to disenfranchise, invalidate, and occasionally even still criminalize people whose existence they deny or object to… not to mention doing things like conflating entire groups with sexual predators as a political tactic.)
In Canada, Evangelicals and Fundamentalists are tiptoeing around Indiana while strategizing further… and recognizing that their fight is a little harder in a nation that has already had marriage equality for several years and somehow managed to cope.
“… The most significant part of the HMP [“Homosexual Ministry of Propaganda”] victory is that the word “Equality”, a word twisted by the HMP to squash dissent, has once more been reinforced in the minds of the public to mean that a male + male or a female + female = marriage…” — Peter Baklinski at the Canadian website, LifeSiteNews.
The old “special rights” argument, now with actual special rights added.
The “religious freedom” tactic isn’t really all that new: only the phrasing used to convey it. For many years, religious groups complained that extending human rights protections to LGBT people would confer “special rights” upon them. Lest readers doubt that there was some deliberate co-ordination to all of this, Media Matters provides an in-depth look:
“Alliance Defending Freedom is a legal organization that works with 2,400 allied attorneys nationally on a $39 million (as of 2013) annual budget. ADF was founded in 1994 by several of the country’s largest national evangelical Christian ministries to “press the case for religious liberty issues in the nation’s courts” and “fend-off growing efforts by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which seek to immobilize Christians.” Today, it has become the country’s best-funded and most powerful right-wing Christian group working against what the organization calls the “myth of the so-called ‘separation of church and state.'”
“… While the group prefers to talk about its “religious liberty” work when in the media spotlight, ADF also actively works internationally to promote and defend laws that criminalize gay sex. ADF’s formal support for anti-sodomy legislation dates to at least 2003, before the Supreme Court made its landmark decision in Lawrence v. Texas. ADF, which was at the time still known as the Alliance Defense Fund, filed an amicus brief in the case, defending state laws criminalizing gay sex. In its brief, ADF spent nearly 30 pages arguing that gay sex is unhealthy, harmful, and a public health risk…”
Of course, it then became awkward trying to explain the dangers that could ensue if the “special right” to be equal might trump the then- perfectly ordinary everyday right to deny someone employment, housing, medical care, enfranchisement, and/or goods and services. Embarassed, anti-LGBT leaders began looking for new phrasing and the lowest-hanging fruit to justify their claims. The shift to a “religious persecution” -based tactic started with adoption agencies that were “forced to close” because they refused to assist would-be parents in gay or lesbian relationships. Except that they weren’t really forced to shut down:
“Catholic Charities in Illinois has served for more than 40 years as a major link in the state’s social service network for poor and neglected children. But now most of the Catholic Charities affiliates in Illinois are closing down rather than comply with a new requirement that says they can no longer receive state money if they turn away same-sex couples as potential foster care and adoptive parents…
That’s when the attention turned to wedding cakes and photographers. To at least some of the public, it seems relatively trivial and nit-picky that LGBT people are expecting to be able to enjoy the same access to those services as anyone else. Never mind that the same logic and law used to deny a wedding cake might also be used to deny housing, education, health care, security, or any other service where religious freedom of conscience might cause someone to take issue.
Canada illustrates this a bit more visibly, with religious conservatives fighting a conscience policy for medical professionals which would allow them to decline non-emergency as long as they still provide a referral to someone who will provide accurate information. Shoulda’ went for the cakes. Just saying.
I’ll admit that there’s a civil libertarian in me who wonders why someone would take it upon themselves to fret about anti-LGBT cake vendors, or even go looking for them for the sake of stirring up a controversy. I just don’t see the point of wanting to give homophobes and transphobes a bunch of money. But I get it: full enfranchisement hasn’t happened until a person can go about their business without having to worry about being blindsided by idiots trying to exclude them, just because of who they are. And that’s why the trivial stuff matters.
But in the end, while the dust settles on Indiana’s religious freedom bill fiasco, and Canadian ideologues try to raise the issue to a national level, it’s important to look at the fallout. Because as much as religious fundamentalists might try to pretend that they’re only interested in protecting their own freedoms and not harming others, the meltdowns that have occurred in the wake of the Indiana bill’s demise paint a different picture:
“It wasn’t broken and the alleged “fix” that the Indiana legislature, at your request, has proposed to the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), will destroy the law beyond all recognition. In fact, it will turn it into the “RFDA” – the “Religious Freedom Destruction Act.” No bill at all would have been better than this anti-Christian, sexual anarchist disaster.
“What was intended as a shield to every American’s First Amendment-guaranteed religious liberty, as proposed, will now become a sword used to destroy it. What was designed to defend people of faith against being discriminated against and bullied will, instead, codify anti-religious discrimination and bullying into law. It will unconstitutionally force people of faith, under penalty of law, to affirmatively violate their sincerely held religious conscience. It has been turned into a weapon that compels people of faith to disobey God or face government sanction.” — Matt Barber
Because the intent was clearly to discriminate. And sometimes when anti-LGBT leaders think that only the faithful are listening, they’ll even candidly say so:
“Starting in the 1990s, the homosexual movement worked tirelessly, spending enormous funds, to get state and local governments to amend their anti-discrimination laws covering public accommodations, employment, housing, public education, etc., to include “sexual orientation.” In recent years there’s been a push to include “gender identity” (cross-dressing, transgenderism, transsexuality) also.
“There’s a big strategic reason for that. As Dr. Scott Lively has pointed out for years, these updated laws are the starting point for the whole, brutal legal jihad against Christians and others holding traditional values. Every outrage we’re now seeing — including the LGBT activism in the schools, targeting of businesses, men using women’s restrooms, sado-masochist/”swinger” conventions in hotels, etc. — emanates from these laws.
“But pro-family people have only recently started to wake up on this. They instinctively realize that citizens should be able to discriminate and refuse to promote or celebrate perversion and “gay” marriage. But these anti-discrimination laws now make it a crime to do so…”
The fight for special rights to discriminate will continue — it’ll just change along the way. It will persist because the will to discriminate persists:
“What should Christians and other believers do in the face of this heightening repression? They must go on the offensive—charitably but vigorously—and fight the battle on several levels… The lame discrimination complaints by homosexualist organizations against believers in human rights commissions and the pressuring of corporations to dump executives and employees who dissent at all from the homosexualist agenda should should be met consistently with lawsuits for abuse of process and defamation. That would put financial pressure on the well-heeled homosexualist organizations…” — Crisis Magazine & LifeSiteNews commentary.
So the strategizing continues. In one American twist, anti-discrimination intervention is being said to be a violation of the separation of church and state. In another, an organization that considers boycotts and letter-writing campaigns organized by LGBT groups to be “economic terrorism” is exercising its own boycotts and letter-writing campaigns against alleged “anti-Christian discrimination” — discrimination which apparently includes producing a TV show about the life of Dan Savage. The hypocrisy is rampant, with the same groups that complain of being silenced having no qualms about censoring LGBT speakers or hounding them to leave their jobs with non-profit organizations. In a moment of coinciding interest opportunism, American lobbyists and legislators are even hoping that religious freedom bills can be combined with the ruling in Hobby Lobby to grant companies the same sort of special rights:
“Georgia State Senator McKoon hopes that, if his bill passes next year, courts will find it covers companies as well as flesh-and-blood human beings, even if it doesn’t say so explicitly in the text. “I believe,” he says, “that the bill would be read as the federal bill was interpreted by the Hobby Lobby decision…”
It’s not going to drop off the Canadian radar anytime soon either, because the Supreme Court of Canada just ruled that reciting a denominational prayer at town council meetings infringes on the freedom of conscience and religion. The state, it determined, should neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, nor impose one on others. Which, when viewed through the far-right lens means that the rival religion of secularism / atheism is persecuting Christians:
“In a sense, by prohibiting respectful, non-proselytizing, non-coercive prayer, the court is showing a clear preference to non-religious believers over religious believers, and gives an untenable status to secularism and atheism, which are themselves beliefs. So there is no balance and no reconciliation among various beliefs in this ruling but shows a preference for one belief – secularism – over all other beliefs,” Elia told LifeSiteNews.
“This is not an example of a true, authentic and robust pluralism,” Elia stressed. “In true pluralism, religious believers and non-believers can share the public square, but this decision means the public square can no longer be shared…” — LifeSiteNews.
So it becomes worth scrutinizing the recent events the Canadian delegation to Parliament pointed to as examples of attacks on religious freedoms in Canada:
- The decisions of a number of provincial bar associations not to accredit any potential law school graduate of Trinity Western University;
- The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario’s Professional Obligations and Human Rights policy, which ensures access to medical care for people seeking abortions, contraception or other accepted legal medical procedures; and
- A recent Statement of Support for Diversity and Inclusion signed by 72 major companies across Canada.
Because when we do so, we see that:
- The decision not to accredit Trinity Western University law school graduates was made because of TWU’s ban on sexual behaviour outside heterosexual marriage, which amounts to a creative way to shut out LGBT people;
- The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario’s policy in fact allows medical professionals to opt out of procedures and services that violate their religious beliefs, but they must still provide a referral to someone who will give accurate information about treatment or procedure options (which gets portrayed in far right media as forcing doctors to perform abortions); and
- Seriously, this is a statement that says “We value the range of perspectives, ideas and experiences that diversity provides, whether grounded in gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, cultural background, religion or age,” and says that the signatory businesses will “encourage greater diversity and inclusion.”
Underneath it all, the special right being sought is the right to create deliberate barriers for people whose sexuality they object to. Even diversity policies are considered offensive:
“Gwen Landolt, a lawyer and national vice-president of Real Women of Canada, called BMO’s policy the “height of discrimination and intolerance.”
“Their position is shocking and appalling. They have applied political correctness to the absolute borderline of insanity,” she told LifeSiteNews…”
But don’t expect an equanimous approach to how “religious freedom” is interpreted. At best, it is a selective thing:
Lunney’s defence of religious freedom does not extend to supporting the right of Muslim women to wear the niqab when being sworn in as citizens, however.
After initially avoiding the question, he eventually confirmed that he shares the views of his former party and the prime minister that those seeking to become Canadian citizens should show their faces.
“I’m not going to get tangled up in that argument,” he said.
In the end, of course, the “religious freedom” battle cry may end up amounting to nothing in the warmer social climate of Canada. Hopefully, the general public will see it for what it is, without the benefit of a Mike Pence -like Premier to push the issue.
“Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall says the opening prayer at the province’s legislature will remain despite a recent Supreme Court ruling…”
But then again, who knows?