U of W lets lecture go ahead despite opposition
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The University of Winnipeg will not prevent a tenured professor from giving a lecture Friday that students and some faculty claim is based on a transphobic premise.
Citing its commitment to “academic freedom, inclusivity and diversity,” the university said the lecture by political science professor Joanne Boucher will go ahead.
“Within this environment, differences of opinion and viewpoint will arise from time to time,” a statement issued Thursday said.
“All members of our community are encouraged to evaluate and debate ideas critically based on the academic evidence, and to do so in a way that respects the fundamental human rights for all persons.”
A social media post that appears to promote the lecture, which is part of the political studies department’s speaker series, explains the talk, titled “The Commodification of the Human Body: The Case of Transgender identities,” would focus on “the economic interests involved in transgenderism” and “illustrate the ways in which the human body itself is increasingly becoming commodified for profit.”
Brie Villenenuve, the U of W student association LGBTTQ+ director, said the description connects being transgender, and gender-affirming medical care, with a corporate agenda, a common misconception used to discriminate against transgender people.
“As in, being trans is some ideology, and not a truth about society. I think that was definitely the big thing,” said Villenenuve, a 19-year-old science student who is transgender and non-binary.
“Then the fact that the discussion about adjusting your body is specific to trans people, and not a general conversation around, say, plastic surgery, is another thing. Surgery regarding someone’s gender to address gender dysphoria is health-related, and it is care and it is necessary to support the community.”
Another transgender student, 36-year-old Elliott Long, said the description feels like it instigates division against transgender people.
“This is sort of a really hot topic right now, and there’s a lot of focus on trans people and cancel culture and things like that,” he said. “When people think of trans people, they often just go straight to our bodies. It’s constant. It’s like having a medicalized body. I’m not sure that I understand the ‘why’ of this event.”
Other than the university’s statement, there is no mention of Boucher’s lecture on the U of W website.
Boucher did not respond to requests for comment. She joined the political studies department in 1999. Her bio on the U of W website lists her research interests as modern political thought, feminist political thought and public policy.
Villenenuve called the U of W decision not to shut down the lecture disappointing.
“While it said a lot, it still wasn’t transparent and didn’t clear up the situation,” they said. “In the email, they voiced their support to the 2SLGBTQ+ community, but disregarded all the voices telling them that the event doesn’t support us.”
Alyson Brickey, an assistant professor in the English department, called it “an institutional failure.”
“When academic freedom is invoked to kind of cover up one’s ability to potentially engage in intolerant behaviour, then that really weakens the principles of what academic freedom is,” she said Thursday.
“Because in all of those collective agreements (between the U of W and faculty), you will also find a sentence that talks about, with this privilege that you get as an academic, you have a duty to uphold, which is to use that privilege responsibly. Are we being responsible when so many of our most vulnerable members are saying, ‘We are feeling hurt by this?’”
Brickey is helping to organize a counter-action on campus set for the same time as the lecture.
“We know that trans people, and particularly two-spirit people, Indigenous, trans people of colour in Winnipeg continue to be some of the most vulnerable members of our community,” she said.
“So recasting them as somehow involved in a corporate agenda seems seems really nefarious and problematic, and I think has the potential to spread some misinformation about trans experiences.”
A rally has been scheduled on campus grounds, also at the same time as the lecture. A petition started by a U of W student to cancel the talk had reached in excess of 1,300 signatures by Thursday.
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Friday, March 3, 2023 4:13 PM CST: Fixes spelling of Elliott