I Was in the Room While Jordan Peterson and Senators Debated My Human Rights
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I Was in the Room While Jordan Peterson and Senators Debated My Human Rights

Canadian trans rights legislation passed another hurdle this week. Bill C-16 now heads to a third and final vote in the Senate.

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UofT professor Jordan Peterson held up a cartoon of “Gender Unicorn,” a teaching tool for educators helping children learn about gender diversity, he finds “reprehensible.”

On May 17, I travelled to Ottawa to watch the Senate committee hear witnesses testify against Canadian federal trans rights legislation, known as Bill C-16. It was also the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT). The sad irony of this was not lost on the many trans and non-binary people in the room.

Just before the hearing, trans people and allies held a rally for trans rights on the front lawn of Parliament Hill. The sun was shining down on the pink, blue, and white trans flag, blowing proudly in the wind in front of the Parliament buildings. It was a beautiful and emotional sight. At just over 100 people, it was a small but mighty crowd. Many got up to speak, including trans folk and politicians, such as NDP LGBTQ critics MPP Cheri DiNovo and MP Randall Garrison, who have both spent years fighting for trans rights.

Bill C-16 would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code, adding gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination, in addition to sex, religion, race, and sexual orientation. Some Conservative senators, including Senator Don Plett, have been extremely vocal in their opposition to the bill and have actively crusaded to water it down with amendments.

And it was Plett who invited University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson to speak. Peterson gained notoriety last year for his continued refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns to address his students. In a series of videos, he claimed that his free speech is threatened by what he considers to be “political correctness,” and that the bill is a slippery slope to a “totalitarian regime.”

Many considered it an insult that Peterson was invited to testify at all. Even more frustrating that well-known trans advocates and allies such as DiNovo, who introduced Toby’s Act and Susan Gapka, founder of the Trans Lobby Group, were not invited to speak.

Inside the Senate building, I prepared to pass through security and began to feel anxious about what I was going to hear. I wondered if I could sit quietly as my identity and my right to live as who I am, free from discrimination and violence, was debated by cis people.


Rally for Trans Rights. Photo by Sophia Banks.

I took a seat in the back and for two hours I listened to wealthy cis white men including Peterson express anguish over how protecting trans rights would limit free speech.

It’s always about free speech to these men. They see no hypocrisy when they can use their free speech to organize and speak out and oppose human rights legislation. But free speech is never free from criticism.

Peterson was allotted one hour of the two-hour Senate committee to speak. The psychology professor and his lawyer, Bruce Pardy, made preposterous claims about how C-16 could potentially land them in jail for not using a trans person’s chosen pronouns. Peterson’s outlandish statements, such as how trans people’s gender is subjective and that science has not yet proven that trans is even a thing, had my eyes rolling .

He claimed that activists use trans children as propaganda tools, even suggesting the gender unicorn is a tool used by trans adults to twist the minds of children into thinking they are trans. It was even argued that, since trans people made up only .3 per cent of the general population in Canada, that special provisions were absurd. Even if we are only .3 per cent of the population, we should still matter and be treated fairly as humans.

Peterson and Pardy are both extremely concerned about being legally “compelled” into using pronouns they don’t respect, even suggesting jail was a possible outcome.

The Canadian Bar Association cleared this up in a statement on May 10, stating that this was a gross misunderstanding of Bill C-16, and that freedom of speech was in no way being restricted or censored.

“Recently, the debate has turned to whether the amendments will force individuals to embrace concepts, even use pronouns, which they find objectionable. This is a misunderstanding of human rights and hate crimes legislation,” it states.

Nobody will face criminal charges for the casual or accidental misgendering of a trans person. However, what the legislation will do is enshrine into law that willful, repeated, deliberate misgendering of trans people is potential harassment and worthy of investigation.

I was sitting there in the back of the room listening to cis white men debate my rights, my existence, and the lack of “credible” science that would prove I am who I say I am. Trans people are constantly debated, dehumanized, and degraded. Cis people often talk about us as though we are not even here in the room, living out our lives.

Thankfully, Peterson did not manage to sway the votes. On May 18, after two weeks of hearings, the Senate committee passed C-16 with no amendments or observations. We are likely to see this bill pass into law. Tears of joy rolled down my face.

Bill C-16 now heads to a third and final vote in the Senate, before receiving royal assent. There have been six parliamentary incarnations of trans rights legislation moving through the House of Commons, or stalled in the Senate, since a law was first proposed by NDP MP Bill Siksay in 2005.

Throughout this process, the term “gender expression” has been the most controversial point. Many still do not understanding the differences between identity and expression. My identity is who I am; my expression is simply an expression of my identity. A good example of why gender expression was needed in the bill would be to protect trans people who are gender fluid, such as an individual who may wear a dress to work one day, then a more typical masculine outfit the next day, like a suit. Sometimes this is also called being non-binary.

Notice how that’s often acceptable for folks who are assigned female at birth, but not so much for those assigned male at birth.

Gender expression protection would also keep federal employees safe from termination in their jobs and offer recourse if they experience discrimination or harassment.

Many trans folks have found themselves locked out of bank accounts and, in some cases, accused of fraud, when banks do not believe their voice or presentation matches the gender they have on file.

Bill C-16 makes it clear, for all of Canada, that trans rights are human rights, and the safety and dignity of trans people must be respected. It will send a strong message to all institutions, private and public, that they must begin to address these problems, educate their employees on gender diversity, and hire trans and gender non-conforming people.

The legislation won’t completely end transphobic hiring practices. Transphobia will not disappear overnight. I lost my business when I came out as a trans woman and years later, I have still never come close to getting to the financial stability I had prior to my coming out. Many trans people have lost careers, but many more just don’t get hired at all. Still, this is a huge step forward.

“For non-binary, gender fluid and gender nonconforming trans people, and particularly those who do not ‘pass’ as the gender they identify with, protecting both gender identity and gender expression is absolutely required,” Fae Johnstone, an Ottawa-based trans activist, says.

“As a non-binary femme person who doesn’t ‘pass’ as a man or a woman, if I face violence or am the victim of a hate crime, I am most likely to be targeted because of my feminine expression—my tendency to wear makeup, dresses, and other clothing considered ‘women’s’—rather than my identity. Failing to protect both identity and expression would permit a continued and unacceptable gap in Canadian human rights legislation.”

CORRECTION: This story previously stated trans people made up only 3 per cent of the general population in Canada. The number is closer .3 per cent. Torontoist regrets the error.