On November 19, The Faculty of Arts and Science at the University of Toronto will hold an academic forum for the University community to discuss Bill C-16 and the gender provisions of the Ontario Human Rights Code (OHRC). SDS Steering Committee Members respond to the hosting of the debate and to SDS Director, Brenda Cossman’s, involvement below.
It is beyond discouraging and beyond chilling to see active hostility toward meeting the common and unique needs of transgender and non-binary students, faculty, families and staff at U of T given an institutional platform. Such aggression, cloaked in the language of academic freedom and reflecting with the misplaced persecutory anxieties of the historically privileged, is unfortunately not unique to a singular individual. As trans scholars and activists have long pointed out, it is indicative of much deeper, more diffuse structure of cisnormativity and transphobia that permeates social worlds, all too often including campus. But because such aggression has seized hold of a proxy in one faculty member’s performance of an injured right to independent thought, our entire community has been forced to entertain it as if it were a serious, considered scholarly view, grounded in a thorough understanding of law, identity and politics. It is not; such a view is serious only in its aggression, an aggression that threatens the well-being of real people on campus every day.
That our Bonham Centre Director, Professor Brenda Cossman, has agreed to debate such a view, then, should not be taken to reflect an eagerness to engage in debate on the terms that have been set by indulging and appeasing this view. Rather, it should be regarded as an extension of what Hannah Arendt (1968) aptly referred to as “the principle that one can only resist in terms of the identity [here we might add, and the scholarly domain] that is under attack” (Men in Dark Times, 18). Since this debate has been forced upon our entire community — and since the domain of law has been used to legitimate the debate’s questionable premises — it seems only fitting that Professor Cossman, a renowned legal scholar in matters of gender and sexuality as well as in freedom of intellect and expression, should be there to respond to the deluge of misinformation that is unfortunately sure to emanate from its originators.
Dr. David K. Seitz received his PhD from the University of Toronto in human geography, sexual diversity studies and women and gender studies. He now sits on the Bonham Centre Steering Committee as well as teaches in the undergraduate program.
As a member of the SDS steering committee, I would like to share my thoughts on the upcoming “debate.” I, too, agree that this issue should not be up for debate. This is not a question of free speech. There is no plan to put anyone in jail for saying the incorrect pronouns. However, there is, and should be, in a decent society (which I like to think that we are here in Ontario and Canada), a civil process to understand and build respect for people who live with differing identities and belief systems. Human rights laws and meant to support this humanizing process. Many of us (myself included) have stridently requested that the University not provide a forum on human rights that includes a person who has no specialty or training in the law or human rights. However, these efforts have failed.
Given this, it is important that in such a “forum” that we DO have experts who can speak to the actual issues of the impact of the law and Canada and Ontario’s efforts to be inclusive of trans and gender variant people in our society. These experts include our director of the SDS, Professor Brenda Cossman. Professor Cossman, unlike Professor Peterson, is an award-winning established highly regarded expert in gender, sexuality and the law. If an expert in these areas does not speak to these issues, I would be deeply concerned that Professor Peterson’s mischaracterization and alt-right leaning violence to trans people will trounce reason and science, as well as human rights. His leadership in a violent campaign against trans people will lead the day. We cannot let this stand. Therefore, I believe at this point it is imperative that Professor Cossman step up to this challenge and bring some actual expertise and sanity to this conversation. Indeed, I applaud her for doing so and fully support her in this regard.
Lastly, there is a concern that perhaps non trans people will NOT be on the stage during this forum. I agree with that concern. However, Professor Peterson’s discourse has created such a toxic environment on campus, that many trans people have expressed that they do not feel safe to be publicly identifiable or even visible. In fact, Professor Peterson’s words and discourse have created an environment where violence (threats of violence are, in fact, violence) against trans people has been occurring on campus at a rate not seen before. At this time, speaking as a cis identified white male, I want to believe that trans allies, such as Professor Cossman actually need to engage with this process. If not, we will hear only from a person who has no expertise in these areas. That seems extremely one sided and just another chance for Professor Peterson to shout through his alt-right transphobic horn without any balance.
David Brennan, Associate Professor, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and Sessional Instructor for Sexual Diversity Studies; SDS Steering Committee Member