As I slipped into a seat at the back of the auditorium at Canada Christian College, the size of the crowd startled me.
I had been expecting that maybe a few dozen people would be willing to pay $20 and take the time out of their evening to listen to a talk about the dangers of “compelled speech” in the wake of Canada’s trans-rights bill. Instead, there were hundreds.
The talk, which was held in June, was full of people of all ages.
As someone who reports on the LGBT community, it’s difficult for me to imagine so many people legitimately worried that something fundamental was being taken away from them by trans people, one of the most marginalized groups in our society.
But the crowd was enthralled by the four speakers on stage, who offered up distinct dystopian visions of where trans rights will lead Canada. For anyone with even a cursory understanding of the history of the opposition to LGBT movements, the arguments were familiar.
Barbara Kay, the National Post columnist, began her speech by quoting a neo-Nazi.
“The philosopher Voltaire famously observed, ‘to learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize,’” she said, incorrectly. “In Voltaire’s day, it was dangerous to criticize the Catholic Church and its dogmas. In our era, it is dangerous to criticize the church of gender identity and its dogmas.”
Kay had in fact quoted Kevin Alfred Strom, a Holocaust denier who was employing old anti-Semitic tropes of a vast Jewish conspiracy.
The comparison was accidentally apt. Just as Strom was arguing that a historically-oppressed minority was in fact powerful and corrupt, Kay was attacking one of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in Canada, claiming them to be powerful and dangerous.
For Debra Soh, a sexologist who writes regularly for the Globe and Mail about the dangers of acknowledging trans youth, the victim is science itself.
“I believe that transgender adults, people with a difference in sex development, and those who are gender non-conforming deserve dignity, respect and equal rights,” she said.
“My issue is that the way we talk about biology and gender should not be maligned in order to facilitate these rights. Children should not be used as pawns to further this agenda.”
Again, the arguments are familiar — children will be the victims of a radical social experiment fueled by politically correct elites. In fact, it’s the exact same argument Kay made about gay marriage over a decade ago.
“Canada is one of only three places on Earth poised to endorse the use of children as social guinea pigs without their consent,” she wrote in the National Post in 2005. “And all because our intellectual and political elites ‘haven’t ever really thought about it.’”
Soh at least acknowledges that life was difficult for trans people in the past.
“They weren’t able to get the support and help that they need,” she said. “But now it’s gone so far in the opposite direction that it’s just as harmful.”
Soh is dead wrong. Despite her appeals to science, there is no evidence that giving support to children who are exhibiting gender dysphoria “traps” them in a transgender identity. What is demonstrably harmful is discouraging a crowd of hundreds of people from supporting and affirming those children.
One study found that children who aren’t supported in their gender identity are 14 times more likely to attempt suicide. According to a Trans Pulse report, among youth aged 16–24 who had parents who were supportive of their gender identity and expression, four percent attempted suicide while 57 percent of youth reported attempted suicide who had parents who were not supportive.
Soh is making the world a more dangerous place for the vulnerable.
Lindsay Shepherd was also a speaker, but barely worth noting. It’s not a surprise that someone who believes there’s a meaningful distinction between white supremacists and white nationalists had nothing of substance to say.
Jared Brown, a lawyer, warned that the cementing of gender identity and expression as human rights would result in creeping authoritarianism.
“You see the intention of the bill was to compel speech all along,” he said. “The supporters of the bill intend to control the linguistic territory, they want to force you to use their words and opinions.”
In some small way, Brown is correct. Language is political terrain, and to secure a right, a group must first be linguistically recognized. “Gay” men and women were not recognized as such in the 18th century — there were only those who engaged in sodomy. Then came “homosexuals,” people who psychiatrists defined as having a pathological attraction to the same sex. It was political organizing and demanding change that brought gay identity into being, which was a precursor to the acquisition of gay rights.
Trans people have been engaged in the same process of identity creation and political agitation for decades.
But there’s nothing authoritarian about it. Brown noted that compelled speech — which he argues that using a person’s correct pronouns amounts to — is “totalitarian,” according to a Supreme Court decision.
And while most people think it’s simply the decent thing to do, even if it does amount to compelled speech, so what?
There are numerous instances of justified compelled speech within the Canadian law, whether it’s prospective citizens being forced to say an oath to the Queen or an employer being forced to provide a reference letter to a wrongfully dismissed employee.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows for reasonable limitations on our rights, including on speech. That does not make us the Soviet Union.
If you believe the speakers, the advent of trans rights is a danger to your rights, your children and your country. They imply that people who believe the way they do are being pushed to the margins and oppressed.
Of course, the panelists have access to some of the biggest media institutions in the country. They are mainstream. People who hold their views are mainstream. Hundreds of people were willing to come out and support them.
Their arguments are ridiculous, but that’s not the point. They are scared and mad and are willing to push back. They see themselves as the victims of a vast conspiracy that includes radical trans activists, the liberal media, human rights tribunals and endocrinologists.
Trans people in Canada may now have some modest human rights protections, but they are still one of the most oppressed groups in our society. To see hundreds of people enthusiastically agreeing that their very presence in our civil discourse is the beginning of totalitarianism was truly frightening.
With progress always comes backlash. What’s worrying is that for trans Canadians, so little progress has been made. And yet the backlash is so utterly fierce.