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Trans Rights Are Not Up for Debate

On January 10, a large crowd gathered in front of McGill’s Chancellor Day Hall to protest an event held by the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism (CHRLP). The CHRLP had invited Robert Wintemute, a professor of human rights law, to give a talk called “The Sex vs. Gender (Identity) Debate in the United Kingdom and the Divorce of LGB from T.” Wintemute, once an advocate for trans rights, now holds gender-critical beliefs – that is, he believes sex is biological and immutable – condemned by queer and trans advocates. Although the protest caused the event to be cancelled, the speaker never should have been welcomed in the first place. Gender-critical ideology has caused tangible harm to trans people around the world, and it is deplorable that the CHRLP is platforming these ideas under the guise of academic freedom. 

Wintemute was among the experts who drafted the 2006 Yogyakarta Principles, which outlined a set of principles related to gender identity and sexual orientation, including the need to recognize gender identity without a medical transition. However, his beliefs have changed since then, supposedly as a result of “listening to women.” He is currently a trustee of the LGB Alliance, a British charity that lobbies against progressive gender legislation, particularly the right of trans people to self-identify without going through a medical transition. The charity has also lobbied in favour of conversion therapy, pressuring leaders to exclude trans people from a proposed ban on conversion therapy in the UK and Canada.

Trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF), or gender-critical, ideology has recently become widespread in the UK and elsewhere. Although their ideas have a foundation in far-right Christian groups, TERFs frame their transphobic rhetoric as a progressive and feminist position, claiming that trans people – especially trans women – pose a threat to LGB people, cis women, and “women’s only spaces.” They also define women purely by biological sex assigned at birth. Gender-critical ideology has clearly contributed to a rise in transphobic policies in both the UK and the United States. In 2022, more than 150 anti-transgender bills were introduced across the US. In the UK, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has threatened to block Scotland’s progressive Gender Recognition Act, citing ill-founded concerns for the safety of cis women. Although gender-critical ideology may not be as widespread in Canada, Canada is “definitely starting to feel some of those waves of anti-trans activism that have really taken hold in the United Kingdom and in the United States in recent years,” says Travers, a professor of sociology at Simon Fraser University, in an interview with CBC. This can blatantly be seen in the initial drafts of Quebec’s Bill 2, which would have forced trans people to undergo surgery to be legally identified as their affirmed gender.

In response to concerns about the event, the CHRLP stated that these ideas “can be productively and robustly discussed in an academic setting and could, in fact, be an opportunity to push back against certain views.” However, the original event description – which has since been deleted from the CHRLP website – only mentioned Wintemute, giving the impression that the “debate” would be one-sided. Although the CHRLP argues that Wintemute wasn’t invited as a trustee of the LGB Alliance, almost half of the event description was dedicated to the LGB Alliance and its beliefs. It was later amended to explain that commentary on the event would be provided by Professor Darren Rosenblum, but it was unclear to what capacity Rosenblum would be challenging Wintemute’s ideas. Regardless of Rosenblum’s involvement, this event legitimizes transphobic rhetoric by presenting it as an acceptable topic for debate rather than a hateful ideology that has material consequences for trans people. As an open letter penned by the Trans Patients Union argues, “the debate sends the message that rejecting trans protections in law is a position worth considering.”

“One’s rights end where another’s begin,” Celeste Trianon, a trans rights activist, told CBC. Although the right to free speech is an essential component of democracy, it cannot come at the expense of the safety of marginalized people. Unfortunately, the McGill administration seems to have trouble understanding this. In 2020, amid nationwide controversy surrounding a University of Ottawa professor’s use of a racial slur, then-Principal Suzanne Fortier identified “a tension between academic freedom on one hand, and equity and inclusiveness on the other.” The Black Students Network responded that “Principal Fortier’s understanding of ‘academic freedom’ permits denying Black students the right to learn in a safe environment.” There need not exist a tension between academic freedom and equity and inclusiveness. It is possible to exercise academic freedom with dignity, accountability, and respect. McGill’s Statement of Academic Freedom, however, places “no limitations” on academic freedom, and it fails to address the obligation of scholars to use their freedom responsibly.

Trans rights are not a rhetorical debate that exist only in an academic vacuum. Platforming gender critical rhetoric, especially at a world-renowned institution such as McGill, sends a message that it’s a legitimate topic to debate, further propagating this harmful ideology. In reality, trans rights do not infringe upon the rights of other women or LGB people, and trans people are an integral part of the LGBTQ community and its history. Without the activism of trans people, especially trans women, many advances in LGBTQ rights would not have been achieved. 

Gender-critical ideology is becoming increasingly widespread in society, and it is important to challenge these beliefs wherever they appear. Support or get involved with organizations at McGill and in Montreal that provide resources to and advocate for trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people such as Queer McGill, the Centre for Gender Advocacy, the Trans Patients Union, ASTT(e)Q, and the Union for Gender Empowerment. Show up to future protests for trans rights to show that TERFs have no place at McGill – or anywhere else.

A previous version of this article mistakenly stated Celeste Trianon’s affiliation with the Centre for Gender Advocacy . The Daily regrets this error.