Being in a library after winning a coveted Canadian award for poetry seems like a fitting scenario, but for Gwen Benaway, it was less than celebratory.
“I was being threatened by cops and security guards while the Toronto Public Library‘s Twitter account tweeted out, ‘Congratulations to the Governor-General Award winners,'” she said.
“And people online were like, ‘Yeah, actually, you have one of them being held in the library by cops.'”
Several hundred people gathered outside a downtown Toronto Public Library (TPL) branch on Tuesday night to protest a sold-out event featuring Meghan Murphy, a self-described feminist writer who believes transgender women endanger and undermine women’s rights.
The LGBTQ2 plus community wanted the talk cancelled. The TPL, however, was unflinching, saying the event did not violate the library’s hate speech policy.
For Benaway, whose poetry delves into life as an Indigenous trans woman, the issue is simple — allowing voices like Murphy’s into publicly-funded spaces, intended to promote inclusion and diversity, endangers trans people.
“They open us to hate and ridicule,” she said.
“They contribute to a very harmful environment for trans people.”
Benaway has been inundated online with hate speech since winning the award for her poetry. She’s received the same kind of response from Murphy’s supporters since speaking out about the event.
It’s those hateful reactions, online or otherwise, that are indicative of what can grow from holding these events, she said.
For TPL to defend its decision “under the guise of free speech,” she said, is deflective of the problem it can create for trans folk.
“The average Canadian isn’t seeing the whole picture. The free speech thing takes us away from what’s actually going on — it’s that these events really do organize and coordinate active harassment campaigns against trans folk in public life,” she said.
“Their viewpoints aren’t, ‘Let’s have a civil discussion.’ They’re, ‘you’re a man and you are a threat and you’re dangerous and you’re ugly.’ These are not feminists.
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“Anyone who will mock a woman’s genitals, mock a woman’s appearance, is not a feminist.”
Murphy testified against Bill C-16, which protects gender identity under the Human Rights Code. She also has said she believes trans women should not be allowed to use women’s washrooms.
Niko Stratis, a trans activist who fought for the event to be cancelled, said it’s not free speech if both sides aren’t heard.
“Vickery Bowles (the city librarian) has only ever listened to one side,” Stratis said. “They’re clearly not interested in listening to trans people. They want to be able to hold us up as a paragon of them being inclusive, but their actions don’t line up to their words.”
The TPL’s policy regarding room rentals states that spaces will not be rented for events “promoting discrimination, contempt or hatred for any group or person,” including race, sex, gender identity and gender expression.
The effort to cancel the event saw support from the city’s mayor and politicians, as well as the union representing TPL employees, but the library did not change its mind.
A motion was put before Toronto city council to review the policy, but while TPL said it is open to reviewing it, they also say the rental policy “still stands” despite the criticism and protest.
“I think a lot of people think that society has accepted trans folks because Bill C-16 passed and we have rights and all these things that we didn’t used to, but I think this is indicative that we’re still very much fighting,” Stratis said.
“People don’t know what it is we’re trying to say because no one’s actually listening. We’re yelling into a bubble on Twitter to a certain degree.”
The implications of holding this event affect more than just the trans community, said Alissa Trotz, a professor in Women and Genders Studies at the University of Toronto.
“We can’t really talk about dignity and respect and liberation for everyone if we don’t talk about it in a way that’s inclusive as possible and in a way that ensures that we live in a society where we take care of everyone, including those who are most vulnerable,” she said.
Trotz doesn’t believe the event can be classified as free speech. She pointed to the level of violence — physical and symbolic, online and off — that transgender people face in their everyday lives.
While Canadian hate crime statistics still do not include those against trans people, researchers believe it’s only on the rise. A 2011 survey by Egale found that out of 3,700 LGBTQ2 students across the country, 74 per cent faced verbal harassment and 37 per cent faced physical harassment.
“In a context where the violence is so pervasive and so documented,” Trotz said, “on what planet would it have been okay for the Toronto Public Library to welcome a discussion and call it free speech?”
To discuss, in a public library, whether trans women should be allowed to use a designated women’s washroom is to discuss dehumanization, she said.
Trotz turned to her own background for an analogy.
“I’m a black woman from the Caribbean. At a time when black people like me would not have been allowed to go into the same toilet as white people, would it be okay for the Toronto Public Library to have a debate on whether black people were human?” she asked.
“They are sanctioning having a conversation about whether some people deserve rights and are human. Why is that okay?
“What is it about the trans community that is so profoundly threatening to our sense of who we are? And does it not deny the humanity of all of us for something like this to take place?”
Both Benaway and Stratis believe the aim of rhetoric and events like Murphy’s is to foster fear and legitimize transphobia. They recognize that the events of Tuesday don’t reflect TPL as a whole, but said it reveals gaps in the library’s policy and the enforcement of them.
“I think what we’re hearing is that transphobia, trans-misogyny and saying things like trans women aren’t women, isn’t discrimination, isn’t hate, isn’t bigotry… but it is,” Benaway said.
“And we have to understand that when you make those statements, you’re actively promoting harm.”