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Gender + Sexuality

Why We Need Gender Studies More than Ever

Students need to know they’re not alone.

j wallace skelton 7 Jul 2023The Conversation

j wallace skelton is an assistant professor in the faculty of queer studies in education at the University of Regina. This article was originally published in the Conversation.

At the end of my interview for my current position as assistant professor of queer studies in education at the University of Regina, the hiring committee asked me if I had any questions. My first was: “When they come for me — and they will — what will the university do to protect me?”

I’m not paranoid; I’m a realist, and I’m not alone in asking questions like it. It’s also my attempt to be clear that institutions that make their money and reputation from the work of gender scholars are responsible for our safety.

Institutions need to take action to protect scholars and students whose work is feminist, celebratory of trans and non-binary folks and inclusive of 2SLGBTQ+ people, reproductive justice and gender justice.

Those of us doing this work have been shouldering the burden of our own and our students’ safety, individually, and often in isolation from each other. We need the burden to be shared — by our institutions, by our colleagues and by you, dear reader.

Collectively, as a society, we failed University of Waterloo philosophy professor Katy Fulfer and two of her students on June 28.

Fulfer and her students were stabbed while she taught her gender studies class in what the university described as a “hate-motivated attack related to gender expression and gender identity.”

The attack was horrific and unacceptable. The conditions that made it possible — escalation of rhetoric of hate accompanied by hateful and violent actions against 2SLGBTQ+ people — are deliberate, a manifestation of hate and vitriol that is nurtured by people who feel threatened by this teacher’s and other’s work.

This was not senseless, as in without logic. It unfolded in a climate where a political movement desires to push women, queer, trans and non-binary people out of public life.

If we only blame the attacker, we fail again because this is not an isolated incident. It is part of a campaign of escalating incidents on university and college campuses, outside public schools, inside and outside school board meetings.

Those most impacted need care

Our society’s and universities’ response to this needs to be similarly broad.

First, in keeping with Ring Theory, when a specific incident happens, we provide care towards the people most impacted, and allow them to share their feelings and needs outward towards those less impacted.

Fulfer and her students need to be at the centre of that care. Also needing care are others across Canada who do similar work, who teach similar material, who study in similar classes. If you have not yet reached out to colleagues or students, do so now.

Let them know you know what happened, that you suspect they may be impacted, offer what you can (support, to be on call if they need something, to talk about security, to support them moving their class online if they feel it is necessary, to co-work, to listen, to advocate for their needs). Offer what is appropriate for your level of knowledge, power and connection.

Creating safety

Next, recognizing that this is not an isolated single incident, we need to think about both how we create safe work and learning environments and how we de-escalate movements of misogyny, homophobia and transphobia. Creating safety takes many forms.

Most powerfully, if you are an educator and you are not already teaching intersectional feminist, LGBTQ2S+ content in your courses, start doing so now. We all need to be addressing gender issues.

Those that wish to do harm cannot target all of us at once. We need to do this because our students are encountering hate in all manner of places, and they need our commitment to create safety for them. They need to know that they are not alone in this.

‘We need our institutions to be public in their support’

Within or beyond universities, when we encounter misogyny, homophobia and transphobia we need to address it, and address it with everyone who was impacted. We need our institutions to be public in their support. Yes, this means public letters, policy statements, flying rainbow flags and painting trans Pride crosswalks.

It means engaging those most targeted by the hate, who need to be centred in the planning. It means recognizing that the work we are already doing about our own and our students’ safety is work, and compensating us for it. We should not let only certain professors who are most targeted do additional labour, while those who are not targeted get to use their paid time for research or writing.

We need both broad institutional responses and specific ones that meet individual needs.

Broadly, our institutions are reflections of our culture. We need a culture shift. We need individual conversations with the people around us, and public conversations in our media, places of worship, businesses and organizations.

We need to celebrate gender diversity, honouring of women and 2SLGBTQ+ people. We’ve enshrined this in law, in the Charter and in human rights codes, but our practice does not live up to the goals of our legislation. We need all of us to be in this work. We need to create opportunities for people who have been antithetical towards this work to do better, and to change.

In my own work, I have often felt guided by the words of Supreme Court Justice Beverley McLachlin in Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36, a decision that was about whether it was appropriate to read lesbian and gay picture books in kindergarten (yes, it is).

McLachlin wrote:

“Exposure to some cognitive dissonance is arguably necessary if children are to be taught what tolerance itself involves.... Children cannot learn this unless they are exposed to views that differ from those they are taught at home.”

It’s ok to be afraid. Don’t stop speaking up

It’s ok if this work is new to you. It’s ok if it feels uncomfortable at first. Do it anyway, and keep doing it and you will get better at it. Figure out your own compelling reasons to do it. Connect with others who are.

As a colleague of mine wrote after reading about the attack, it is ok to be “both afraid and bravely continuing to speak up.”

Universities need to ensure everyone affected is engaged in responses. Black and Indigenous colleagues, some of whom are also 2SLGBTQ+, have significant expertise at combating hate. As I have learned from them and with them, resisting hate of all forms is all of our work, and if we do it together — in solidarity, community, in ongoing conversation — we will win. The Conversation  [Tyee]

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