When Transphobia Trumps Statistics

flickr/Ted Eytan
A new bill reveals, yet again, how swiftly politicians and academics choose to ignore the cold hard facts of discrimination.

A s a transgender Canadian, I’ve been hawkishly poring over the many debates on Bill C-16, a human rights bill that would add “public incitements of violence,” “willful promotion of hatred,” and “advocacy for genocide” as activities outside of “acceptable speech” concerning gender identity and expression. It would also add bias against a victim’s gender identity or expression as an aggravating circumstance for criminal sentencing. Any business under federal jurisdiction — including the postal service, telecommunications, banks, and airlines — that discriminates against an employee or hiree on the basis of their gender identity and expression would be penalized.

In short, Bill C-16 a good step for trans equality in Canada, strengthening our legal protections. And the data shows they’re much needed.

In 2011, the National Task Force for Transgender Equality published one of the most comprehensive reviews of discrimination against trans folk that finally paints our picture in detail. A brief snapshot: 90% of us experienced workplace harassment or discrimination. 26% of us lost our jobs and careers when we came out. 19% of us have been homeless, and another 29% have been turned away at homeless shelters specifically because of our identity. 19% of us had been refused service in health care, and 57% of us experienced some kind of significant family rejection. Those statistics were based on the responses from trans people of every race; it should be noted that every single outcome is worse if you’re also black and trans.

90% of trans folk experienced workplace harassment or discrimination in 2011. 26% of us lost our jobs and careers when we came out.

These are the facts, and though they are nothing new for trans people, they demonstrate that Bill C-16 is necessary to explicitly protect Canadian trans people who have largely been relegated to patchwork federal case law and legal gray areas until very recently.

When the results from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) were released, I naively hoped these statistics would offer a chance for those who didn’t know them to get a big-picture view of some of our crises, amd that the NTDS would enter the conversation on public policy.

After all, legislators are passing policy for everyone, so they’d want the full picture, right?

Apparently not. The necessity of a human rights bill like C-16 ought to be self-evident given the outcomes of the trans community, simply because of the appalling frequency and degree of discrimination that trans Canadians continue to face — but you do need to be aware of that fact first for it to be obvious. The law has been passed in Parliament but awaits further voting in the Senate, and during these debates, the data is seldom, if ever, mentioned.

The necessity of a human rights bill like C-16 ought to be self-evident given the statistics — but during political debates, the data is seldom, if ever, mentioned.

For the most part, the unconscionable rates of discrimination, as demonstrated by the statistics, weren’t enough to really catch people’s attention. The latest episode of public engagement with this bill didn’t begin until a University of Toronto professor by the name of Dr. Jordan Peterson found a way to spin Bill C-16, explaining how it would negatively affect cisgender people. Instead of relying on the data and bringing the highly useful NTDS to the forefront, Dr. Peterson argues Bill C-16 could “lead to legal action against legitimate discussion and research on gender and sexuality, including research on the ‘biological origins of gender.’”

Peterson has gone on to make a number of arguments about Bill C-16 and trans people more generally. He argued how the singular “they” was an improper pronoun despite using it no less than five times in his statement, even in reference to some non-binary folks’ preference for “they” and “their” as a pronoun. He then argued that non-binary people don’t exist, a position that he later recanted. He then abandoned his previous tracts altogether to claim Bill C-16 would introduce criminal penalties for those who misgender a trans person, knowingly or otherwise, even though that claim has been debunked by law experts who joined him on an appearance on TVO and at a campus debate on legislation on gender identity that he hosted at the University of Toronto.

In other words, Jordan Peterson doesn’t really know what to think of Bill C-16, except that he’s opposed to it, which he all but admits in the debate when he says he has failed to articulate his point “like a boneheaded moron.” For once, he and I agree.

During the U of T debate, held November 11, 2016, Brenda Cossman, one of Peterson’s critics and a professor of law at the University of Toronto, pointed out that the boundaries of Bill C-16 are quite clear. She actually had to make the stunningly obvious observation that “misusing pronouns is not ‘advocacy of genocide.’” She then quoted the precedent set by the Supreme Court, explaining the threshold for “public incitement of hatred” as “personal violence” and the threshold for “willful promotion of hatred” as “the unusually strong and deep felt emotions of vilification and detestation. It is not disdain, it is not dislike, it is not offense.” Cossman also observed that hate speech charges cannot be filed without the consent of the Attorney General, something she describes as a “very high threshold.”

In fact, the only area where deliberate misgendering of a trans person comes into play at all in Bill C-16 is that it could be evidence of bias if you’ve already committed a crime against someone. As Cossman puts it, “[this] does not create any new offenses.” In other words, misgendering would only be used against you if you were already found guilty of committing a crime against a trans person. It has never been a crime to misgender someone, even knowingly, and Bill C-16 cannot make it so.

It would be so much easier on my blood pressure to simply shake my head and dismiss Peterson as yet another erratic hedge knight tilting at windmills. But despite waffling back and forth on every position he’s advanced in this “debate,” he has found a champion in Senator Donald Plett. As Senator Plett said on the record during the Senate’s Policy Discussion and Legislative Process on November 22, 2016:

Political correctness authoritarians have narrowed the scope of acceptable thought and discourse in academia and, by extension, the general public. However, we as legislators and public policy-makers should not be afraid of the difficult conversations. In fact, it is outrageous and irresponsible to do so. Legislation that has serious implications on freedom of speech — and, for the first time in Canadian law, compelled speech — cannot be passed so flippantly without thorough public discourse, debate and consideration.
I want to challenge my colleagues in the Senate Chamber to give this legislation its due diligence. As University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson said recently on this issue, we need to decide that speaking and acting in truth is imperative. Once we decide that we will not engage in manipulation of facts, regardless of the results, if it is based on telling the truth, that is always the best possible outcome.

It is strange that Plett, of all people, is the one who calls on us to “not engage in the manipulation of facts.” Plett refers to Bill C-16 as being the first time “compelled” speech has been enacted, yet every single label printed on a product in this country has been required to have a French version alongside the English since 1999. Or how about our citizenship ceremony, wherein you are compelled to swear an oath of fealty to the monarch? One wonders what Plett means by “compelled” speech such that Bill C-16 is the first of its kind in Canada.

Plett was also the architect of an amendment that would exclude public accommodations on the previous trans rights bill, Bill C-279, justifying it as “protecting the safety of women and children,” attributing a particular crime to trans nondiscrimination ordinances that didn’t yet exist when the crime occurred.

In other words, the man who has gone on record to obfuscate facts is now moralizing on the manipulation of public discourse. Check the well for poison, folks, because Plett’s pouring in a dose of North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory.

Of course, absolutely none of these tactics are new to anyone tracking trans human and civil rights discourse. Opponents to human, civil, and trans rights have been fighting dirty for a long time. We can turn back the clock a couple months, a half-year, a few years, and even a few decades. We see the same hogwash again and again and again, whether it’s elevated by academics who haven’t published original research on gender variance in 45 years or raised up again by terminally clueless North Carolinian politicians who use these tactics to pass actively discriminatory bills. It is a discourse that is plagued with twists and half-truths, and what clear evidence exists is tortured on the rack until it says what the anti-trans lobby wants it to say.

In the big picture, Plett and Peterson are both just another pair of names we can add to a long list of trans rights detractors whose discourse attempts to veil itself in the legitimacy of something else — academia, safety, or the ever painfully ironic banner of “common sense” — because they recognize that a legacy of being anti-rights lands them in blurry black-and-white photographs displayed in a, “Wow, look at these assholes” gallery.

While we strive for clarity and truthfulness on these issues, we can nonetheless find ways to help the trans community as we struggle under anti-rights policies. For American trans folk in particular, Planned Parenthood offers hormone replacement therapy, so consider donating to them. The American Civil Liberties Union has been at the forefront of nearly every legal battle to secure our rights, so consider donating to them if you have the resources. Lastly, do some research on your local homeless shelters and find out whether they’re trans-inclusive — if they are, help signal boost that information so that someone in need knows where to go. And consider donating to them, too.

At this point, continued inaction on Bill C-16 requires justification.

I would be loathe to offer up a cheesy platitude about the arc of history bending toward justice. It is true that at least for Bill C-16, many senators offered up arguments that affirmed the situation of trans Canadians, and who recognized the importance of the law. It is possible that Plett’s attempt to sabotage the bill this time will fail, and we’ll finally be recognized in Canada.

But the truth is, my community is tired. We told our stories, and were met with disbelief. We attended our vigils, our funerals, our imprisoned brothers and sisters, and we were told we were exaggerating or that we did something to deserve it. We’ve given our data and are still met with utter indifference. At this point, continued inaction requires justification. A country with stats like ours would be declared a humanitarian crisis. That’s another fact, and you can bet we won’t let folks like Jordan Peterson or Donald Plett forget it.