Tag Archives: gender expression

The bad faith “debate” about trans human rights

Recently, the National Post published a discussion that I engaged in with Jonathan Kay.

I participated in that because it was an opportunity to provide a counterpoint for readers who don’t often see one. It was a chance to challenge some of the distortions and misinformation that have been circulating about trans people and their legal protections. If you read predominantly far right media right now, you would believe that wealthy, well-funded and all-powerful “TRAs” (trans rights activists) somehow control the government (one popular conspiracy theory claims that it is a pharmaceutical company plot) and are forcing some completely unfounded ideology and social engineering on destitute and helpless schools, governments, churches, workplaces and Canadian society as a whole. So it’s worth it for those readers to encounter a discussion that is rational, measured, and provides a glimpse of the reality outside of their own tunnel vision. I doubt many minds were changed, but at least an effort was made for the sake readers who are either still open to considering information outside the range of their predisposed views, or don’t encounter any better information in their travels.

It was framed as a debate, and debates about trans human rights are always a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t proposition. If you participate in a debate, it gives the appearance of legitimacy to the idea that human rights should be debatable, and that opposition to them is an equally valid side. On the other hand, if you don’t, the debate still steamrolls on without you having any voice in it, and not only is your perspective unrepresented, it can even be characterized however your opponent chooses to portray it, without challenge.

It is worth mentioning, however, that the discussion that I had with Jonathan Kay is not “the debate” that gender critical figures are trying to have. I want to be clear that the discussion with Kay, via the Post was conducted in good faith — I don’t want to imply otherwise. The gender critical version of the debate gets framed a specific way, and it’s important to recognize this, and understand why the debate that gender critical speakers are pushing for is one that is inherently flawed and intended to be conducted in bad faith. And forgive me, because I have to generalize here: obviously, not everyone who takes issue with trans people thinks alike, but there are some general similarities, and the debate that most are trying to have has generally developed these relatively consistent rules.

From a gender critical perspective, the debate must be held within certain parameters. This is sometimes accomplished by defining terms at the beginning, but it can just as easily be accomplished by assuming those parameters at the beginning and very consistently and firmly policing anyone who deviates from them, as well as reframing anything that is said to the contrary so that it can be subsumed back into the original parameters.

“Sex ≠ Gender”

The first premise for the GC debate is that sex and gender are two different things. This statement is true, and any misinformed perspective usually begins with a kernel of truth. Sex and gender are two different things, and this is a point that trans folk have long made, when explaining why their anatomy does not define them. But for gender critical speakers, distinguishing sex from gender does the opposite, providing the opportunity to ignore both gender and gender identity, so that trans people can be once again defined according to their genital status (“sex”) at birth.

Gender critical speakers try to claim the moral authority on this point to assert that by extension. when it comes to human rights and accommodations in gendered spaces, physical sex is the only measure that matters. It’s sometimes phrased as though it’s a question of whether “sex is real,” but the intended undertone is that gender and gender identity are not, and are therefore not worthy of consideration. In reality, trans people don’t question whether sex is “real,” but whether one’s biology is their destiny, and whether one’s sex defines absolutely everything about them.

Making physical sex the sole benchmark is somewhat fallacious, given that (at least ideally) we don’t actually see the physical sex of the people we encounter, and instead assume their sex based on their gender presentation — but the folks making that argument are hoping that you don’t think too long on that. This foundation is used a bit duplicitously, though: when the subject of post-operative trans women comes up, the benchmark suddenly moves to chromosomes, socialization or reproductive capability, so that regardless of their apparently all-important anatomy, trans women can still be still essentialized as “males.” Likewise, the argument is made that segregation in gendered spaces is a matter of safety… but when the subject turns to accommodation in general (non-gendered) spaces and fears for safety can no longer be exploited, the imperative to verbally essentialize trans women as “males” (even to the point of harassment and abuse) and consider sex as the only worthy point of consideration is still viewed as being of paramount importance, and uncompromisable. Using “sex” as the one and only measure of value is actually a veiled proxy for considering cis (non-trans) status as the one and only measure of womanhood (it should be noted that gender critical people also abhor the term “cis,” because if the Latin oppositive “cis” is ever accepted as a corollary to “trans,” then it might legitimize the idea that trans people exist — so in gender critical thought, “cis” too must be considered a slur, and the words “normal,” “real,” “natal” or — most often — “biological” should be used instead).

The next extension of that initial premise is that there are only two sexes. This statement is true-ish in an overly general sense, but ignores the complexity of the science on the topic, and fails to consider intersex persons who have established medical conditions which cause developmental variances in their chromosomes, genitals or gonads. Any mention of intersex in the gender critical debate is usually met with a quick twist of pretzel logic to claim that these are merely exceptions that prove the rule, and then proceed once again under the premise that there are only two sexes — thus quickly evading the possibility that trans people (especially those who are compelled to transition between sexes, but not necessarily only them) vary in simply less visible ways than currently recognized intersex conditions, and deserve the same consideration.

Erasing Gender and Identity From Human Rights

The second major premise is that gender should be dismissed as being nothing more than a collection of outdated roles and stereotypes. This is incredibly reductive (deliberately so): gender can include them, but is not only them. Gender is the meaning that we find for ourselves inwardly and how we express it outwardly: this is usually based on our sex, but this meaning can also be chosen antithetically to what is expected based on sex — in short, it’s about who we are and how we decide to present that to the world, whether in accordance with stereotypes, despite them, or regardless of them.

As in the first point, there is a kernel of truth here too, namely, that gender roles and stereotypes are problematic. This is why “gender critical” became the new term preferred by trans-exclusionary feminists (who had previously self-identified as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” until they’d heard the acronym “TERF” in anger enough to decide that it should be considered a slur): certainly, there is a lot about gender roles and stereotypes to be critical of. On this point, gender critical thinkers and trans people should theoretically be in agreement, given that the latter challenge, question, traverse and defy those roles and stereotypes more than anyone. But there is duplicity in how gender critical people apply their argument here, too: whenever trans people happen to be in alignment with traditional stereotypes, they’re accused of reinforcing them; but when they challenge or deviate from those stereotypes, they’re mocked for being visibly trans, for how they look, and for visibly failing (by that person’s individual assessment) to meet those same expected stereotypes.

By extension of this second premise, then, gender identity is said to simply not exist, according to gender critical feminism. The collective weight of medical evidence in dealing with trans people says otherwise, but this is quickly dismissed as the medical establishment (at best) humouring trans people out of a misguided sense of sympathy, or (at worst) being in on the “gender ideology” conspiracy to reshape and destroy society. By defining gender identity as mental illness, a delusion, or even a destructive ideology, trans people then become entirely irrelevant to the debate that gender critical people want to have, and it becomes completely appropriate to dismiss them, their life experiences, and their needs from consideration. The gender critical debate, then, is entirely about us, but doesn’t involve us, as they assert that we can’t be trusted to have anything of value to contribute.

These are the starting points of the gender critical “debate,” and they are hallmarks of a debate in bad faith. From these parameters, trans women can only be considered to be “men,” and therefore everything that predatory men do can be ascribed to them, by default.  From these parameters, allowing trans women into a gendered space is automatically phrased as though those spaces are being opened up to “men” — even though that is not what is actually happening. There is no argument that can be made within these parameters that will lead to any acknowledgement that trans people exist, let alone that they should have rights or be accommodated in society in any way. This is by design: the easiest way to win a debate is to control the framing of it, so that it becomes impossible to come to any other conclusion than the one that you had allowed at the outset.

Human rights should not be up for debate in the first place… but when the debate is framed so asymmetrically, it becomes absolutely toxic.

In the discussion that I had with Jonathan Kay, it was on the condition that legitimacy issues (who I am or whether trans women are women, for example) would not be the focus of that dialogue. It is telling that he considered that “not realistic,” because the debate as he’s been hearing it has been taking place within the constraints above, and his thinking remained clearly influenced by these premises.

Many of the apparent “problems” of trans inclusion have already been considered over the past decade or more, and have been in the process of being updated based on real life experience, medical evidence, legal practicalities, and the duty to accommodate in a balanced way that considers context. By changing the parameters of the so-called “debate,” opponents hope to reset this all back to zero in a way that centers fears about trans people, and dismisses the voices of trans folk, solutions that have already been arrived at, nuances that we as a society have already learned to deal with, the context of any given situation, and any evidence that supports inclusion. It is, in a way, a means to reverse everything that has happened in the past several years, simply by insisting that it should be so and denying the validity of anything or anyone that says otherwise. It also provides a reset on language so that those who refuse to accept the existence of trans people have a sometimes-stealth / sometimes-duplicitous language with which they can be hostile, without incurring the wrath of the public at large (although we see from the complaints about infringements on freedom of speech that this doesn’t always work).

The worst part of it all is that the entire bad faith gender critical “debate” threatens to divide feminism against itself at a time when Canadian religious conservatives are attempting to reboot abortion criminalization and American religious conservatives are eagerly awaiting the overturning of Roe v Wade. It allows traditionally misogynistic personalities and organizations — ranging from the Heritage Foundation to Tucker Carlson — to deflectively posture as feminists or allies at a time when the so-called “populist” nationalism they tout is threatening to erase feminist awareness from higher education and push women back toward those very same stifling gender roles and limitations that women are still struggling to break. In the UK, it has even been used to locate and recruit gay and lesbian transphobes in order to turn them against that nation’s primary LGBTQ+ rights advocacy organization, and undercut, defund or even destroy it. Beyond that, it has also managed to turn up some transphobic lesbian, gay and feminist personalities willing to validate religious conservative talking points about “gender ideology,” without realizing that “gender ideology” is veiled code that in many uses also encompasses LGBTQ+ rights, feminism and many other aspects of social justice.

There are so incredibly many things that trans feminism and general feminism can and should agree on, and yet gender critical efforts seem to discard all of that, in order to pretend that the single most important challenge facing women today is whether trans women should be accepted as women. This absolutist, sort-of-fundamentalist and all-consuming focus is as troubling as it is self-defeating.

(This commentary also appears at rabble.ca. Image: Adobe Stock)

Free Speech, When The “Debate” is You (and You’re Not Invited)

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)

Trans* Human Rights Bill C-16: A Look Back

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

Free speech, and the cruel shackles of empathy and mutual respect

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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)

Google Trends on “Transgender”

Posted for discussion and interest value.

Out of curiosity, I plunked the word “transgender” into Google Trends.  It’s not my terminology of choice, but it’s what most people use and what the general public is most likely to search for.  Here’s what I got:

transgoogletrends01

The numbers aren’t an exact value of something, but a comparative value versus the highest peak on record, which is apparently right now.  Or as Google Trends puts it:

Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart. If at most 10% of searches for the given region and time frame were for “pizza,” we’d consider this 100. This doesn’t convey absolute search volume. Learn more

I don’t know if there were other stories that occurred during the same months of those peaks and contributing to the results — it’s possible, I’ve only noted what Google flagged as the top search item.

A few more charts:

transgoogletrends02

and

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Presented without commentary, in case anyone is curious.