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Are university campuses safer spaces for 2SLGBTQIA+ folks?

Almost a year after the stabbing at U of Waterloo, what has changed?
MAR 27 2024

Are university campuses safer spaces for 2SLGBTQIA+ folks?

Almost a year after the stabbing at U of Waterloo, what has changed?


For many, the first indication that something was terribly wrong came by text.

The words “Are you ok?” popped up on the phone of Carla Fehr, the Wolfe chair in scientific and technological literacy in the philosophy department at the University of Waterloo, as she was working from home on the afternoon of June 28, 2023.

More than 3,300 kilometres away in Calgary, Corinne L. Mason, associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Mount Royal University, was walking their dog when the phone started to buzz. “Oh my God, did you hear?,” the text read.

In Kingston, Sailaja Krishnamurti, head of the department of gender studies at Queen’s University, was sitting down to a reception with other women department heads when a message from a friend appeared on her phone. Dr. Krishnamurti gasped loudly, drawing the attention of others in the room. She then had to explain the news to her colleagues.

For hours that afternoon and into evening, a flurry of messages pinged phones across the country as Canadian scholars of women’s and gender studies checked in with each other. In Waterloo, Dr. Fehr met her colleagues in a café to talk about what happened.

Women’s and gender studies scholars were sharing the kind of news they’d long feared. A 38-year-old associate professor of philosophy at the U of Waterloo, was stabbed in her classroom, along with two of her students, by a man as she taught Philosophy 202, a gender studies class.

The accused — Geovanny Villalba-Aleman, a recent graduate of the university — had sought out the class in “a planned and targeted attack, motivated by hate related to gender expression and gender identity,” according to police. Mr. Villalba-Aleman faces 11 charges, including attempted murder, aggravated assault, assault with a weapon and a federal terrorism charge.

“The heat is quite constant when you do feminist queer activist work in higher education, There’s a constant feeling that you have to watch yourself all the time.”

The attack revealed safety lapses at U of Waterloo. And it came at a time when attempts to intimidate trans, queer and feminist communities — and the academics who study and advocate for them — are on the rise. For many students and staff, the violent assault was the latest example of what many have long felt: university campuses are not safe spaces for 2SLGBTQIA+ folks.

“It’s been feeling dangerous for a long time,” said Dr. Fehr.

In the aftermath of the attack, Canadian scholars in women’s and gender studies decided enough is enough. Traditional responses to safety threats — like ramping up police and security services — are not enough. In fact, those approaches are exactly the kind of thing that feminist and anti-racism scholars have long criticized.

Instead, they want changes that will make universities and communities safer for the people who feel at greatest risk.

Even before the attack, 2023 was shaping up to be a difficult year for people who study and teach gender studies, an interdisciplinary field that takes on questions of equality and social justice using gender as a central focus.

Anti-trans and anti-queer activity has been growing louder across North America. Statistics Canada reported a 64 per cent increase in hate crimes targeting individuals for their sexual orientation. Protesters targeted drag story hours across the continent. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law bills restricting public school instruction on topics of race, gender identity and sexual orientation.

On university campuses, gender scholars say they are increasingly on the receiving end of threatening emails and phone calls. Several who spoke with University Affairs requested that this story not describe the nature of the calls. They said that misogynistic, racist and homophobic acts happen frequently, but only few are reported. In one instance, a student in the library at Concordia University in Montreal repeatedly and loudly played videos of the speeches of Andrew Tate, a right-wing online influencer currently awaiting trial on charges of human trafficking in Bucharest. The videos were later posted on YouTube.

Such was the level of concern that this past spring, when the Women’s and Gender Studies Association/Recherches Féministes held their annual conference, the chairs and program coordinators of women, gender studies and social justice programs across Canada met to discuss the rise in hate movements targeting queer and trans people. Participants put together ideas for workshops and public outreach. Canada does not have the same degree of gun violence as the U.S., but the potential for violence with weapons is still a concern. Deadly acts of misogyny have been carried out with vans and knives in Canada. Perpetrators of hate crimes have also used guns, even on campus. In 1989, a gunman killed 14 women, and injured another 10 women and four men, at Polytechnique Montréal. During the attack, he reportedly called them feminists.

On the morning of June 28, Kimberley Manning, principal at Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia, sat down to draft an op-ed. She and her co-authors planned to call out Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre for a comment he’d made about parental rights, arguing this kind of rhetoric would inflame transphobia and put kids at risk. “We were trying to raise the alarm,” says Dr. Manning.

A few hours later in Waterloo, Mr. Villalba-Aleman is alleged to have entered Hagey Hall, with two long knives hidden in a backpack. He sought out the room where the professor’s class was taking place. Its location and course description were posted online. Inside, students were studying Philosophy 202, which examined the construction of gender in the history of philosophy.

According to police, when he entered the room, the attacker first asked what the class was and then physically attacked the professor. Several students tried to stop the assault by throwing items, like a chair.

“Universities have done the quickest, cheapest thing that they could possibly do…as if they’ve learned nothing from the conversations that are happening from their own colleagues.”

The school’s emergency alert system, WatSAFE, had been tested about 90 minutes earlier. The test alert went out on Twitter and across phones.

“TEST of the UW Emergency Notification System,” it read. “During an actual emergency or threat you would receive instructions. No action is required.”

But when the attack happened, there was neither an alert nor instructions.

James Skidmore, chair of Germanic and Slavic studies, later told the university’s newspaper Imprint that he learned something was wrong when the SWAT team ran past him, yelling “Where’s Hagey Hall?” He checked WatSAFE and saw nothing. He found out about the attack through a tweet from police at 4:07, saying they were on scene for a stabbing incident at the university. There was no other information about where people should go.

Adam Davies, an assistant professor of sexualities, genders and social change at University of Guelph, was in Waterloo at the time, visiting a friend. Dr. Davies, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, learned about the attack when a CBC News alert appeared on their phone. They stayed in their friend’s condo, a few blocks from campus, and listened to sirens as police raced to the university.

Dr. Davies instantly feared that the attack was motivated by hate.

“The heat is quite constant when you do feminist queer activist work in higher education,” said Dr. Davies. Trans, non-binary scholars feel especially unsafe. “There’s a constant feeling that you have to watch yourself all the time.”

The professor and the two students survived the attack, with serious but not life-threatening injuries.

Her colleagues — people who teach and study gender studies across Canada — were now on high alert.


Scholars of gender studies use the same words to describe the attack: devastating, frightening, horrifying — and not at all surprising.

“I just knew in my gut and based on everything that we understand about what’s going on in this rising anti-gender ideology,” said Dr. Mason at Mount Royal.

The attack increased the feeling of vulnerability, says Dr. Davies. Someone who’d dedicated their career to feminist thought and ethics had had their personhood violated in the classroom. “And that could happen to us at other universities,” they added.

On the evening of the attack, Dr. Mason reached out to Claire Carter, an associate professor of gender, religion and critical studies at the University of Regina and co-chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies Association.

They wanted to figure out how the association was going to respond. “It’s a very difficult moment to meet,” said Dr. Mason. They did not want to see the police or security presence ramped up around gender studies programs. And most colleagues, they knew, would agree. A police presence makes some people feel less safe, particularly Black and Indigenous communities.

The following morning, the pair, on behalf of the association, issued a statement in support of students, faculty and the campus community of the U of Waterloo.

They called on Canadian universities and colleges, including administration and faculty unions, to work with faculty of gender studies and anyone who teaches sex, gender and sexuality courses. They wanted changes to improve the safety and wellbeing of anyone who is 2SLGBTQIA+ on campus. They said that risks may be most keenly felt by people who are Black, Indigenous, racial minorities, disabled and neurodivergent.

The pair stressed that the work of gender studies scholars had now become more important than ever. This was not the time for universities to shy away from scholarship that explores gender and social justice.

“Courses that aim to deconstruct the gender binary, and those that ask critical questions about the supposed ‘nature’ of colonial, patriarchal, and cissexist gender systems, are always essential but especially at this moment when misinformation and disinformation about the diversity of sex, gender, and sexuality is so widespread,” they wrote.

More than 3,300 faculty members, departments and students from across Canada, and a handful from abroad, signed the statement.

The first responses from universities, including U of Waterloo, were “bleak,” said Dr. Mason. Many were slow to say anything publicly. When they did, the statements were shortsighted and unsatisfying. In some cases, universities put their statements on social media, but did not share them internally. That was painful to Dr. Krishnamurti, who was facing questions at Queen’s from students and colleagues about safety.

“I was surprised that we didn’t get an official response from the university or a message from the principal or the provost or anything like that, even just for our department,” she said. “I think that was a lapse. It was necessary for the university to communicate with the community about the reality of this kind of violence.”

Two weeks after the attack, the Women’s and Gender Studies Association met with faculty and students of gender studies in an online town hall to talk about what to do next. The group stressed that the attack at U of Waterloo should not be seen as a one-off. This was an ongoing situation, a continuation of violence evident with the attack in Montreal 35 years earlier, they said.

Again, the association went public, and reiterated their call to university and college administrators, faculty unions and associations to work with the people who teach gender and social justice-focused courses and student leaders.

“This attack is both reminiscent of the École Polytechnique massacre of 1989 and reflects the ongoing and insidious violence faced by marginalized faculty and students on campuses, and elsewhere,” they wrote.

They set out a 12-point guideline for universities and colleagues. It included: a community- or faculty-led campus safety audit of classrooms, offices and student centres; the installation of panic buttons if requested by faculty, students and staff; and relocation of gender-focused or contentious courses to classrooms with two exits and in central locations on campus.

“Those of us who live in bodies that are trans, racialized, visibly queer, we’re not safe anywhere. We go about our lives knowing that there’s as much safety as we can find in building community.”

They also called for universities to make public statements in support of gender studies and social justice focused programs, faculty and students.

Among the recommendations, they said information about courses and faculty should not be publicly available without faculty’s permission, and all information about times and locations of gender or social justice courses should be kept from the public. A shift to online, remote and hybrid courses should be considered in consultation with faculty and students, they added.

They called for training for faculty and staff about lockdown procedures, de-escalation, emergency response and harassment specific to that faced by 2SLGBTQIA+, Black, Indigenous, people of colour, women and disabled instructors.

The University of Toronto was the first university to respond by implementing changes that were developed in collaboration with its women’s and gender studies programs.

Alissa Trotz, director of women and gender studies at the University of Toronto, said campus security staff met with her department and listened to their concerns about security being weaponized against vulnerable communities. “Our experiences with the folks at campus safety…were really wonderful,” she said. “But I would also like to go on record as saying they are also tremendously overworked and run off their feet.”

She stressed that the work of keeping universities safe should not fall to gender studies programs. “We end up having to provide so much of that labour — that emotional labour, that logistical labour, that intellectual labour, that administrative labour, in addition to everything else that we do.”

As the largest university in the country, U of T set a benchmark that scholars at other universities used as leverage to convince their administrations and faculty associations to follow suit, said Dr. Mason. Community organizations were also heavily involved in pushing for change.

Over the next weeks, some universities pulled classroom locations and course descriptions from their public facing websites. A handful took steps like installing panic buttons and ramping up security around certain spaces on campus. (Some gender scholars who spoke with University Affairs said their institutions had made changes to increase physical security but did not want to publicize them for fear of stoking further violence.)

But most responses still fall short of what the people who work in women’s and gender studies departments want. “Universities have done the quickest, cheapest thing that they could possibly do,” said Dr. Mason. That includes removing classroom information from websites and increasing their security presence, “as if they’ve learned nothing from the conversations that are happening from their own colleagues,” they said.

At the end of August, the Women’s and Gender Studies Association issued another public statement following another town hall. They wanted to see feminist practices and non-carceral approaches put to use as universities set out to create safe spaces for people who were at risk for defending feminist principles. They highlighted changes that some institutions had made that they found helpful like the creation of campus-wide solidarity networks for marginalized faculty, staff and students, and solidarity events like University of Winnipeg’s Building Trans Solidarity, a week of events to honour transgender, Two-Spirit and gender-nonconforming communities.

The work is ongoing, said Dr. Carter. “It is necessary, and it’s not going to be something that we just respond to with a statement.” Many students, especially trans students, continue to feel unsafe. They have shown up in protests on campuses and held discussions with faculty. And heads of departments are concerned that not enough is being done to protect support staff, who may be the first to receive threatening phone calls or emails directed at faculty.

Gender scholars stress that they do not want women’s and gender studies to be seen as dangerous pursuits. They are concerned that the attack in Waterloo, combined with a growing sense of controversy over gender, will make it more difficult for smaller programs across the country to survive. “I don’t want to see universities use this to discourage and to create even more marginality for gender studies programs and departments that are already facing continued underfunding and lack of hiring, hiring freezes, lack of growth, lack of support,” said Dr. Mason.

Dr. Krishnamurti worries about the effect of removing details on courses and instructors from public-facing websites, what she calls the “invisible-izing” of feminist scholars. The response should be the opposite — ensuring that scholars are visible, supported and appreciated, she said.

“We’ve worked too hard and too long as feminist scholars and scholars of colour to be invisible in the university, to be invisible to our students,” she said, adding that many students seek out instructors because of how they teach from their own experiences. She believes that the discussion about danger should be turned around: it’s not the teaching or learning about women’s and gender studies that is the dangerous act; it’s the people who threaten these programs or the ideas they explore who are dangerous.

“Those of us who live in bodies that are trans, racialized, visibly queer, we’re not safe anywhere. We go about our lives knowing that there’s as much safety as we can find in building community,” she said. “I really want that message to be heard by the institution and support the ways that we are trying to advocate.”

In Montreal, Dr. Manning and her colleagues edited their op-ed the day after the attack, adding a line that their worst fears had been realized with the attack. “This is what we’re talking about, right?” Dr. Manning recalls saying to her colleagues. She says she does not walk into her office feeling nervous or scared, but she and her students feel vulnerable in the face of a growing anti-gender movement. “We’re in a sense on the front lines of doing the critical feminist work and trying to create learning environments so that our diverse and underrepresented student body can feel like they have space and capacity and support to really lean into their studies,” she says.

At U of Waterloo, the university’s administration has said it will improve campus security, including improved communication during an emergency. The WatSAFE app was working properly on the day of the attack but was not activated by people with access to the emergency notification system, according to the university’s assessment. They’ve also set up a task force to deal with a challenging question underpinning much of the rancor of this moment: How to create a culture that encourages both free expression and respectful engagement?

Read also: Balancing respect and freedom in an era of global tensions

In October, the University of Waterloo kicked off a new speaker series called “Antagonism and intimidation in Academia” that will conclude with an international conference in June 2024 to coincide with the anniversary of the attack.

Dr. Fehr was one of the first speakers for the series. She did not want to comment on the university’s strategy, but she said she could speak to her own plans. “We keep doing our gender and social justice research because what we’re doing is trying to understand the cultural patterns that create this more polarized climate.”

Christina Frangou
Christina Frangou is a journalist, writer and editor based in Calgary.
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