Dressed in a long blonde wig, black skirt with its hem cut below the knee, fringed leather jacket, and jewellery that included a large crucifix, transgender speaker Jenn Smith arrived on a sunny evening in early May to give a talk in Greater Victoria.
It was Smith’s fourth presentation on Vancouver Island of “The Erosion of Freedom: How Transgender Politics in School and Society is Undermining Our Freedom and Harming Women and Children.” At each appearance, opposition had grown, and there had been an unsuccessful effort to get Oak Bay to cancel the event before it began.
With hundreds of protesters lining the path to the venue in a municipal park, Smith walked in flanked by four beefy-looking men. Word soon spread, later confirmed by Smith, that they included members of the Soldiers of Odin, an anti-immigrant group founded in Finland.
It left many wondering what was going on. Why would a group with reportedly neo-Nazi connections and sympathies find common cause with a self-identified transgender speaker?
But the opposition Smith is spearheading to how sexual orientation and gender identity is taught in British Columbia’s schools — an initiative known as SOGI 123 — is attracting not only the Soldiers of Odin but a range of alt-right populists.
And while groups on the right-wing fringe have generally failed to coalesce in Canada or to find the kind of political success they have had elsewhere, researchers say their numbers are growing and opponents have to figure out effective ways to respond.
Smith is opposed to the SOGI 123 materials being used in B.C. schools to teach students about sexual orientation and gender identity, arguing they put students at risk of harm, and that he has a right to express his views even if others find those views hateful. (Smith prefers the he/him pronoun.)
“They are selling nonsense to these children,” he said, arguing that books like I Am Jazz encourage kids to question their gender. “They actually say that, that you can be a boy and grow up to be a girl. That’s against reality. But they do it in a romantic way.”
He denies outright that people can transition their gender, and it’s that lack of acceptance, the assertion that transgender people are not who they believe they are, that people on the other side of the debate find hateful.
That members of a “xenophobic anti-immigrant hate group” came out to support Smith is a big concern, if not a surprise, said Rob Fleming, B.C.’s education minister.
“I’m not surprised that one group that promotes discrimination and intolerance attracts another,” he said. “It’s saddening and it’s infuriating, actually, that there are those whose agenda is to disrupt the goal of having safe, inclusive, welcoming schools in every part of B.C.”
Morgane Oger, a tech consultant, human rights advocate and BC NDP vice-president who in 2017 was one of the first transgender candidates to seek election in B.C. said, “We’re seeing a populist extreme right linked closely to transphobia and joining forces, so they’re mainstreaming, which is quite a problem.”
Smith, for his part, downplayed the links. “I didn’t arrive with an entourage of Soldiers of Odin, although I know there are many people, particularly in the media, who would like to portray it that way,” he said. “I deliberately distance myself from as many people as possible because I need to retain my autonomy.”
He said he was aware Victoria school board trustee Ryan Painter and others were organizing a protest to meet the talk, so he put a call out seeking support and it materialized from people who support freedom of speech.
“I can no more prevent the Soldiers of Odin, for instance, from coming than I can prevent all these crazy activists who came out against me,” he said. “When I arrived on the grounds they said, ‘Look, there’s like hundreds of protesters here, you’re maybe not safe, so how about we walk you to the door?’ So, I said OK, that’s fine.”
Smith said he was aware of how it looked. “Everyone always wants to put me in with Culture Guard or Soldiers of Odin and I have no connection with them. They were there, they were supporting what I am saying, [but] are they really on my side?”
‘A platform for them to unite’
The Soldiers of Odin and Culture Guard are not, however, the only groups on the far right that support Smith. He said he understood there were also members of the Proud Boys at the May 2 talk. The Proud Boys are a neo-fascist group formed in 2016 in the United States that reportedly accepts only men as members and has promoted political violence.
Chris McCay, from the Campbell River-based Canadian Christian Lobby who has helped organize Smith’s speaking tour and accompanied him at events, said he’s well aware that they are creating connections with others who are on the fringes of Canadian political discussion.
“The Canadian Christian Lobby and Jenn Smith, the reason we’ve been so effective is because ultimately the grassroots movements are ready to move and they’re looking for people to lead,” McCay said. “We’re dealing with a lot of different organizations that are upset with the government for different reasons, and this is becoming a bit of the platform for them to unite. It really has.”
McCay said it was a “whole nest” he was wary of disturbing, but he did map out where the support fits into broader movements, drawing connections with the Yellow Vest protesters, groups who oppose women’s abortion rights, and the producers of a libertarian YouTube channel.
“You bring in a lot of these people out of the woodwork that feel like they don’t have a voice, right, an opportunity to truthfully speak it through the media even,” he said. “The media is definitely not on our side, if you want to use the word ‘side,’ definitely isn’t speaking what we want to be spoken.”
The father of five said that he and others raising concerns in Campbell River about SOGI 123 were called “white supremacists” and “bigots” and had to fight to have their voices heard. And while he didn’t express support for the views of the Soldiers of Odin and others, he said he could see where they were coming from.
“I think it’s a lot of people frustrated with not having an opportunity to be a voice and express some changes they want to take place,” he said. “Not only is SOGI 123 affecting our children, but it is changing our culture, and that is what Jenn Smith is ultimately speaking on.”
Smith agreed the Soldiers of Odin’s presence suggested they support his views. “They resonate with what I’m saying. Anybody who supports free speech should be resonating with what I’m saying,” he said. “It’s them who’s coming to me, it’s not me who’s going to them.”
Barbara Perry, a criminologist at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology who researches right-wing extremism and hate crime, said that when she first began looking at what were then called white supremacist groups in the U.S., the focus was on race and anti-Semitism.
“We often forget that another important part of the movement revolves around sex and gender, and sexuality and gender identity, all of those pieces,” she said. “They see any deviation, as they would put it, ‘deviance’ more likely, from hegemonic masculinity or femininity, you know that binary notion of male/female, heterosexual/homosexual, they see any variation from the norm as disruptive, in fact as a transgression.”
Some at the furthest fringes would even view it as part of a conspiracy around “white genocide” or even “white suicide,” she said. “There’s this real sense of a distortion of what they see as the natural order when non-heterosexual sexuality or non-binary gender identities are invoked.”
Perry said the number of white nationalist groups is rising in Canada. Her recent research found close to 300 active groups across Canada, up from around the 100 she and a co-researcher found in 2015. “It’s definitely a growing movement across the country,” she said. “I think it’s a fairly serious concern.”
The movement brings a very real threat of physical violence, but also a broader threat to social unity, Perry said. “They have a very detrimental and harmful impact on those targeted communities. Those constant reminders that they’re not valued, they don’t belong here, they’re not part of that Canadian heritage that they’re so protective of.”
Suppress or engage?
For many people, the question is how best to respond. At the May 2 talk, protesters sang songs, chanted “SOGI saves lives,” got in the way, and otherwise made it impossible for Smith to present until someone pulled a fire alarm, and municipal police cleared the building.
It seemed like a victory to those who protested, but the experience had McCay and Smith vowing to plan further talks for Victoria and the Lower Mainland in the coming weeks. “We’re going to keep doing this, and if we can’t do it, ultimately we’ll just keep creating a movement,” McCay said.
Perry said she and others have found it’s better to engage with individuals than to suppress or ignore them. “My response is not to try to lecture to them... but engage them through questions and have them question their own positions and where that comes from,” she said.
“When you start to unpack those beliefs, especially around threat and what they perceive as the threats associated with immigration, all those sorts of things, once you unpack them some of them are quite empty and unfounded.”
In the case of SOGI 123, Smith said he isn’t spreading hate, just saying what he believes to be true.
“First of all, they can’t document that my opposition to it is going to put children at risk,” he said. “Second of all, I believe SOGI is putting children at risk, specifically children who have autism, children who have psychological or emotional problems, like myself when I was a kid.”
Smith said he was a foster child who went through six homes starting when he was three years old. He was bullied in school. “I was very emotionally and psychologically traumatized by my experiences, so I was vulnerable.”
He’s now 54 years old and acknowledges he’s lived a “troubled” life that included time doing sex work.
“I got knocked off track in my life,” he said. “I lost my way for a long time, I found my way back, and I would say that today I’m more comfortable in my identity than I’ve ever been in my life. Whoever is identifying as transgender, I believe I am the middle ground.”
He said he supports people expressing their gender as they wish to, but he’s opposed to “romanticizing” a path that leads to drugs, synthetic hormones or surgery being used to change children.
“The truth is a man can’t be a woman,” Smith said. “Express as you want, but let’s not get untethered from physical reality.”
He has written that the SOGI 123 materials “brainwash” children and that a disproportionate number of people who are transgender are mentally ill.
When Chilliwack school trustee Barry Neufeld said “gender change is nothing short of child abuse,” Smith defended him.
‘Hate is a result’
Developed with input from school districts, the University of British Columbia and Ministry of Education, SOGI 123 materials include lesson plans for kindergarten to Grade 12 that are deemed appropriate for each grade, as well as templates for administrative policy and professional development for teachers.
Ryan Clayton, who was part of the advocacy effort that led to SOGI 123 being adopted, said it has led along with anti-bullying policies to positive change in the province’s schools. He recalled growing up gay in Salmon Arm.
“There were no stories in school,” he said. “Nothing that reflected my life in curriculum, no way I could see myself reflected.”
That’s gradually changed, he said, drawing on his experience giving talks in schools. “Slowly, over the decade I went into those schools, the conversation changed, and I saw people slowly start to understand that violence and discrimination is unacceptable, and I saw students start to stand up for their peers.”
Randall Garrison is the NDP Member of Parliament for Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke and said he is one of only five out gay MPs in Canada’s 338-seat Parliament.
“Making school an accepting place, for all kids, for all kids to explore who they are, to be who they are, to grow up and be whoever they feel they are and want to be, is so important and it will lead to an even better community in the future.”
Oger said Smith and others are creating scary narratives based on supposed facts that they are often misrepresenting. While violence is rare, the threat to her and others is real, Oger said.
“Social media is such a divisive tool when it comes to stirring up the pot and making it boil over,” she said. “The concerns I have in all of this is that misinformation and disinformation are being generated, they are using it to trigger specific communities that are pre-disposed to believe it, and then those communities get angry.”
Smith’s audience is small, Oger said, but there’s a real risk that what he says will cause harm to the child of someone who listens to him or lead someone to violence.
Oger said that Smith’s stated intentions are irrelevant. “You don’t have to be a hateful person in order to do hateful things,” she said. “Hate is a result. Inciting discrimination or inciting discrimination likely to result in hatred, this is the offence, this is the problem.”
The discrimination Smith advocates is against Canadian human rights law for good reason, Oger said.
“Jenn Smith says that transgender women are delusional. Jenn Smith says that giving the appropriate medical treatment to a transgender child is child abuse. Jenn Smith says a number of things that imply that transgender people shouldn’t be treated the same way as other people based on who they are.”
Saying transgender women harm women and are not themselves women is inciting discrimination, and that’s the problem, Oger said.
Education Minister Fleming said the resistance to the people attacking SOGI 123 shows the opposition to the program is failing. “You saw massive crowds that came out to counter protest them. Victoria and Oak Bay declared themselves places of tolerance, understanding and acceptance and a pro-SOGI city.”
Just a few months ago in school board elections, he said, voters rejected anti-SOGI candidates.
“They’re not going away, but they’re not getting anywhere,” he said. “Every single education partner in British Columbia is united behind standing with kids of all sexual orientations and gender identities and making schools safe and welcoming places in all 60 school districts, and a growing number of independent schools even have adopted those types of policies.”
Parents continue to have the right to take their children out of sexual education, but very few choose to, he said.
“None of that has changed despite all the misinformation from critics who have other agendas,” he said, noting the SOGI material is frequently misrepresented. “They’re promoting respect and valuing diversity. That’s it, full stop.”
Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Chilliwack school trustee Barry Neufeld failed to win re-election last fall. This article was updated on May 28, 2019 at 10:30 a.m. to state that Neufeld was indeed re-elected.