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On Transgender Demands and Other “Hysteria”

placards in snow banks

Photo credit: Celeste Trianon (Facebook).

Metonymy Press is the 2023 Richler Writer-in-Residence for the McGill University Department of English. The following is a guest post from a member of the McGill community.

A Thank You Note to McGill’s Trans Students and Their Allies

by Tynan Jarrett

I’m in the throes of perimenopause, and I’ve gotten up at 1am to write this after being awoken by night sweats. I’m also a transmasculine person and a feminist, and a staff member at McGill University, though I’m writing this piece in a personal not professional capacity. I wasn’t at last week’s protest at New Chancellor Day Hall, but I wish I could have been. I’m putting all of this up front so that you can stop reading now if you’re not in the mood to hear from someone who is “hysterical.”

On Tuesday, Jan. 10th, the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism (CHRLP), within the Faculty of Law at McGill, hosted an event featuring speaker Robert Wintemute under the inauspicious title of Sex vs. Gender (Identity) Debate In the United Kingdom and the Divorce of LGB from T. Wintemute is a McGill law grad, and a Professor of Human Rights Law at King’s College in London, whose recent work as a litigator includes defending the rights of Lithuanian fairy tale characters to same-sex marry.

Wintemute is also a trustee of the LGB Alliance, a group seeking to turn back the clock to a time when abbreviations were simpler and cisness was an untouchable norm that we didn’t have the language to discuss. Considered by many, including Pride in London (the UK’s largest LGBTQ+ organization), to be a transphobic hate group, the LGB Alliance is not alone in seeking an end to the union between T and LGB. As was pointed out in the open letter penned by the organizers of last Tuesday’s protest, the wedge-driven strategy is one promoted by some far right groups in the U.S. as a way to divide and conquer queer and trans people.

Much has already been said about the talk, including about the objections raised by trans students and allies in the lead up to it, and the unfolding of the event and the well-attended protests, including the eventual decision to halt it partway through.

The protesters, who numbered up to two hundred, have been thoroughly criticized, including in national media and by institutional leaders, for charges that include throwing flour on the speaker, unplugging the projector, writing on a wall with permanent marker, and blocking access to and refusing to leave the event, leaving Wintemute and several others inside the Dean’s office for a time. Wintemute compared the protesters’ behaviour to that of the armed insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. capitol on Jan. 6th 2020 in an attempt to overthrow the results of an American election, an attack which briefly shut down U.S. Congress and contributed to the deaths of at least seven people.

Protester hold megaphone with crowd in background

Photo credit: Celeste Trianon (Facebook).

“Hysterical” was the charge that Wintemute levelled at trans activists, mostly trans students and their allies, when they wrote an open letter prior to Wintemute’s talk at McGill calling for its cancellation.

But let me pivot here.

Many reading this will likely know that trans people, and trans youth in particular, are especially vulnerable to suicide. A study from June 2022 found that trans youth in Canada were 5 times more likely than other youth to consider suicide, and 7.6 times more likely to attempt suicide. This is a stark and terrible reality, but if you’ve been listening to the realities of trans youth, it’s not shocking.

Something I learned only a handful of years ago, that surprised me, is that some people are not suicidal. I’m not trying to be cute here. I honestly didn’t know.

Life in a world that is constantly telling you, in a multitude of ways, that you don’t belong, that you are a threat, that you are debatable, takes a toll. Life in a world that is constantly telling you that you don’t have a right to exist takes a toll. For me, as for many other trans people, this can make even everyday life difficult. For me, as for many other trans people, suicidal ideation comes in waves, and degrees. A given week, month, or year may be more or less bearable. That is true for me, even if I am among the most privileged of trans people. And it is true for me, even if the ideological underpinnings of Wintemute’s arguments, and the violence that follows it, is aimed most directly at trans women.

There is a feeling of stuckness that comes with the demand to engage logically and on a purely intellectual level about whether or not one has the right to exist. As despair and anger course through the mind, one sometimes dares not open one’s mouth, for fear of the forbidden emotions that might emerge; one dares not form words on the screen for fear of exposing the prohibited sentiments, in all their intensity, that lie within one’s being. For the fear, plainly put, of being seen as hysterical.

The demand that oppressed groups sit quietly with hands clasped on laps while powerful people with no skin in the game organize civil debates about their right to dignity, to basic respect, or even to exist—is not new. Nor is the recurring fragility of any recent rights gains and the frequent and ferocious backlash these gains have spurred.

What is new, what is wonderful, what is worth celebrating, is that trans students and their allies are changing the narrative. At McGill last week, they organized quickly and smartly, used democratic principles to engage the media, then held a demonstration, and used non-violent civil disobedience to stop a hateful event. They demanded better of the Faculty and University that had promised them an education that would centre inclusive learning environments where they mattered.

I’m so saddened by the lack of empathy and care that has been shown to them, by so many. The focus has been entirely on academic freedom. But empathy and care are not antithetical to academic freedom. Trans students deserve more than what they’ve been shown, and I’m proud of and inspired by their courage in calling for recognition of their very right to be heard and belong.

Wintemute explained in an interview with CBC conducted from inside the Dean’s Office that he is speaking up because “woman have human rights too, but most women are afraid to speak up because of the intimidation of the transgender rights movement.”

You may believe that Wintemute is—as he claims—a spokesman for the silent lesbian majority; or perhaps you wonder if he’s just an academic past his prime, struggling to remain relevant, or desperate for attention. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.

The trans community—and in particular, trans students at McGill—deserve better. I’m elated to see that they know as much and are prepared to advocate for it.