An embarrassing display and missed opportunity at the Newman Centre.
On February 2nd, The Newman Centre hosted “Theology Thursday,” a monthly event where students are offered “an opportunity to interrogate a professional theologian…on doctrinal and ethical issues”. Sessions are described as “thematic and centered on questions from the audience” so as to “broaden reflection on the moral shaping of society”. This month’s topic was “Gender Mainstreaming and Transgender,” featuring Professor Douglas Farrow, the Kennedy Smith Chair in Catholic Studies at McGill, and Moira McQueen, a professor of moral theology at the University of Toronto.
The event caused a stir on account of the panelists’ positions. Farrow has written at length about “gender mainstreaming”, for which he offers this definition: “a coordinated strategy to see that gender ideology, whether feminist or trans, is incorporated into law and public policy”. He opposed C-389 (“An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code”) and similar legislation providing protection on the basis of “gender identity and expression”, labeling them “Trojan horses, which on closer inspection are designed not to protect a threatened minority but to entrench in law the notion that gender is essentially a social construct, based not in the natural order but in more or less arbitrary acts of human self-interpretation”.
While Farrow dealt in the realm of the philosophical, posturing transformations in gender theory as an affront to our social fabric, McQueen’s presentation centered on “how best to handle” situations of “gender dysphoria”. McQueen discussed actions adopted by Catholic schools in response to their trans populations. She proposed “counseling therapy” over hormonal and surgical procedures involving “the [disproportionate] destruction of physically sound organs, including their reproductive capacity, for a non-physical condition”.
Additionally, both professors have expressed sympathy with UofT Professor Jordan Peterson, who garnered notoriety for refusing to refer to students by their preferred pronouns. McQueen equated Peterson’s “silencing” by Toronto’s administration to “forcing health professionals to act against their consciences when it comes to euthanasia and abortion”. In a similar vein, Farrow’s presentation, entitled “The Genderbread Ruse and the Problem of Identity” concluded that gender ideology subjects us to “tyranny”. When questioned about Peterson later in the evening, Farrow answered, “I support him entirely [in his refusal]. The insistence that I speak a certain kind of language is an insistence that I adopt the ideology that governs that language, and I – like him – would refuse”.
It comes as no surprise, in light of these arguments, that the panel was marred in controversy. Groups including QPIRG, the Union for Gender Empowerment (UGE) and Queer McGill were present to make their opposition known. Concern first aired on Facebook, where a number of people questioned the merit of hosting a panel on the “gender identity movement” sans those directly implicated in that movement – namely members of trans and nonbinary communities. Criticism over the absence of trans voices was coupled with complaints that Farrow and McQueen harbor a “hateful” ideology that “enacts violence against trans communities by producing and reinforcing a culture that views trans people as medical and psychological anomalies, instead of real people” (quoted from Facebook, its author has since written about the panel – which I invite you to read here). By providing a platform for this ideology, the argument goes, the Newman Centre and McGill University are complicit in this violence.
As someone troubled by Farrow’s claims and those of his Torontonian counterpart, I went to the panel expecting to hear the arguments of both speakers and engage in reasoned debate. I anticipated an evening where Farrow and McQueen would present their views and respond to serious challenges leveled against them. I expected to gain insight into the perspectives of academics with whom I disagree – to expand and critically examine my own outlook. With the knowledge that student groups would be present in protest, I hoped their concerns would be voiced, and the experiences of trans students made known to the audience. How naïve I was! Instead, not much of anything was heard…at all.
The fireworks began minutes into Farrow’s speech. Upon referring to Eva Tiamat Medusa, a transgender woman, with male pronouns, spectators questioned Farrow’s word choice and corrected the misgenderment by interjecting with suitable pronouns at each mention of Tiamat. Farrow halted his talk, and the room rapidly devolved into an all-out fight between protesters and presenters, with McQueen entering the fray by suggesting that when it comes to wrong pronouns, “there’s no such thing”. Farrow then threatened to “wait for the police” should those protesting refuse to “be silent” or “leave”.
That only caused further upheaval, and the crowd’s appeal for appropriate pronouns morphed into a shout-fest where the speakers were called obscenities not worth repeating here. After the yelling had subsided, one protester, in a moment of supreme irony, commented, “Are you really that afraid of dialogue? Are you afraid of trans women?”
Farrow and McQueen completed their talks amidst a roar of coughing – the kind that signals disagreement rather than your common cold, as though the ruling mantra was strength in interruption. Between coughing fits came incessant calls for the professors to “shut up” because their arguments were “boring” and ripe with “bad scholarship”.
Not all who went to the event acted in the manner I’ve described. Many came to respectfully protest Farrow and McQueen without stifling the conversation altogether. In a telling moment, one guest exclaimed, “What are you doing? I’m on your [the protestors] side, stop coughing and let them talk!”
Now, when panels and/or academic talks are given, they typically open by a presentation of the topic and points therein. Next comes question period! This stage is where grievances, critiques and probing questions make themselves known. It is a time to tear apart the claims that have been made by calling out their flaws and improper assumptions. This structure was not lost on everyone, and in fact, one student in opposition to the speakers posed questions (via Facebook), which I’ve taken the liberty to partially reproduce here:
Is the Church purposefully exclusionary to trans and non-binary individuals? If so, does this not limit their perspective on trans-ness and make the arguments more of a “just so” argument? That is, is the Church attempting to rationalize the status quo (transphobia) that has been hegemonic and normalized in its religion for centuries by saying that everything that is, is what ought to be? Do you view the necessity of the gender binary as a product of a fallen world in an Augustinian framework? That is, is the enforcement of gender complementarity the product of a fallen world or “earthliness”?
You should believe trans people when they attest to their experiences and welcome them, and be open to them. I haven’t yet heard an argument as to why invalidating the existence of trans people contributes anything positive to Catholic ideology. They are people that already suffer and I think it would be more in line or at least more useful to the Catholic worldview to help them fight oppression in whatever way they can.
This sort of thoughtful commentary was noticeably lacking when it came to actual question period, and the above queries were never addressed. Instead, questions and comments ranged from “How does the Church respond to its complicity in the destruction of indigenous lives?” to “Race is not biological!” Notwithstanding the fact that these examples bore little relevance to the debate at hand, nor were direct connections fully made (although both deserve further exploration), they speak to a sense of disunity of purpose and protest that colored the evening. Now, there were pointed questions addressing Farrow’s “tyranny” and McQueen’s insistence that hormone treatment plays a negative role in the mental well being of trans people. They were also few and far between, posed amid verbal mudslinging and the like.
What of the power dynamics at play? How could the Newman Centre be a space for real debate, considering the professors’ views differ in no meaningful way? McQueen and Farrow’s outlooks appear to have a complementarity to them, one philosophical, one programmatic – and neither remotely critical of the other. As someone who is not trans, I can’t speak to the lived experiences of trans people, but recognize the paucity of a discussion lacking their representation. There is very real violence and oppression enacted against this group on a daily basis, and to suggest these structures aren’t reproduced at McGill would be to ignore the very voices that suffer from them.
In reflecting on this dynamic, I’ve sought the advice of friends and acquaintances who identify as queer and whose work concentrates on advocating for those in the trans community. My takeaway from these conversations is this: there’s a fundamental disagreement over terms that must be reached prior to any meaningful exchange. A foundation of respect must be laid before conversation can be had, and this respect looks very different according to which side of the debate one takes. On one end, addressing someone by their preferred pronoun is a proper acknowledgement of their dignity, and without that, debate is harmful and useless. The other end sees respect as agreed upon rules of engagement, akin to the Q&A structure I’ve detailed above. Using language that runs contrary to one’s philosophy in an attempt to explain that philosophy is self-defeating, also rendering discussion fruitless. Reconciling these two starting points is singularly difficult – now, let’s see why.
To speak of one’s identity is to speak to the core of that person: their values, history, dreams, relations and modes of expression. That core is an emotional one – questioning the conviction of someone’s self-professed identity is bound to upset. Rightfully so! We’re motivated to act where emotion and belief meet. Tensions run high when the object under scrutiny is one’s human nature. But, to conflate offense with harm and incessantly proclaim, “You’re killing us!” as though Farrow and McQueen were noose-yielding Nazis stifles debate and unfairly equates holding a philosophy with holding guns to the heads of those who disagree with it.
Needless to say, trans people deserve the same love, dignity and compassion afforded to all – any religion worth protecting would hold the same. Still, to take every academic assertion (as disgusting or misguided as one sees it) as a personal slight deserving of a profane response makes it tougher to open up discussion on trans issues to those outside ”activist” circles, those without the knowledge and vocabulary that seem self-evident to the members of this panel’s opposition. It cuts off conversation where it is needed most. This need was never more evident than in talks with others about the event, where over half of my friends and fellow students were unaware of what the term “cisgender” even meant.
Now, the onus to educate cannot solely fall on the shoulders of trans people. There is exhaustion in constantly having to “prove” one’s position, and herein rests the role of ally-ship. In my discussions, one friend erected this image of an ally: deference. It is the prioritization of marginalized views and an admission that one can never fully know the pain of the people they ally with. Here, others have a basic responsibility to instruct themselves on trans issues, no matter their background, belief system or experience with this community.
Of course, not all will take up this call – Farrow and McQueen would certainly shirk any affiliation as “allies.” That reality shouldn’t deter meaningful debate…it should make it all the more necessary. I’d even venture to guess there are points of agreement to be reached between the protestors and presenters, albeit limited ones. Those who are queer and those who are religious hold aspects of their identity too fundamental to be governed by anyone else. What more of people affiliated with both parties?
Suffice it to say, few hearts and minds were changed over the course of this two-hour screaming match. Instead, one camp left incensed and confused, and another left in a self-congratulatory stupor. In the words of a departing protester, “I’ve never felt so alive!”
All things considered, this debacle did have a silver lining. The Newman Catholic Students’ Society has promised to work with QPIRG, the UGE and Queer McGill to host another event in March, “featuring a panel of trans people talking about their experience with Catholicism”. I look forward to it, and urge those interested in continuing this dialogue to attend as well.
I don’t expect this piece to win much support, nor do I excuse the comments of Farrow or McQueen. I do hope, in my heart of hearts, that it might inspire others to sit down with their opposition, with those that they firmly disagree, and have a conversation. Yes, it will be uncomfortable. Yes, it will be difficult – the seriousness of this debate and its impact on the lives of trans people demand as much. These conversations are already occurring across countries, houses of worship, online event pages and dinner tables…so why not in university – a place devoted to tackling thorny ideas on language, gender norms and biology? Leave the cursing, name-calling and coughing by the sandpit – it only serves to increase the divide between those who know, and those who want to understand.