Tag Archives: gender identity

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

What the “Walk on the Wild Side” controversy says about trans* awareness and a changing social movement

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.

Part of that metamorphosis is in the language used to communicate “trans-ness,” if you will.
This is seen in the many diverse and sometimes seemingly-chaotic genders that are being investigated and embraced as peoples’ terms of self-identification.  Although many of the newly-embraced genders are relatively beyond my own experience (I’m personally comfortable in a gender binary, while still recognizing the problematic social constructions with that), there are almost always very deep and specific reasons those gender terms have been embraced.  I’ve learned to respect and support (while not trying to speak for, except when there is no one present to do so) gender diversity that is outside my limited range of experience.

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…”

From perhaps 2006 to 2010 (my approximation, anyway), there has been a shift in language, and this has brought about a parallel shift in thinking. With the aftertaste of 2005’s Transamerica and the newfound ability of trans* people to tell their own narratives and define their meaning, it became no longer enough that a work of film, music or art simply be sympathetic for it to become anthemic or a point of communal pride. Since then, the language — and the context and depth of understanding that goes along with it — has been changing.
Inevitably, that means that some of the things we remember fondly do go the way of the “dinosaur,” fortunate or unfortunate as that may be.
(This post also appears at rabble.ca)

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

jordanpeterson2

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)

Canada’s Trans* Rights Bill Now Endorses Bans in Washroom and Gendered Spaces

Canada’s trans* human rights bill C-279 was amended by a Senate committee, in a way that makes it legal to ban trans* people from washrooms and gendered spaces appropriate to their gender identity.

Sen. Donald Plett, Conservative member of the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, added a legal exemption for “any service, facility, accommodation or premises that is restricted to one sex only, such as a correctional facility, crisis counseling facility, shelter for victims of abuse, washroom facility, shower facility or clothing changing room.”  The amendment passed with six of the committee members supporting it, four opposed, and one abstention.

There were two other unanimous amendments made.  One added the category of “sex” to the protections in the Criminal Code (which has long been a bizarre and serious omission from hate crimes legislation).  The other removed the definition of “gender identity” which had been added in the House of Commons as a condition of passing the bill, back in 2013.  Because the bill has been amended, it would need to return to the House for a final vote before being enacted.  It is thought unlikely that the bill would be brought forward before an election call — and now, if it did, the bill’s original proponents would oppose it — meaning that C-279 is almost certainly dead.

“The very act that is designed to prohibit discrimination is being amended to allow discrimination,” the bill’s Senate sponsor, Grant Mitchell, pointed out.  “It holds people who are law-abiding, full-fledged and equal members of our society accountable for the potential — the very, very long-shot potential — that someone would misuse this to justify a criminal act.” (The transcript has not been posted yet, but the videocast is still available)

Sen. Plett has long claimed that the bill would be exploited by pedophiles and rapists to attack women and children in washrooms, a claim that has been repeatedly debunked by law enforcement officials and other experts:

Minneapolis Police Department: Fears About Sexual Assault “Not Even Remotely” A Problem. Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder told Media Matters in an interview that sexual assaults stemming from Minnesota’s 1993 transgender non-discrimination law have been “not even remotely” a problem. Based on his experience, the notion of men posing as transgender women to enter women’s restrooms to commit sex crimes “sounds a little silly,” Elder said. According to Elder, a police department inquiry found “nothing” in the way of such crimes in the city… [Phone interview, 3/11/14]”

Additionally, criminal activity in a washroom or gendered space would continue to remain criminal regardless of the gender of the perpetrator.  On the other hand, trans* women face very real dangers when institutionally housed with men or made to use segregated facilities according to their birth sex.

Nevertheless, bathroom-related fearmongering has been the cause of several petitions and campaigns to kill trans* human rights legislation in North America.  It has also started to spawn draconian bathroom-policing bills (some of which ignore the actual genital status of the person, even though genitals are allegedly the rationale for the law):

“Building managers who “repeatedly allow” trans people to use the bathroom that accords with their gender identity would, however, face up to two years in jail and a maximum $10,000 fine under the proposed law.

“… If passed, the law could tighten how Texas defines gender, not only singling out transgender people, but those who have chromosomes that don’t fit the strict definition laid out in the bill, like intersex individuals. The bill reads:

” For the purpose of this section, the gender of an individual is the gender established at the individual’s birth or the gender established by the individual’s chromosomes. A male is an individual with at least one X chromosome and at least one Y chromosome, and a female is an individual with at least one X chromosome and no Y chromosomes. If the individual’s gender established at the individual’s birth is not the same as the individual’s gender established by the individual’s chromosomes, the individual’s gender established by the individual’s chromosomes controls under this section…”

Plett’s reasoning essentializes trans* women as being “biological males” (“… and I will use ‘men’ because I believe they are biological men — ‘transgender,’ but biologically, they are men”), and asserts that they are inherently a threat to cis* (non-trans*) women.  When it was pointed out that his amendment would require trans* men to use womens’ facilities, Plett appeared indifferent, and he later referred to a young trans* man as “she.”  Plett added that he believed his amendment would allow “separate but equal treatment.”

Bill C-279 would affect only areas under federal jurisdiction, such as federal facilities, the Armed Forces, federal agencies, and First Nations reserves.  But it had been seen as a potentially important symbol of human rights protection to have specific federal inclusion.  Canadian human rights commissions consider trans* people written into legislation, but without explicit inclusion, there remains a possibility of an overturn in court precedent (where application is not as certain).  Meanwhile, companies that take direction from federal legislation continue to not see a need to develop policies for trans* employees.

The Northwest Territories was the first Canadian jurisdiction to pass trans-inclusive legislation, in 2002.  Ontario, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, and Saskatchewan all have provincial protections.  In British Columbia, a similar bill, M-211, has been blocked by B.C. Liberals, who refuse to allow it to face a vote or discussion.

Former Member of Parliament Bill Siksay first introduced a trans* human rights bill in 2005, and continued to reintroduce it in every Parliamentary session, until it eventually passed in the House of Commons. However, it was awaiting ratification in the Senate when a federal election was called, which killed the bill.  In 2011, Siksay left federal politics, and Randall Garrison reintroduced it as C-279.  In 2012, many trans* people stopped campaigning for the bill when the characteristic of gender expression was deleted from the bill, and a definition of gender identity was added.

(A version of this article also appears at Rabble.ca and The Bilerico Project)