Dr. A.W. Peet knows the importance of being seen.
A tenured physics professor at U of T who focuses their research on the subatomic structure of space-time, Peet is also a vocal advocate for the LGBTQ+ and disabled communities. Being transgender, non-binary, and disabled, they have firsthand knowledge of the relief that finding a community in academia through sharing one’s experiences brings.
Peet, who experiences chronic pain, described conversations with a fellow scientist who has a similar condition as “a bit like finding an oxygen supply.” They went on to say that “it meant that I felt like I could actually exist.”
Peet’s choice to publicly disclose their status as transgender and non-binary on their website was made in the hope that younger people could understand it was possible to be a professor whilst being part of both the non-binary and disabled communities. This was also the aim behind listing their name on the lgbtphysicists.org website’s “OutList.” Peet has had a number of students from Canada, the United States, and Europe write to them asking for mentorship, something they believe was only possible because they are one of the few publicly out non-binary physicists.
“If we know there’s someone a bit older than us, or a lot older than us, who is some of the same identities as us, we can figure, ‘Maybe there’s a place for me in this discipline,’” they said.
Peet recognized that having tenure before realizing they were transgender made the question of transitioning less fraught than it tends to be for tenure-track or non-tenured professors. Even so, Peet believes that some students and colleagues think less of them following their coming out.
Blatant transphobic harassment, however, reached a peak when Peet debated their colleague Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor at U of T, on CBC News in October 2016. Peterson had vocally expressed his objection to Bill C-16, which sought to add “gender identity or expression” as a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act. His stance garnered significant support amongst free-speech advocates and caused controversy both nationally and on campus. Critics noted that some of Peterson’s comments were transphobic and, at times, inaccurate.
Following the debate, Peet experienced severe online harassment that significantly deteriorated their mental health. They also noted that, to this day, conservative colleagues within their department are reluctant to interact with them.
“The amount of transphobic harassment I’ve had… as a consequence of being an out trans person in the last few years is more than all of the misogyny that I’ve ever experienced as a presumed woman in physics for over 20 years,” they said.
However, Peet received positive reactions from LGBTQ+ students on campus and the community at large. They have also seen an increase in requests to speak at various conferences and panels about being part of the LGBTQ+ community in STEM fields. Overall, Peet does not regret speaking out against Jordan Peterson. “I think it was because it was the right thing to do, and I try to be on the right side of history,” they said.
Peet also expanded on their call in the CBC News debate to live kindly, saying that more value should be placed on kindness and generosity of spirit in today’s society. They added, “Universities need to be academically rigorous, but we can still be really nice, decent human beings while we’re being academically excellent.”
Currently, Peet co-chairs the physics department’s Inclusivity Committee and also serves on the inclusivity committee for the Canadian Association of Physicists. They intend to continue their advocacy work until LGBTQ+ people feel as welcome as heterosexual and cisgender people on campus. However, Peet by no means claim to be an authority on all things related to inclusivity, and stresses that they are still working to educate themself.
“With the equity and diversity and inclusivity stuff, it’s not like a switch that you’re either switched on or completely clueless. It, like many things, is not a binary. I love smashing binaries,” they said.