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The Campus Trans Diktat: No Debate, No Dissent—And No Jokes

Before firing me, my university investigated everything I’d said about gender ideology, right down to the satirical quips I’d made on Twitter.

Frances Widdowson
Frances Widdowson
7 min read

As many academics have learned in recent years, any expression of skepticism in regard to trans activism can now have negative career implications. Female academics such as Oxford University professor Selina Todd, former Edinburgh University rector Ann Henderson, and former Sussex University philosophy professor Kathleen Stock have discovered that even one’s physical safety—not just emotional and psychological wellbeing—can be put at risk if one challenges the extraordinary (as I see it) idea that self-defined gender identity must supersede biological sex in all spheres of policy.

The scope of the academic taboo surrounding this issue is something I’ve had the chance to observe personally. While it is widely known that my 2021 termination by Mount Royal University (MRU) in Canada was connected to my expressions of dissent on Indigenous issues, I also was targeted for my objection to “progressive” gender dogmas.

My problems began in 2018, at a time when I was still an associate professor in MRU’s department of economics, justice, and policy studies. I hadn’t yet formed any strong opinions about gender ideology—except to such extent as I was disturbed by heavy-handed attempts to prevent anyone from freely discussing it. And it was this latter concern that led me to invite noted “gender-critical” feminist Meghan Murphy to address the question, “Does Trans Activism Negatively Impact Women’s Rights?” at MRU on March 15th, 2019. The event, part of an ongoing project known as the Rational Space Network’s Critical Thinking Series, proved to be a rallying point for those seeking to push me out of the university.

While the speakers at this event included a trans activist, Julie Rei Goldstein, and an MRU Women’s Studies professor had been invited to acts as facilitator (she never responded to the invitation), critics claimed the event was nothing more than a pretext to attack on trans people. The MRU Women’s Studies Program and the university’s Pride Centre organized a counter-event scheduled for immediately afterwards, under the claim that a “therapeutic conversation” was needed to discuss the “impact on trans folks of having our identities and safety considered debatable.”

A number of MRU professors encouraged students to believe that the event betrayed my animosity toward trans people. One faculty member demanded that the cameras be shut off during the event, so as to protect a “vulnerable” population. Another, MRU’s Program Coordinator of Women’s and Gender Studies, posted a long Twitter thread calling Murphy a “TERF”—a term of abuse that stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist." (When a student publicly suggested that the event was structured in such a way so as to stack the deck against trans activism, the prof sent them heart and fire emojis.) As a result, for the first time in my MRU career, I had students stating on their course evaluations that they’d felt “uncomfortable” in my class.

This response to the Rational Space Network event appears to have been one of the reasons why MRU’s Dean of Arts asked a trans activist—a faculty member, who in turn invited a student as a co-presenter—to speak at an Arts Faculty Council (AFC) meeting in December 2019. The dean claimed she’d “heard feedback from both trans students and faculty members about how they are not being respected at Mount Royal.” During the presentation, the two activists stated that professors should not “post transphobic events, or share public events that are transphobic around in the classroom.” Although the dean claimed she’d solicited this oration as a means to “get the conversation started,” no questions were allowed.

In an apparent response to an unflattering published account of this meeting, two faculty members then successfully brought a motion to AFC in January 2020, to the effect that the body “express its continued acknowledgement and support of the labour of [the two trans activists who’d spoken], and of all marginalized faculty and students, in creating an inclusive and welcoming teaching and learning environment.” The dean then commented that faculty members can debate, be critical, and disagree, “but it is important that we do this in a respectful way,” and we should “be mindful when making choices that affect others.”

By way of response, I proposed my own motion on September 18th, 2020, moving that the arts faculty should work to create “an intellectually inclusive environment that supports critical thinking and open inquiry about feminist philosophies pertaining to sex and gender.” The motion passed. But the low level of support it received—44 percent support versus 36 percent opposed, with the remainder abstaining—was a bad omen. Amazingly, in fact, my decision to propose a motion at AFC would itself be weaponized against me by those seeking my ousting from MRU—notwithstanding that the motion had passed in the normal democratic way.

Specifically, the aforementioned trans-activist faculty member claimed that while my motion “appeared to address academic freedom,” it had “baked into it … a poison pill” (by which she meant my “ideologies”). In a university-commissioned report about my behaviour that would subsequently be prepared by an investigator, it was stated that “the Complainant”—i.e., this same activist professor—“described the motion as ‘trans-exclusionary’ because there were anti-transgender feminist philosophies that were not explicitly mentioned in the motion.”

If my critics sound as if they’re farcically intolerant of dissent—even going so far as to indict me for using standard parliamentary procedures in the service of free speech—that would be a correct inference. Their tactics and rhetoric became so absurdly overbearing, in fact, that I found my only effective means of hitting back was through satire. Alas, it turns out that when it comes to this particular issue, all are expected to bow their heads, and no one is allowed to titter.

It was a lesson I learned when my academic union, the Mount Royal Faculty Association, invited participants to a workshop about the “white supremacy culture” supposedly permeating the union’s ranks. This email invitation found its way to an editor at Quillette, who posted a widely-circulated Twitter thread poking fun at its contents. In doing so, he noted that the meeting would “be conducted by [an MRU professor] who goes by they/them pronouns. They is a member of the General Education Department at MRU, and they also runs a workshop addressing issues regarding pronouns. According to their LinkedIn profile, they ‘developed, implemented, facilitated, and assessed the efficacy of dozens of educational programs on social justice and LGBTQ+ topics for thousands of participants.’”

When I looked at the workshop detailed at the link provided, I discovered a cartoon with the title, “Misgendering Fatigue,” featuring a person lying on the floor, declaring themselves “mentally exhaust[ed]” because of all the misgendering they’d endured. “Every time I’m misgendered, it feels like someone is adding a brick to my backpack,” they say, until eventually collapsing due to the crushing weight of all these “bricks.” This load, we are told, metaphorically represents the “seemingly unending burden of the gender binary.”

I’m not sure how this comic strikes you. But to me, it seemed overwrought and ridiculous. However, since saying so through regular channels would invite yet more accusations of transphobia, I instead tweeted my comments out though a satirical alter-ego account, which presents as an enthusiastically doctrinaire supporter of gender ideology. Frances “McGrath” heaped praise on the Twitter thread, as it was “amplifying a silenced TGBQ2SLMNOP voice!”

Unfortunately, MRU’s de facto speech codes apparently don’t allow exceptions for satire. And when I was investigated by my school for supposedly creating a “harassing and toxic workplace environment” through my expression of heterodox viewpoints, the third-party investigator duly trotted out that tweet as indicating a violation of MRU’s code of conduct. It was also claimed to constitute discrimination under the Alberta Human Rights Act and harassment under Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, on the basis that such satire effectively “mocked the Complainant’s identity.”

Some people ask why more academics don’t push back against ideologues on university campuses, or at least demand that their dogmas be debated. But this episode shows why that is often impossible. In the current environment, an activist professor may not only reject invitations to debate; he or she can also smear third-party efforts to conduct such debates as an exercise in “debating the trans community’s very existence” (or some such). Even when commentary enters the realm of irony and satire, it turns out, discussion is verboten.

Are there some transgender individuals who really do claim to suffer from something called “misgendering fatigue”? No doubt, there are. But even within the trans community itself, some voices express exasperation with this kind of lachrymose propaganda, and with the puritanical scolds who spread it. The same is true of the endless expansion of the LGBT initialism, which in Canada has alphanumerically metastasized to “2SLGBTQQIA+”—which happens to contains exactly as many characters as my own satirical TGBQ2SLMNOP term. Some academics and activists insist that such developments of language represent a bold leap forward. And it is their right to hold such opinions. But a lot of people disagree, and it should be our right to speak our minds as well.

Do we need new university rules that protect the rights of people like me? Well, here’s the ironic part about my story: Even before that resolution I moved in 2020, MRU already had an Expression and Free Speech Policy stating that “The University will not suppress presentations or debate whether or not the points of view being expressed are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, extreme, harmful, incorrect or wrongheaded.”

This language couldn’t be more clear. But in the face of a tiny group of activists seeking to shut down any discussion of whether a man can become a woman, or vice versa, my university folded, and treated me as collateral damage in the process. If this kind of spineless behaviour isn’t ripe for scathing satire, I don’t know what is.

Portions of this article were adapted from a longer essay appearing in Minding the Campus.

Frances Widdowson

Frances Widdowson was a professor at Mount Royal University from 2008 to 2021.