Filed under: Analysis, Anarchist Movement, Anti-fascist, Quebec, Queer, Solidarity, Trans
Report and analysis on recent blockade of far-Right and anti-trans event at McGill university. Originally posted to MTL Counter-Info.
The protest and blockade against the UK anti-trans campaigner Robert Wintemute at McGill on Tuesday 10th Jan 2023 is potentially a moment of polarisation for the queer and trans liberation movement in Montreal. It is also a serious blow against the ability for anti-trans campaigners to freely build support for their ideas in the city. Further, the militancy of the rally clarifies some of the current contradictions in our movement and demonstrates the movement’s interest in moving in a more radical direction.
This report intends to assess the different forces of the protest. It will explain who Robert Wintemute is, what his ideas are and why they represent the thin end of the wedge on attacks against (trans) women and queer people internationally. It will provide an account of the rally itself, demonstrating how the movement is being pushed in different directions. It will also provide some brief information on the far-Right personalities who attempted to break the picket and attack the protesters. Finally, it will make an argument for where we should take the movement from here – that the radical, anarchist and socialist elements should be willing to take this opportunity to organise and mobilise.
Who is this Wintemute guy exactly and why does he suck so much?
Wintemute is a King’s College London law professor who has become the fresh posterboy of the UK anti-trans movement after he denounced support for gender self-identification in the UK conservative magazine The Critic in 2021. He withdrew his support for the drafting of the Yogyakarta Principles, which outline best practices for legally protecting gender and sexual orientation, stating “nobody was thinking about males [read trans* women] with intact genitals gaining access to women’s spaces”. The baseless conflation of genitals and rape with trans women has been expanding recently in popular discourse in the UK and globally. If they weren’t thinking about it, it’s probably because their heads were somewhere other than in the general public’s underwear.
This shift has led him to making fast friends in the anti-trans movement, notably through the right-wing front group LGB Alliance, of which he is now a trustee. The LGB Alliance spends all its energy campaigning against transgender people, and lists amongst its financial and political supporters the US conservative think-tank The Heritage Foundation. Wintemute is gay, and a professor of human rights law; this coupled with his soft support of Palestine and with his claims that his new anti-trans(femme) position is because he “listened to women” gives him apparent left-wing credibility.
This credibility is important for groups like the LGB alliance because they play a role as wedges against the left in the international drive against transgender rights. This wedge is led by a narrow sector of radical feminist NGO bosses and academics who gained status by following the New Left in the 70s. They are now garnering opportunistic support from the conservative and far-Right to promote anti-trans ideas, ideas they are happy to support as they confuse, disorganise, and deflate the left. These ideas, and radical feminism generally, are essentially a petit-bourgeois analysis of gender and sexuality (this meaning: coming from NGO and business owners and bosses, and well-paid academics, rather than working-class people). At its core, it claims that women and men have universal, natural differences that self-identification or gender transitions cannot alter. Gender transition in their view represents the possibility of sexism entering places where women have organised together to fight for their distinct interests. The subject of Wintemute’s talk – the separation of transgender from the rest of queer rights – is a classic example of this radical feminist politics of division.
This attack line is the thin end of the wedge for broader policing around gender and sexuality in society. Today the attack is against transgender people, but tomorrow the attack is against lesbians and dykes for looking too much like men, and ultimately against anyone who does not live in a traditional family structure. This is something Wintemute’s friends at the Heritage Foundation know too well, given they’ve recently celebrated their victory in overturning Roe v. Wade in the United States. It’s of interest to all queer people and workers generally to stand against transphobia to stop this attack in its tracks.
The cries by the right around free speech for TERFs are largely a distraction by conservatives to deflect criticism of their ideas. It deflects from the fact that bourgeois and petit-bourgeois speakers have access to the levers of social communication that working class people lack. Wintemute is not voicing confusion in a discussion with friends or colleagues, he is hosting a presentation proposing the queer and trans movements separate with the support of a major university – who celebrated the occasion by providing a light lunch. The real attack on academic freedom is coming from austerity-hungry governments and university managements. Trans* people are locked out of the workforce and their ideas are marginalised, while ‘free-speech advocates’ and speakers like Wintemute are centered and paid cushy salaries to shit on trans folks. This is not a conversation between equals, but a conflict between classes.
The Protest Itself
The protest against Wintemute’s event was called after it came to the attention of a well-known Montreal activist, who then put out a call to protest a little under a week before the event. Other supportive organisations such as Queer McGill and RadLaw McGill were brought on-board to promote the event. The event planning functionally ended at Instagram and Facebook posts, a media tour, including several media interviews the day before the rally. Meanwhile outrage about the defence of the event by Wintemute’s allies in McGill law spread the rally information widely.
The rally was essentially disorganised on arrival, and began only when a few members of the crowd took the lead in bringing people to the front doors of the event chanting. McGill security had not made any preparations to guard the room or prevent students from protesting. There were a few speeches at the front of the door by crowd members and rally organisers. The crowd had easily swelled to around 200 people and the hall was full of chanting people. LGB – With the T! / 1, 2, 3, 4, kick the bigots out the door! – 5, 6, 7, 8, no right to discriminate!
At the end of her speech, a press conference was called for media interested in talking to her in the foyer starting in one minute. Soon after however, other members of the crowd started blockading the door with a banner, shouting down the few TERFs who were still attempting to break through. The action was just starting. The crowd was chanting in an effort to disrupt the event and holding the blockade for about half an hour. McGill law staffers–including the Dean himself– blocked the door to avoid the protesters getting inside, where less than ten people were gathered for the conference.
The door to the conference (now being held on zoom) was opened, and a member of the crowd took the opportunity to move in on the event. The McGill Law staffers tried to physically block them from entering but were greatly outnumbered, and the crowd began surging at the door. Once a few people entered the room and started chanting, much of the crowd followed. Someone walked inside and immediately unplugged the projector to stop the talk. Someone in the crowd had prudently brought a cup of flour for the event and covered Wintemute clean. He was covered head to toe with white flour like a sad and confused ghoul. The few people present at the talk retreated to the following room – the dean’s office – and were trapped there until the rally ended nearly an hour and a half later. Someone loaded the food and bottles of Perrier in the room onto a cart and wheeled it into the main foyer – light lunch was served.
After a further half an hour of eating and sitting around, more than 100 people were still in the original conference room, functionally preventing Wintemute and his supporters in McGill Law from leaving, as there was no other exit. There was discussion about whether to start an occupation or to end with a march. Some potential demands for an occupation were discussed, including increased trans healthcare support for students and an expansion of the student health centre, but it was eventually agreed to have a march to a major McGill intersection and finish the rally there. Meanwhile, a part of the crowd at the original location tried again to hold a press conference. Around 50-70 people joined the march, which concluded with words from a few members of the crowd.
Who Were the TERFs Who Tried to Break the Blockade?
Around 4 people made an organised attempt to break the blockade and enter the event. These were not naïve feminists who were interested in a debate, but far-Right agitators attracted to the event in hopes of building their profile.
Annie-Ève Collin is a Quebec far-Right personality who has built a profile as a covid sceptic and anti-trans campaigner. She arrived (wearing a “I <3 JK Rowling” shirt [cringy]) with two people, and collectively they were the most aggressive in trying to break the picket, elbowing and body-slamming those who had formed the picket line. After the event she immediately got an article published in the Journal de Montreal saying that she was attacked by the protesters. She’s written for the far-Right magazine Le Quebec Sceptique, has spoken on panels in support of Bill-21 campaigning organisation Mouvement laïque québécois and hosted a public talk on January 21st called “Woke” where she intended to argue against cancel culture. This talk is alarmingly hosted by the Société Gilgamesh, seemingly a front group in Montreal for the ideas of the powerful pro-Assad Syrian Social Nationalist Party.
Malcom Clarke arrived with a full camera set-up to film the event for far-Right publications such as Rebel News. He traveled from London, Ontario in order to crash the event, and has since been campaigning against the event organisers and providing footage to far-Right and radical feminist organisations capitalising on the event.
These two far-Right agitators are example that the TERF movement is acting in conjunction with the far-Right movement at large. Their collaborations are also not solely based in Montreal nor Canada, but are intertwined in an international network that radical left needs to dismantle.
The political significance of this rally was not only that it was overwhelmingly successful in mobilising people and shutting down the event, but that it clarified the existing contradictions in the queer liberation movement today in Montreal. The current official leadership of the movement, although politically putting forward decent views on gender and queer rights, views rallies as being primarily symbolic and relies on the press as the locus for building and maintaining our power. This trans-liberalist strategy has been prioritized in the Quebec LGBTQ+ movement for the last decade, perhaps to its own detriment. In terms of its message, it trades trans autonomy and power for visibility and recognition by the state and media. It also prioritises a kind of trans-exceptionalism rather than solidarity with all oppressed people.
This tendency, which could be gleaned in the unfolding of the protest, represents a wider tendency towards the de-mobilisation and disposability politics within the movement. The current structure of activism has emerged more through the absence of an alternative rather than through its own cohesiveness and organisation. This is likely due to the difficulty of organising throughout covid-19, an over-emphasis on the “communautaire” or non-profit sector, a culture of political purity and capitalistic micro-social-entrepreneurship. This Neoliberal era in which the current queer community is embedded has been blunting the momentum of previous queer liberation groups.
Here in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal, most long-term radical activists are either retired, cancelled, or in burn-out. This is especially true for trans women and femmes, who are often marginalised even within the liberation movements that purport to serve them. The exclusion of the trans* woman from our movements makes obvious what is always true of the encroachment of liberalism on radicalism. She is heard until she is too loud, centered until she is perceived as a threat, righteous until her politics transcend identity and demand liberation – this is why we find a 19-year-old with enormous drive, little experience in militant organising, and insufficient support, placed in the spotlight of a movement in dire need of measured strategy, disruptive tactics, and a solidaric commitment to universal liberation.
Where to from here?
The blockade has shown that the movement is confident and ready to take further action to advance trans and queer rights, despite the practical liberalism of its leadership. Militants should be confident and willing to intervene in events like this in the future to demonstrate an alternative political strategy. This means being loud and organised at rallies and events, bringing leaflets and megaphones to spread out ideas widely, and intervening to raise these events’ militancy. Further, the medium-term goal of socialists, anarchists, and radicals should be to become the prevailing voice of the movement, with the organisation and confidence to notice opportunities like these and call the rallies ourselves, in a way that is democratic and builds a base of militant support. This means building open and democratic political organisations that give members of the movement a voice, provides an opportunity for political education, and develops their capacity to engage in militant action.
The far-Right and their radical feminist friends have been quick to take this event and use it to agitate their base of support. Nearly every far-Right publication internationally has written about the event, including a glowing write-up in the Daily Mail calling us ‘transgender zealots’ and many trash articles in the Quebecor media empire. We cannot let them use this opportunity to grow their base without also using it as an opportunity to grow and develop ours. Liberalism is incapable of providing the framework to fight against the far right and create the solidarity we need to fight against oppression and exploitation. It’s our job to provide an organised and cohesive alternative.
photo: Screenshot via LGB Alliance on Youtube