Gwen Benaway, Kai Cheng Thom, and Casey Plett on free speech, trans rights, and the Toronto Public Library

A decision on the part of the Toronto Public Library to allow controversial speaker Meghan Murphy to appear tonight at the Palmerston Branch for a public event titled “Gender Identity: What Does It Mean for Society, the Law and Women?” has resulted in backlash from writers, social-justice advocates, and members of the transgender community who believe that Murphy’s expressed views are transphobic and their dissemination has the potential to increase danger and prejudice directed at trans people.

Authors such as Lynn Coady, Ben Lerner, Catherine Hernandez, and Evan Munday have cancelled events at TPL in support of the trans community and a petition launched by writers Hernandez, Alicia Elliott, and Carianne Leung protesting tonight’s event currently boasts more than 8,300 signatures. On October 17, Toronto mayor John Tory added his voice to the growing chorus of disapproval. A peaceful protest supported by Pride Toronto, the 519 advocacy organization, the sex worker’s advocacy group Meggie’s Toronto, and others is planned to coincide with Murphy’s appearance.

Through all this, the one group whose voices have remained relatively unheard are members of the trans community, who are the ones most directly affected by the TPL’s action. Below, three trans writers – Gwen Benaway, Kai Cheng Thom, and Casey Plett – explain in their own words why and how they are working to protest the TPL’s decision and why allowing the event to proceed represents a clear and present danger to the safety of trans people in the city.

Gwen Benaway

On attending the TPL board meeting on October 22, 2019

My experience was that the Toronto Public Library board had made their decision already and they weren’t interested in listening to anything that we had to say. They didn’t ask any questions of the speakers, they sat there in stony silence, alternating between glaring at us and sort of rolling their eyes, very dismissive. At multiple times during my presentation, I asked the Toronto Public Library board which washroom I should use, to which they had no response. I asked them if they thought trans women were women. Again, silence.

I think it was an opportunity outside of the bounds of whatever free speech belief system they have where they could have shown solidarity and support for a community, but they didn’t.

The whole thing was very disingenuous from the Toronto Public Library. For all their talk of free speech, they’re not interested in discussion. They’re not interested in listening. They had made a decision based on their particular belief system and experiences, without taking into consideration the expertise of trans people and the community. Pride Toronto was there, as was the 519. These are organizations which are leaders in LGBTQ2S rights and advocacy internationally. And their opinion was completely disregarded. So, for all this talk of free speech, we’re really not being listened to.

On the dangers of “gender critical” approaches to trans rights

I think that underneath that is the belief that trans people’s lives are up for debate. That you can have a reasoned, intellectual debate about whether or not a trans woman is a woman. And that, to me, is against the laws of Canada – that decision has already been settled – and is inhumane.

Gender critical feminists have been around since the ’70s. They’ve been thoroughly discredited and discussed in academic papers and public settings. Their viewpoints are well known. There’s no need for further public discussion about what they believe.

They’re painting themselves in this veneer of, we’re just feminists, we’re just women worried about our safety coming together to talk and why won’t you hear what we have to say, you’re censoring us, this is free speech. But this is a tactic of the alt-right: to rebrand themselves from hate groups into free-speech advocacies.

Kai Cheng Thom

On libraries as public spaces

I’m not opposed to a blanket boycott [of TPL]. I’m very supportive of authors and writers, publishers, etc., who want to take that route. The nuance I want to put into the discussion is simply that not everyone is in the position to do a boycott of the library. Certainly, I think that many authors are and more power to them. I plan to restrict my involvement with the TPL as well until future developments show that they have a better sense of how to support trans people.

However, I also don’t want to condemn authors who may be coming to the library. And that may be the only space that marginalized or lower-working-class folks have to access an author.

Particularly, when you think about a boycott, we can ask who are we saying should boycott the library? There are a lot of people who rely on the TPL and all public libraries, not just for literacy programming, although certainly that, but as well basic social services. We unfortunately live in a time where libraries are among the very few true public spaces left where people can go and basically be inside for whatever reasons they need to. Or use the public-use washrooms, computers, internet, all that sort of thing without having to pay.

I think what I want to keep the door open to in our public discourse is that there are people who need the library and they also deserve access to the literacy programming that some authors may want to provide. So, I’m sympathetic to authors or other artists or cultural media-makers who may want to continue their involvement at TPL for that reason.

On free speech

There are a few issues around that and a few points of debate around that and the first is that free speech itself is a sliding concept. It means different things from context to context: legal, cultural, etc., etc. A basic definition of freedom of speech is that we are protected from prosecution and physical discrimination, violent discrimination on the grounds of our ideas. It does not guarantee that we have access to public platforms like the library to disseminate our ideas. That’s one thing.

There’s this sliding idea of what free speech constitutes in order to make space for hurtful ideas and hateful ideas that are certainly that, if not rising to the level of legal hate speech.

Casey Plett

On the difference between free speech and hate speech

Those are things that certain marginalized communities, like the trans community, we’ve had to discuss and figure that out in our own conversations for a long time. I’m someone who feels very used to knowing when someone maybe doesn’t share my views on things but is arguing in good faith and having a discussion in good faith and trying to figure that stuff out. I know the difference between that and hate speech, where it’s someone who is talking to a wall. Someone who clearly has their views set on one group of people and that’s not going to change and it’s not a good-faith argument.

I always feel so dirty invoking Twitter in any kind of way, but just recently I said a couple of things that got some play and it got the attention of this group of people who we call TERFs [trans-exclusionary radical feminists]. It was full of people saying, “Why do you as a man think you have rights over women?” I’m paraphrasing, but stuff like that.

All of which is to say that these types of distinctions are stuff that we’re pretty used to having to deal with. People like Meghan Murphy and TERF ideology is stuff that we’ve seen, that I know goes back years, goes back decades. There’s a very long history of this stuff within feminist thought. Which is a thing I’ve been realizing that probably the world as a whole doesn’t know about. It goes back through the ’70s during certain strands of second-wave feminism. Janice Raymond published a book called The Transsexual Empire in 1979. It was reviewed very well in The New York Times. It actually influenced some early stuff in the U.S. where they were considering insuring trans health care and that got derailed, in part because of some of these people’s work. That’s a pretty big thing. That’s something you can measure in lives.

There are a lot of trans people who are really aware of this history, know how poisonous it is. I don’t say this lightly, but it’s based on hate. It’s not based on a reasoned argument.

So I can see how if you don’t understand that, if you don’t really know, it seems like it’s just people asking questions or having a debate. Trans people who have been around these people for a while know that actually that’s not really what it is.

On whether the decision to proceed with tonight’s event has made TPL less safe for trans people

I would say yes.

Gwen Benaway, Kai Cheng Thom, and Casey Plett on free speech, trans rights, and the Toronto Public Library
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