Lightning Rods

She looked straight at me.

I had just finished a work out and was back in the change room to shower. I don’t really remember what she said; I forget exact words when I’m extremely anxious. I just remember her look. I remember that she told me where the exit to the women’s change room and to use it. I remember freaking out because it was lunch time, the busiest time for the gym, and it felt like all these other patrons were looking at me.

She had perceived me as a man intruding into the women’s change room. I was terrified to explain myself, because of the low pitch of my voice would only deepen the perception that I was a pervert. All these people would henceforth see me as the pervert.

All I had wanted to do was to shower, change, and go about my day. This was my worse fear about going to the gym realized.

If this had been a few years ago, I think I would have been too scared to return to the gym at all. These days, it’s easier to cope with incidents like these. I have a process to deal with the emotional aftermath that’s well worn.

I don’t blame her for her ignorance nor do I blame myself for being fearful. I see these actions as not really hers, but the inevitable outcome of being in a society where norms around gender are narrow and deviation from that norm is still largely met with derision, mockery, and/or fear.

For instance, look what politicians had to say last week on the issue of people like me using the change room. This was in the context of the second reading for Bill C-16. Conservative MP Harold Albrecht had this to say:

Another concern is the potential harm to innocent children. As I stated earlier, I am in total support of equal rights. Therefore the question needs to be asked: Where are the equal rights? Is it equal rights of the boys or girls and of the young men or women who expect to find only those of their same gender in their change rooms? Is it fair to have their rights trampled upon by this imposition of extra rights for some?

MP Cathay Wagantall echoed this opposition:

Women’s rest rooms and locker rooms are traditionally family changing rooms. By passing the bill, are we then be saying that a person’s need to express his or her gender or identity foreshadows the mother’s need to also protect her child from seeing a naked [woman] at, let us say, a YMCA children’s swim class? Have we really gone this far in our society? Is this really where the majority of Canadians want to evolve or aspire to?

The implication of such comments is that allowing people like myself to use the change room constitutes a threat to children. Hearing comments like that over and over have fed into the fears I have.

But it’s not where the majority of my fears comes from. For that there’s my lived experience. But then there are also news stories around gender nonconformity that explode in popularity and become a lightning rod for Canadians to express their views.

A few years ago, it was around a family that didn’t disclose the sex of their child to strangers. There, the family endured a “strong, lighting-fast, vitriolic response“. This past year, it was around a Canadian psychologist who practised conversion therapy at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. Canadians came to the defence of the clinic in droves, ignoring the voices of the trans people who were subjected to the abuse and had advocated for its closure.

These days, the lightning rod issue is around professor Jordan Peterson at the University of Toronto who released lectures online opposing the acceptance of trans, non-binary and intersex people.

The original lectures were a mess, invoking Marxism, political correctness, “social justice warriors”, trans women who use women’s shelters, the Soviet Union, conspiracies against free speech, racism, etc. Here are some excerpts to give you a feel for the talk:

Trans or transgender is an umbrella term referring to people with diverse gender identities and expressions that differ from stereotypical gender norms. Now here’s what I think about these terms: you see the people who use these terms want everyone to believe that there for all the good things that they say therefore but I don’t believe any of that. I don’t think that there for good things at all, I think that they use the pretense that therefore good things you know that they stand for good thing to continue their nefarious activity and one of the most nefarious elements of their activity is the use of these ideological clubs…

I think that those gender-neutral pronouns are politically motivated. I think they’re connected to it an entire underground apparatus of political motivations radical left political motivations and I think uttering those words makes me a tool of those motivations and I’m going to try to be a tool of my own motivations as clearly as I can articulate them and not the mouthpiece of some murderous ideology person’s gender identity definitions.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission which is a particularly pathological organization in my estimation and perhaps the biggest enemy of freedom currently existing in Canada…

The whole idea of having needs accommodated is a very very it’s a very very slippery idea and it sounds good but it’s very very dangerous…

I think the Ontario Human Rights Commission is is an emblematic institution in this regard is partly because i think that the that social justice warrior type activists are over-represented in the current provincial government said are the current liberal provincial government and I can’t help but shake this i can’t help but manifest the suspicion that that’s partly because our current Premier is lesbian in her sexual preference…

Following the release of the lectures, students organized a teach-in to help their peers and staff learn about trans, non-binary and intersex people. Students were also successful in pressuring the university to finally send a letter to the professor affirming the rights of students.

From there the story spread and things got ugly.

A reporter from Rebel Media disrupted the teach-in. A student who attended the event said of the reporter:

She very clearly showed no desire to learn about, or even acknowledge the humanity of the people she’d come to criticize. All of her rhetoric was based on gross misinformation and hyperbolic assumptions about our lives, identities, and priorities, which was hugely discouraging given that the intent of the event was to create an experience of human interaction and sharing between the trans, non-binary and intersex communities and the public.

Transgender students on campus subsequently received online threats calling for their blood. The day after the teach-in, Rebel Media had another reporter don a wig, proclaim themselves to be transgender, and harass Muslim women at a pool. Back on campus, two rallies were held in support of the professor. Meanwhile, virtually every comment on Reddit’s r/canada about Peterson or Bill C-16 was deriding trans people. Then newspapers across Canada started to express their support for the professor.

Rex Murphy wrote in the National Post:

Here be the new axioms of our day: we own your pronouns, use no others. “He” and “she” are assault words. Freedom of speech is the life-raft flotsam of gurgling obscurantists and bigots going down for the last time.


Prof. Jordan Peterson is a brave man. Better, he is an actual, a real, university professor. May his stamina and courage hold. Parents, send your children to his classes.

It wasn’t the only such article to appear in the National Post, another was titled “Are zee ready for the dictatorship of the gender warriors?” and yet another was titled “Embattled U of T professor a warrior for common sense and plain speech“. The Globe & Mail joined in with the article “The professor vs. the pronoun warriors“. Meanwhile, the Sun offered the headline “Once they’re done with Jordan Peterson, they’ll come for you“. The Sun then posted the editorial “We stand with Jordan Peterson“, in which they conclude:

We all need to stand with Peterson to make sure this rot doesn’t spread further.

The well-being of trans students didn’t figure anywhere in this response, only the perceived imposition of having to show them basic respect. In the end, an incoherent conspiratorial rant against trans people drew up incredible widespread support from Canadians. And that support manifested itself in ways completely devoid of empathy, with leading newspapers using inflammatory and conspiratorial language, with trans people receiving death threats, with individuals getting paid for targeting and harassing trans people.

It’s surreal the way in which the reaction has been disproportional to the original events. My heart goes out to trans, non-binary and intersex students in Toronto, especially those who have yet to develop strategies to cope with such harm.

This lightning rod issue, like the others, showed me where Canadians really stand with people like me.

That’s why I felt scared when that gym member told me to get out and all those eyes were upon me. I responded by carrying myself as if I was cisgender woman perplexed at her statement.

The lady realized her mistake, apologized to me, and I went to take a shower. I entered the shower stall, turned on the water and cried.

Update, November 18th 2016: The events at the University of Toronto continued to galvanize Canadians, reaching the House of Commons. Jordan Peterson was cited by two Conservative MPs opposing Bill C-16 in Parliament, MP Bradley Trost and MP Cathay Wagantall. The MPs claimed that Peterson’s rights to free speech were being stifled and that Bill C-16 would have a chilling effect on free speech.