Community members have expressed concerns about the upcoming appearance of Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson at The Paramount next month.
A Seattle Theatre Group spokesperson said 20 community members have expressed concerns via email, phone and Twitter about Peterson’s appearance since his May 3 and 4 book tour stop was announced in January. One community member raised a concern about antisemitism and others raised the issue of Peterson’s characterization of gender dysphoria as a “sociological contagion” similar to “satanic ritual abuse” during a January interview on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast. The event was booked by entertainment company Live Nation who is renting out STG’s venue.
Many of those who have reached out to STG have called for the event to be canceled, which the organization has stated it will not do. A spokesperson for the company said they are aware that some may protest during Peterson’s sold-out, two-day Seattle engagement.
“There’s some people in my community who are really upset and really angry and probably will demonstrate,” said Robert Foss, interim executive director and legal services director of Entre Hermanos, which serves the Latino LGBTQ+ community across the state of Washington. “We’ve had clients who struggle with mental health issues, we’ve had clients who struggle with the aftereffects of serious and violent trauma they’ve suffered. So those words hurt. He might have a right to say whatever he wants, but he doesn’t have the right to access any forum he wants. We’re not imposing anything on him. We’re saying, ‘Your behavior is hurting us.’”
Peterson, a former University of Toronto psychology professor, rose to popularity in 2016 after videos on his YouTube page went viral alongside his opposition to Canadian Bill C-16, which prohibited discrimination based on gender identity or expression. Much of the conversation around Peterson’s objection centered on an idea that the government would then be infringing on his free speech if he was asked to use a trans or nonbinary person’s pronouns.
“If the standard transsexual person wants to be regarded as he or she, my sense is I’ll address you according to the part that you appear to be playing,” Peterson told the BBC back in 2016, as controversy grew around his takes.
The term “transsexual” is considered outdated or offensive by some, according to the Trans Journalists Association’s style guide.
Legal experts have refuted Peterson’s argument about Bill C-16, with Brenda Cossman, University of Toronto law professor, noting to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that the bill, which covers the federal government and federally regulated industries and which passed in 2017, was “very narrow” in scope and simply brought “the federal human rights code into accordance with what has already been protected provincially.”
The Canadian Civil Rights Act, into which Bill C-16 added the words “gender identity or expression” in three places, does not mention pronouns.
While Cossman said the bill could potentially cover a situation where an individual “repeatedly, consistently refuses to use a person’s chosen pronoun,” a human rights tribunal would have to determine if it constituted discrimination or harassment. One former University of Toronto colleague of Peterson’s told the BBC back in 2016 that Peterson was being alarmist, indulging in “slippery slope fallacies.”
Peterson’s representatives at Creative Artists Agency did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Some have seen Peterson as a champion of the First Amendment and free speech. Peterson’s YouTube channel has over 4.9 million subscribers, with video views surpassing 340 million. But Peterson has also been criticized by leading climate scientists for his beliefs around climate change and called out by the Human Rights Campaign as “an anti-LGBTQ extremist, using his platform as a media pundit to spread misinformation that stokes dangerous hatred.”
“I believe in free speech, he can say what he wants,” Foss said. “Frankly, I come from the starting point of human rights, and my community’s human rights have been disparaged for generations and centuries. So when somebody comes around and gets in a big forum and says the kind of stuff that he’s been saying all over the United States and Canada, it hurts.”
After hearing concerns from community members, STG held staff meetings to discuss the booking and hear internal concerns. They have also consulted other venues that have hosted Peterson in recent months. Peterson’s 2022 “Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life” book tour kicked off this past January and has dates scheduled across the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand throughout much of the rest of the calendar year.
According to a spokesperson, STG staff members who do not feel comfortable working Peterson’s event will not be required to do so. STG does not intend to cancel Peterson’s appearance, citing risks that include financial liability for ticket sales, breach of contract that could jeopardize the organization’s relationship with Creative Artists Agency (which represents approximately 20% of STG’s touring artists) and the potential for lawsuits from CAA, Live Nation and Peterson himself.
Nicole Lynn Perry, paralegal and direct services coordinator for the Lavender Rights Project, which provides by-and-for resources for Black trans, gender-diverse and intersex communities of color in the Washington area, drew attention to one particular section of STG’s programming philosophy. The end of the section states: “STG is focused on embracing controversy as an opportunity to facilitate conversation in the spirit of inclusivity, societal progress, staff cohesion, and advancing our vision of being ‘The People’s Theatre.’”
“Yes, they may have been contractually obligated to do this,” Perry said, “but the thing is, embracing controversy — we’ve got states that are already coming up with ideas where trans kids can’t even socially transition … trans kids and trans adults are under attack just for being themselves.”
While STG makes their venue available for rental from outside companies — which can then be used by organizations like Live Nation, which booked Peterson’s Seattle stop — an STG spokesperson said that is only the case “so long as the act does not promote hate speech, violence or criminal activity.” In response, the organization said it needs to reexamine its rental procedures and programming policies.
“This engagement has failed to live up to our vision of equity and inclusion; rather than eliminating barriers for communities, it’s created barriers,” said an STG spokesperson in a statement. “We will be reexamining our rental policy to help prevent similar harm from happening in the future. We are grateful for members of the community who have reached out to us, particularly our transgender, nonbinary and Jewish community members who contacted us.”
Perry also noted disappointing similarities between Peterson’s appearance and Dave Chappelle’s 2021 Climate Pledge Arena show that left trans leaders feeling like Chappelle’s appearance was a “huge slap in the face” in the wake of his controversial Netflix comedy special.
“I get giving an equal chance to talk,” Perry said, “but at the same time, whenever someone is as in depth with the hateful rhetoric as Jordan Peterson and Dave Chappelle, there’s no, ‘Oh, he’s only here for this.’ You know as well as I do that, if you give someone like that a stage, they’re going to use it to the best of their ability to put out what they’ve been putting out before.”
The result of bookings like this, Perry said, is a LGBTQ+ community that doesn’t feel listened to, or at least not fully heard.
In response to concerns from the community, an STG spokesperson stated that the organization will assemble its directors and board leaders to discuss the company’s values and reexamine its programming philosophy and practice, and will consult with the ACLU to better understand hate speech and free speech. The company will also create a community conversation around controversial artists to discuss process, impacts and possibilities with the communities most impacted. This may take the form of a “People’s Theatre Talk,” STG’s discussion series focused on race and social justice within today’s performing arts, or through other, yet to be determined vehicles.
STG says the organization will commit to spending further resources on anti-bias training and education for its staff and “explore the possibilities of creating” organizational affinity groups. It will also create processes and procedures to vet upcoming bookings through an anti-racist, anti-oppressive and intersectional lens.
A key to moving forward for Aaron Reader, STG’s director of diversity, equity, inclusion and access, or DEIA, is “STG really just allowing more time internally for us to discuss the artists, the impact of the artists, the communities that we serve and how potential artists may have a direct or indirect impact.”
Feedback received from the company’s DEIA community advisory meetings will be shared with leadership as STG examines potential further changes. Reader acknowledged that STG bringing in controversial artists and speakers like Peterson puts more pressure on the company’s work aligning its goals with the community groups with which they work closely.
“The steps outlined here do not, in any way, fully address the work we have to do to prioritize and center the needs of our LGBTQIA2+ community members,” Josh LaBelle, executive director of STG, said in a statement. “In many ways, we will never arrive fully at our vision of being ‘The People’s Theatre,’ as we must always be in dialogue with, and answer to the voices of our community.”