McGill’s Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism (CHRLP) faced heavy criticism since it announced a debate challenging transgender rights and membership within the larger LGBTQ community. The January 10 event, titled The Sex vs. Gender (Identity) Debate in the United Kingdom and the Divorce of LGB from T, spotlighted the guest speaker Robert Wintemute, Professor of Human Rights at King’s College in London.
The event sparked backlash over the weekend after observers from Trans Patient Union and RadLaw McGill noted that the title echoes anti-trans sentiments expressed by alt-right politicians, specifically the “Drop the T’’ campaign, aimed to estrange the Transgender community from the larger Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual community. They decried Wintemute’s formal ties with LGB Alliance, a UK-based organization with a history of lobbying for trans-exclusionary legislation. In Canada, the LGB Alliance opposed the federal criminalization of conversion therapy in 2020 and argued that gender identity should not be included within the protective scope of the ban. The non-profit is identified as a hate group and is accused of rubbing shoulders with anti-LGBTQ+ actors, including the US religious right and the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank. Wintemute is registered as a trustee of the non-profit and has previously published opinion pieces in line with the views espoused by this organization.
In response to the backlash, the two event organizers, Law professors Frédéric Mégret and Nandini Ramanujam expressed in a statement obtained by the Daily that the event was originally suggested by Wintemute and faculty members subsequently determined that “this would be a conversation worth having at the Centre, especially in light of the disagreement such views may provoke.” The response further explains that Wintemute does not come as a spokesperson of the LGB Alliance and hosting this event does not mean that the Centre endorses the speaker’s views on the issue. Robert Leckey, Dean of the Faculty of Law, also expressed that the CHRLP is an “inclusive place where people of many identities and experiences can learn together and flourish as well as one where we can hear and criticize views with which we disagree,” according to an email obtained by the Daily.
Protesters have since submitted an open letter to denounce lending McGill’s institutional and academic platform to a deceitful organization and giving a voice to harmful views. The letter calls out the University’s neutral position as an attempt to “absolve itself from blame by claiming its right to academic liberty,” and it was signed by over 500 individuals as well as multiple organizations, including RadLaw McGill and Queer McGill.
“The tolerance of intolerance ultimately results in the wiping out of tolerance,” writes Celeste Trianon, a trans rights activist and organizer of the protest, in the open letter. “As anti-trans violence becomes increasingly prevalent across the world, and legal gender recognition is threatened in the UK, in the US, and here in Quebec itself, every extra minute of airtime given to an anti-trans activist may result in further rollback. Every such minute will contribute to the premature deaths of trans people worldwide.”
This struggle happens in the midst of a vehement debate in the United Kingdom after Scotland passed a bill allowing youth aged 16 and above to obtain legal recognition for their self-identified gender and facilitating the process by removing the requirement of gender dysphoria diagnosis, which can take years to obtain. Human rights activists and commissions welcome this reform whereas the UK government refuses to acknowledge this bill and may attempt to block it. In the United States, transgender individuals brace for another year of legislative assaults: since the new year began, 14 states have already filed 23 bills restricting both transgender children and adults’ access to healthcare and facilities, criminalizing unconventional forms of gender expression, and rolling back anti-discrimination rulings based on gender identity.
On Tuesday, protesters began assembling before noon, before the debate was scheduled to take place at 12:40. Flying an assortment of Pride flags, the crowd fully occupied the first floor of the Chancellor Day Hall and welcomed Wintemute with hostility as he entered the debate room. Loud chanting ensued to disrupt the talk and to demand that the speaker leave. The pressure mounted until the crowd forced the door open; the faculty then surrendered and staff accompanied Wintemute away from the facility as the talk was aborted. Protest organizers then celebrated by opening a free drop-in legal name/gender marker change clinic to assist people in transition with the very process that Wintemute attempted to debate.
Wintemute has expressed in a separate interview that he believes this protest occurred because “this generation has a tendency to confuse disagreement with hatred, that the person who disagrees with you, I don’t know, is hostile towards you, and that we should not hear this person out. This is not how I grew up.” He further reiterated his belief that there exists an inherent conflict between trans-affirming policies and women’s rights, but did not acknowledge that this viewpoint may harm or incite violence against transgender individuals.
Other Montreal-based LGBTQ+ organizations have condemned the Law faculty’s lack of wisdom in managing the event and its lukewarm response to multiple warnings. FEMTL, a signatory organization that supports the trans women community in Montreal, writes in an email obtained by the Daily to the event’s organizers: “What message is McGill sending to the trans community and larger queer community by hosting such a person? […] When you platform a speaker such as Robert Wintemute, you invite fresh questions on what McGill really stands for.”
In a written statement to the Daily, Jacob Williams from Trans Patient Union, one of the student organizations responsible for organizing the protest, notes that “it is not an easy time to be trans or non-binary, but all hope is not lost. Despite all our differences, […] trans and NB people have so much powerful love for each other.” Giving advice on how to navigate anti-trans hostility, he encourages transgender and non-binary individuals to seek out support and friendship from fellow LGBTQ members. “This community has learned that we must provide for each other”, he says. “If you are a trans or NB person and you don’t have trans and NB loved ones you deeply trust to care about you, you should consider doing everything you can to get some. It may save your life.” The student association offers one-on-one consultations with transgender and non-binary individuals to navigate transition-related issues in Montreal.