Trans Activism in York University

By Ulysses Aganon

Trans-Activism at York University

This October, there was this news story about a professor in the University of Toronto- his name is Jordan Peterson (Warren 2016). He’s gained infamy for sharing his opinions on gender identity and expression. In his video lectures on YouTube, he has voiced his opinions on the topic of gender-neutral pronouns, outright saying that he refuses to acknowledge non-binary student(s) by their preferred pronouns.  His words were “I don’t know what the options are if you’re not a man or a woman.”

Later this fall, there were a slew of rallies held on the UofT Campus in support of Jordan Peterson’s actions. On the flip side, numerous people have also protested against his views

Now, put yourselves in the shoes of a trans-person, or perhaps a non-binary individual. How would you feel if they held this rally at the very place you went to school? How would you feel if people around you supported someone that invalidated your entire existence?

(Introduction Music)

Welcome to A Place for Passion. In this episode, I will be discussing the efforts of academic institutions towards being a safer and more productive environment for transgender students.

Here, we will elaborate the progress of trans-activism throughout schools in Canada, as well as the efforts of the Centre for Human Rights, and other affiliated student groups, into making York University a friendlier place for trans students. All articles mentioned in this episode can be accessed in the Works Cited below.

School is one of the most important places for young adults because it is a centre for learning. Here we form bonds, strive for better education and grow into a single community.  This definition of school is no different for transgender students. So why do we make it so hard for trans students to fit in?

“When you improve the learning environment for people who are trans, you improve it for everybody…” (Bello 4:06)

That’s Nadia Bello, the communication and educations advisor right here at our very own Centre for Human Rights at the Keele Campus of York University.

“My job is to provide training and policy development on issues related to human rights, equity and inclusion…” (0:36)

Nadia is one of the many workers here at the Centre for Human rights that work to create a better environment for its transgender students.

 “We have resources, that are print and web based. We do training-positive space training here at York…” (4:29)

And these are just some of the many things that York University does to increase the quality of school life for transgender students. They have gender neutral bathrooms all across campus buildings, which can be used by transgender and non-binary students alike. There are also numerous on-campus programs that seek to provide an inclusive space for young transgender students.

“In terms of campus groups, I mean lots and lots of student groups. TBLGAY, Centre for Women and Trans People… There’s also similar set-ups at Glendon… There’s like a ton of collectives, I mean YFS is really supportive…” (5:30)

These programs are the foundations for trans-inclusivity at York University. Almost every single faculty has their own individual student group for LGBT members. Even non-committed student groups like York Federation of Students, YFS for short, are still really open-minded of towards its trans members.

As you can see, the progress towards being a more inclusive school is well underway. But let’s ask ourselves this; why is there so much stigma towards trans-people in the first place?

Nadia Bello says that it’s because of our own upbringing.

“It’s a cultural thing…We have been taught our whole lives that there are only two genders, they are male and female. Male and female are defined by our physical bodies…” (16:19-17:25)

And if we look at everything that’s been going on around our own communities, then it’s a believable concept. With the whole debate on political correctness, and society’s general lack of knowledge towards its own transgender members, I tend to agree with the idea that it is a cultural thing.

And culture has its own consequences, too. I came across this really interesting study by Elizabeth McDermott regarding the tendency to self-harm with regards to LGBT people (McDermott 2008). It states:

“Recent North American and New Zealand studies of large populations reveal that young LGBT people can have rates of suicide attempts at least four times those of their heterosexual counterparts.”

Note that this study also applies to transgender youth. Clearly, society plays a part in the way we socialize our own children. If they dare to be different from the norm, we teach them to be shameful of their own selves. This is why suicide rates for transgender youth are so high, among other things.

The good news is, that many schools all across the globe are already seeking to provide a friendlier environment for its transgender students.

For example, teachers, like Marilyn Preston from the University of Missouri, have already incorporated transgender-related material into their respective university courses (Preston 2012). In the case of Marilyn Preston, she is covering relevant topics on her human sexuality course, things like transgender history and gender studies. By doing this, she is bringing information that other students would otherwise not know about transgender people.

Furthermore, high schools and universities are also being taught to be more politically correct when referring to their transgender peers.

There are all types of resources for this kind of stuff and they can be found all over the internet, available for teachers to use. Articles like the one titled “LGBT-inclusive language” in The English Journal aim to teach staff, teachers and students how to address the transgender members of their communities with respect (Weinberg 2009).

After all, acknowledging people for who they are is the first step to accepting them.

Overall, we can see that we are making progress as a society. Schools are becoming more accepting of transgender students, and in turn transgender students are becoming more comfortable being in school.

Unfortunately, there’s always a flip side to things. While there are people out there that accept trans-students for who they are, there are also people out there- groups of people, even- that act hateful towards these same students.

The news article from before, the one about Jordan Peterson, is an example of this. Just to remind you of what he did, he created a bunch of videos on YouTube that were about academic topics. However, these videos had some transphobic overtones, in particular when he stated that he refuses to acknowledge anyone that doesn’t fall under society’s gender norms.

The thing that hits me the most about this story is that it was a university professor that did this: someone that people would normally look up to. The second thing that was really heartbreaking is the fact that students and other individuals supported his statements.

People might argue that the professor has a point. And besides, people should be allowed to express their opinions. After all, freedom of speech is a thing, right?

The problem is that his freedom of speech comes at the cost of another person’s existence. When you don’t gender someone properly, you are ignoring a fundamental part of them. The unfortunate part is that things like this shouldn’t even be happening in a school setting, where students thrive off of being accepted and being happy. But the reality is that things like this do happen, even in York University

When asked about the experiences of trans students from the perspective of a supervisor, Nadia Bello states:

“I would say it’s a mixed experience… And then there are students who have really good experiences… And then there’s students who do face significant barriers.” (3:12)

She goes on to talks about the realities that we may not see. She gives the example of harassment, of people refusing to acknowledge transgender individuals by their correct pronouns, as well as the difficulty of finding adequate residence as a trans-student.

Nadia makes a great point about how the individual student experience is not perfect. Try as our community might, we can’t try to fill in all these holes, at least not yet. Our society still has a long way to go.

We don’t need to look far to see injustices upon transgender youth. There was this story from a few months ago, about a male transgender elementary student who was disallowed from using the boy’s washroom (“Supreme” Court 2016). He has decided to sue his school board on a federal level, in the name of his rights as a transgender person.

This is one of the many problems that trans-students face, and that’s just scratching the surface.

Outside the school environment, there are thousands of transgender children out there facing neglect from their own families. These same people have to deal with other injustices, like being denied hormone therapy to transition into the opposite gender. Lastly, trans-people are often victims of public harassment, and sometimes, even violence.

It is clear that life is not easy for transgender youth, but what is it about them that incites so much hate from our society? Looking back at the previous news article about the UofT professor, the comments he made were about something that didn’t even affect his daily life, yet he still held on to his controversial opinions anyway. The question is- why do so many people continue to have these types of hateful opinions?

The answer can be tied down to a lot of things but we should agree that most of the fault is on us: the people who aren’t transgender. One of the main acts of transphobia is when you misgender someone: that is, refusing to acknowledge someone by their correct pronoun or gender.

Some people, however- like the university professor from before- just don’t care enough to try. There’s a special word for these types of things, actually.

“That’s the definition of privilege, right, is that “Oh that’s not my experience and that’s what I know, therefore… what’re you bugging me for?... like that is privilege.” (19:10)

People don’t like being told that they’re privileged, but maybe that’s the problem. The fact that we’re too stubborn to acknowledge that we’re wrong, maybe that’s why trans people are treated the way that they are.

Nadia goes on to say that “it’s really hard to challenge people’s assumptions and beliefs on gender identity.” (8:15) Meaning we still have a lot of battles left to fight if we plan on having true equality for our transgender friends.

So, all these problems and talks of progress: what does this all mean for transgender activism in schools?

First, we should get some things straight. While it is important to look at our shortcomings and failures as a community, we should also look at some of our progress.

The Centre for Human Rights, for example, publishes an annual report every year (“Annual Report” 2015). And every year, they tend to see less and less complaints. Granted, this could mean that students aren’t feeling comfortable enough to approach the Centre. On the other hand, this could mean that less violations are occurring, and as a result, a lesser need for consultations. Progress is there, and if we ever need motivation to work harder for equality, all we have to do is look at our steps along the way.

Lastly, we should remember that there are things we can do to correct these problems.

“When we think about gender expression, it is about not making assumptions… Sometimes, the person in front of you wearing a dress is in fact not who you assume they are… And so this idea of not making assumptions, I think, is really important in reducing this stigma…” (15:13-15:36)

Overall, we should remember that being open-minded is the key to having a transgender-friendly school. That means being accommodating and not making assumptions. We should always keep in mind that trans-people experience a lot of things that we don’t, and just because we don’t experience things doesn’t mean it’s not real.

So, next time you notice transphobia within your school, ask yourself this. How would you feel if someone misgendered you, if someone called you a ‘he’ instead of a ‘she’ or vice versa?

If you’re answer is, “That’s not okay with me,” then you’ve just taken the first steps into being aware of the problems of the trans community. Now try to see if you can take a few more.


Works Cited


“Annual Report- 2015.” Centre for Human Rights. York University, 2015.

Bello, Nadia. Personal Interview. 2 Nov. 2016

McDermott, Elizabeth et al. “Avoiding Shame: Young LGBT People, Homophobia and Self-       Destructive Behaviours.” Culture, Health &Amp; Sexuality, vol. 10, no. 8, 2008, pp. 815–829.

Preston, Marilyn. “Not Another Special Guest: Transgender Inclusivity in a Human Sexuality Course.” The Radical Teacher, no. 92, 2012, pp. 47–54.

“Supreme Court to hear transgender school bathroom case.” BBC News. BBC, 2016.

Warren, May. “U of T students demands apology from professor over ‘transphobic’ comments.” The Star. Toronto Star Newspapers Ltd., 2016.

Weinberg, Michael. “LGBT-Inclusive Language.” The English Journal, vol. 98, no. 4, 2009, pp. 50–51.

Recommended Sources

Bauer, Greta R., and Scheim, Ayden I. “Transgender People in Ontario, Canada.” Trans PULSE. 2015.

Godfrey, Chris. “LGBT-only housing isn’t about separation, it’s about choice.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 2016.

Newfield, Emily et al. “Female-to-Male Transgender Quality of Life.” Quality of Life Research, vol. 15, no. 9, 2006, pp. 1447–1457.

“Safe and Caring Schools for Transgender Students.” University of Alberta. Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services, 2008.

Westwood, Rosemary. “Gender Neutral Bathrooms Treating people with respect shouldn’t have to be legislated.” Metro News. Free Daily News Group Inc., 2016.




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Thanks to  Professor Bell and all the teaching assistants. This episode could not have been done without their guidance and instructions. Special thanks to my TA, Dunja. If you're reading this, you're awesome!

Another special shoutout to Nadia Bello for taking time to let me interview her, for shedding light about the pressing issues that trans students face.

Also a big thanks to all the creators above that graciously allowed me to use their music. 

Lastly, I would like to acknowledge all the trans people all over the world, student or not. This podcast is for you, to let you know that people care about your issues and to let you know that there will always be people fighting for you. Keep on fighting!