Community rallies to turf TERFs
On Tuesday, Oct. 29 at 6 p.m., something happened in front of the Toronto Public Library that local organizer Daniel Sarah Karasik described in a tweet as “a celebration [and] a reclamation.” That something was a massive “read-in” protest featuring transgender and nonbinary authors, functioning as a community rejection of a transphobic speaker who was being featured at the TPL.
The speaker’s name is Meghan Murphy, and she is a well-known TERF(trans-exclusionary radical feminist.) The term refers to feminists who do not include transgender women in their feminism, and in fact frequently assert that transgender women are men are even somehow detrimental to feminism and women’s rights. Brief research on statistics of violence against transgender women will indicate, however, that trans women and transfeminine people (particularly Black trans women) are more likely to be the victims of assault, up to and including murder. Renting library space to Murphy and inviting library patrons to listen to her ideas, argued local writer Gwen Benaway in an article for Flare, would “[provide] a publicly funded platform with thoroughly discredited viewpoints that are likely to cause significant harm to an extremely vulnerable community.”
It was not just a small, isolated group of people who opposed the event. Discontent was already well-formed in the community on Oct. 22, when the TPL held a board meeting that was attended by a gathering of trans women and their allies to voice objections. Megan Jones on Twitter testified that this gathering completely filled the board room and was by majority composed of those who opposed Murphy’s platform. Despite the mass dissent, however, Benaway recounted in Flare that when she spoke at the meeting, she was met with no understanding by board members.
“[Allies and I] discovered that the board’s decision [to rent space to Murphy] had already been made before they even heard anyone speak; they were releasing public statements on Twitter while they sat listening to us and eating their catered sandwiches.”
Benaway’s book of poetry, Holy Wild, is the first ever book by a trans woman to win the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry – making this disregard on the part of the board particularly ironic. She tweeted: “[W]hat a surreal moment to win the CG award . . . while seeing transphobic tweets calling me a man . . . because I spoke against [a] decision to support transphobia in public libraries.”
The reaction of the board members was greatly out of touch with that of community members like David Morris, who tweeted that Benaway delivered “one of the most powerful deputations [he had] ever seen.” When the read-in protest was proposed at a meeting of the Toronto-based Artists for Climate & Migrant Justice and Indigenous Sovereignty (@acmjis), it quickly took form with the hashtag #TakeBackTPL. The protest was endorsed by Local 4948 (the TPL’s union), Climate Justice Toronto, Pride Toronto and others, as well as by Canadian writers and literary magazines.
Since giving space to Murphy demonstrated a lack of regard for the safety and voices of trans women, the strategy of the read-in was to produce another space that celebrated trans and nonbinary people’s contributions to literature. Benaway opened the protest at 6 p.m. with a speech, and it eventually grew to a crowd of approximately 700 supporters, cis and trans – so many that they could not fit inside the building and gathered outside as well. There were chants of “trans rights are human rights” and “trans joy is real.” Attendees sat to quietly read the books and poetry they had brought – Julia Duchesne tweeted that it was “the first [protest] I’ve ever been to that is half chants and half poetry.” Zoe Whittal, who was also in attendance, tweeted that “next to a kiss-in it’s literally the most happy [she’s] ever been at a protest.”
Those inside the library (including Benaway herself) were effectively trapped inside the TPL by police. The front entrance to the library was being physically blocked by police, leaving protesters inside with the attendees of Murphy’s talk. Duchesne conducted an interview with Benaway after the protest, where she said “the [TPL] should be ashamed of what they’ve done . . . they have turned their library into a paramilitary zone.” The TPL twitter publicly congratulated winners of the Governor General Award while they had one of those winners detained inside their building, as pointed out by Alicia Elliot, another award-winning writer in support.
Police opposition and the refusal of board members to listen, though, did nothing to diminish the joy and love that lingered with many when the protest ended with a chant of “whose library? Our library!” It is a testament to the support that exists for trans women in Toronto and to trans and nonbinary contributions to literature. This hope is still, however, unfortunately juxtaposed with inevitable backlash from TERFs and the alt-right. Arvin Joaquin tweeted Benaway’s testimony that she received over 500 transphobic comments directed at her as a result of her speech at the TPL board meeting, and she continues to be harassed. Benaway warns that Canadians will have to develop strategies for what she sees as an incoming push of transphobic rhetoric.
#TakeBackTPL was a community event, part furious protest and part joyful gathering, asserting the right of the public to feel safe in their own libraries. It was remarkable in its size, but it was no isolated event; the history of trans activism is rich with similar “take-backs” of public spaces where trans people experience violence, and it is a history that will continue as long as these rights are denied.