Over the past 20 years, trans activism has become more prominent at universities. As many academics know, this is one of those “third rail” subjects that can cause you serious trouble. Women like Selina Todd, Ann Henderson, and Kathleen Stock have discovered that one’s physical safety—not psychological or cultural safety—can be jeopardized when challenging this particular strand of wokeism (that is, postmodern identity politics that has become totalitarian).
Trans activism also played a role in my eventual termination from Mount Royal University (MRU) in December 2021. In 2018, I had not formed many opinions about trans activism, except that I was disturbed by the attempts to stop people from discussing it at universities. It was this concern that led me to invite Meghan Murphy to discuss the question “Does Trans Activism Negatively Impact Women’s Rights?” at MRU on March 15, 2019. The event was part of the Rational Space Network’s Critical Thinking Series and proved to be a watershed moment that catalyzed the effort to push me out of MRU.
This was because, even though I was able to get a trans activist, Julie Rei Goldstein, to participate in the event, and even though I asked an MRU women’s studies professor to act as a critical thinking facilitator, many characterized the event as an attack on trans people. The MRU Women’s Studies Program and the Pride Centre organized a counter event immediately afterwards claiming that a “therapeutic conversation” was needed to discuss the “impact on trans folks of having our identities and safety considered debatable.”
A number of professors led students to believe that the event was indicative of my animosity toward trans people. One participated in a Facebook discussion with my students without my knowledge, another demanded that the cameras be shut off during the event to protect a “vulnerable” population, and a third posted a long Twitter thread calling Meghan Murphy a “TERF” (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) and insinuating that the people who organized the discussion were attempting to “benefit from stoking this divisive fire [between trans activists and feminists critical of trans activism].” When one of my students suggested that the event’s question was intended to stack the deck against trans activism, this third professor sent them heart and fire emojis and “support.” As a result of all this, for the first time at MRU, I had students stating on their course evaluations that they felt “uncomfortable” in my class because of “degrading comments” that I had supposedly made.
This response to the Rational Space Network event appeared to be one of the reasons why the Dean of Arts invited a faculty member who was a trans activist to give a presentation at Arts Faculty Council in December 2019. The dean claimed that she had “heard feedback from both trans students and faculty members about how they are not being respected at Mount Royal.” During the presentation, a trans activist student, who had been asked to co-present with the faculty member, stated that professors should not “post transphobic events, or share public events that are transphobic around in the classroom.” And although the dean claimed that she had invited the trans activist to “get the conversation started,” no questions were allowed to be asked after their presentation.
A month after the presentation, a critical account of it appeared in the online publication The New Telegraph. This account, written by Alexander Dhaliwal, maintained that a number of statements made in the presentation, such as the encouragement to “interrupt introductions to get people to say their pronouns if it gets forgotten,” were “socially authoritarian and deeply off-putting.” This criticism led two faculty members to bring a motion to Arts Faculty Council on January 24, 2020. It was moved, and overwhelmingly supported, “THAT AFC express its continued acknowledgement and support of the labour of [the trans activist student] and [the trans activist faculty member], and of all marginalized faculty and students, in creating an inclusive and welcoming teaching and learning environment.” The dean then commented that faculty members can debate, be critical, and disagree, “but it is important that we do this in a respectful way,” and we should “be mindful when making choices that affect others.”
Because this motion, as well as the dean’s comments, seemed to be directed at those who were asking critical questions about trans activism, I decided to propose another motion to clarify matters. On September 18, 2020, it was moved that Arts Faculty should work to create “an intellectually inclusive environment that supports critical thinking and open inquiry about feminist philosophies pertaining to sex and gender.” The motion passed, but with only 44% support (36% were opposed, and the remainder abstained). The low level of support for such a rational plea for open inquiry on trans issues was a bad omen of things to come. It was this motion, in fact, that became one of the allegations against me; the trans activist faculty member claimed that while my motion “appeared to address academic freedom, ‘baked into it was a poison pill, of [Widdowson’s] ideologies.’ The [trans activist faculty member] described the motion as ‘trans-exclusionary’ because there were anti-transgender feminist philosophies that were not explicitly mentioned in the motion.”
The censoriousness surrounding trans activism and other woke issues eventually led me to revert to satire. As I mentioned in my last piece for Minding the Campus, an inability to communicate rationally made me realize that a more effective approach might be to expose the contradictions of wokeism through humor. This began with my satirical response to attempts to get me fired for defending CBC journalist Wendy Mesley’s reference to the book title White Niggers of America, but I also deployed it against other woke issues such as the authoritarian character of trans activism. It was these satirical forays that resulted in harassment and discrimination findings against me, because expression critical of ideas has now become conflated with criticizing people.
In the case of trans activism, the satirical activity that was deemed to be “harassing” and “discriminatory” took place on Twitter. It began when my union sent an email invitation to committee members to attend a workshop aimed at training participants to recognize how “white supremacy culture” supposedly was influencing the Mount Royal Faculty Association. This invitation was sent to Jonathan Kay, a National Post columnist and editor of the magazine Quillette, who posted a three-Tweet thread mocking it. As part of this thread, Kay noted that the union executive board member presenting the session was a “they/them” who also did pronouns workshops, and he provided a link to one of their presentations. For this, Kay was criticized for “insisting” on referring to the union board member’s pronouns.
When I looked at the pronouns workshop with the link provided by Kay, I discovered a cartoon with the title “Misgendering Fatigue.” This cartoon featured a person lying on the floor who claimed to be “mentally exhaust[ed]” because of all the misgendering that they had endured. The cartoon character explained that “Every time I’m misgendered, it feels like someone is adding a brick to my backpack,” and that they would eventually collapse because they were weighed down by all of these metaphorical misgendering “bricks.” This, according to the cartoon character, amounted to “slowly being crushed by the seemingly unending burden of the gender binary.” After I saw this cartoon, I decided it would be amusing to defend Jonathan Kay’s reference to the “they/them” pronouns. This led me to use my satirical character “Frances McGrath (NOT Frances Widdowson)” to Tweet that Kay was right to mention the pronouns because “this colleague has hinted that they are suffering from MISGENDERING FATIGUE.” My Frances McGrath character then asserted that Kay’s Tweet was “just amplifying a silenced TGBQ2SLMNOP voice! #LetTheSubalternSpeak [flexed arm emoji] [heart emoji].”
Even though I posted this on my private Twitter account and didn’t utter it in the workplace, it was found by an investigator hired by MRU to be in violation of MRU’s Code of Conduct and harassment and human rights policies. It was also determined to constitute discrimination under the Alberta Human Rights Act and harassment under Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act. And even though I asserted that I was satirizing the exaggeration found in the concept of “misgendering fatigue” and the confusing nature of the letters in the constantly expanding LGBTQ initialism, the investigator stated that I had harassed and discriminated against the union board member because I had “mocked the Complainant’s identity” in the workplace. Here we can see how the criticism of ideas associated with trans activism becomes criticism of people because they identify with one of the metastasizing categories of “gender identity.” This move effectively insulates activists in the university from any sort of criticism of workplace proselytizing.
The fact that an investigator hired by MRU saw one Tweet making fun of so-called “misgendering fatigue” as tantamount to mocking a person’s identity shows how far wokeism has distorted our reasoning. Even though no reasonable person (and, indeed, not all trans people) would think that “misgendering fatigue” is a bona fide psychological condition or accept the forever-expanding LGBTQ initialism, these are now on the list of postmodern identity politics’ demands. The fact that one trans activist is offended is enough to discipline a professor for posting materials on her private account. In wokeism, identities and ideas are fused because “respecting viewpoints” is seen by activists as essential for the empowerment of the oppressed. Criticizing the propaganda put forward by a trans activist is characterized as attacking him as a person, which he will often further conflate with violence.
If this finding is allowed to stand, it will be the end of universities as intellectual spaces. Since the test used in this case was subjective, and not objective, there was no attempt to show how the criticism of ideas expressed in this one Tweet impacted the workplace. Any comment can be labeled as “harassment” or “discrimination” so long as the complainant is a member of a protected group. This use of discipline (not to mention university resources) not only contravenes MRU’s Expression and Free Speech Policy, which states that “The University will not suppress presentations or debate whether or not the points of view being expressed are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, extreme, harmful, incorrect or wrongheaded”; it also violates the principles of a free and democratic society.
Every Canadian citizen has the right to freely express himself in his private life. Activists should not be able to override this with a veto backed up by university administrators and their unaccountable access to vast resources. As Helen Dale pointed out back in 2017 in an article in Quillette, “We seem to have forgotten that employees are allowed to be ‘ordinary members of the public’ – people are not automatons and not the property of their employers.” If professors must give up this right to serve their administrative overlords, it will kill all creativity and prevent us from searching for the truth and finding meaning in the world around us.