Why We Should Stand Up For Trans Rights and Recognition at the University of Toronto

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Why We Should Stand Up For Trans Rights and Recognition at the University of Toronto

Non-binary students deserve support from U of T faculty, not professors who cast aspersions.


Being transgender is often difficult. In 2015, Ontario researchers found that more than half of trans people have clinical depression, while 43 per cent had a history of attempting suicide [PDF]. Twenty-eight per cent of trans Ontarians could not get employment references with their current name or pronoun, and 58 per cent could not get academic transcripts with the correct name or gender, severely limiting their success on the job market.

Scientific consensus suggests neither biological nor cultural aspects of gender can be adequately explained within a binary [PDF]. Instead, gender develops in a web of environmental and physiological factors, forming diverse bodies and gender identities.

Recognizing the unique needs of transgender people, the Province of Ontario has recently launched public consultations to develop a more comprehensive method for collecting gender data. At the federal level, Bill C-16 aims to curb discrimination based on gender identity.

But not everyone is satisfied with the proposed changes. Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto who specializes in religious belief and personality, stated in an interview with the CBC’s As It Happens that he refuses to call non-binary transgender students by their pronouns, due to the purported absence of scientific evidence “that gender identity and biological sexuality are independently varying constructs.”

Biological sexuality? Exactly what is this? Clearly not sexual orientation. In the science on gender, such a concept holds no clout. Even if Peterson intended to refer to “sex,” his claims falter anyway.

Peterson asserts recognizing non-binary pronouns would (1) feed left-wing ideology; (2) dismantle the gender binary for all who identify within it; and (3) incite violent backlash. None of these claims are true.

Singular (or epicene) “they” has been used since at least Shakespeare. If Peterson wishes to be consistent in his linguistic prescriptivism, we advise that the original use of “you” was plural, the singular being “thou.”

Worse, Peterson’s commentary relies on an understanding of gender refuted as far back as the 1970s: sex role theory, the idea that there is a biologically determined distinction between males and females. But no clear distinction has been scientifically substantiated. Rather, evidence to the contrary abounds [PDF].

While sexed physiology aligns with normative gender identity for most people, gender assignment at birth is a cultural act. This ritual reinforces genitals as the “truth” about gender and carries social expectations, while the development of identity—through an observable interaction between neurology, psychology, and culture—becomes dismissed as merely ideological [PDF].

But “sex” is not just penises and vaginas, and “gender” is more than factors coded masculine or feminine. Though sex continues to be understood as differences in chromosomes, hormone levels, genitalia, internal reproductive structures, and secondary sex characteristics, there are more than two naturally occurring combinations.

Neuroscientist Lise Eliot demonstrates the only reliable facts that differentiate brains by sex are physical size and timing of maturation. Meanwhile, epigenetics shows that the environment acts on or through our genes. Biology is in constant interaction with the environment, and so too therefore are the gendered characters of bodies. As gender develops over the life course, the brain enables corresponding changes. We thus have a diverse representation of sex/gender in the population, and this is poorly reflected by the binary shackles of our English language.

It is curious that a psychologist outside gender studies should assert with authority what we know about gender. We wonder, if not a gender scholar critiquing his field, what is this really about?

Peterson refuses to recognize another person’s right to decide what words he should use. Herein lies the first clue. Just as feminists shifted the language from “sex” to “gender” in order to disrupt the belief that women’s biology justified their social inferiority, just as queer people shifted the language away from 19th century medicalized terminology to curtail their pathologization, many non-binary transgender people seek to have their bodies and identities recognized in ways that facilitate awareness about the unique social and material challenges they face.

The battle over social terminology is, at its core, a battle over who has the authority to set the terms and conditions by which the social world is organized, by which certain people are made visible or invisible.

And herein lies our second clue. Perhaps Peterson is not comfortable being asked to conform to another group’s demands. We understand. This is an experience transgender people face on a daily basis. We know how it feels to have others tell us who and how to be. If we fail to conform to majority expectation, the consequences can be lethal.

The best clue we have for Peterson’s anti-trans views can be located in his own words: “the continual careless pushing of people by left wing radicals is dangerously waking up the right wing. So you can consider this a prophecy from me if you want. Inside the collective is a beast and the beast uses its fists. If you wake up the beast then violence emerges. I’m afraid that this continual pushing by radical left wingers is going to wake up the beast.”

And there it is. Make no mistake. We are not witnessing a valid debate about the science of gender. At best, we see the same pattern we always have: pushback from someone who perceives encroachment on his sense of how the world should be ordered. This is typical, but it is also very dangerous.

In a world disproportionately violent to transgender people, it is our collective duty to loudly reject incitement of violence—both physical and psychological—especially against our transgender student population at the University of Toronto.

Peterson, we too have a prophecy: gender plurality is here to stay.


S. W. Underwood is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Toronto researching at the intersection of gender, family, and sexuality.

Ben Vincent is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Leeds, UK, researching how medical practice and queer communities impact non-binary identities.

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