Imagine if the Ontario Human Rights Code actually functioned the way Scott Piatkowski, chair of the Waterloo Region District School Board, implied it did when he shut down a committee discussion earlier this month after a teacher raised questions about the age-appropriateness of certain books on trans issues. “I’m not sure exactly where you’re headed,” Mr. Piatkowski warned the teacher, “but I would caution you to make sure that you are not saying anything that would violate the Human Rights Code.”
The teacher, Carolyn Burjoski, had merely asked whether certain titles were appropriate for young children, given that some portrayed deeply complex issues – such as infertility resulting from certain hormone treatments – as simple and straightforward. Members of the board were free to respond that they indeed believed the titles were appropriate for children and moved on, yet Mr. Piatkowski instead invoked the supposed omnipresent powers of the Human Rights Code to quiet the teacher, and the board subsequently took down a video of the meeting out of concern about “legal exposure.”
It should go without saying that the Ontario Human Rights Code does not function as a noxious fog waiting to swallow up anyone offering the most mundane observations about contentious issues. It should also go without saying that someone who asks whether – to use a different example – a particular book on the Holocaust is appropriate for kids of a certain age, should not be dismissed as a Holocaust denier. (Some would argue “asking questions” can function as a side door to bigotry, although I’m not sure how well one can then discern a clandestine radical from someone genuinely asking questions.) Nevertheless, Ms. Burjoski was effectively cast as anti-trans by her colleagues, who subsequently released a statement apologizing for “any harm caused to the transgender community.”
It is not particularly unusual to see this sort of stark illiberalism when it comes to almost any discussion of trans issues that deviates even marginally from a certain script. A professor was accused of “hate speech” for critically exploring whether trans women who have not undergone surgery should be placed in women’s prisons; author Margaret Atwood was called a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) for retweeting a column in October that defended the use of the word “woman;” Caitlyn Jenner was accused of turning her back on her own community when she said it was unfair for trans girls to compete in women’s sports. In each case, there is certainly a counterargument to be made about each woman’s assessment (or in Ms. Atwood’s case, against the column she retweeted), but the overwhelming response was to dismiss the speaker and brand her as intolerant, rather than to dissect the merits (or lack thereof) of her analysis.
There are reasons for why the impulse to shut down those who are perceived to be anti-trans is so strong. The trans community is exceptionally small compared with other minority groups (Statistics Canada estimates it is around 0.24 per cent of the population), and those undergoing transition nowadays are typically youth, who suffer exceeding high rates of depression and suicide. Based on its size and the age of those in transition, the trans community absolutely needs an army of vocal advocates, particularly since it is subject to such massively disproportionate attention and legislation, particularly in the United States. It is important for trans youth to see they have allies, and it is important to society that bigoted views and oppressive legislation be challenged.
But no one is served when discourse about an issue is so fraught that a teacher is portrayed as anti-trans for questioning the appropriateness of certain books. We can pretend that all matters on this issue are straightforward and black and white – that there can be no debate on whether a trans swimmer has an advantage over her cis competitors, for example – but these things, like most things, are decidedly complicated. If those who are inclined to approach the discussion openly and compassionately are shouted down, or if they keep quiet out of concern about how they may be perceived, the only people speaking are either the frothing bigots, or those who think the Ontario Human Rights Code can be waved around like a magic wand. Those who have more nuanced views will continue to see their opinions unrepresented, and the danger in that is that, eventually, they might migrate toward the side that isn’t implicitly telling them to keep quiet.
For what it’s worth, I personally think trans people should use whatever bathroom they want, and that they should be referred to by their desired pronouns because it is the decent and human thing to do, and that the continued legislative oppression going on in the U.S. against them is a moral abomination. But I also think we should be able to have discussions about which books are appropriate for kids at what age, and how – or not – to address apparent biological advantages in sport, without being accused of spewing hate or bigotry.
And with that, I await formal notice from the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
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