“Our lives, and the progress we’ve made, are at stake”: U of T leaders explore 2SLGBTQ+ inclusion and belonging at Angela Hildyard Leadership Symposium

Allison Burgess
Allison Burgess delivers opening remarks at the 2023 Angela Hildyard Leadership Symposium.

More than 150 emerging and established leaders from across the University of Toronto came together to explore the topic of 2SLGBTQ+ inclusion and belonging at the fourth Angela Hildyard Leadership Symposium on May 16. The event took place on the day before International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia.

Held at Desautels Hall at the Rotman School of Management, the Symposium was emceed by Allison Burgess, Acting Executive Director of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI). She spoke about the staggering rise in legislation targeting trans and nonbinary people in the United States, and how policy shifts and hateful rhetoric south of the border are emboldening similar voices in Canada.

“It is clear that much of the progress made by 2SLGBTQ+ communities is currently at risk—both here in Canada and around the world,” said Burgess. “As leaders within the U of T community, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves, support our students and colleagues, and take action to foster inclusion and belonging for everyone in our community.”

Heather Boon, Acting Vice-President of People Strategy, Equity & Culture, shared some of the ways U of T is working to create more inclusive policies and practices, including the recent introduction of expanded gender-affirming care benefits for many employees.

Fostering gender-friendly campuses

Lee Airton, Assistant Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies in Education at Queen’s University and founder of They Is My Pronoun, the No Big Deal campaign, and Gegi, delivered the keynote address, “This is Exhausting: Toward Institutional Structures that Expect Gender Diversity.” In it, they spoke of how the post-secondary experiences of trans people—and the type of action needed from institutions—have shifted, particularly since gender identity and gender expression were added to the Ontario Human Rights Code as grounds of discrimination in 2012.

Lee Airton
Lee Airton delivers the keynote address.

“The experience of trans people [in post-secondary education] is shifting away from danger and unsafety to more mundane forms of harm—and exhaustion,” they said. While universities have adopted policies to address explicit discrimination, Airton argued that the many implicit ways trans people are “told we are not who we are or are doing gender wrong” must also be institutionalized as the university’s responsibility. These include being called the wrong pronouns, lacking access to all-gender washrooms, or encountering disbelief, shock, and refusals to share space.

To address these implicit harms, Airton said, the focus cannot be on encouraging faculty, librarians, and staff to “care more” about 2SLGBTQ+ inclusion. Rather, universities need to establish clear institutional expectations around how employees engage with gender identity and gender expression; deliver skills-based training that shapes new behaviour (e.g., how to use they/them pronouns, what to do if you make a mistake); and create policies that enable trans students to exit discriminatory classroom environments without being penalized.

“When we take steps to help people not feel so exhausted, we’ll have more trans and nonbinary people present,” Airton said.

Moving beyond the binary

The Symposium continued with a panel discussion on “Institutional Shifts to Move Beyond the Gender Binary in Higher Education,” moderated by Tara Goldstein, Professor, Department of Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and Vice Principal, New College.

Panel Discussion
Panel from left to right: Tara Goldstein, Lance T. McCready, Fae Johnstone, and Seán Kinsella.

Building on Airton’s earlier remarks, Lance T. McCready, Associate Professor, Leadership, Higher & Adult Education, OISE, and Director of the Transitional Year Programme, spoke of the exhaustion he has witnessed in 2SLGBTQ+ youth and mature students considering university: “For many, education has been a traumatizing experience. Students are choosing whether they want to be retraumatized, and this is a huge deterrent to even applying.” He added that when a person has multiple stigmatized identities, it can be difficult to pintpoint where that sense of exhaustion is coming from. “The exhaustion is multi-layered and intersectional…. We can’t seek to understand it from one dimension.”

Seán Kinsella, Director, The Eighth Fire, Centennial College, spoke about the ways that settler colonialism has shaped post-secondary education and attempted to erase Two-Spirit, trans, and nonbinary people. “You need to recognize how much the institution [of post-secondary education] is based on the values of white supremacy, and on a core functional level is replicating those harms every day,” they said. “Every room I go into, I have to argue for the fact that I exist.”

Fae Johnstone, Executive Director, Wisdom2Action and President of the Society of Queer Momentum, shared recent examples of harassment she has faced as a trans woman in the public eye, including being targeted by Rebel Media. “I am waiting every single day to see the jump of far-right, anti-trans hate into the mainstream,” she said. “I encourage people to lean in, because we don’t realize how precarious the progress we’ve made is.”

When asked what culture shifts are necessary for a more inclusive future in post-secondary education, a theme quickly emerged among the panelists.

“Support gets withdrawn as soon as you are too big in the room, too trans, too non-conforming,” said McCready. “How do we prevent that happening in university at large?”

“When you bring up these issues, you become the problem,” said Kinsella, adding that their vision is a future “where folks are not problematized for asking to be respected as humans.”

Seán Kinsella
Seán Kinsella speaks at the Symposium.

Johnstone called on post-secondary institutions to go “beyond the 101” when incorporating sexual and gender diversity into their curriculum, policy, and practice, and to leverage their academic freedom to speak out against the surge in discrimination and hatred towards 2SLGBTQ+ communities. “Universities can be bastions against rising misinformation,” she said. “You’re afforded the credibility that I’m not as a trans girl. Use the privilege to subvert the transphobia out there.”

“Our lives, and the progress we’ve made, are at stake,” she said.