McGill’s Religious Studies Undergraduate Society (RSUS) recently published an open letter addressed to the School of Religious Studies condemning Dr. Douglas Farrow, a professor of theology, for his blatantly homophobic and transphobic rhetoric. Farrow has published “a number of works condemning same-sex marriage and has allegedly taught and promoted anti-LGBTQ+ ideas in his classes.” The RSUS states that Farrow’s syllabi disregard McGill’s Preferred First Name Policy; instead, he explains that “[no] one is required to adopt views, claims, or linguistic forms with which they disagree,” that is, he will not respect students’ chosen names, although he requests that his students maintain “traditional standards of civility.”
That the only limit to discourse in an academic setting is classified as maintaining “civility” – a term that carries connotations that are deeply racialized and classed – is extremely harmful. McGill’s continued neglect of this situation despite years of criticism from students is further proof of the University’s consistent disregard for student well-being in the name of vague notions of “academic freedom.”
Academia is already an unsafe space for LGBTQ2 students. As the RSUS writes in their letter, “Just as Dr. Farrow has the right to freedom of speech, students have the right to a safe and inclusive learning environment.” According to a study conducted by the Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics, 47 per cent of students report witnessing or experiencing discrimination based on gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation in a postsecondary setting. In 2019, the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity submitted a LGBTQ2 Postsecondary Health Policy to the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on Health, calling on postsecondary institutions to prioritize LGBTQ2 students’ well-being. This includes using students’ pronouns, uplifting trans voices on campus, supporting and affirming LGBTQ2 students’ experiences, and providing culturally competent wellness services for all students. Research cited in the policy also noted the importance of “LGBTQ2 inclusive anti-discrimination policies” in reducing incidents of discrimination – something McGill fails to effectively uphold.
Rather than addressing systemic discrimination within academia, McGill is choosing to disregard and minimize it. Farrow’s work does not exist in an academic vacuum; it upholds a structure that is already hostile to people who are LGBTQ2. By valorizing Farrow’s work, the University is expressing that homophobia and transphobia are not only academically valuable, but noteworthy. This is only exacerbated by the fact that many of the courses taught by Farrow are compulsory for the Bachelor of Theology program, and thus LGBTQ2 students are forced to participate in an environment that is actively hostile towards them in order to complete their degrees.
The Daily supports the RSUS’ open letter and those affected by Farrow’s actions. “Academic freedom” is not an excuse for harmful behaviour by professors. The University continues to weaponize “academic freedom” to excuse discriminatory and exclusionary behaviour from teaching staff, as recently evidenced by Principal Fortier’s letter on Academic Freedom and Inclusiveness. By not only failing to condemn, but also displaying Farrow’s violent rhetoric in the Birks Building, McGill is putting its students at risk. The University must hold professors accountable for their use of violent and harmful language – it is McGill’s duty to protect marginalized students, not those in positions of power.
To show your support and pressure the School of Religious Studies to meet the RSUS’ demands, share their open letter on social media. If you’ve been affected by Dr. Farrow’s actions (or other discriminatory actions at McGill), you can access this resource list compiled by RSUS students. Although student-run services provide vital support to marginalized students, it is ultimately up to McGill to create a safe environment for all students.