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Trans rights advocates stormed into a talk Tuesday afternoon at McGill University led by a speaker associated with a group they say is "notoriously transphobic and trans-exclusionary."
The talk was ultimately cancelled shortly after it started.
McGill University's Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism (CHRLP) hosted the event, titled Sex vs. Gender (Identity) Debate In the United Kingdom and the Divorce of LGB from T. It was led by McGill alumnus Robert Wintemute.
The CHRLP's website describes the event as a conversation around whether the law should make it easier for a transgender person to change their legal sex, "and about exceptional situations, such as women-only spaces and sports, in which the individual's birth sex should take priority over their gender identity, regardless of their legal sex."
"The T (trans) is so much more vulnerable than the rest of LGB. I think there's tons of scientific evidence speaking to that," said Celeste Trianon, a trans activist who led the protest against the event.
Trianon said Wintemute's talk excludes transgender people's rights and is transphobic, further discriminating against the community.
But Wintemute, the man at the centre of the controversy, maintains he does not promote transphobic views and describes the reaction to his talk as "hysterical."
He says he has a 37 years experience defending LGB human rights and he would never associate with any group that "promotes hate." He said he came to McGill to promote the message that women have human rights too, but they feel intimidated by the trans rights movement.
"So I have to thank the protesters for giving me first-hand experience of that intimidation," said Wintemute after the event. "Probably the majority of women in this country disagree with some of transgender demands but they refuse to say so because they will be seen as intolerant."
Any discussion or criticism is seen as "hate speech," he said. The protesters held signs saying "no debate," he noted, "and many women around the world disagree." The idea that his seminar would lead to genocide of trans people is "absolutely absurd," he said.
LGB Alliance denies being transphobic
Wintemute's work inspired the foundation of the LGB Alliance, a British group that advocates against transgender rights in the United Kingdom. Several British officials and LGBTQ+ groups have publicly called the LGB Alliance a hate group.
The group has opposed progressive gender affirmation bills in the U.K., like the Scottish Gender Recognition Act, which improves the system by which transgender people can apply for legal recognition.
A Canadian chapter of the LGB Alliance lobbied against Bill C-4, which put an end to conversion therapy, demanding it remove the term "gender identity" from the offence.
The LGB Alliance website includes statements like "Fact: Sex is binary," "Fact: Sex is observed at birth," "Fact: Gender transition can be the result of homophobia" and "Fact: LGB Alliance is non-political."
The LGB Alliance denies being transphobic or hateful.
An open letter signed by McGill students, professors, alumni and others from the Montreal LGBTQ+ community says trans rights are not at odds with the rights of others.
"Undermining the human rights of trans people does not benefit any member of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, nor the feminist movement," it says.
Trianon said she was "surprised, shocked and disgusted" when she learned of the event.
"I feel like there's such a tragic irony where someone who is actively working toward dismantling human rights toward one of the most marginalized groups … how such an event can be hosted at the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism," she said.
Mona Greenbaum, the head of the LGBT+ Family Coalition in Montreal, worked with Wintemute on the World Outgames event in 2006. She said she was surprised to see the title of his talk and signed the open letter.
"It's just so sad to me that someone who should, in theory, be open to this, is so closed-minded about trans women and has the idea that if you give rights to trans women you're subtracting from the rights of cisgender women," she said.
"There's no ceiling on rights."
The CHRLP says the event was not meant to be an endorsement of Wintemute's views but to be a platform for "critical conversations."
"Professor Wintemute is a trustee of the LGB Alliance since 2021 but he is not invited in that capacity," said Prof. Frédéric Mégret from the CHRLP.
"We understand that these are not consensual topics. However, we believe they can be productively and robustly discussed in an academic setting and could, in fact, be an opportunity to push back against certain views."
He said Prof. Shauna Van Praagh would chair the talk and Prof. Darren Rosenblum would act as commentator.
"It was always our intention that this would be a contradictory debate," said Mégret.
But activists like Trianon and Greenbaum remained skeptical.
"This form of free-speech absolutism: it has an end. One's rights end where another's begin," said Trianon.
Though Canada and Quebec have remained "mostly sheltered" from transphobic rhetoric, those ideas have gained momentum in the U.S. and the U.K. and could easily spread here, said Trianon.
She pointed to the multiple instances of drag queen story hours being attacked by anti-LGBT activists over the summer in Montreal.
"This plays into the transfeminine predator stereotype. It's very much a debunkable thing," said Trianon.