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Behind the Lens
Why it’s important to oppose Jordan Peterson’s views on gender pronouns
By Lane Patriquin

It has been two years since Jordan Peterson began his rise to public notoriety, propelled by his vocal opposition to transgender human rights, and his refusal to use preferred pronouns for trans students.

I helped organize the original teach-in demonstration against Professor Peterson at the University of Toronto and I’ve been asked why I got involved in this activism.

For me and many other gender-variant people, it isn't possible to draw boundaries between life as a trans person and life as an activist.

Growing up in a rural Ontario town, I experienced severe bullying and ostracization because of my gender expression. At the time, gender roles seemed like an unfortunate but immutable fact of life: death, taxes and gender.

By the time I started high school, I'd developed acute depression that worsened throughout my teenage years. I approached adulthood with dread – I saw no version of the future where I would escape social obligations that profoundly conflicted with my internal life. I could find no explanation for this discomfort until I was 17 when I received a letter from a pen pal introducing me to the term “genderqueer.”

Genderqueer — a term that predates “nonbinary” — represents a category of transgender experience for those who don't exclusively identify as male or female. Many genderqueer and non-binary people use singular-they pronouns and gender-neutral language.

When I began developing friendships with trans people, I realized that for many people, a binary gender role was actually empowering and life-affirming. It wasn't that everyone was unhappy with their gender and I was just particularly bad at performing mine — I actually experienced gender differently.

Discovering this about myself was one thing, but embracing a life that reflected that was another. When I began exploring my identity in 2012, bringing up gender-neutral pronouns was met with apprehension. I realized that it would always be a struggle to make people understand who I am, and the world might never accept me. This sent me into even greater depression, and I attempted suicide shortly after my 18th birthday.

Somewhere in the process of recovering, I decided I was going to try to live. If the life that had been assigned to me was bad enough that I would rather die then it seemed logical to at least give real life a try.

I threw myself into learning everything I could about nonbinary genders – I started a resource website to help others find this information and created a YouTube channel to talk about my experiences.

Once I started sharing my story, I met many other people with similar experiences. I received messages from other nonbinary people telling me how much I'd encouraged them, and from teachers and family members thanking me for helping them understand. Advocacy became a huge part of my life and I don't regret it at all. I found it fulfilling that I was able to provide the type of support for other people that I wish I'd had growing up.

When Jordan Peterson came on the scene in 2016, it was difficult for me to understand his assertion that nonbinary pronouns represented a matter of freedom for non-trans people. To my peers and I, it was so clearly a matter of our freedom — the freedom to not be forced into a social role that was, for many of us, unbearable.

It is generally understood that social acceptance is the most effective way to reduce the risk of suicide for transgender people. Humans are innately social creatures, and social participation is a requirement of healthy life for all people. While there is a common misconception that suffering is an inherent aspect of trans experience, this neglects to consider the true causes of the hardships experienced by our communities.

Isolation, discrimination, familial rejection, and compounded forms of oppression such as racism and homophobia can increase the risk of mental illness and suicide regardless of one's gender identity. Trans people have just as much potential for fulfillment as any other person once these barriers are removed. But given that these obstacles are social in nature, removing them requires a level of group participation.

The only way for many nonbinary people to be healthy and lead fulfilling lives is to live in a social role that some refuse to acknowledge exists. This creates a situation where self-advocacy becomes an obligation of daily life.

For me, activism is less of a political choice and more of a personal one informed by the circumstances of my life. Many trans people can’t separate the personal from the political because others, like Jordan Peterson, politicize their personal lives.

Lane Patriquin is a transgender activist and writer. They helped found several gender-variant community groups including Nonbinary Toronto, and have facilitated multiple workshops and trans community events over the past five years. They currently perform volunteer coordination roles for anarchist food serve and harm-reduction programs.