In the fall of last year I was involved in a somewhat controversial happening at UTSG. A group of students were hosting an event in response to Bill C-16, a bill that adds “gender identity and gender expression to the list of protected grounds of discrimination” under federal law. This reactionary rally was held because, according to some, the inability to discriminate against trans people constituted a violation of one’s fundamental freedom of speech.
Fear-mongering over alleged restrictions on free speech has been a particularly widespread and accelerated epidemic as of late. Anxieties over restrictions on speech are almost always retaliatory responses to being called out for bigoted or discriminatory behaviour. According to those that are concerned over restrictions on speech, the inability to perpetuate racism, sexism, transphobia, or otherwise oppressive dynamics through language, without any consequences, is a violation of freedom.
This is a deeply flawed understanding of freedom. Even with protections such as C-16, these people are still essentially free – free to believe in white supremacy, free to think of trans people as subhuman, free to harbour oppressive views of women. They are still free to own these thoughts, ideas, and opinions, and are even free to talk to others about these views.
However, when others begin to use these views to materially discriminate against the demographics concerned, when they start to do things like deny people of colour jobs, or use their positions as professors of prestigious institutions to publicly advocate for discrimination against trans people, consequences will result. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. In cases like C-16, the state is the one facilitating these consequences because the groups targeted have no power to respond themselves.
This group was rallying against their newfound inability to discriminate against trans people without consequences. They invited professor Jordan Peterson, well-known for being outspoken on this issue, and Lauren Southern, a then-commentator for The Rebel.
A few trans and non-binary people, including myself, showed up to counter-protest the event. We were rushed and disorganized. Being extremely new to activism, I was not really sure what to expect.
Someone had rented a couple of amps, thinking that we would try and out-voice them and deny them a platform. I suggested that we play harsh noise — music made up of abrasive, continuous, screechy and loud frequencies.
The harshness and violence of the music set the mood of the rally – it quickly became explicitly antagonistic and confrontational, instead of just implicitly so. Everyone became agitated and some became physical with us, attempting to sabotage our equipment or shove us aside. Many yelled slurs, while the official speakers for the event calmly droned on about the illegitimacy of trans and non-binary identities.
At some point, through all of this mess, Southern approached me and held out her mic to me. It felt to me that she genuinely took glee in our hurt and anger. Faced with such blatant disregard for both myself and for those like me, I snapped and lashed out at her, grabbing her mic and trying to yank it out of her hand.
Of course, I was arrested, charged with assault, and obliged to navigate the legal system for the next several months. This was all reported very publicly by Southern, The Rebel, and their fans. I continue to receive hate mail to this day.
There is a lot of discussion about whether actions like mine are justified, even within left-leaning groups. Consequently, I received essentially zero inter-community support after this happened. I was condemned online even by those who claimed to support the fight against transphobia, because I had become violent and had broken the rules. Yet, when rules are established and maintained by a system that condones and perpetuates consistent and pervasive discrimination against trans people, we hardly work on an equal playing field.
An expansive definition of violence is in order here, considering the many forms of harm that discrimination takes. And contrary to what is condemned by law, in exchange, the violence that others use against trans people is violence in accordance with the rules — it is legitimized and legal, and can be used to invalidate and erode our identities in a hundred different ways.
We do not have the power or the social capital to be violent towards our aggressors in non-physical, state-condoned ways. The system is set up this way – so that the only way we can fight back is with our bodies. When we do, we are unjustified, criminalized, penalized.
After I was charged, my only real option was to enter into a peace bond – meaning that I am not allowed to be in the same spaces as Southern. Because she’s a far-right reporter whose method is to enter politicized spaces and attempt to agitate the left, this essentially means I am altogether barred from entering political spaces.
After the terrorist act on the mosque in Montréal, people here in Toronto stood outside the US Consulate, in solidarity against Islamophobia and Trump’s attempted ban on immigrants from Muslim countries. I was barred from attending this protest because of the reporter’s presence there.
I am now, in a large way, denied political voice — denied the ability to exist in certain spaces. I decry this restriction on my freedom of movement, these constraints that play out on my body, as a form of violence enacted on me by the state that both justifies and continues to perpetuate anti-trans discrimination.
My crime here was nothing but becoming angered at those that deny the validity of my identity and my existence. Yet, the retaliations of the oppressed against their oppression will always be illegitimized.
Meera Ulysses is a first-year student at New College studying philosophy and equity.