***This blog post refers to a series of media articles that went viral today (Thursday, September 29, 2016) concerning public statements in mainstream national news media by a University of Toronto Professor from the Psychology Department. This piece will not provide links to the articles in question to avoid sharing misinformation and exposure to the online comments sections, but simple google searches will yield further details, if desired). Stay tuned here for more information as we continue to prepare responses, provide support for the individuals impacted, and prepare some online public education opportunities to share the kinds of crucial trans-positive learning offered at the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity.***
When a University of Toronto Professor goes on public record stating that he not only objects to human rights protections and trainings, but then goes on to tell his students, national news media, and post online that he has decided to use his tenure status to promote his “perspective” to his students and the rest of the world, despite his fears that it could actually count as illegal hate speech, what is the impact and how can we respond, in the immediate, longer term, local and global contexts of which we are a part?
I ask the above question in a purposefully broad way because it is a situation many people could imagine in theory, and possibly even relate to in practice. Sadly, you are not alone if you’ve had the distinctly awful experience of sitting in a classroom where the instructor, who has a great deal of authority and power, tells the room full of students that you don’t matter and you don’t exist, and that he has devoted himself to promoting that perspective. If you are surrounded by hundreds of students who are clearly taking what the professor says as truth, the impact becomes one that is only imaginable to those who have not experienced it. It can be traumatic and life-threatening. This is not an anecdotal story but rather a frequent occurrence for many students. I can testify that after having taught Transgender Studies for close to a decade, this is a pervasive experience students report and disclose, usually well into my course, when they start to experience the intellectual freedom that comes along with being recognized and validated during the process of learning, exploring research, and understanding how to translate research into making positive contributions to society, the natural environment, and life on this planet.
Hostile environments are not only extreme barriers to learning, they’re also antithetical to community safety and a fair and equitable environment at the University of Toronto. Hostile environments are well-researched and documented as being undeniably significant and career- and life-altering for people who are being marginalized, as discrimination and other less easily-described factors push people out of communities like ours. Policies that are only able to be implemented in the case of inter-personal, individual-to-individual violence do not recognize how transphobia and cis-normativity actually work, and are unable to remedy the systemic injustices that trans-positive researchers have been working to document. As some academic environments begin to welcome actual evidence-based research on the complexities of gender and sexuality and how they interact with and play out in a wide variety of thoughts, behaviors, fears, social circumstances and systems, we do have better and better data to understand and advocate for greater justice. We are lucky enough in to have at least two major multi-institutional research projects in Ontario that have been doing just that: Trans Pulse (now complete), which provides invaluable statistics on the lived experiences and realities trans*/+ people experience in Ontario, and Transforming Justice (currently underway), which is generating such data specifically in relation to questions of law and justice. University Professors who include any reference to trans people or issues whatsoever in their teaching would be absolutely amiss to ignore these research tools. It is vital that the quality of education students receive here does not misinform them or mentor them in unconscionable, ignorant behavior. When a Professor states explicitly that they are purposefully ignoring research in the interests of presenting their own prejudices, we know that the University of Toronto needs to address not only how we protect and nurture diversity, but also how we ensure the quality of education we are providing. We need much higher standards when it comes to responsibility and accountability.
Students in the Sexual Diversity Studies program as well as many other justice-based research programs at the University of Toronto are often extremely aware of the tactics, methods, and linguistic terms of people who promote hatred and prejudice. Indeed, individuals who educate others about such heavy realities and topics as racism, colonialism, ableism, transphobia, and other social conditions that need improving often get targeted by those who feel justified doing great unintentional violence.
In my Trans Studies classes, one of the most important readings we engage with helps students understand that when violence escalates, it often begins with thoughts and ideas that are given the social power to silence and abuse people who are being marginalized. We also study and begin to understand the ways that systemic institutions fail to address the needs of trans*/+ people, and how systemic programs impact and marginalize trans*/+ people. One of the major problems is that the mainstream media often completely rejects the inclusion of any perspectives that do not replicate transphobia and tokenization, and a vicious cycle of marginalization and ignorance repeats. The same problem happens with faculty, since so many academic programs unconsciously and systemically reproduce transphobia and cis-normativity.
So what CAN we do? Treating systemic issues on an individual basis only replicates, and sometimes traumatizes the individual being forced to bear the brunt of the injustices, as anyone who has been interested in the question of how sexual assault and rape are dealt with knows. Are there any policies in place to actually intervene when someone declares that they intend to continue violating students’ pronouns and gender identity or expression? Do policy-makers even understand the impact, severity, and consequences of pronoun usage and gender identity recognition? And will any policies that purport to protect gender expression and identity actually be able to address how transphobia and cis-normativity actually play out and operate? Are there policies that protect staff, faculty, and other members of our University community from someone in great power who refuses to acknowledge their abuse of power because their stated concern is their right to spout whatever prejudiced thoughts they have during class time? How will students who object be treated, and what will the consequences be for them? These answers should be immediately forthcoming and certainly taken under great consideration by University officials so that anyone dealing with the carnage is in a position to do so without further harm to self and community, so that students and faculty can find ways to get support, avoid entering unsafe areas, and can be supported as we minimize the risks to our safety.
Exposure to transphobia and cis-normativity not only hurts, it has major detrimental outcomes. Stay tuned to this space for upcoming posts and video tutorials that will offer people beyond our classrooms the opportunity to benefit from and be exposed to what trans-positive education at the University of Toronto can look like. In the meantime, I invite everyone reading this to take 3 immediate actions to help. Post trans-positive statements online in comments sections that are being read by thousands of people at this time. Check-in with anyone you know who may be personally impacted to see how you can actually be supportive to those individuals. If you yourself are struggling, reach out to someone you trust or can help you. For referrals and support, you can contact the Sexual and Gender Diversity Office (email@example.com or 416-946-5624). You can also email me directly for support and discussion or media inquiries at firstname.lastname@example.org. No hate mail or death threats, please.
Nick Matte is an instructor at the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies and is the curator of the Sexual Representations Collection.
The SexText blog is written by students, instructors and faculty of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies. The views in the blog do not necessarily represent the program but are meant to start a discussion regarding issues of sexuality and gender. For questions please contact email@example.com