by Emily Sams-Harris
On Wednesday, the 28th of June, 2023, in the city colonially known as Ottawa, Canada, far-right anti-gender protestors stood outside the National Arts Centre of Canada and shouted violent, hateful messages during a Drag Story Time for the second time in recent months.
On Wednesday, the 28th of June, 2023, in the city colonially known as Waterloo, Canada, someone walked into a University of Waterloo campus building and proceeded to attack a school professor and students upon hearing the course was on the philosophy of gender. As a result of the attack, three people were hospitalized. Countless others are reeling from the trauma brought upon by the incident. Waterloo Regional Police have stated they believe the event to have been a planned “hate-motivated incident related to gender expression and gender identity”.
These are two deeply concerning incidents of anti-gender’s prevalence in Canada, both taking place on the exact same day, only a few hundred kilometers apart from each other. The news of this violence is simultaneously devastating and numbing. Still, even with the pain that comes from hearing of these two events occurring so closely to one another, the news comes without shock. As a Canadian international student privileged enough to be studying a Master’s Gender, Policy and Inequality at the largest department of gender in Europe, these attacks hit far too close to home. Before moving to London, walking to the National Arts Centre from my house would take me no more than 15 minutes. While I never got to experience the joyousness of a drag story time in my own childhood, I can only imagine the affirmations it might have provided me with a queer-affirming space that was unavailable in my hometown. Growing up in school, we remembered the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre of 14 women in Montreal, Canada – murdered in an extreme act of gender-based, anti-feminist violence. We were told that something so horrific would never happen again. Gender equality had been achieved and there was no longer anything to worry about. The occurrences on the 28th of June starkly demonstrate the ways violence sparked by anti-movements remains continuously present in Canada.
Community leaders, activists, and organizers have been urgently sounding the alarm regarding the prevalence and rising prominence of anti-gender violence in Canada. Too often, their concerns are dismissed as being irrelevant, over dramatic, or something that “could never happen here”. Anti-gender violence is seen by some as an issue only relevant in the post-Trump United States of America, as if hatred adheres to borders imposed by, and conservatively defended by, settler colonial institutions. As if digital harassment and online misinformation were not spread in an instant via telecommunications conglomerates headed by bigoted billionaires. Logics that presume borders will be the defining feature of a “safe” country will only fail spectacularly to address the growing anti-gender movement in Canada.
How have we arrived at this place?
Canada, along with many other countries, has experienced a shifting socio-political and economic climate over recent years. Neo-liberal politics saw resources and community services slashed while police budgets skyrocket. The COVID-19 pandemic presented an unprecedented global challenge that left many people in a state of constant confusion, anxiety, and uncertainty. Rates of unemployment rose to record levels. Daily routines and forms of community gathering had to dramatically alter or shut down entirely. Groups made precarious because of social inequalities become scapegoats to blame for the arising challenges. Groups challenging traditional formations of society, whether through academia, politics, or their very identities, became viewed with suspicion and targets of threats. This is particularly true for trans and non-binary communities, who have been targeted severely by anti-gender movements.
Populist right movements rely on discursive practices in attempts to make their causes appear legitimate. First, they claim their human rights are being infringed upon, specifically their right to free speech. Therefore, any critiques of their vitriol are framed as undemocratic, oppressive, and null. Secondly, populist right-wing movements leverage anti-gender discourses to divert attention and resources away from challenging broad ongoing societal inequalities. These two discursive tactics dangerously converge as right wing, anti-gender advocates claim to be acting in self-defence because their ways of life are being threatened by people fighting against social inequalities.
“anti-gender proponents mobilise simplistic logics and imaginaries and constitute volatile enemies – here the feminists, there the gays, over there the artists, ahead the academics, elsewhere the trans bodies – nourishing moral panics that distract societies from structural issues”.
By consistently assigning blame to those in opposition to social inequalities, anti-gender advocates alienate those who speak out against them by discursively alienating them to delegitimize their critiques. It is important to note that populist movements will never identify themselves as a threat to society. Instead, conservative, populist leaders will go to great lengths to claim victimhood. Alyosxa Tudor (2021) writes “Anti-gender voices often construct themselves as the marginal or the oppressed and vulnerable”. This is demonstrated for instance through claims that they do not see race, that they could never be racist, that they have never been the beneficiary of unearned privilege are commonplace. They do not comprehend how their violence against racialized bodies is a form of biopolitical, normative violence. It is Sara Ahmed, who in an article entitled “You are oppressing us!”, offers the insights that:
“When black women and women of colour spoke of racism in feminism we were heard, we are heard, as angry, mean and spiteful, as hurting white women’s feelings. The angry woman of colour is not only a feminist killjoy she is often a killer of feminist joy. She gets in the way of how white women occupy feminism”.
Anti-gender movements are empty signifiers that become adaptable tools by populist movements to create cross-societal investments in entrenching the status quo where right-wing conservatives maintain their positions of power. Corrêa regards anti-gender movements’ claims that a natural state of society is being threatened as a demonstration that societies traditional ways of being are not in fact natural but socially constructed and preserved through brutal investments.
Violent, misogynistic rhetoric threatens the safety and wellbeing of university students and faculty who are grappling with important and difficult topics. This issue also spreads far beyond the relative bubble of university spaces and creates unsafe, threatening spaces for the queer kids trying to find affirming resources in times of rising queerphobia or increasing state violence imposed upon Black and Indigenous leaders working to dismantle the structural racism embedded within the fabric of our societies. Clare Hemmings has addressed the ways gender studies as a field has been consistently attacked over the years, labelled aggressive, taking the promotion of ‘gender ideology’ too far, or somehow harming feminist movements. Feminist and gender studies are critically essential, but consistently under-valued, belittled and questioned. The field asks much of us. It asks us to consider power imbalances and look for what isn’t being said. It demands we speak out when others would rather us remain silent. This field also gives much back, through meaningful connections, insightful intellectual collaboration, amongst countless other moments.
Gender studies provides a forum to understand how anti-gender hatred is intertwined within the fabric of other far-right, ultra-conservative prejudices. Anti-Black racism, settler colonialism, homophobia, transphobia, the prison-industrial-complex, nationalistic anti-immigrant & anti-refugee sentiments, anti-vaccinations, anti-abortion, climate change denial. Any attempt to view or address these challenges individually will not create meaningful change or adequately address these interlocking crises. Siloed responses will only work to uphold white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
Following these public demonstrations of violence in Ottawa and Waterloo, there may be increased police presence at 2LGBTQIA+ events and greater financial resources budgeted to upgrade surveillance mechanisms. The reality is that the police will not be in this instance, nor will they ever be, the solution to addressing anti-gender violence. Jeffrey Monaghan’s contribution to the 2022 abolitionist anthology Disarm, Defund, Dismantle: Police Abolition in Canada presents readers with the reality that police work to uphold systems of capitalist settler colonialism at everyone else’s expense, arguing “police and police cultures are deeply aligned with conservative politics and function to reproduce conservative social structures in society”. Instead, surveillance logics masked as ‘security’ will position their priorities over the needs of the groups seeking protection from anti-gender violence. Police institutions do not keep communities safe or prevent scenarios such as those experienced on the 28th of June from happening in the future.
Ottawa has seen firsthand that the police will not keep communities safe from right wing, populist and anti-gender movements. It lives within very recent memory of many Canadians, populist, far-right protestors occupied Canada’s capital city of Ottawa in February 2022, under the banner of the “Freedom Convoy” and the ways apathetic police responses encouraged anti-gender rhetoric. Originally claiming to be organized in protest to COVID-19 vaccine mandates established by federal and provincial governments, the convoy quickly evolved. It quickly became clear that this anti-vaccine, anti-masking protest had absorbed anti-gender movement discourses and dog whistles under the banner of “freedom”. For more than three weeks, occupiers employed aggressive and threatening tactics such as confronting people on the streets whom they believed to be pro-mask, pro-vaccine, particularly women, Black communities, Indigenous communities, people of colour, as well as queer and trans communities. Hearing transphobic slurs was not uncommon. This created an atmosphere of intense anxiety for many residents of Ottawa.
When confronted by the occasional counter-protestor for their hate speech, populist movements consistently levied claims that they were the ones being victimized and that it was their rights were being infringed upon. Brown (2000) offers a theoretical analysis of the ways in which rights are evoked by one group of people to the detriment of another group. Convoy participants evoked the language of rights in very specific normative ways, as if leveraging the discourse of rights would grant greater legitimacy to their hostile organizing tactics.
These examples in Ottawa and Waterloo demonstrate the rise of right-wing populist movements which have coopted and appropriated the language of rights and feminist movements through Tessa Lewin’s notion of discourse capture (2021) and must be resisted by Canadian feminists. Terms originally coined with a liberatory transformative intent become absorbed by right wing parties to advance their causes. Anti-gender movements do not seek to challenge systemic inequalities, but rather wish to create an environment of domination, particularly over marginalized communities. These are difficult times to be working in the field of feminist and gender studies. Through commitment and solidarity, it is not an impossibility that we can reclaim what has been taken from us by anti-gender movements and continue to work towards a vision of liberation from sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, nationalism, and the myriad of interlocking forms of domination.
With everything in me, I hope that the Ottawa drag artists and University of Waterloo community receive unwavering support and trauma informed care as they navigate the aftermath of these moments. I hope for unconditional and endless support for everyone who feels fearful of the unravelling socio-political context we see before us.
There will be other June 28ths in the coming years. Let us build a future where this day can be marked as free from violence. We won’t get there alone though. There is a need to sustain the feminist solidarities that emerged online as people offer words of support to the University of Waterloo community, and the in-person solidarities emerging between every counter-protestor that stood to support queer kids at the NAC’s drag story time. Let us nurture the feminist solidarities between gender studies departments globally and build solidarities with groups struggling against anti-gender movements on the ground. We need a transnational approach to a transnational issue. Responding to anti-gender violence requires a transnational visionary approach, one that works beyond nationalist borders to identify the ways anti-feminist and anti-queer mobilizations reflect and diverge from one another. It is through these solidarities we can collectively resist populist violence and devote more energy to our critical feminist world building together.
Emily Sams-Harris (she/her) is currently completing her MSc in Gender, Policy, and Inequalities at the London School of Economics and holds a BSc in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from the University of Ottawa. Her policy interests relate to creating cultures of consent and examining barriers to educational access. When not working on her dissertation, she enjoys train travel, theatre, and embroidery. She calls the unceded Algonquin territory known as Ottawa, Canada home.