On Thursday, January 23, the Division of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry at McGill University hosted a talk by Dr. Kenneth J. Zucker, a child psychologist from Ontario who works with children and adolescents facing gender dysphoria. He is also a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto.
Dr. Zucker has been largely criticized for his work, which has been called conversion therapy by transgender-rights activists. In 1994, Dr. Zucker said that one of the goals of his clinic was to “help the child feel more secure about his or her actual gender.” In 2015, he was dismissed from his position at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health when reviewers found that his clinic “focused on intensive assessment and treatment in lieu of more modern approaches” which included “educating and supporting parents to accept a child’s gender expression.”
Dr. Zucker was invited to the school by Professor Samuel Veissiere, a co-director of the Culture, Mind, and Brain program at McGill. When asked about his reasoning for inviting Dr. Zucker, Professor Veissiere told the Daily that “When individuals for whom transition didn’t work tell us they feel excluded from this conversation, we need to listen and learn.” Professor Veissere also argued that calling Dr. Zucker’s work “conversion therapy” is a “misconception.”
To provide support to trans and non-binary members of the McGill community who may have been affected by the talk, the Joint BoardSenate Committee on Equity’s (JBSCE) Subcommittee on Queer People came up with the idea of holding a “positive space” at the same time as the event, which they shared on their Facebook page. This idea was then put into action by Meryem Benslimane, who is the Equity Education Advisor of the Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal (Equity and Academic) and co-chair of the JBSCE Subcommittee on Queer People, with the support of Angela Campbell, Associate Provost (Equity and Academic Policies). Benslimane told the Daily that the committee’s number one priority at the time “was to provide a positive space for trans and non-binary students, staff and faculty (and their allies) who might have been hurt by this event happening, and who would have felt the need to gather and be together in solidarity.” She added, “[we] wanted to let people affected by the talk know that ‘we see you and we love you’, and that we would not stand idly by and remain silent.”
Furthermore, the Union for Gender Empowerment (UGE) posted an open letter on Facebook in response to the event, which was signed by TVMcGill, Queer Engineer McGill, SSMU President Bryan Buraga, VP External Affairs Adam Gwiazda-Amsel, and VP University Affairs Madeline Wilson. The letter argued that Professor Veissiere was “determined to hold this event under the guise of academic freedom whilst ignoring the academic responsibility that goes alongside it.” The letter overall denounced the “speaking event and [encouraged] all those who may have been interested in attending to boycott.”
In an interview with the Daily, Jeanne Prevost, Finance and Co-op Coordinator for the UGE said that hosting speakers like Dr. Zucker “tells the transgender members of the McGill community that their identity is up for debate, that some professors care more about giving a platform to harmful theories and endangering their students’ wellbeing than they do about their academic responsibility.” She further noted that “every time an advocate of harmful theories is platformed, and subsequently their ideas, it legitimizes them further and enables discrimination against these vulnerable groups.”
McGill students voiced similar concerns about the talk. VC Renaud, a trans U2 Psychology student, told the Daily that “having a speaker like this at McGill is not only harmful to the trans community in general, it could reinforce transphobic views in the general public and give well meaning medical professionals and med students the wrong information, which also has a negative impact on trans people.”
At this time, the McGill administration has not released an official statement on the matter.
The title of this article has been updated for clarity.