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Harvard Transgender Rights Pamphlet Prompts Conservative Backlash Online

A pamphlet providing information about transgender rights distributed by the College’s Office for BGLTQ Student Life drew attention and criticism from various conservative and Christian websites over the past week.

Students and BGLTQ Office staffers first circulated copies of the pamphlet when an anti-transgender ‘free speech’ bus visited campus on March 30, according to BGLTQ Office Director Sheehan D. Scarborough ’07.

The two-page pamphlet, titled “Get the facts about gender diversity. Fight transphobia,” gives information on issues surrounding gender identity and lists local and Harvard-specific resources for transgender individuals, including the BGLTQ Office.

“The idea was to provide a counter-message to the one that was being promoted by the bus,” Scarborough wrote in an emailed statement Wednesday. “My office set up a table outside of the Science Center [and] people who chose to could approach the table, talk with us, and take a flyer.”

In particular, the document asserts that sex as assigned at birth does not determine gender identity, that “there are more than two sexes,” and that “misinformation” targeting transgender individuals amounts to “a form of systemic violence.”

“Fixed binaries and biological essentialism, manifest in gendered language, misgendering someone, and the policing of trans bodies, threaten the lives of trans people,” the pamphlet reads.

Since the pamphlet’s dissemination, at least a dozen conservative and Christian media outlets have published articles commenting on the brochure. Several sites compared the document to a 2015 “Holiday Placemat for Social Justice” which advised Harvard students how to discuss issues related to race and diversity with family members over the holidays.

That placemat, distributed by the College’s Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, drew both praise and criticism, eventually prompting administrators to apologize for its creation and distribution.

Several conservative outlets wrote that they took issue with information contained in the pamphlet.

“At Harvard University, students are being taught that gender identity can change from day-to-day,” Evan Lips wrote for the New Boston Post, an online news source which bills itself as a “hub of conservative thought.” Lips asked: “How can there be more than just male and female?”

Scarborough wrote Wednesday that he believes the brochure helps advance the BGLTQ Office’s goal of preventing discrimination on campus.

“Part of the mission of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life is to educate and engage the Harvard community about the multiplicity of sexual and gender identities,” Scarborough wrote. “The flyer was very much in keeping with our office’s stated mission and was a sign of our support for the trans and gender non-conforming community at Harvard College.”

Students and BGLTQ Office staffers distributed the pamphlet a second time during an anti-transgender speech given by psychology professor Jordan B. Peterson on April 11, according to Scarborough. Peterson, who has faced criticism for his belief that gender and sex are not independent, spoke in the Science Center at an event hosted by the Open Campus Initiative, a new student group that has vowed to "test" free speech values on Harvard’s campus.

Lily M. Velona ’18, a member of the student-run Trans Task Force who helped circulate the pamphlet, wrote in a statement that they remember handing out fliers and dancing during Peterson’s speech. Velona was unaware of the online backlash to the pamphlet and wrote that critics like Peterson do not make a legitimate argument.

“It isn’t a political debate,” Velona wrote. “This is a community of people facing incredible violence on this campus and beyond whose existence is being put up for debate in the same tradition of debating whether people of color or women or gay people are people.”

—Staff writer Hannah Natanson can be reached at hannah.natanson@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @hannah_natanson.

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