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Opinion Before contact, this land was a gender-fluid place

Lila Pine is a professor of new media in the RTA School of Media at Ryerson University

When Europeans first arrived in the Americas, they must have felt the magic of the land. Coming from congested communities, they must have been struck by its powerful expanse. They must have noticed how perfectly the people fit the place.

In their attempts to harness these lands and its peoples to their colonialist project, European settlers began to destroy everything Indigenous – land, languages, spirituality, dances, gift-giving, ceremonies, sexuality and gender fluidity. My students are surprised to learn that Sir John A. Macdonald banned potlatches (gift-giving), among other ceremonies, because he imagined they posed a threat to settlers.

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They are equally surprised to know that gender fluidity always existed here. In the Americas, before contact, genders were not bound in the binary. Some nations had seven genders, others had four. A number had three. Each gender, like each individual, held an honoured place in the community. Everyone had something to contribute. People were not referred to by gender-specific pronouns, but by their relation to a speaker.

Fast forward 500 years or so, and gender fluidity is having a resurgence in the Americas. Transgender, gender-fluid and two-spirit people belong here. Their resurgence is cause for celebration. Anything that makes them feel less than welcome does not belong. Unfortunately, there are those who it seems not only do not welcome them, but deny their very existence.

It is in this context that teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd brought Professor Jordan Peterson's refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns to her communications class at Wilfrid Laurier University, "to highlight the complexities of grammar." Prof. Peterson's views are demeaning to trans-identified people. Ms. Shepherd, in her role as educator, had a responsibility to identify them as such. Taking a neutral stand on the use of pronouns is a failure to support the rights of trans-identified people. It is also a failure to understand language. A static language is a dead language. It is not the complexities of grammar that need highlighting, but the limitations of a language that does not embrace the reality that humans have always been gender-fluid. Words matter. They must not be relegated to arbitrary grammatical rules.

Ms. Shepherd claimed neutrality in the debate, and called herself an advocate of free speech. If Ms. Shepherd truly believed in free speech, she would demand it for Masuma Khan, the student who was disciplined by the Dalhousie University administration for criticizing Canada 150 celebrations. Instead, Ms. Shepherd, in comparing herself to Ms. Khan, tweets: "Perhaps more people are supportive of me because I didn't make contemptuous and insolent comments about white tears and white fragility." Ms. Shepherd might just as well be advocating free speech for white cis-gendered people – and for them only. It comes as no surprise that far-right groups were quick to claim Ms. Shepherd's views as their own.

The more equity-seeking groups make gains, the more far-right groups make noise.

Above the din, equality will happen. The road will be bumpy. We will lose our way at times. It will hurt a little, maybe a lot. But it will happen. It is happening now. The Americas will be great again. Not in the far-right way, not in the military way, not in the Trump way. The Americas will be great in the way that they never stopped being great. The lands and waters will heal themselves. Gender fluidity, Indigenous languages, land-based learning, ceremonies and gift-giving will flourish again. Visitors who respect their place as guests on the land and uphold First Nations' rights to sovereignty will always be welcome.

I know the far-right will come after me for my words. I know too, that this is only because they are afraid of losing what they imagine is theirs. Equality must look like oppression to them. Eventually, they will quiet down. Perhaps some of them will come to realize that love is better than hate.

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