Ever since U of T psychology professor, Jordan Peterson, refused to recognize genderless pronouns in his YouTube lectures on September 27 and October 3, responses have fluctuated around lack of U of T action to create a safe environment for the trans community.
In response to Peterson’s comments, a rally was held on October 5 where speakers from the trans and the non-binary community got to share their experiences and address their concerns.
In an interview with The Medium, UTSU’s VP university affairs, Cassandra Williams, stated that the rally was educational and was held by a number of trans students, who handed out educational materials.
In an interview with The Medium on October 7, Althea Blackburn-Evans, U of T’s director of media relations, stated: “[Peterson] is entitled to have his opinion. Academic freedom means that he can share his views on the university’s policies, […], but like all members of our community, he’s also required to follow our policies and to create a respectful learning environment, and one that’s free of discrimination.”
“Free speech rally”
Last Tuesday, a rally for free speech was held at U of T. The rally featured Peterson speaking in front of the attendees, as well as other speakers who supported free speech.
“[In the rally] There were calls for violence against black people, there were statements about trans people being less human, and a number of adults who had no ties to the university community came to campus and assaulted trans students,” stated Williams to The Medium.
UTSU also released a statement on their Facebook page on October 16, addressing the rally for free speech, and called for action from the university.
“Tuesday’s rally was marred by bigotry and violence, and the Campus Police refused to intervene when they knew of and saw trans folks being assaulted,” read the statement.
UTMSU’s LGBTQ coordinator Denio Lourenco also shared his opinion about the rally in an email to The Medium.
“I think it was very disappointing. It was filled with bigotry and violence. Many people were yelling homophobic and racist slurs,” said Lourenco.
White noise distortion
Peterson, as shown in a YouTube video of the rally, posted by a channel called U of T Free Speech, was shouting instead of using the microphone. A voice in the video explained that he had to raise his voice after noise was being played in the background.
Peterson did not deny what he said in his lectures about not recognizing genderless pronouns.
“Free speech is the mechanism by which we keep our society functioning. It’s in the consequence of free speech and the ability to speak that people can put their finger on problems, articulate what those problems are, solve them and come to a consensus. And we risk losing that,” he said.
“We’ve had laws passed in this country about what people can’t say and that’s reasonable, but that seems to be that we’re in danger of crossing the line. […] It’s the first time I’ve seen in our legislative history, where people are attempting to make us speak their language,” Peterson added.
The video also claimed that Williams was creating “white noise” in the background to disrupt the speakers.
Williams confirmed with The Medium that she was one of those who created the distortion, explaining that it was “noise-music”, not white noise, which she explained has been a genre for decades.
“Yeah, the noise was played, […]” said Williams. “The intention was to disrupt the hate speech, but of course, people continued to do their hate speech anyway because I have no power to stop people from talking.”
Williams also stated that several trans students have been receiving threats.
U of T recognizes threats
U of T sent an email last Friday to its community members, students, and faculty, addressing threats that it alleges were made on social media against some members of the trans community at U of T.
“We condemn these threats,” stated U of T’s letter, signed by Cheryl Regehr, vice-president and provost, and Kelly Hannah-Moffat, vice-president human resources and equity.
“We are working closely with University of Toronto Campus Police, Toronto Police Service, and the U of T Community Safety Office to support the individuals who have received these threats. The situation is being actively monitored,” they said.
The letter also explained that U of T is proud of its diverse community.
“As expressed in our Statement on Prohibited Discrimination and Discriminatory Harassment, we deplore the targeting of individuals and communities on the basis of gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, religion, race or any other ground of prohibited discrimination.”
“I am very disappointed in the lack of response from the administration. So far the university has only spoken to us indirectly through the media,” Lourenco said in an email to The Medium about U of T’s letter.
“They are aware of the threats [that] have been made against me and other individuals, yet they have not contact[ed] any of us directly. Instead, our VP and provost decided once again to indirectly communicate with us via the recent safety alert,” Lourenco added.
Williams also expressed her dissatisfaction. “The university is very clearly not doing enough to protect the safety of trans students on campus,” she said.
“The university needs to do more to ensure that trans students on campus have these safe environments, and in fact, the university has a mandate ensuring an environment that’s free of discrimination and harassments. And at the moment, they’re completely failing in this duty,” she continued.
UTMSU released a letter on October 6 in response to Peterson, criticizing his “transphobic” and “racist” comments.
“The University has failed to act on this situation, and this ultimately showcases that ‘diversity, inclusion, and equal respect’, are simply legalities and are not principles that the University intends on upholding,” stated the letter.
The letter also addressed U of T’s Governing Council, by requesting five demands: an apology from Peterson, the removal of his “transphobic and racist” lectures from YouTube, an obligatory anti-oppression training every academic semester for all levels of U of T, including faculty and administration, and a town hall with U of T.
UTMSU also demanded U of T take action that defends students in the case that a professor makes comments that stand against race, sex, religion, gender expression or identity, and sexual orientation.
Williams told The Medium that U of T needs to ensure a safe environment for its trans community, where they are not discriminated against in the classrooms.
“The university needs to seriously investigate how their employees are interacting with trans students to ensure that trans students are not being discriminated against in this way […] They need to do something material to deal with the threats of violence which have been targeting students on campus.”
Lourenco also mentioned “the necessity of anti-oppression training at all levels of the university, every academic semester.”
UTSU’s October 16 statement continued with a call for a full, public inquiry into the university’s campus community police.
“Even now, the University has done nothing to ensure that all students are safe on campus. […] It is unacceptable for the Campus Police to fail in their responsibility to keep students safe from violence on campus, and specifically against trans students,” read the statement.
“An investigation by the administration—to which students have no access—will not be sufficient, an investigation must be public and done by an unbiased party,”
Later in the statement, UTSU admitted that many interactions with university administration have been positive, but condemned the institution for its unwillingness to act.
“[…] It is the institution that must be moved and it currently is unwilling. Only a public inquiry will begin to restore confidence in the ability of the University, and of the Campus Police in particular, to guarantee the safety of students on campus,” the statement also mentioned.
U of T’s Statement of Equity, Diversity, and Excellence outlines that the university seeks to increase its diversity and aims to have a community, including teaching and administrative staff, who also mirror the diversity.
The statement also highlights the creation of a diverse and an inclusive equitable community that respects and protects the human rights of the U of T members.
“The university is committed to its internal policies on issues related to equity, and also operates in compliance with all legislation that bears on equity and human rights,” says the statement.