Today I spoke to the TPL board about the decision to give a platform to a transphobe. Spoiler alert: I’m not a supporter of this decision. Here are my remarks.
Good evening. I thank the board for this audience.
My name is Jane Schmidt and I am an academic librarian, a passionate public library advocate, and together with my son, a dedicated user of the Toronto Public Library. We love the library. And so, in that spirit, I am here tonight to express my sadness and disappointment with the way the room booking for an event featuring a notorious transphobe has evolved.
In 2017, when the last room rental controversy took place, I felt differently. In that instance, I understood that the individuals booking that room identified that they were holding a memorial and that the library had no reason to believe that it would be an event that would incite hate speech. Of course, once it was revealed that this was a neo-Nazi gathering, the reaction was swift in the so-called court of public opinion. I was personally uncomfortable with the decision to let it carry on, but I understood the practical aspects of the situation and agreed that within the scope of the policy at the time; the library made the choice that it did based on the information it had about the purpose of the event.
However, the policy revision that followed the event gave me hope. From the December 11, 2017 board report:
The main objectives of the room booking policy are to provide equitable access to services and to maintain a welcoming and supportive environment free from discrimination and harassment. To reflect this, the purpose statement of the policy has been strengthened and the sections on denial of use contain explicit wording forbidding discrimination, contempt or hatred…
I genuinely believed that Section 4.4 of the revised policy would provide TPL with more latitude to deny further bookings that would have the effect of promoting discrimination or hatred.
The event under discussion is called “Gender Identity: What does It Mean for Society, the Law and Women?” and its stated purpose is to have “To have an educational and open discussion on the concept of gender identity and its legislation ramifications on women in Canada.” Indeed, on its face, this purpose seems to fall within the limits of the policy. It is curious that the only named speaker has no legal background and that there are no trans voices in that discussion; the spirit of open debate that the library espouses would, on the surface, appear to be missing here, but I digress. Given that we’ve seen this very similar scenario play out already at the Vancouver Public Library earlier this year, TPL had an opportunity to take in further context and potentially make a different decision. Management insists that they viewed the footage of the event and while they did not agree with the content, they found that it did not amount to hate speech.
I myself watched footage of the event. It was difficult to endure. Far from open debate, this was a platform for transphobes to expound their beliefs, free from the shackles of fact or opposing viewpoints. Meghan Murphy spent the first several minutes of her time smugly ripping the Vancouver Public Library to shreds for how they handled the booking and then went on to offer several definitions of her beliefs, including the absurd assertion that “we” don’t have a definition or understanding of “transgender”. This is not debate. This is not discourse. This is a denial of the existence of gender identity. She makes that abundantly clear. And her audience just laps it up. Eventually, I had to turn it off because I couldn’t stomach the slur-filled comments on the video. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that these words are, at the very least spreading misinformation, and at worst, spreading hate.
And so, here we are. TPL management insists that they have no reason to believe that this event will promote hatred. Vickery Bowles went so far as to assert the only circumstance in which TPL would cancel a booking is if a speaker had been charged with a hate crime.
And so I ask the question – why isn’t that in the revised policy? What was the point of making the revision if there was no clear intent to enforce it?
Trans rights are human rights. Trans women are women. Meghan Murphy and her ilk make no secret that they seek to deny the human rights of trans women, and go so far as to deny their very existence in their insistence that gender identity can be written off as “trans ideology”. Where in this conversation are trans voices?
As a librarian, I understand the significance of intellectual freedom. I understand its place in a democracy. But I stand here today to tell the board and everyone else who is here that there are a good number of librarians and library workers who believe that intellectual freedom must not trump the lives of real people. Ideology must never come before people and that is exactly the message that TPL is sending to the queer and trans community right now.
The discourse of intellectual freedom and the library’s role in protecting it is ripe for debate. I feel sad because I keep thinking of all of the rich conversations we could be having – alongside our community partners – about widening our understanding of intellectual freedom and social responsibility; about an interpretation of intellectual freedom with an anti-oppressive and trauma-informed lense. TPL had an opportunity to be a leader in that conversation when they were faced with this event. Instead, it has turned into a crusade for freedom of speech above all else being propped up by a global network of TERFs and alt-right agitators. Strange bedfellows indeed.
History will judge this moment. So much damage has already been done. I don’t see how TPL comes back from this. I implore the board to set a course correction and begin the work to repair the relationships that this decision has damaged. Please make the right and bold choice to not give platform to transphobia and cancel this event.