Faculty, students and transgender community members are speaking out about how a University of Toronto professor’s controversial comments on gender identity have affected them.
The wave of responses followed a YouTube lecture published by Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto (U of T). In the lecture, Peterson said he refuses to accept the use of genderless pronouns such as the singular use of “they” and “them.”
The lecture has sparked a wave of responses, including a rally Wednesday at U of T, where more than 70 students and community members publicly responded to Peterson. The purpose of the rally was to demonstrate how Peterson’s words impact students, not only at U of T, but across all post-secondary institutions.
Iris Robin, a non-binary Ryerson student and one of the rally organizers, said the event was intended to provide a space for affected students to share their experiences.
“We’re taking this as an opportunity to bring to light some issues that are common to a lot of educational institutions,” said Robin. “Education institutions have a role in spreading correct information–it’s in their mandate. So if they’re not doing the same practice in the classroom, then I think that’s something that needs to be addressed.”
The crowd passed around a microphone and shared their personal experiences confronting the transphobia and discrimination they’ve faced based on their gender identities. Volunteers handed out resources to educate attendees and passers-by about trans, non-binary and intersex identities. Organizers wore name tags bearing their preferred pronouns, reinforcing the importance of fostering inclusion. Those in the crowd were invited to ask questions about gender identity.
Among those in attendance was A.W. Peet, a U of T physics professor who identifies as gender non-binary and uses singular they pronouns. Peet has publicly refuted Peterson’s claims, declaring their support and advocacy for trans and non-binary students.
Peet said that they are taking a public stance against Peterson’s comments because they feel it is their obligation – as a tenured professor and non-binary person – to exercise their own position and stick up for students who may feel silenced by Peterson’s lecture.
“I felt that I couldn’t let this go unanswered,” said Peet. “As a scientist, there was a perfect way to try to prove him wrong about some important things, which was merely to say ‘I exist.’”
They said that by showing their support at the rally and taking a public stance against Peterson’s remarks they are trying to help students feel safe on campus through solidarity and compassion.
“We have an employment-related duty of care to students,” said Peet. “And that applies to all students, not just to those whose politics you agree with.”
Peet said that Peterson’s comments, as a faculty member, are a complete failure to meet his obligation to foster inclusion and make campus a safe place for students and trans people.
“As a faculty member he’s in a position of power and authority over students,” said Peet. “As such, these comments can be incredibly damaging.”
Andrea Houston, a Ryerson professor of queer media, also spoke out publically against Peterson’s lecture at a panel discussion hosted last week by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.
In a telephone interview, Houston said she can’t believe that respect for preferred pronouns is still a topic of debate, especially in a university setting. She added that although she is happy with the quick response to the online lecture from activists and community members, the real responsibility to protect students falls on faculty.
“This is a good lesson for universities everywhere,” said Houston. “Just because one of your faculty members has tenure doesn’t mean they aren’t obligated to continue to be current in what is, not just the law, but considered to be respectful for your students. I think it’s really important that they are made to feel safe and supported and he’s clearly failing his obligation to that.”