Trans students at the University of Toronto say they're still being targeted by hate and threats of violence online, and they're placing part of the blame on the school's "inaction" regarding a professor who is refusing to use gender neutral pronouns.
"It's been very uneasy, many people don't feel safe in light of the recent threats against trans, queer, and racialized—specifically black—students and members of the Black Liberation Collective," Denio Lourenco, the LGBTQ coordinator at the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus student union, told VICE.
The controversy erupted at the end of September when psychology professor Jordan Peterson posted a video lecture on YouTube titled "Professor against political correctness: Part 1," in which he criticized Bill-16, which would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code to include protection for gender identity and expression, and said he refused to use gender neutral pronouns.
"I don't know what 'neither' means," Peterson said in the video, disagreeing with the Ontario Human Rights Commission's definition of gender identity—a person's "sense of being a woman, a man, both, neither, or anywhere along the gender spectrum."
"I don't know what the options are if you're not a man or a woman," said Peterson, who defended his statements as free speech and told VICE today he would not apologize or retract his statements, even in light of a letter from over 250 faculty members that condemned his actions. "It's not obvious to me how you can be both because those are, by definition, binary categories."
Lourenco and others say since the video went up, they've received death threats and been repeatedly harassed through to this week.
"The current political climate is rapidly changing and soon there will be a time when the western world wakes up from its shackles and smites down people like you with perfect hatred," warned one Facebook message shared by Lourenco. "It won't be tolerance and kindergarten-land tomorrow. There will be blood. Be very afraid."
Information about some trans students, including their names, locations, and families, has been shared on forums like 4Chan and far-right subreddits, according to Qaiser Ali, who said he was attacked by a protester at a free speech rally last week, where Peterson was invited as a speaker.
"We can't make that information go away," they said.
At the rally, Ali said, trans students were "subjected to unending transphobic slurs and hate speech," and that members of the Black Liberation Collective had to shield trans students from "what had essentially become an angry mob."
"The 'free speech' there was, 'You should be like Michael Brown! There should be a hundred more Michael Browns!' I was physically assaulted by a known right-wing radical who attacked me from behind, and another person was choked by him as well," Ali said.
Ali said the crowd included white supremacists and neo-Nazis. As they were entering a building, a protester charged from behind them and slammed the door onto their body, they said.
"He attacked at least one other person," Ali alleged.
University of Toronto spokesperson Althea Blackburn-Evans said police had investigated allegations of assault and that there were arrests made as a result, but they could not go into specifics. The university was not aware, however, of the presence of any neo-Nazis on campus, she said.
On Tuesday, Peterson received a letter signed by the dean of the faculty of arts and science, as well as the vice-provost of faculty and academic life, reminding him of his obligation as a faculty member to "act in a manner that consistent with the law and with university policy."
"Some students have reported being the target of specific and violent threats, including threats of assault, injury and death against them individually and as members of the trans community," said the letter. "We trust that these impacts on students and others were not your intention in making these remarks. However, in view of these impacts, as well as the requirements of the Ontario Human Rights Code, we urge you to stop repeating these statements."
But students say the action comes far too late and doesn't go far enough.
"Students are worried for their safety when going to class or just when walking around campus. Many students will not do this alone. I know of at least one student who missed an exam or a midterm because of safety concerns," said Cassandra Williams, the vice president of student affairs at the University of Toronto Students' Union.
She said some of Peterson's supporters have gone as far as to contact the family of trans students. "All of this has a tremendous mental toll on a person and a significant impact on a person's ability to do what they're at school to do."
Williams said Peterson should be required to apologize, should commit to foster an environment free from discrimination, and the U of T should block those who attacked students from campus.
The university put out a safety alert to the campus last Friday about threats made against students that are being being investigated by Toronto police, said spokesperson Blackburn-Evans, adding that the purpose of the alerts was to condemn threats and acts of violence, and to ensure students were made aware of resources available to them at the university.
"The Community Safety Office and the Sexual Gender Diversity Office has been receiving calls and concerns, and has been offering support as needed," she said.
"Ultimately, academic freedom is at the core of what the university does… so he's free to express his views," she said, adding that he's also free to criticize university policy and the law. "At the same time, he's also expected to follow U of T policy and follow the law, so while members of our community absolutely have the right to free expression, they also have a responsibility to foster a learning environment that's free from discrimination, and that means following the law."
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