By now, everyone on the UofT campus will have heard about the comments made by Professor Jordan Peterson regarding free speech.
The statement that has caused the most furor among students and the community-at-large is Peterson’s refusal to acknowledge “they/them” pronouns, which trans people use if they identify as non-binary, gender-fluid, etc.
Perhaps the most witless and irritating argument made by transphobic people against using “they/them” pronouns is that it is grammatically incorrect to do so. Linguists argue that society should adopt “they” as a default pronoun for when someone’s gender is not known, and “they” was even selected as the 2015 word of the year by the American Dialect Society. On the Society’s website, they elucidate on their decision, saying: “The use of singular they builds on centuries of usage, appearing in the work of writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen. In 2015, singular they was embraced by the Washington Post style guide.” Not only has “they” been in use for centuries—language is constantly evolving.
When they are not prioritizing grammar over people, Peterson supporters are claiming that political correctness has gone too far and free speech is no longer encouraged on university campuses. Free speech is not the same thing as hate speech. Freedom of speech is not boundless and unconditional—it never has been. People have always been held responsible for the abuse of free speech, which is why hate speech is illegal.
There should be no reason for people to be defending their right to have uninformed, hateful, and destructive opinions.
Changing your pronouns is not a personal decision, like suddenly deciding to rock a different hairstyle. Personal pronouns are a reflection of a person’s gender identity and should be respected. It is not the place of cis people to tell gender nonconforming folks that they should only identify with the gender assigned to them at birth. If you do think that’s your job, let me assure you that you are not as important as you think you are.
Even if Peterson did not intend to be hateful, the impact that his comments can have—and have had—far outweigh his intentions. Peterson’s divisive comments make trans people seem like “others” and infringe upon their safety. So no, he does not get to be hateful under the guise of free speech, and neither do you.
Professor A.W. Peet, a physics professor at UTSG who identifies as non-binary, quickly called Peterson out for his comments, noting that they were concerned about trans students on campus and how they were feeling.
Peterson responded in his CBC interview where he deliberately mis-gendered Peet, saying: “The mere fact that Professor Peet would like to be addressed by a particular pronoun does not mean that I am required to address him by that pronoun…The mere fact that I don’t want to use pronouns that some else has decided I should use doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that transgender people exist…I’m not a bigot.”
On Thursday, October 6th, the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies held a Trans-Positive Teach-In. This event featured six speakers from different departments and offices at UofT, including Professor Peet. It provided the opportunity to learn how to make UofT a more safe and inclusive space for transgender staff, faculty, and students. After the lecture, The Strand had the opportunity to talk with Professor A.W. Peet.
“When I got home last Wednesday, I read a [National] Post article about [Peterson’s comments]… I got mad for about five seconds for myself, but then I thought about the students and I got really mad. That’s what galvanized me to do something about it.” Peet said, regarding how they felt when they first heard about what Peterson had said.
“He’s doing it for media attention. He wants the publicity, like every privileged man… He wants everything to be centred on him, and now that the centre of gravity is shifting away, he feels himself and his supremacy being left behind,” added Professor Peet.
Theo Williamson, an FTM (female to male) trans student in their second year, explains how this experience has affected their student experience at UofT: “The biggest impact was that it made me feel unsafe and anxious on campus, as it gives other people with the same dehumanizing opinions an opportunity to speak out and cause more violence towards the trans community,” says Theo. “I used to feel safe walking around UofT, but now I’m finding myself checking over my shoulder more often in case someone feels compelled to cause me harm. I am ashamed and disappointed that UofT would not realize the violence that Peterson’s actions have caused. I love UofT and it’s an incredible school, but the fact that they enabled Peterson and that he’s hiding behind academia and his tenure makes me very uncomfortable.”
Peyton*, a non-binary student currently in their third year at UofT, was a student of Peterson’s in second year. They shared their direct interactions with Peterson to The Strand: “There were some things that [Peterson] said that made me really uncomfortable, so I went to the ASSU to figure out what to do…They put me in touch with an advisor who basically told me that I was misunderstanding Peterson’s comments and suggested I talk to him personally. I felt uncomfortable with that because he was still my professor. I was afraid that his perception of me would negatively impact my grades in his class.”
“That summer, I got a position as one of Peterson’s research assistants and he had me handling his Twitter to boost his online presence because there wasn’t any actual lab work to do. In September, he emailed all of his RAs—including me—that video and asked us all to share it. I wasn’t even his RA anymore, and I feel like it was probably an HR violation at the very least. I sent him an email respectfully declining to share the video and saying that I think he had some fundamental misconceptions about the issues he’s talking about and I was prepared to leave it at that. But, one of his RAs was friends with me on Facebook and he went through my posts and took screenshots of some that were criticizing Peterson and sent them directly to him while accusing me of potentially sabotaging his social media.”
“I feel like I’m being pushed out of the psych department.”
People like Professor Peterson have a huge platform and their words are not separate from the existing discourse in our society that actively allows the harm and murder of transgender people. A quick Google search shows that trans people are targeted at horrifying rates—72 percent of reported anti-LGBT homicide victims were trans women, and 67 percent of those were trans women of colour. Nearly a fifth of transgender people face homelessness at some point in their lives. Trans people are also six to seven times more likely to be subjected to police violence, and nearly twice as likely to be sexually assaulted.
Why would we want to add fuel to this fire? Cisgendered people are in a privileged position. Professor Peet stated perfectly, “If you’re looking down on someone, the least you can do is pull them up.”
A woman spoke at the Trans-Positive Teach-in as the mother of a trans child who is considering UofT as their post-secondary school. The woman expressed concern about sending her child to UofT after hearing Peterson’s comments, especially because her child’s transition was not easy. Is this the campus culture UofT wants to promote?
Toronto is hailed as a hub of diversity and inclusion. UofT represents this city on a global scale. Words are very powerful and much greater than personal opinions, especially when they have to do with identities that may not be ours to begin with.
Be mindful, be open, and most of all, stay in your lane.
*Name changed to protect identity of student
RESOURCES FOR TRANS STUDENTS
“There’s no shame in reaching out, but it’s hard. It can be awkward, it can be difficult. But it’s everybody’s responsibility to care for these students… it’s not up to the trans student to find all the resources themselves. We should be offering them love.” – Professor Peet
Professor Peet’s website: www.ap.io/home/resources
U of T Sexual and Gender Diversity Office
21 Sussex Avenue, Suites 416-417
Toronto, ON M5S 1J6
(office is wheelchair accessible and has gender neutral washrooms)
- All students, staff and faculty are welcome to drop by and visit the St. George location
- SGDO staff regularly travel to UTSC and UTM and will be able to meet you on your campus
- Appointments are available for students, staff and faculty at all three campuses
- You can let the office know in advance if you have an accommodation requirement so that they can provide appropriate assistance
LGBT Youthline: call 1-800-268-9688, text 647-694-4275, or chat online
Trans Lifeline: 877-330-6366