As members of the CUPE 3902 Queer Caucus, and of the wider University community, we were encouraged when the University Administration recently mandated that Professor Jordan Peterson respect his students’ pronouns. The university has recognised that transgender students not only have the right to their gender identity and expression, but to have them respected by their professors and administrators. The Ontario Human Rights Code, as well as all five of our Union Local’s Collective Agreements, protect this right. We hope that with the eventual passing of Bill C-16, it will soon be protected by federal law as well. We also recognize that Peterson’s claims have been explicitly anti-Black, denying the realities of racism on campus and in broader society, compounding the effects of his behaviour for racialized queer and trans students.
Professor Peterson has grossly exaggerated the implications of these legal protections, claiming that citizens could be fined or imprisoned for misuse of pronouns. But no such cases have come before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, and in no new way does Bill C-16 impact his role as Professor at the University of Toronto. Bigotry is not illegal: other markers of identity such as sexual orientation and race have been protected by the Human Rights Act for much longer, and this has not prevented homophobic and racist language among private citizens. However, in his capacity as a faculty member at the University of Toronto, Peterson’s refusal to respect his students’ pronouns is a cause for concern.
Peterson has incorrectly read current and proposed laws, which simply protect “gender expression and identity” from discrimination within federal institutions, and protect against hate speech and advocating genocide. We remain puzzled as to why such a basic gesture of respect seems so onerous to Professor Peterson. For example, any instructor can recount occasions when a student has requested to be referred to by another name. Furthermore, in many professional settings, employees are required to use the language of their employer – that’s part of doing the job they were hired to do. We wish to be clear about this: Peterson insists that he will not recognize the pronouns of transgender students, but his behaviour as a private citizen is different from his behaviour as a faculty member of the University of Toronto.
It is clear to us that Professor Peterson is attempting to cloak his fear of transgender people under the guise of scholarly expertise, protected under the aegis of academic freedom, yet his academic work is not the study of gender. In his selective reading of the science on gender, Peterson insists on the long-discredited notion that sex determines gender, thereby denying the legitimacy of non-binary and binary transgender people, not to mention intersex people and those cisgender people whose sex criteria do not conform to normative sex models. Gender is more complicated than external markers of femininity and masculinity, and cannot be reliably determined on the basis of ocular inspection. It is therefore much simpler, and more respectful, to ask a student how to refer to them if unsure.
Despite the administration’s welcome stance on respecting pronouns, we are deeply troubled to learn that the University is providing a forum for what Peterson has termed a “free speech debate.” We object to the basic premise of this event. Human rights are not up for debate. We urge members of the University community to boycott this event.
We also note that Peterson and his supporters proudly deny the existence of racism while opposing anti-bias training on campus. His racist behaviour, as well as other “free speech” events, have mobilized neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups on campus. The current climate is unsafe for people of colour in addition to trans people, and is especially hostile for racialized queer and trans people. This must not be tolerated. Hatred and violence compound at the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. We stand by and will organize with Black, indigenous, and other racialized members of our Local and the broader campus community to fight racism on campus.
Neither Peterson’s views about race and gender nor his understandings of the Canadian Human Rights Act and Bill C-16 constitute valid forms of academic debate. Transgender people are not, as he claims, “a coterie of left-wing ideologues.” We are human beings who seek fair opportunities (for accurate identification, transcripts, documentation, and respect), opportunities that our cisgender peers already enjoy. In any case, an academic debate on gender or on the law hosted by the University of Toronto should ostensibly fall within the purview of its highly-regarded community of gender and legal scholars. Were these valid issues of academic contention in their respective fields, we would expect the university’s legal and gender experts to lead the debate. As is clear in his poor understanding of Bill C-16, Peterson is not qualified for such a scholarly debate. Suffice it to say, many believe they understand gender and the law because we see it all around us – yet most of us can also see the night’s stars and do not presume to be astronomers.
We also have serious concerns about whether this “debate” can be conducted safely, given the disastrous outcome of the October 11th “free speech” rally held by Peterson and his supporters. Freedom of speech and expression does not include hate speech, threats of violence, or actual assault. The violent threats recently reported against racialized, queer, and trans members of the University community are a direct outcome of Peterson’s behaviour and serve as a stark reminder of how precarious the safety of marginalised groups can be. He has aggravated the situation by encouraging his tens of thousands of followers to play “Pokémon PC,” a game that instructs players to put PC stickers on any public signage that they feel “plays the PC Game,” i.e. attempts to highlight structural inequalities, which Peterson calls “being politically correct.” The next step involves an app that will geographically plot the stickered locations, showing “the true hotbeds of the PC Game players,” thus painting bullseyes and drastically elevating the risk for harassment and violence. To date, targets include gender-neutral bathrooms and non-conservative newspapers, but these stickers are likely to target women’s spaces, anti-racist spaces, LGBTQ+ spaces, and so forth. We sincerely hope this is not academic work the University of Toronto seeks to endorse.
If you share our disappointment with the University of Toronto for agreeing to host a debate that questions the legitimacy of trans rights, the science of gender, laws that protect gender identity and expression, and what it means to exercise academic freedom on campus under the guise of the “free speech” of a single psychologist, please send an email expressing your concerns to the Dean of Arts and Sciences, David Cameron, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Below we offer a list of resources for those wanting to learn more about gender, our non-binary and binary transgender communities, and the issues they face. We hope that by encouraging members of the university community to take this opportunity to educate themselves and each other, we can collectively combat the ignorance that has made our campus a more hostile place to work and study.
The CUPE 3902 Queer Caucus
- An Op Ed by a Queer Caucus member who is a PhD student in the Sociology of Gender on why Peterson’s views about gender are invalid
- A statement from allied campus groups regarding the racist and anti-Black elements of Peterson’s comments
- A CIUT 89.5FM interview with the same member on sex/gender, pronouns, and what Bill C-16 does and does not do (interview begins at 7min40s)
- University of Toronto Law Professor Brenda Cossman on why Bill C-16 is not about criminalizing pronoun misuse
- An article exploring the science of sex and gender
- A Planned Parenthood worksheet guiding health service providers and educators working with trans and non-binary youth
- For more information on issues faced by trans and non-binary members of the University community, consult the Sexual and Gender Diversity Office. They offer an extremely helpful “Gender 101” seminar that you can request for your department.
- A great video by Mount Sinai Hospital on the issues trans, intersex, and two-spirit people face at the doctor’s office and in the workplace and how to be an ally
- The Black Liberation Collective’s demands for the University of Toronto