When Courtney Szto checked her inbox the morning of Oct. 4, a stranger told her to go f—k herself.
Szto, an associate professor in Queen’s School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, found her email and social media accounts flooded with insults and backlash after sharing an opportunity for graduate students on social media on Oct. 3.
The opportunity was for equity-seeking students, with eligibility limited to members of the BIPOC, gender non-conforming, LGBTQ+, fat, or disabled communities. The post presented positions and funding for one Master’s student and one doctoral student at Queen’s.
“It doesn’t take long for you to Google, ‘is outdoors exclusive or racist,’ and see a bunch of popular and academic research that says, yes, it absolutely is,” Szto said in an interview with The Journal.
The project examines how marginalized groups are impacted by outdoor culture. Szto’s post specifically references Indigenous communities and how their experience with the outdoors is impacted by settler colonialism.
The project recruited individuals from equity-seeking groups specifically, because they have firsthand experience with discrimination and exclusion in outdoor culture, Szto explained.
Szto shared multiple emails she received in response to her post with The Journal. One with subject line “Weirdo” swore at Szto, and another questioned her categorizing “fat” as an equity-seeking group.
Media accounts took to commenting on Szto’s social media. Some commenters called the opportunity discriminatory for only hiring equity-seeking students. Others demanded Szto be fired from Queen’s.
Among commentors was Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay who told The Journal he thought the whole post was dumb.
“Thank you for taking the time to jog my memory,” Kay said in a statement to The Journal. “Yes. I do remember why I [posted] about this. I [posted] about it because I thought it was dumb.”
The X handle “Libs of TikTok,” a far-right social media account, reposted a picture of the funding opportunity on Oct. 4. The repost amassed over 300 comments and 900 retweets, declaring there were “no opportunities for straight, white, skinny people” at Queen’s.
Following the media frenzy, Szto didn’t know where to turn for support. Szto said she would have appreciated the University’s support on social media, especially because the presence of hateful messages might discourage students from applying to the project.
“It would be great if the University jumped into the comment section to say we believe in this project. That it’s a necessary project,” Szto said. “Faculty have zero guidance as to how to navigate these types of issues. I had no idea how to report it [to the University]. I don’t even know who I would go to for this type of situation.”
In a statement to The Journal, the University clarified faculty should visit the Online Harassment and Cyberbullying webpage for guidance. According to the webpage, staff should report instances of online harassment to Campus Security.
For Szto, current efforts by the University to address online harassment are insufficient. Szto underscored the need for accessible, in-person staff for faculty to turn to when reporting incidents of online harassment.
“If we’re talking about online harassment, which is such a new phenomenon, you need to be hiring people who have experience with these spaces,” Szto said.
In the days following the incident, Szto has received support from fellow colleagues, who have checked in on her. Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA), the faculty union at Queen’s, contacted Szto to offer their support on Oct. 26.
“I think coming into departments and having in-person conversations with staff [about online harassment] is important,” Szto said. “People should be able to know what their options [are] should the situation get really bad.”
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