Trans and non-binary voices need to be considered in the latest free speech debate

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Photo by Garrison Oosterhof

Over the last few weeks, I’ve watched an endless stream of articles get published alleging that “freedom of speech” is under attack at Wilfrid Laurier University.

A number of articles have also been written from the perspective of individuals who have claimed that they are being silenced by the university and the community: a situation that seems to be filled with irony, to say the least.

But here’s the thing: it becomes harder to weigh in on a conversation when that conversation is about your own right to safety and security.

It becomes harder to remain calm and articulate yourself when that conversation is about whether or not you – and everyone like you – are legitimate and worthy of care and support.

And, frankly, it’s harder to have a conversation when the vast majority of public discourse is saying that a debate about your existence is solely tied to “freedom of speech” and should, in turn, be celebrated.

I am speaking now as a non-binary staff member, and I – as well as other trans and non-binary folks on campus – am saying that our voices are the ones that are actively being silenced. And when we vocalize this, we are met with great backlash.

We are told that we are not being silenced; that we are just too sensitive. That we’re over reacting and that the real issue here is that we are aiming to take away other’s rights to free expression.

But if I ask anything from the Laurier community – and others – right now, it is to recognize those whose voices they are hearing the most. The ones who have been quoted by most major news sources.

Who is getting endless time to explain their perspective on this story? And, more importantly, who is not?

“Freedom of Speech” is an interesting thing. See, it only works for those who already have a voice and a platform. If you are not given the space to speak – or if you are harassed and attacked when you do – then “freedom of speech” doesn’t actually matter, or benefit you to say the least.

It is being made clear that those who have the platform to share their perspectives are not concerning themselves with the fact that there is a large, mostly unacknowledged group that doesn’t share the same set of privileges.

We have talked a lot about “freedom of speech” throughout these past weeks. But we have given almost no time to address how trans and non-binary students – as well as staff and community members – have been impacted by the growing amounts of transphobia on the Laurier campuses.

We need to be giving space to trans and non-binary folks who have been, since day one, asking for their voices to be heard.

Our rights are not up for public debate. Our existence is not up for public debate. Our safety and survival is not up for public debate.

We need to acknowledge that “debates” that invalidate the existence of trans and non-binary people, or dehumanize us based on gender, are both a form of transphobia and a form of gendered violence.

And we need to acknowledge that there is no “neutral” way to demand that someone defend their existence and their right to a safe school and work environment.

In the past few years we have seen conversations around trans and non-binary individuals and their experiences take the world at storm. We have seen actresses and writers – such as Laverne Cox and Janet Mock – carve out spaces for themselves in industries that actively resist such advances. We have seen increased push for awareness around trans specific issues.

But we have also seen increases in public conversation made to dehumanize and to demonize us. Our desire to use bathrooms that we feel most comfortable in has become an international debate. Our lack of access to resources such as health care and housing has been ignored.

And, on Nov. 20 – while this media storm was taking place – we mourned the highest rate of deaths ever recorded for trans women of colour murdered across North America.

Still, when we speak out, we are often reminded that “the world is hard and you just need to toughen up” or that “we would never make it in the real world.”

Believe me, we know the real world is tough. We live and die in it every day. With trans and non-binary folks of color – particularly trans women of colour – facing some of the harshest backlash, that is already apparent.

But this, far from proving our invalidity, proves that we are resilient. That we have continuously fought for our right to safety and security, and that we will continue to do so, wherever we are.

Trans and non-binary people exist. We have always existed, and we always will. This is an inherent fact.

Our rights are not up for public debate. Our existence is not up for public debate. Our safety and survival is not up for public debate.


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