Commentary | Resisting transphobia

Content warning: transphobia

On Thursday, February 2, students protested a panel, ‘Theology Thursday’, which was held by the Newman Catholic Students’ Society of McGill University on the topic “Gender Mainstreaming and Transgender.” The event featured presentations by Douglas Farrow and Moira McQueen, followed by an open floor panel discussion. Before the event, several students expressed concern and anger towards the panelists’ transphobic reputations. Students also took issue with the lack of trans representation on the panel. After listening to the concerns of these students, the Society denounced the panelists but could not cancel the event. The Society has since expressed regret for the event and wishes to keep an ongoing dialogue with the queer community.

Transphobia is already present at McGill. Trans students at the university have faced barriers to mental health services (with counsellors not understanding trans issues or respecting gender pronouns) and name changes on official documents. They face erasure in the classroom when it comes to gender essentialism, and problems like not having more than two gender options on surveys. Even in the broader community of Montreal, trans people struggle to change their legal name and face difficulties receiving trans-positive healthcare. Transphobia is not an isolated incident; it is a network of systematic transphobic actions and institutions that together contribute, at the societal level, to the discrimination and violence trans people face today.

At the panel and in their featured publications, Farrow and McQueen have shown that they do not understand, nor respect, the lived experiences of transgender people. Such lived experiences affirm that being trans is a legitimate identity; that being trans is not a psychological or medical condition; that gender identity is not determined by the body; that a person knows their own gender better than anyone else; and that trans people routinely face discrimination, violence, and are even killed for being trans. Historic and contemporary trans lives attest to the legitimacy of these experiences. Yet, the panelists disregard them.

Farrow, a professor at McGill, writes in “Blurring Sexual Boundaries” (2011) that “[bills to protect trans people] are designed not to protect a threatened minority but to entrench in law the notion that gender is essentially a social construct, based not in the natural order but in more or less arbitrary acts of human self-interpretation.” He argues that pro-trans legislation is not grounded in objective reality and is a ploy to force society to accept that gender and sex are independent facets of a person’s identity.

Farrow also writes that “good law and sound public policy cannot be built on the shifting sands of the subjective.” Certainly legislators can overcome this obstacle to ensure the safety of trans people, who already face violence and social ostracization because they do not conform to society’s rigid expectations. But it is precisely this lack of legal protection that makes trans people more vulnerable to hate crimes and discrimination (e.g., employment, healthcare, bathroom access). By arguing that it is too difficult to implement legislation to protect trans people, Farrow contributes to a culture that views trans people as unworthy of the same rights as cisgender people. This culture denies trans people the basic human rights they need.

McQueen implies in “Bioethics Matters: Catholic Teaching on Transgender” (2016) that being transgender is not a legitimate identity. She writes that “the [trans] person is convinced that he/she is, despite bodily evidence, a member of the opposite sex,” and that “gender identity is determined at conception, genetically, anatomically, and chromosomally, [and] a person must accept that objective identity.” This is hateful in that it rejects the basic autonomy of trans people to understand their own gender on a deeply personal level. McQueen also refers to gender dysphoria, and being trans, as a medical “condition.” This definition of trans identity is no longer formally accepted because it is incorrect and harmful. It leads to such abuses as conversion therapy, which McQueen mentioned in the discussion as a treatment for being trans before audience members shot it down for being fundamentally abusive. McQueen’s ideology reinforces a culture that views trans people as medical and psychological anomalies, instead of real people.

While ‘Theology Thursday’ was organized to be a panel discussion, the lack of trans people included on the panel skewed the legitimacy of the discussion. One audience member voiced this sentiment to McQueen, saying “You’re not an expert. You’re not trans. Trans people are experts on trans experience.” Furthermore, giving a public platform to Farrow and McQueen to spread their transphobic ideology is imprudent and could have negative effects on the queer community at McGill, especially given the university’s track record with trans issues. Students who protested the panel agree that the panelists were transphobic and had no positive contributions to a discussion on trans identities. Thanks to these students and others responding to the events of Thursday night, we’re sending a clear message to people like Farrow and McQueen: your hateful, transphobic ideology is unwelcome and has no place at McGill.


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