Professor targeted by trans activists condemns ‘shameful episode’

Gay rights champion Robert Wintemute says McGill University’s response to the forced cancellation of his seminar is disappointing

January 18, 2023

A King’s College London professor who was covered in flour by trans activists who stormed his lecture and caused its cancellation has criticised his alma mater for failing to defend free speech.

Robert Wintemute, a human rights lawyer known for his gay rights advocacy across the world, was targeted by student protesters at McGill University in Montreal as he gave a talk titled “The Sex vs Gender (Identity) Debate in the UK”, which had sought to reflect on the pushback against efforts to make it easier for transgender individuals to change their legal sex.

The event was also due to discuss the “divorce of LBG from T” and the formation of the LGB Alliance in 2019, which seeks to advocate for same sex-attracted individuals, of which Professor Wintemute is a trustee. The lesbian-led UK charity – founded in response to what it calls Stonewall’s “focus on the primacy of gender over sex” – has consistently denied accusations that it is transphobic.

Before the event on 10 January, Professor Wintemute’s talk became the focus of a student campaign that claimed that the LGB Alliance was “notoriously transphobic and trans-exclusionary”. An open letter signed by student groups also argued that McGill was “actively contributing to the genocide of trans people” by giving a platform to a representative of a “far-right hate group”.

Footage from outside the event showed a crowd of at least 100 people gathered in the lobby of McGill’s law faculty, chanting slogans such as “Nazi scum off our streets” and blocking access to the talk to women trying to attend.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Professor Wintemute said he had begun his talk but it was cut short after 20 minutes. “It was an intimidating atmosphere – protesters were trying drown me out with chants like ‘shame on you’ and ‘trans rights are not up for debate’, and by pushing against the door,” he said.

“The seminar room’s door had a glass panel, and someone was holding an object against it – there were concerns that they would break the glass, so it was decided to call off the talk. Then they burst into the room.”

Protesters unplugged his viewing projector and, as he moved to exit the room, flour was thrown over him. “If I’d been facing him or her when they threw it, this might have been more scary – I brushed it off, but it was still unsettling as you don’t what’s been thrown at you,” he said.

Professor Wintemute, whose expert evidence has been used across Europe and Latin America to roll back discriminative laws based on sexual orientation, said he had some sympathy for the talk’s organisers – the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism (CHRLP) – because “nothing like this had happened before”.

However, the policing of the protest had been poor, he said. “It was a big mistake to allow protesters into the building – they were aware of the hostility faced by the event, so it was misguided to allow some 200 people to assemble outside the room and bang on the door,” he said.

He was also critical of McGill’s failure to condemn what he called a “shockingly undemocratic episode”, saying he had yet to receive an apology, public or otherwise.

Institutional statements have sought to distance McGill from his position rather than address the incident itself. Contacted by THE, McGill said external events held by the CHRLP “serve as a platform for critical conversations on topics that can be productively and robustly discussed in an academic setting” but “are not an endorsement of any speaker’s views”. “McGill recognises and supports the rights of its students to peaceful protest on campus,” it added.

“My impression is that McGill is, like most British universities, more concerned with reputation management – they want to sweep this shameful episode under the carpet,” said Professor Wintemute, who rejected the “absurd” allegations made against him and the LGB Alliance.

“That the group is falsely labelled as a ‘anti-trans hate group’ on a par with the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazi Party is ridiculous – I’d hoped these students might be willing to think, ‘This is a distinguished McGill alumnus with more than 30 years’ experience in human rights law, maybe he is worth listening to,’ but that wasn’t the case.

“I imagine these students were appalled when they saw the storming of the US Congress on January 6, 2021, or the more recent attack on Brazil’s parliament, because these were led by right-wing groups, but it’s essentially what happened in Montreal, albeit on a smaller scale and fortunately without deaths or injuries. It showed contempt for the Canadian Charter right to freedom of expression,” he said.

Professor Wintemute said he had subsequently been contacted by many Canadians following the invasion who had thanked him for speaking out in defence of sex-based rights. “Their intention was to silence me, but their protests gave me a megaphone,” he explained, having been interviewed by national broadcasters in the aftermath of the event.

“That would never have happened if they had ignored my seminar, or joined it and participated in a civilised way. At the moment, there is silence in Canada about transgender issues – I hope that this incident will help to start a debate.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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