Category Archives: Free speech

The Specter of the Trans Activist

The specter of the “male-to-female transactivist” has been allegedly haunting the contemporary Western world, we’ve been accused of attacking free speech, contaminating children with trans ideology, and ruining science by insisting on the fact that we are women and deserve to use the woman’s restroom. Proponents across the political spectrum have been actively working to rebrand trans feminism in order to delegitimize our social, cultural, and political concerns.

Before I get into this argument, I want to be clear that I do not think that the work of activists is any less valuable than the work of experts. In fact, sometimes experts are also activists, and vice-versa. Knowledge production is complex, partial, variable, and consists of constantly shifting standards and values. So when I refer to the anti-trans mythology of the “radical trans activist”, I am referring instead to the character trope and strawman set up by anti-trans writers who want to demonize any form of criticism to their bigoted views.

The media of late has been lit up with transphobic and cissexist op-eds that are openly hostile to our basic human rights and skeptical of the expert knowledge of health professionals who advocate for gender affirmative approaches to trans health care.

As investigative journalist Siobhan O’Leary highlighted in a recent blog post, this media frenzy has been revolving around a false dichotomy that positions trans activists as always opposed to expert scientists, even when a trans activist is a scientist. Both the mainstream media and the academy have failed trans folks because of its inability to engage in nuanced discussions over queer issues and its hostility towards vocal trans critics.

O’Leary writes, “We continue to be upset because no matter how level-headed our criticism, no matter how rooted in the academic research we are, no matter if we are published in academic journals or not–we are demonized as activists to the exclusion of scientific findings, rather than understood as activists because of scientific findings”.

Just a few days ago, I published an article in Vice Canada in response to a shit show of a transphobic opinion piece written by professional bigot Barbara Kay. In this response, I made reference to several scientific studies and an analysis piece to debunk Kay’s misinformation, however, I’ve still been accused of being anti-science in reader responses.

Because of the past decade of increasing attention to trans issues and forms of marginalization, we’ve become an easy target for bigots who interpret our basic human rights as threatening to their own privilege. This sense of aggrieved entitlement is the key stone of the treatment of trans folks in the news media and even if we are now protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we are still at the mercy of an increasingly hostile cissexist public.

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Just a few days ago Kay published an op-ed where she bemoans that medical experts acceptance of gender affirmative approaches to trans medical care, grinds her teeth at the thought that trans women are women, and digs into some classic moral panics to conjure up vitriolic stereotypes that trans women are hysterical activists and dangerous sexual predators.

She couches her work in Orwellian references of authoritarian and violent politics and co-opts feminist language to accuse trans women as being misogynistic for merely being in public.

Kay’s arguments aren’t worth contesting, they’re just venomous dribble with cherry picked evidence and exaggerated stereotypes. However, my contention in this essay is that the socio-cultural climate is just the right degree of toxicity to camouflage hate speech in the public discourse. We live in transmisogynist era where the substance of Kay’s hatred for trans women is business as usual, and challenges to her work are either ignored or accused of attempts of suppression.

Of course, this article is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, other stories have been citing a fresh new study that makes massive claims about the existence of a new form of gender dysphoria. Behavioural scientist Lisa Littman published an article claiming to have empirical evidence for the existence of “rapid onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD) which explicitly impacts children and adolescence through so-called “social or peer contagion” that allegedly spreads through social media websites like Tumblr and YouTube.

In a reimagining of the “contagious gay” epidemic of the last century, folks are peddling the idea that being trans is contagious and it’s all the fault of trans activists and their transgender ideology (often awkwardly called “transgenderism”).

Julia Serano, trans writer and biologist highlighted a series of major methodological critiques in a now notorious essay she published to her Medium page. Among other serious concerns, Littman didn’t actually interview or survey the children who allegedly have ROGD, just “concerned” parents sampled from already transphobic websites. These online communities have rather illuminating titles, 4thwavenow, transgender trend, and youthtranscriticalprofessionals, and consist of transphobic parents who are looking to legitimize any hostility towards their trans children through pseudoscience that carries the veneer of expert knowledge.

These methodological criticisms quickly roused some concerns in the wider scholarly community as experts began to question how such flawed and unethical research could make it through a rigorous peer review process.

Brown University, Littman’s scholarly nook, has recently pulled down mentions of the article from its website in response to criticisms of methodological rigging and the study’s hostilities towards trans folks. And on top of this, the article’s publisher, PLOS ONE began a “post publication investigation” into Littman’s methods, methodologies, and analysis to assess its scientific validity.

It is important to note that this research only contains the illusion of clinical authority, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), the body that sets international standards of care, published a statement setting the facts straight: “The term “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD)” is not a medical entity recognized by any professional association, nor is it listed as a subtype or classification in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel (DSM) or International Classification of Diseases.

And even if the study has been rejected by the majority of clinicians, it’s been championed by transphobic public figures and organizations and it’s contents are being used to justify the “concerns” of hostile parents who will inevitably force their children back into the closet. In a society defined by cisgender supremacy, as a recent study has illuminated, trans communities are facing a suicide crisis as trans folks are pushed into the closet to suffer in shame and isolation.

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Articles from big name media outlets, such as The Telegraph, the Wall Street Journal, and The Economist have been downplaying the academic criticism and characterizing detractors as radical activists trying to suppress Littman’s right to academic freedom and free speech.

Any opposition or critique to these ideas are usually rendered biased subjective nonsense, totalitarian, or anti free speech. And regardless of a trans person’s credentials, if we engage in these discussions publicly or stand up for ourselves, we are accused of being dangerous “male-to-female transactivists”.

Of course, this is not how the scientific community works. Free speech works differently in academic spaces where knowledge must be vetted by other experts in the discipline before it is solidified into an acceptable fact. This vetting process usually occurs through General Research Ethics Boards (GREB) or Institutional Review Boards (IRB), rigorous peer-review processes, and robust academic debate in order to make sure that what an expert is saying is, in fact, accurate. Anyone can publish an op-ed in the National Post and lash out at the trans community, but in academic publications, only the most rigorous work is published.

Of course, this process isn’t perfect, and sometimes bad research makes it to the academic press. But this is why PLOS ONE has decided to run a post-publication investigation. If they’re caught publishing bad research, it’s the journal’s credibility on the line.

To characterize methodological criticism as “suppressing speech” is a gross manipulation of the scientific method. Of course, these tactics seem to be super common on research that attempts to re-pathologize trans folks.

So to re-cap, the mainstream media is publishing a constant stream of anti-trans dribble, any critique of that dribble is considered the hysterical nonsense of radical trans activists, and certain members of the scientific community are willing to ignore the scientific method and proper methodological rigor when it involves trans topics.

Of course, these writers often try to dilute their hostilities with statements of support for “regular” trans people. These are the trans people who apparently don’t use public restrooms and try their best to meld in with the wider cisgender society.

For instance, Kay wrote near the end of her article, “In fact, [transactivists] bullishness actually hampers broader societal acceptance for the majority of trans men and women who do not feel represented by [trans activists], have no wish to die on vocabulary mountains, and who accept their biological reality as a fact of life” (p.s. I removed the name of the trans activist Kay was trying to run through the mud).

Though Kay’s article is an exception in that it is clearly a piece of hate speech, in most anti-trans articles, bigotry is embedded in the subtext. The writing might seem innocent, even impartial and objective, but will still tap into tropes and moral panics such as the spectre of the trans activist.

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This trend is not new but in the current political climate of Trump style far-right politics, it’s become fashionable to dog pile trans folks. The starting point of this collective anti-trans tantrum can be traced to the explosion of popularity around the now cultish, messiah-like figure Jordan Peterson.

In the Canadian context, the intensity of anti-trans rhetoric hit a spilling point after Jordan Peterson pulled a straight-up tantrum over Bill C-16, a piece of legislation to add the words “gender identity or expression” to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The extension of basic human rights to trans folks was apparently an unprecedented attack on free speech that would drive the country into an Orwellian nightmare.

Peterson put forward the myth that C-16 would pave the way for “compelled speech,” or the idea that people would have to use a trans person’s correct pronouns or risk imprisonment. Of course, this is far from the case. Legal expert Brenda Cossman set the record straight by fact checking the legal consequences of a robust human rights legislation that could help protect trans folks from active discrimination. Peterson’s opposition to the basic human rights of trans folks remains the key stone for anti-trans rhetoric by setting up the trans activist as the enemy of free people.

The results of this hot mess? Regular trans women must constantly and unwillingly confront transphobia in the media, in the restroom, and in public institutions as they navigate their everyday lives. The very act of being publicly trans is read as radical politics, whether or not they could be considered activists.

This trans activist versus scientist trope is a means for shutting down debate by delegitimizing the authority of trans folks to even engage in these issues. By using this trope in the media, journalists and editors have made it clear that the free speech of trans folks carry little weight or value.

“Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” and transphobic science: the case of fraught objectivity

With the recent and tumultuous controversy concerning “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” (ROGD), the science, and what counts as science, has been muddied by researchers who are explicitly hostile to the rights of transgender folks. A few weeks ago, behavioural scientist Lisa Littman published an article claiming to have empirical evidence for the existence of a new form of gender dysphoria that explicitly impacts youth, through so-called “social contagion,” with the consequences of confused cisgender children inauthentically at odds with the gender they were assigned at birth.

Littman concludes, “Rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD) describes a phenomenon where the development of gender dysphoria is observed to begin suddenly during or after puberty in an adolescent or young adult who would not have met criteria for gender dysphoria in childhood”. This “distinct” form of gender dysphoria is allegedly linked to “social or peer contagion” which allegedly allows the “ROGD’s” transmission to youth who are exposed to transgender cultural or technical knowledge. Brown University, Littman’s scholarly nook, has recently pulled down mentions of the article from it’s website in response to criticisms of methodological rigging and the studies hostilities towards trans folks.

And as reported by Science Magazine, the article’s publisher PLOS ONE began a “post publication investigation” into Littman’s methods, methodologies, and analysis. As editor-in-chief said to Science Magazine, “This is not about suppressing academic freedom or scientific research. This is about the scientific content itself — whether there is anything that needs to be looked into or corrected”.

The publication of this research paper and its subsequent uptake by anti-trans groups has immense societal impacts on trans folks and the communities we belong in. It’s a clear effort of widely anti-queer groups to re-medicalize trans identity (which was declared not a mental illness via scientific consensus in 2013), the consequences of this would strongly imply that children with ROGD are mentally ill and in need of medical intervention. This is uncomfortably close to a renewed push for the use of conversion therapy, a dangerous form of medical intervention which has been widely condemned as abusive and unscientific.

Recently, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), the international body that essentially sets the standards of care for trans related medical and psychological clinical treatments, has published a statement declaring,

The term “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD)” is not a medical entity recognized by any professional association, nor is it listed as a subtype or classification in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel (DSM) or International Classification of Diseases. Therefore, it constitutes nothing more than an acronym created to describe a proposed clinical phenomenon that may or may not warrant further peer-reviewed scientific investigation

WPATH reinforces the lengthily processes of scientific inquiry, debate, and rigorous scrutiny that an observation must go through before being officially considered a clinical phenomenon.

Another consequence of this debate is that our collective public presence as trans folks, whether it be through activism, journalism, or scholarly work, is being rendered an existential threat to allegedly cisgender children.

Oh, those darn trans-activists and their SJW agenda!

I will leave the science-y critique to folks who are closer to the subject area than I am, check out Julia Serano’s critique of Littman’s poor scientific praxis, and Florence Ashley’s critique of Serano’s critics.

What I want to address in this essay is the rapidly expanding viral moral panic that trans folks and our allies are attempting to impose trans-ness on cisgender youth through the widely practiced gender affirmative and informed consent models of therapy. Littman, and her now broad platform of supporters, have muddied what counts as rigorous quantitative and qualitative scientific methods to make vastly unsubstantiated claims about the existence of “ROGD”.

What is concerning to me is that Littman’s poor scientific praxis is being un-critically taken as objective knowledge production and her methodological problems are being neatly tucked away in lieu of critiques.

This is further aggravated by claims that queer activists, writers, and scholars are anti-science, biased because they are trans, and against free speech (Serano responds to these claims here). Of course, this is a regular rhetorical strategy utilized by transphobic public figures to render trans activists, writers, and scholars as fanatics interested in shutting down conversations (aka, anti-trans bigotry) and putting forward “feelings” ahead of science and reason.

The fundamental issue at play is the prominence of vernacular or folk understandings of scientific objectivity. In other words, how non-scientists and folks outside of the academy think scientists do the labor of knowledge production. Through the vernacular, non-scientists often impose a romanticised image of objective scientific methods that tidy up the messiness of research and obfuscate the scientific process.

Fraught objectivity

Scientists (usually a term relegated solely to those who use quantitative, as opposed to qualitative, methods within the popular imagination) are already and always “objective” (unless they are trans folks, people of color, or women) and thus are arbitrators of “facts”. The problem here isn’t science, but how scientific knowledge production is understood by non-experts navigating everyday life.

I’ve encountered the hypocrisy of this mentality many times over Twitter conversations, where the expert knowledge of progressive scholars and journalists are rendered ideologically biased or elitist, while far-right public figures like Jordan Peterson are uplifted as the very pinnacle of the scientific method (whether they use scientific methods or not).

As many scholars in the discipline of science and technology studies (STS) have noted, objectivity and the operability of the scientific method is entirely contingent on a scientist’s ability to put together a sound methodology that is reflexive of their biases. STS sociologist John Law has pointed out in a review of the ethnographic work conducted on scientific labor within laboratories that methodologies are always exposed to researcher bias, which impacts scientific results, and oftentimes are made opaque by the mere illusion of being objective. This is especially relevant for the messy disciplines of human behavior — a field of study that is wrapped up in the seemingly infinite complexities of historically contingent and culturally shaped subjectivities.

Littman’s research is emblematic of this issue. Her methods consisted of recruiting participants from a series of blogs that are known to contain transphobic parents, in order conduct empirical research on transgender children. Littman’s cisgender bias is present in how she constructs her research tools, before an analysis is even conducted.

As Serano notes,

The fact that Littman didn’t even bother to post a link to the survey on any of the many other online groups for parents of trans kids (i.e., ones that do not push an ROGD agenda, and who thus might have very different assessments of their adolescent trans children) strongly suggests that she purposefully structured her study to confirm the former parents’ assumptions, rather than objectively assess the state of their children.

This contamination of Littman’s objectivity is further aggravated by a key analytical issue — Littman didn’t speak to any of the children she claimed to have data on. She only surveyed transphobic parents who presumably have zero understanding of how their children feel. In a response to Serano’s critique, Robert D’Angelo with the newly formed Pediatric and Adolescent Gender Dysphoria Working Group (made up of the same anti-trans scientists), published a statement declaring that research through the proxy of a parent is standard practice.

This might be true, but it also has consequences for the project’s analysis. Littman’s research is not a study of trans children, it is a study of the perceptions of transphobic parents whose children are navigating the complex world of gender dysphoria and cissexism.

Getting access to children for academic research is difficult, but not impossible. And if a research isn’t willing to do the leg work to produce a workable methodology, then I hardly see how it is appropriate for her to “discover” a new form of gender dysphoria. There is a chance that Littman’s research, if proposed to be conducted on children, would not have passed an Institutional Review Board (IRB) which typically governs how academics conduct themselves in human research.

The point is, this research had never been objective, and it is surprising to me that these issues weren’t picked up by the peer reviewer at PLOS ONE.

In the scholarly world, knowledge is meant to be vetted by experts. A scholar typically can’t publish just anything in a scholarly journal — their knowledge needs to be rigorously assessed. A peer review process includes a panel of scholars who blindly review research to draw out methodological errors, poor or unsubstantiated analysis, and potential ethical ramifications of the publication. In the case of Littman, this process failed her.

Free speech ideologies do not count the same in academic publishing, scholars are restrained from making willy-nilly expert decisions for good reason.

The ability for a scholar to set aside their bias in order to achieve objectivity is fraught. Our own capacity to be reflexive of the biases and hostilities that inform our thinking are often made invisible. It is very difficult to point out the things that influence our ability to be objective, because, well, we’re human beings with complex emotional states informing our perceptions of the world around us. This is among the many reasons that scientists review each other’s work, because oftentimes we are unable to point out our own methodological errors and mistakes.

Scientists are, in fact, human like everyone else.

I do not have answers for the failure of PLOS ONE to conduct a proper peer review but considering the hostile history of cissexism in research on transgender folks throughout history, I have some speculations.

An historical primer of cisgender and heterosexual bias and gatekeeping

Cisgender and heterosexual (cishet) researchers have a long history of conducting bias research where prejudice against LGBTQ+ folks had become embedded in research design, methodologies, and analysis. Since the late nineteenth century, psychologists and sexologists have been pumping out research that sought to either hide or eradicate queerness. It was seen as a pathology, and like other mental illnesses or disabilities at the time, queerness was exposed to intense degrees of policing, incarceration, and extreme social stigmatization.

The history of science is far from objective, it reflected the ideological underpinnings of white cishet men and served to subjugate LGBTQ+ folks, women, people of color, and disabled folks.

The science at the time seemed to be clear, if you weren’t a white, male, cishet, you were sick and in need of remedy. As historical sociologist Johnathon Ned Katz illustrates in his book The Invention of Heterosexuality, the very historical development of the psychological categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality was infused with notions of what was considered normal at the time (fun fact, the first usage of the term “heterosexuality” in 1892 was in reference to people who were attracted to men AND women, not straight folks).

Katz observes,

In the twentieth century, creatures called heterosexuals emerged from the dark shadows of the nineteenth-century medical world to become common types acknowledged in the bright light of the modern day.

According to Katz, the production of the terms heterosexuality and homosexuality are laced with the bias of its late eighteen to early nineteen century Christian moral puritanism which eschewed sexual desire in favor of the “reproductive imperative” (or, in other words, having loads of babies). These emerging categories were put to work in the psychological discourse of the time and eventually came to be used to refer to straight people and everyone else. Those terms carried with it a baggage that constructed moral and biological hierarchies — straight folks were considered superior to queer folks.

The science of this period (and I would argue the same for contemporary science) was first framed through a cishet lens that privileged their culturally-shaped position in the world and actively othered queer folk. Not only was objectivity not achieved, the analysis emerging from this research was taken-for-granted and rarely critically interrogated. As historian Susan Stryker notes in her book Transgender History, in the eighteenth-century, science had come to supplant religion as the “highest social authority” and had massive influence over the moral codes that shaped everyday life. So not only were people pathologized for being different, they were actively stigmatized.

At the same time, the history of medical science in the Western world had been plagued with eugenics and an unhealthy obsession with creating natural hierarchies. This was an era of scientific exploitation that categorized everything that wasn’t a white cishet man to be degenerate and morally corrupt. For an interesting and colorful exploration of the history of degeneracy, check out this Contrapoints video.

Stryker observes that the words “transgender” and “transsexual” came into usage during the 1950s; it’s not that trans folks didn’t exist before this time, but they didn’t have a language to describe being trans. These categories emerged initially as a way of describing “gender identity disorder,” however, they were eventually reclaimed as categories used within the trans cultural lexicon. Despite these changes in usage, the terms and the identities they describe carry the historical baggage of discrimination.

The parents that Littman surveyed are among many transphobes that tap into the historical notion that queerness is a mental illness to justify forcing their children back in the closet. This is a form of violence that push queer youth into isolation, mental illness, and potentially, death by suicide. The hostility of abusive and anti-queer family members can also lead to spikes in youth homelessness as trans youth are either kicked out of their home or forced to flee abusive behavior.

Though informed consent models and gender affirmative therapy have been growing in popularity, there is still an overwhelming attachment to the gateway model of trans health care. As Serano writes in her book Whipping Girl, “Until 1998, the HBIGDA Standards of Care stated that ‘[a]ny and all recommendations for sex reassignment surgery and hormone therapy should be made only by clinical behavioral scientists’”. The gateway model proposes that a trans person must prove that they really are the gender they claim to (largely) cishet doctors, psychiatrists, and social workers in order to gain access to medically necessary treatments.

The history of gatekeeping is dark AF. For one, cishet experts were put into the position of judging what types of gender performances counted as authentic. So non-binary and gender non-conforming trans folks were often deemed ineligible for HRT or any form of gender affirming surgeries. In the case of trans women, because of prevailing norms of femininity, trans women had to perform 150% femme in order to get access to services. Otherwise, they would be deemed not woman enough, and would be denied access. In many cases, doctors could refuse medical access to queer trans folks for not conforming to the prevalent sexual norms. In order to get needed medical assistance as a trans person, you had to be straight.

These medical and legislative strategies were aimed at curing trans folks of their “ailment”, and if that wasn’t possible, to make sure the only people able to transition would be those who could pretend to be cishet and fade into relative invisibility. These practices were policed by a system of surveillance called the “real-life test” where a trans person would have to prove that they lived full-time in the gender they aligned with.

The historical legacy of cissexist and transphobic medical science are echoed in the vernacular understandings of trans science put forward by anti-queer activists today. To these folks, it doesn’t matter whether or not there is a general scientific consensus that being trans is a natural and normal human experience. All it takes is a problematic and morally dubious publication in an academic journal in order for these controversial discussions to be revitalized in the public eye.

Efforts to bring forward a critique of Littman’s research are obfuscated by accusations of censorship, anti-science mentalities, and the public harassment of trans writers, activists, and scholars. Legitimate academic criticism becomes immediately suspicious due to its connection to the notorious “trans activist agenda”.

Littman’s research, which she positioned in opposition to gender affirmative therapy, taps into the long history of biased, cissexist research that has served to disadvantage queer folks in our society. Her conclusions showcase a renewed effort to re-pathologize trans identity, and even if these assertions are rejected by WPATH, they provide the foundation for intensified transphobia, prejudice, and discrimination in the public discourse.

Gender affirmation and trusting the experiences of trans folks

When faced by biased and unobjective research, there is a need for grassroots mobilizing to highlight already existing platforms for medical and therapeutic intervention. The Sherbourne Health Centre in Toronto is a medical grassroots and community initiative that provides LGBTQ+ specific treatment to marginalized populations.

Their scientifically supported Guidelines and Protocols for Hormone Therapy and Primary Health Care for Trans Clients document has become a cornerstone in Canadian transgender healthcare. The document reads, “The trans population has suffered a great deal of prejudice, misunderstanding and harm from the medical community, and systemic oppression experienced by trans clients has often resulted in the denial of service”. This sort of scientific reflexivity is a sight for sore eyes in the realm of trans health care. Recognizing the historical and current abuses by medical professionals, the guidelines suggest a move towards the informed consent model which advocates that the threshold for prescribing hormone replacement therapy is given to the client after an information session of the positive and negative impacts of transition related medical procedures.

As pointed out by Florence Ashley and Alexandre Baril, the use of gender affirmative therapy attempts to affirm and encourage parents to take their children’s issues with gender identity and expression seriously. It is not, as many transphobic critics fearmonger, forcing children to undergo invasive medical procedures to undergo gender transition.

Ashley and Baril write,

Instead of encouraging the child not to be transgender and risking pushing them back into the closet, therapists seek to support the child and their parents throughout the process of exploring gender. They remain neutral with regards to whether the child should be trans or not.

Being transgender is confusing, but the confusion involved in transitioning has nothing to do with being mentally ill, it has everything to do with the misinformation, lack of education, and wider societal anti-trans prejudices. The lack of information about gender identity and expression in primary and secondary education curriculum means that children aren’t getting the proper education to help them navigate gender dysphoria.

Littman and her crowd view queer education and gender affirmative therapy as ideological nonsense pushed by the “trans agenda”. She renders knowledge about queerness as a catalyst for “social contagion” which threatens to contaminate cisgender children. Their solution to this issue is to literally silence and police gender non-conformity in children. This is enormously problematic.

Scientific objectivity is a fraught process that is mired with the messiness of research and the biases and prejudices of researchers. This is why WPATH asserts that “ROGD” can hardly be considered clinical, as it is one study with relatively little scientific scrutiny. The construction of facts in the medical world is a very slow process that unfolds through a multitude of studies that contest each others knowledge production in order to sift out lazy methods and potential biases.

In the face of these scientific hostilities, we need to listen to the experiences of trans folks. No one knows our struggles better than ourselves. This is why there is an emerging emphasis on gender affirmative therapy and the informed consent model. Instead of working from a position of suspicion and practices of surveillance and scrutiny, we need to give folks some well needed agency to explore their gender identity and expression.

We also need to listen to the experiences of trans writers, activists, and scholars who are working in the interest of safekeeping our access to basic human rights and dignity. We still live in a world that is hostile to queerness and difference and social conservatives consistently bemoan having to accept trans folks as human. Trans critics are painted as anti-free speech and anti-scientific, even while we raise legitimate scientific concerns with bias research that is being used against our communities.

So please, stop putting forward your romanticized assertions about what counts as objective research — you’re muddying good scientific practice and making life increasingly difficult for trans folks.

The manufactured free speech crisis and how we should respond

On the heels of the academic new year, as students are preparing to return to class and instructors are scrambling to put their syllabi together, Ford decreed that colleges and universities must implement free speech policy, or risk losing public funding. This is a big demand coming from the Ford administration, considering only a week prior Ford set up a snitch site to bully primary and secondary teachers into using an out-dated and anti-queer sex-ed curriculum. It is a perplexing thought that a government that relies on strong arm politics would interfere with knowledge production to satisfy the free speech boogieman.

It could be a symbolic gesture to please his social conservative base, who have spun up a mythology that colleges and universities are unsafe places for right-wing thinking. Or it could be that Ford is a social conservative himself, who believes that the far-right should have the capacity to advocate against marginalized folks without consequence.

Free speech issues are perplexing, multidimensional, and complex — it is an agonizing process of constantly balancing the imperative to speak truth to power with the need to foster anti-oppressive strategies. However, in its current form in the public discourse, free speech arguments are being used as a rhetorical strategy on the far-right to legitimize hate speech (or dog whistling hate speech) on campus spaces.

Free speech and the far-right

Campus free speech issues became contentious in Ontario politics following the Lindsay Shepherd controversy where a teaching assistant manufactured a free speech crisis out of her inability to hijack the content of a University class to question the existence of non-binary trans folks. Though Shepherd likely didn’t intend for the public fiasco that emerged in the wake of her disclosures, her incident provided the far-right with a martyr that they could use to pull public heart strings. The Federal Conservatives, via Andrew Scheer, immediately made a gesture of support by declaring colleges and universities spaces hostile to free speech.

Shepherd was run through the news cycles of op-eds and feature interviews, while simultaneously maintaining a popular Twitter presence where she verbally attacked trans and POC activists. Shepherd is not the topic of this paper, but her presence in the politics of free speech is emblematic of the issues I want to touch on. Click here for a more detailed analysis of the Shepherd controversy.

In an effort to tap into this oasis of conservative values, as well as to please his bigoted social conservative base, Ford made a campaign promise to enforce free speech policies on campus and enforce this demand through funding conditions.

I think Ford’s politics are dangerous for several reasons. First, it shows a vast ignorance about how academic freedom and free speech work in practice at academic institutions. Second, the government is attempting to give far-right bigots a get-out-of-jail-free card to spread racist, (cis)sexist, and homophobic BS on campus, while stating that protesting bigoted speakers is unacceptable. Such an argument immediately elevates the free speech of some, from the free speech of others.

The major controversy that free speech advocates tap into is the existence of protests meant to de-platform controversial and offensive speakers. I see a lot of social media debate focusing on the de-platforming of Faith Goldy, neo-Nazi and white supremacist, at Wilfrid Laurier University because someone pulled the fire alarm. Ford Nation wants the ability to speak about oppressive politics without the ability for resistance or consequences. They are working to normalize the presence of fascist ideologs who propose that society should be actively hostile towards non-white, non-straight, and non-cis folks.

Ford’s government is calling for the implementation of the Chicago Principles, a common goal in right-wing free speech circles. The Chicago Principles refer to the Statement on Principles of Free Expression, a non-binding policy statement published by the University of Chicago to address de-platforming strategies used against offensive speakers.

Though the policy nuances that free speech is never an absolute condition and that there’s sometimes reasonable restrictions on speech and expression on campus, it is broadly insufficient at addressing the major tensions between the right to speak and the need for anti-oppression policies. It’s major contribution, and why it is so popular among the far-right, is that it targets protesters, usually from the left, who are concerned that far-right speakers are normalizing bigotry.

The policy statement reads: “Although faculty, students and staff are free to criticize, contest and condemn the views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct, disrupt, or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe”.

Of course, arguments for free speech must include the right to protest ideas as well, and the lines between a protest and efforts to de-platform are often very blurry. The Chicago Principles have no way of dealing with these tensions.

The oppressive consequences of universalist free speech policy

The fundamental issue that I have with these policies is that the authors do not account for the existence of structural disadvantages that marginalized folks face in a socially stratified society. If the baseline in our society is inequality, then it’s clear that within a system of absolute free speech, only those sitting on the top of that hierarchy will be free to say and do as they please.

Far too often, the consequences of structural inequalities and privileges that disadvantage many while benefiting some are ignored or overlooked. To be fair, it’s difficult to spot out the effects of social stratification as it’s become so common sense in our day-to-day lives. It takes deep reflection and study to objectively glance at the social privileges you might avail of and even more rigorous work to do comprehensive research on the societal impacts of social inequalities. This is why sociological and anthropological research is so perplexing — it is the art of making opaque socio-cultural processes visible in order to agitate for change.

Mapping out relations of inequality and privilege often include an analysis of socio-economic stratification, as well as the impacts of other vectors of identity. Our presence in the world is impacted by our gender, sex, race, ability, class, and sexual identities. Some groups have a much wider access to economic, social, and cultural resources with the pinnacle of this access sitting with white, cisgender, heterosexual (cishet) men. To be clear, I’m not seeking to diminish the struggles of men, but to highlight that other folks have compounded struggles to deal with that white cishet men typically don’t experience.

For instance, as a trans woman I’m made to consistently navigate hostile publics that make the mere act of leaving home an anxiety-ridden adventure into the unknown. Every time I present identification in public, I’m viewed with suspicion. If I’m recognized as trans in the street, my presence draws uncomfortable, disapproving glances and sometimes harassment. I must consider how every new person in my life might react to my trans identity. And how my identity will impact my ability to get a job or sufficient housing.

When I enter academic spaces, I might have to deal with debates about whether I am allowed to be in a woman’s washroom or whether or not my identity is even legitimate or authentic.

These are all life conditions which exist for me, and not for cishet men, and they are only present because of the existence of cissexism, or the idea that cisgender identities are inherently superior to transgender identities.

It’s very easy for folks who do not experience structural inequality to forget that a lot of people have it worse. It’s also difficult for us to empathize with those who are different from us. And this oppressive cocktail leads to a lack of sensitivity for the struggles marginalized folks are made to face in everyday life.

This is compounded by the fact that it is becoming increasingly more acceptable to spread white supremacist, nationalist, and cishet patriarchal politics. For instance, there was an outpour of public support when Faith Goldy was de-platformed at Wilfrid Laurier University. Folks were pissed off that a racist sitting on the fringe of far-right politics wasn’t able to speak at an institution of learning.

My main contention in this essay is that the implementation of a universalist and enforceable free speech policy ignores the existence of socio-cultural stratification and thus is insufficient to protect the free speech of everyone.

When we let figures like Faith Goldy and Jordan Peterson spread hostile ideologies across college and university campuses we inevitably create a chilly environment for marginalized folks. This means that for marginalized folks to rebuttal attacks on their basic human rights, they need to stand up to figures hostile to their existence and the oftentimes violent retaliation from their supporters. For instance, the last time I wrote about these issues in relation to the Lindsay Shepherd fiasco, I was forced to endure a great deal of Internet abuse from folks who simultaneously disagreed with my analysis and dehumanized my existence.

However, the intimidation tactics and forms of political violence that are meant to target marginalized writers, activists, and scholars aren’t considered a form of de-platforming by the vast majority of people. The goals of “name and shame” tactics over the Internet are often used against marginalized folks to push them into silence. The stakes of public participation are burdened with a fear of reprisal from hate groups, and their supporters.

I can think of several academic colleagues that I know who are afraid to mention certain ideas in their analysis because it might generate a cybermob. These voices are censored, because there are no supports put into place to protect their right to academic freedom and free speech. And the mainstream is to busy musing about how the very famous Jordan Peterson is censored (even though he isn’t, and he’s made a fortune off of his public presence).

There is never any public discussion about these issues, as we always get distracted by manufactured free speech crises by public figures with huge platforms.

If we have a free speech model that ignores the existence and consequences of a stratified and hierarchal society, we are only uplifting the voices of those at the top of this hierarchy. The far-right have been asserting that they are being censored and silenced by the “intolerable left”, although this is far from the truth. It’s voices on the left who get singled out and silenced by University administrations and such actions are rarely featured in the mainstream media. The far-right are just able to make a bigger deal out of being censored, and they are empowered by the complicity of everyone else.

A rigged debate

Free speech conversations are messy by nature, because they deal with the vexing overlap of the need of marginalized folks to fight for emancipation from structural inequalities with the need of a political climate where it is okay to upset the status quo. Theoretically, we should be able to find a policy solution that allows for a constant assessment of the fine line between these two points. In practice, these discussions are muddied by the far-right, who often willingly champion free speech arguments as a dog whistle for bigotry.

Dog whistling is a clever rhetorical strategy that allows a group to embed a subtextual meaning in their speech that is generally invisible to those who are ill-equipped to recognize it. So when the far-right say that gender identity and expression being protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a form of compelled speech (forcing someone to use correct pronouns under the threat of criminalization), it’s also advocating hostility towards trans folks.

For those who don’t have a deeper knowledge about the terms and consequences of a public debate will come to see progressive activism as SJW “political correctness”, and not as a defence of the basic human rights and dignity of trans folks.

This is what sociologists call media manipulation, or the use of political rhetorical strategies that are made to use publicly acceptable debates as vehicles for their more hostile and radical political ideologies. It’s not transphobia, because Peterson or Shepherd have not directly said that they don’t like trans folks. But the implications of their arguments are hostile towards the basic human rights and dignity of those of us under the trans umbrella.

Furthermore, the Chicago Principles only recognize that free speech isn’t absolute in relation to the law. That means in Canada, the exception to free speech policy is any speech or expression that falls under hate crime as defined by the Criminal Code, which is defined as speech that advocates for violence or genocide against a fixed group of people.

The criminal justice system uses a high threshold for what a judge might consider to be hate speech. As Jennifer Yang reported for the Toronto Star, “The burden of proof is high, conviction rates are low and what actually constitutes a “hate crime” isn’t explicitly defined by the Criminal Code”. In the case of the pronoun debates, what Peterson and Shepherd have to say about trans folks is not considered hate, even while it dog whistles a transphobic and cissexist worldview. Legal expert Brenda Cossman has a super useful article exploring the messiness of the pronoun debate from the legal perspective.

It’s also important to point out that controversial speakers aren’t legally responsible for their supporters, meaning that when Peterson or Shepherd rile up their base, they are not held responsible for the targeted harassment enacted by their cybermobs.

How should colleges and universities respond?

Since Ford mandated that colleges and universities must cobble together these policies by the new year, we need to start conversations about how to include social justice and anti-oppression provisions into the Chicago Principles immediately.

A good starting point has been developed at Laurier following the public relations fallout in the aftermath of the Shepherd controversy. After a comprehensive review of the state of free speech on campus, Deborah MacLatchy, vice-chancellor and president, announced their movement towards a “better speech” policy.

In her op-ed for the Globe and Mail, MacLatchy writes, “In the face of language that threatens the humanity of our students, staff or faculty, we must continually promote better speech. This means questioning and challenging opinions with sound arguments and evidence. Students and faculty must be able to share views and experiences while simultaneously committing to high ethical and intellectual standards for open, constructive conversations”.

Calling for critical reflection, she continues, “Inclusive freedom involves a vigorous commitment to free speech, coupled with the assurance that all individuals have an opportunity to engage in free expression, inquiry and learning”.

Of course, this sort of policy is akin to leaky patchwork. It inevitably places the burden of defending social justice on those who are already marginalized. For instance, it will be largely trans folks who are made to defend their basic humanity against bigoted speech.

I am unsure how “inclusive freedom” in free speech policies will work in practice (if they work at all), but it does provide us with a foundation to start a more nuanced conversation.

We need to begin with the premise that absolutist approaches for free speech fail to address how marginalized folks are silenced.

In order to ensure that we are heard by the authoritative bodies of college and university campuses across the province, we need to employ every tool we have access too. Student unions and federations need to put the pressure on University Senates to think more deeply and critically about the shape of their free speech policies. Professors and graduate students need to put forward sensible and nuanced accounts about how academic freedom and free speech function in the academy. And we might need to mobilize and protest the decisions of the University administration.

They need to hear us speak about the things that silence our speech. They need to be shown that media manipulation and digital political violence are often used against marginalized writers, speakers, and advocates on the very campuses we are speaking about. And that those forms of violence and the folks who deploy them often masquerade under the cover of free speech.

We need to ensure that the Chicago Principles do not become a pathway to bigotry across college and university campuses. Instead we should take Ford’s political intervention as an opportunity to think deeply about these issues and put forward novel ways to nurture accountable, academic spaces for students and researchers.

Free speech, messy epistemologies, and the reframing of the WLU controversy

A trimmed down, edited version of this article was published in The Conversation.

Free Speech rally at Wilfrid Laurie University

The Lindsay Shepherd controversy has opened the Pandora’s Box once again on the notorious, vitriol-ridden “free speech” debate across Canada. It has largely consisted of tired arguments penned up in op-eds advocating that the university has become home to left-wing authoritarians who muzzle the speech of those with whom they disagree. Such debates have become so politically noxious that Andrew Sheer, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, has jumped on board—calling for a political response to the free speech crisis in universities. Furthermore, Lindsay Shepherd has become an alt-right darling in the amplified calls for free speech on campus; she now has roughly nineteen thousand followers on Twitter and is consistently feeding the fire with toxic tweets. One tweet reading, “Confirmed: WLU is a mental institution”.

Debates about free speech have a tendency to become unnuanced and flat as they typically amount to blanket statements that call for the unbridled and unrestricted ability to say anything. As I explored in an article for Vice, such an understanding of free speech is complicated sociologically when superimposed on a society already stratified along vectors of identity. Free speech becomes even more nebulous when we read the sub-text of free speech advocacy which often cozies up with white supremacy, transphobia, and sexism.

I want to shift the discussion about free speech. Instead of focusing on why the academy needs free speech, I would like to ask how free speech is reasonably deployed in the scholarly pursuit of knowledge production. This analytical shift will allow us to move beyond romanticised notions of free speech and academic freedom and consider the various ways in which knowledge emerges and becomes entangled in institutional practices and professional obligations.

This debate has by-and-large ignored the ways in which knowledge is produced and shaped within the academy. I would like to suggest that the epistemological insights of science, technology, and society (STS) can provide a scaffolding to understand the complexities of free speech in practice, as opposed to free speech in theory. Epistemology is the study of knowledge production. Despite the centrality of knowledge in all our social encounters, epistemological issues are often undervalued. Donna Haraway illustrates the importance of the structures of knowledge in this beautiful quote, “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with, it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties.”  The various shapes of the in-between matter that inform how we understand the world have consequences for how we frame free speech.

The production of knowledge in the academy is laden with formal and informal processes that shape how knowledge is produced, debated, disseminated, and taught. The sociologist, John Law, provides a useful framework for approaching knowledge production in the academy. He draws our intention to the messiness of the world in practice;how human emotions, scientific methods, institutional priorities, research ethics boards, peer review committees, professional reputations, class syllabi, employment contracts, graduate student committees, and codes of conduct become entangled when we go about the business of saying or writing something. When we talk about free speech, these constraints are made opaque despite their centrality in shaping how we talk, write, and debate.

A graduate student, depending on their discipline and department, will typically take graduate courses, be employed as a teaching assistant (TA), and research their independent thesis work. In order to guide a budding scholar through the complexities of academic research and politics, a grad student works under a committee. Such committees are made up of professors who have been rewarded PhDs for their familiarity and experience as academics. One of these committee members is the grad student’s supervisor who very closely guides that student’s academic work. All research produced for the student’s thesis must be rigorously checked by their supervisor and committee. This leads to a painful process of sending in drafts and receiving back red marks. Such a process shapes what knowledge is reliable, rigorous, and fair, and what knowledge is inappropriate, poorly thought out, and not defendable. If a student ignores their committee, they will likely fail their thesis defense and not receive a degree.

If a grad student were to write their own independent research, to give it credibility they would need to submit it to an academic journal. All reputable journals use a peer-review process where a committee of scholars assess the quality, reliability, and credibility of academic work and reject work that doesn’t meet academic standards. Poor research is sent back to the grad student to be revised or sent elsewhere. And some work is rejected for not meeting the criteria of the peer reviewers. Grad students need to have tough skin, as we will get torn to pieces several times a year.

There are other ways in which academic knowledge is reasonably shaped. Research on human subjects is tightly controlled by General Research Ethics Boards (GREB) that are informed by federal policy and legislation. If a grad student ignores GREB, they could be expelled and have their credentials revoked. Academic conduct is held to a Code of Conduct and other university policies that shape how scholars can interact with each other. And ultimately, the university must abide by the Criminal Code and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that protect people in the scholarly community against hate crimes and discrimination.

Finally, a grad student typically becomes a TA to help fund their studies. This is an admittedly precarious job that usually have students working overtime with no extra pay. The TA signs an employment contract, works under a professor who teaches the course, and does not have any authority to teach their own content. TAs do not have the same academic freedom as professors. Aadita Chaudhurry, a PhD student at York University, penned up an article that appropriately delves into how Shepherd failed at her obligations as a TA. Grievances with professors are often mediated through a public service union that advocates on behalf of the grad student.

These formal restrictions on how knowledge is produced are complemented with informal occupational norms that are enforced by students, faculty, and administration. This is the everydayness of the academy. A grad student can’t just write anything. Everything a grad student does in public (including their publications) are informally assessed by colleagues and professors. Miscalculations or poorly thought out work can negatively impact the future of a grad student.

To engage in proper research in the academy is to maneuver through the tangled red tape of policies, expectations, institutions, regulations, and professional obligations. This has a grad student dancing and staggering back and forth through research and teaching and negotiating and compromising on the substance of their scholarly practices. This is the messiness of epistemology in practice. These processes are all swept away in popular debates around free speech in the academy. Such arguments are far too easy because they ignore how the academy functions as a complex institution and community.

And don’t get me wrong. None of these processes or practices are immune from criticism. But that is an entirely different discussion than the one being advocated by Lindsay Shepherd. Academic freedom is certainly important, but so are the ways in which it can and cannot be practiced. University administration, faculty associations, and student and labor unions are constantly in friction over how these limits should take shape. These are discussions that are always already happening and do not get near the press attention that Shepherd’s employment bungle has attracted. If the academy is in crisis, its critics are focusing on the wrong issues.