Rally draws crowd to UWinnipeg over lecture 2SLGBTQ community members fear could spread transphobia

More than 100 people gathered at a rally outside the University of Winnipeg on Friday to oppose a lecture some academics and members of the 2SLGBTQ community worried could perpetuate transphobic views at a time of rising harassment against segments of the queer community around the world.

The virtual lecture on Friday by U of W political science Prof. Joanne Boucher was titled “The Commodification of the Human Body: The Case of Transgender Identities.”

Little was shared publicly about the talk beforehand, aside from its event description that said the focus would be on “economic interests involved in transgenderism … the role of government, corporate-funded lobby groups, the medical industry and the biotechnology sector will be highlighted.”

Some people raised concerns over the event description language, including the term “transgenderism,” suggesting that term isn’t used within the community and has had transphobic connotations in other contexts. Others associated wording in the description with anti-trans rhetoric employed by lawmakers in the U.S. and elsewhere.

One U of W student started a petition earlier in the week calling on the administration to cancel for those reasons. It had over 1,700 signatures as of Friday afternoon.

The U of W released a statement Thursday stating it wouldn’t intervene, citing the importance of academic freedoms while reiterating the university’s commitment to principles of diversity and inclusivity on campus.

“I ask, where do you draw the line between academic freedom and the safety of your students,” Brie Villeneuve, 2SLGBTQ+ student director for the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association, said at the rally Friday.

“The use of ‘transgenderism’ is often used by anti-trans individuals to claim that our identities are ideologies and not real.” 

A person with a pink, blue and white flag draped over their shoulders walks across a stretch of sidewalk painted in the same colours.
Brie Villeneuve, 2SLGBTQ* student director for the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association, walks on a section of pavement at the U of W painted in the colours of the transgender pride flag. (Prabhjot Lotey/CBC)

Villeneuve organized the rally, where some held rainbow and trans pride flags, and signs calling for the protection of trans rights and health care.

Alyson Brickey, assistant professor in the U of W English department, and two U of M professors also held a Trans Love Cupcake hour on campus in support.

Brickey suggested academic freedom is no justification for allowing the lecture to go on.

“Academic freedom is something that we have a privilege as scholars and experts in our field … that privilege comes with responsibility to not to spread intolerance or misinformation,” she said Friday.

“If the community is saying that we are potentially harming them, we should have also a mechanism to listen to that.”

Dozens sit in a classroom at a university.
Dozens attended the Trans Cupcake Hour gathering in this lecture hall on the U of W campus Friday. (CBC)

Prof. Boucher declined to speak with CBC News on Wednesday and did not immediately respond to a request for comment after the lecture Friday.

Boucher was originally planning to hold the lecture on campus, but it was moved online shortly before the event, “to minimize any possible disruption to learning, research and other campus activities,” a university spokesperson said.

During the lecture Boucher spoke about how forces in a capitalistic society drive markets that seek to commodify the human body for profit.

She suggested there are corporate interests in different parts of the world that expect to make money on the expansion of gender-affirming health care for trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people who elect to undergo surgery, take hormones or access other services. 

She also noted complication rates in surgeries and questions over unknown long-term effects of gender-affirming care.

A person holds up a sign that reads 'protect trans students.'
Someone holds up a sign that reads ‘Protect Trans Students’ at a rally outside the University of Winnipeg on Friday. The rally was in response to a lecture from a U of W professor some feared would contain transphobic themes. (Prabhjot Lotey/CBC)

Several U.S. states have recently passed legislation that effectively restricts or removes access to gender-affirming health-care for trans and non-binary people, primarily those under 18, or targets other segments of the 2SLGBTQ community.

This week, Mississippi banned gender-affirming health care for trans youth; Kentucky lawmakers voted Thursday to ban access to hormone and surgical treatments for people under 18; and a bill seeking similar bans in Indiana got a step closer to being adopted, among other states pursing similar legislation. Tennessee also passed legislation in recent days banning drag performances in public.

After the talk, Boucher took questions from the public via the text-based chat function in the virtual webinar.

One person asked why she is interested in the issues related to trans health care explored in her lecture. Boucher said she doesn’t feel a need to defend her interest in the topic.

Another asked if she was sensitive to the framing of her research around financial interests as “participating in this climate of erosion of our health care access?”

Boucher said “academics have a right to study the things they want to study.” She said she was just making observations.

That explanation didn’t sit well with U of W student Indie Dufour.

“We’ve been panicking over this because the last thing that we want is for people to be hearing this,” said Dufour.

Villeneuve wants a meeting with the university to discuss the harm they say the talk has caused the trans community.

“It is really important that administration and all faculty understand that this was unacceptable,” they said. “They are not answering us. We do not feel safe or respected [in] this environment.”

Two people hug at a rally outside the University of Winnipeg.
Two people hug at the rally at the University of Winnipeg on Friday. (Prabhjot Lotey/CBC)