In June 2017, the Canadian government passed Bill C-16. It’s a law that expands the human rights code to include “gender identity and expression” as a prohibited ground of discrimination. This was a significant, if symbolic win for trans rights in Canada.
But to hear a certain U of T psychology professor describe it, the passage of this law would mean a Stasi-style era of “compelled speech”, where simply not calling a trans person by their proper pronouns could get you hauled in front of a judge.
So here we are in late 2018, a year and a half since C-16 was passed. There hasn’t been any real restriction of free speech, and certainly nothing resembling “compelled speech” in Canadian society. This should make perfect sense. Remember that there are a bunch of other grounds protected by the human rights act, like race, age, and sex. That doesn’t mean those forms of bigotry have been eradicated, nor that it’s a criminal act to be offensive toward someone. You have to do a lot more than use the wrong pronoun to be convicted of a hate crime.
But no matter — we’re still talking about this silly debate because Dr. I-Have-A-Book-To-Sell has been going on a speaking tour all summer long and is now touring Europe.
I happen to think the best way to get rid of a toxic garbage fire is to deprive it of oxygen. But I just couldn’t resist doing a little digging after reading a laughable column by Barbara Kay. The column attracted a lot of attention because she opened the piece with an antisemitic quote, misattributed to Voltaire. But it was this part of the article that really got me:
Consider the other grounds for discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act: “race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, genetic characteristics, disability or conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered.”
Every single one of these grounds is objectively certifiable.
Only gender identity is based entirely in an individual’s subjective feeling and an unproven theory: the concept that a person’s biological sex is in fact a phenomenon separate from his or her gender, and that moreover, our traditional understanding that sex is a binary phenomenon – male/female – is a mere social construct.
How quickly Barbara Kay forgets history! How quickly the right rushes to defend gay rights when they can use it as a weapon against trans rights!
It wasn’t so long ago that Canada was having the exact same debate, only the topic of discussion was sexual orientation. In 1995, Canada strengthened hate crime laws to include sexual orientation. The next year, we added sexual orientation to the protected grounds under the Human Rights Act.
The conservative pushback against these efforts is eerily similar to the current debate around gender identity. The same people who opposed adding sexual orientation as grounds for discrimination are now embracing it, only to turn around and deploy those same arguments against trans rights.
So, what are those arguments, exactly? Let’s take a look at newspaper clippings from 1995. I think you’ll find they bear a striking resemblance to today’s anti-trans rhetoric.
Theme #1: “Special rights”
The fundamental premise that all Canadians are equal under the law is being cast aside. Now some Canadians will be more equal than others, if they belong to a specified minority group.
I, for one, would hope that, were I the victim of an assault, justice would be done without me having to prove that I was a card- carrying member of a registered professional victims’ group.
Norbert H. Maerz, Kitchener. Letter to the Editor. Hamilton Spectator. (January 16, 1995)
Reformers ridiculed the idea that certain groups are targeted for violent attacks, and that Canadian society finds these assaults more repellant than, say, a punching match between drunks outside a tavern. The legislation, to them, was pure lunacy.
“While we are at it, let us add fat people,” said Thompson with tongue in cheek. “It is a shame that I, as a fat person, would be left off this list.”
A hateful debate about a hate law. Edmonton Journal. (June 19, 1995)
The Reform party argues that the best way to ensure equal treatment for all Canadians is to repeal the list of prohibited grounds altogether. The list, Reformers argue, only singles out special groups for protection from discrimination, amounting to special rights for gays and others.
Joan Bryden. Reality check : Federal gay rights bill will not lead to same-sex marriage and adoptions. Kitchener-Waterloo Record. (May 8, 1996)
All Justice Minister Allan Rock’s law does is give the proponents of one view of homosexuality a large club with which to beat the adherents of the opposing view. Anyone who thinks this is good and fair should remember that when the other side eventually takes its turn at governing, the club will still be there to be turned on its creators.
Lorne Gunter. Including gay rights in property rights the best solution. Edmonton Journal. (May 9, 1996)
… suppose the above crime is carried out by two people. One hates gays, as in Example 1. The other hates the rich, as in Example 2. The judge would be obliged under C-41 to give the first a harsher sentence than the second — for precisely the same crime. It is a mighty case of discrimination.
Trevor Lautens. A new tilt to the law. Vancouver Sun. (January 14, 1995)
Theme #2: Degradation of societal norms
… the Chretien government is finally, with well-merited reluctance, caving in to the insistent pressure of the gay lobby (including The Globe and Mail) to include “sexual orientation” among the protections under the Human Rights Act. Homosexuals already have rights to the same degree as everyone else, of course.
It is also bad for free speech and majority rights, not that those same elites show much interest in such matters.
But worst of all is the wicked and repulsive potential of those weasel words “sexual orientation”.
Columnist Michael Coren recently speculated that the government was too cowardly to insert the word “homosexual” in the legislation. So it chose a euphemism that most assuredly will be as big as a barn door, and as open, to those who happen to be “oriented” toward utterly disgusting brands of sexual jollies.
Trevor Lautens. Canada does not need more homosexual rights. Vancouver Sun. (April 27, 1996)
Wappel is, I am sure, conscientiously representing the will of the majority of his constituents, as are the other Liberal MPs with the courage to speak out against the political pandering to the single-issue, militant, gay and lesbian community voting bloc by elements of the hierarchy of the Liberal party.
Sexual orientation is not in the least comparable to skin color or religious beliefs as grounds for protection in law. Sexual orientation is not something inherent like skin color; it is, in the final analysis, a private matter.
Recognition in law of special privileges for homosexuals will inevitably lead to official approval of same-sex marriage, which is an insult to, and a degradation of, the true meaning of “spouse” and “family.”
Peter K. Abels. Letter to the Editor. Toronto Star. (April 25, 1996)
There is a fundamental difference between equality for gays and equality for women or races. Few people, especially gays, want to deal with that. The need to accept women or other races as equal does not affect my moral standard. On the other hand, the desire for gays to be accepted as equal challenges the morals on which our culture and laws are based.
Jerry Frank, Calgary. Letter to the Editor. Calgary Herald. (May 27, 1996)
Last month, the Chretien government rushed through changes to the Canadian Human Rights Act so it now includes sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination.
Both initiatives were based on blind acceptance of claims by homosexualist ideologues that those who engage in same sex behaivor merit minority status equal to inherent traits such as race, sex or ethnic origin.
This despite the respected, reasoned voices that argue such a comparison is ludicrous — and even deny “sexual orientation” even exists.
Peter Stockland. Blind acceptance: The gay rights debate needs a little balance. Calgary Herald. (June 19, 1996)
Theme #3: Free speech & thought policing
It amazes me how a minute, well-financed portion of the population tries to manipulate the vocabulary to make positions they hold seem more palatable to the greater population. The gay-rights lobby is a perfect example.
If you do not feel that homosexual acts should be condoned or supported by society then you are labelled “homophobic.” This implies that if you think this you have some sort of fear that is not warranted or your way of thinking is somehow wrong. Most people who have a problem with homosexuals are neither afraid of them nor do they have some sort of mental problem.
Jeff Rogers, Calgary. Letter to the Editor. Calgary Herald. (May 13, 1996)
The public, largely unaware of the full consequences of each new piece of gay-rights legislation, will find activists aggressively moving to force Canadians to publicly accept homosexuality, and in some cases, even to celebrate it.
This seems innocent enough, until one realizes that what homosexuals really want is nothing less than a radical change of thinking on the part of Canadians who do not share their views. Anyone who dares to publicly oppose homosexuals in their quest to be viewed as normal must be isolated and labelled a dangerous bigot.
Echoing the pseudo-psychiatric language of totalitarianism, some homosexuals have recently begun to refer to those who oppose homosexuality as suffering from a “pathological” condition.
Robert Eady, Kanata. Letter to the Editor. Ottawa Citizen. (May 12, 1996)
If Bill C-41 is designed, even in part, to prompt Canadians to think twice before they shoot off at the mouth, it is worthy of some applause from all peace-loving people.
Nevertheless, the passage of the bill is not without cause for concern in a society which prizes freedom of speech. Could it be that C-41 runs the risk of judging as hatred that which is not hatred at all? Could its implementation merely result in handicapping the exercise of a fundamental right in a society whose citizens claim to value freedom of speech?
To some extent, Bill C-41 is a revealing commentary on the intellectual immaturity of certain Canadians, MPs among them. What happens to the spirit of democracy in a country when I cannot articulate my feelings about the thinking or behavior of others without running the risk of being judged a hate-monger by entrenched legislation?
Rather than creating an environment of paranoia with legislation that potentially stifles freedom of speech, perhaps we should simply accept the reality that inflammatory rhetoric is an inevitable consequence of the freedoms afforded by a democratic state.
Tim Callaway. Hearty debate not the same as hatred. Calgary Herald. (July 18, 1995)
Legitimate free speech is not viable when those who engage in it have to worry about facing legal sanctions. Moreover, there is no way to know how often people have censored themselves because they feared such sanctions.
In my view, human rights commissions should not try to use their coercive powers against mere expressions of opinion, no matter how offensive those expressions are.
A. Alan Borovoy. Make the distinction between hate words and deeds. Toronto Star. (August 30, 1995)
Certain aspects of the government’s new “hate law” (Bill C-41) will surely serve future historians as a tombstone of sorts, marking a sharp loss of freedom and moral confusion in Canada.
Those old enough may remember large photos in Life Magazine showing hordes of uniformed Chinese of the 1960s waving Mao’s “Red Book.”
Brainwashed youths demanded correctness in all things, and “political re-education” of all those who had a bias or prejudice of any kind against officially promulgated views.
Never mind, either, that this behavior-based thing called “sexual orientation” cannot be defined scientifically or legally, and is repudiated by thousands of able psychiatrists.
It is a political term of the times being used with great effect to secure special legal, social, economic — and now punishment — rights for what is probably Canada’s most educated and economically advantaged group.
Parliament has blinded itself to the fact that all moral communities rely on bias and prejudice — in the healthy sense of pre-judging behavior — in order to remain communities.
William Gairdner. ‘Hate law’ pushes Canada toward tyranny. Calgary Herald. (June 19, 1995)
It’s the same worn-out argument
If you think there’s merit to today’s “free speech” arguments against trans rights and proper pronoun use, ask yourself how different are they from the above arguments against gay rights? The free speech warriors of 1995 were wrong. Even Barbara Kay acknowledges that. Adding sexual orientation to the protected grounds against discrimination hasn’t turned Canada into an authoritarian thought-police culture.
So it’s disingenuous to recycle those same talking points when we debate trans rights. There’s nothing new here.
I’ll leave you with this still-relevant opinion piece from 1995, published in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record.
People who shout the loudest about “free speech” just want to preserve the current power structure.
We’ve all heard the ruckus coming from the right-wing quarters of the media, governments and university ivory towers about how “political correctness” threatens freedom of speech.
Yet when one analyses their statements and arguments in logical, coherent fashion, one quickly realizes it’s not freedom of speech for everyone that they are defending.
What they’re upset about is that women and members of minority groups are demanding to be treated with equal respect and to have their perspectives, or their version of the story, included in the fabric of any discussion that takes place within these various institutions.
What they are defending is their own freedom to abuse power in order to exclude or intimidate those who don’t agree with them.
Considering this popular Orwellian spin on “freedom of speech,” it is perhaps not surprising to hear a deafening silence whenever there is a real threat.
Simone Rose. Real threat to freedom draws silence. Kitchener-Waterloo Record. (March 21, 1995)