I can’t remember the exact words, who said it or when, but the general message was: courage isn’t the lack of fear, but doing something even when you’re afraid. I am writing this with lots of fear about a backlash that will almost certainly happen. However, I’ve reached the point where I can’t stay silent any longer and need to muster whatever courage I can and do what I think is right, regardless of the cost.
This past week, a woman I’m proud to call a sister ally, Yuly Chan, was no-platformed by a small group of individuals who appointed themselves judge and jury of acceptable ideas and speech. They claimed Chan was a violent, hateful woman whose political opinions were too dangerous to be shared in a public venue and demanded she be removed from a panel scheduled as part of this weekend’s Vancouver Crossroads conference. Chan had been invited by conference organizers, the Vancouver District and Labour Council (VLDC), the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), and Organize BC, to speak on behalf of her group, the Chinatown Action Group. The Chinatown Action Group organizes to improve the lives of low-income residents of Vancouver’s Chinatown, many of whom are seniors. She was to speak to the incredibly important work of this group at the conference.
A recently-formed group called the Coalition Against Trans Antagonism (CATA) wrote a letter to the organizers, then an open letter that included a link to a website CATA had built, documenting supposed evidence of Chan as a threat to public safety. Although Chan was not speaking on the panel about debates around gender or prostitution, Organize BC members interrogated Chan about her politics regarding these issues and eventually refused to move ahead with the panel unless she was removed. Instead of condemning the unethical tactics and behaviour of CATA, intended to silence Chan and smear her as a hate-filled oppressor, the organizers cancelled the entire panel, sending a message that the organizers and their supporters were not willing to take a stand to ensure the needs of low-income Chinese residents were heard. As a result, the Chinatown Action Group was no-platformed right along with their representative.
CATA also demanded that the conference organizers issue a public apology for daring to invite Chan to speak about the activism of low-income Chinese residents of Vancouver. They also demanded that a policy be instituted with the guidance and approval of only “trans women and sex workers,” banning anyone “who promote[s] any form of oppressive, supremacist, and fascist ideology from being offered and/or provided a platform at any of VDLC, CUPE, and Organize BC’s future events.” But who decides which ideologies are “oppressive, supremacist, and fascist”? And why, in activist and academic circles, has it become common and acceptable to engage in witch hunts to rid “the community” (that is made up of whom?) of particular political positions that are grounded not in hate or violence, but in a radical feminist analysis (radical meaning “the root”)? Chan, and so many others who question and critique systems of power are being persecuted for having these feminist or critical politics. It is not violent oppressors, supremacists, or fascists that are being silenced and no-platformed in this case and others like it, it is feminists. There are limits, of course, to the idea of “free speech,” but what I am addressing is specifically discourse among activists and academics on the left.
Organize BC privately and publicly apologized to CATA for inviting Yuly Chan to speak on the panel. But I will not apologize for standing next to Chan and the Chinatown Action Group, and next to all people who have been no-platformed, threatened, intimidated, bullied, and even beaten for their political opinions.
What was Chan’s crime? Having a political analysis and sharing it. She is accused of promoting “SWERF/TERF” ideology. “SWERF” stands for “sex worker exclusionary radical feminist,” and “TERF” stands for “trans exclusionary radical feminist.” These terms are used as insults against women with a radical feminist or class analysis of prostitution and gender. “SWERFs” and “TERFs” are accused of hating, oppressing, harming, and sometimes even killing trans women and sex workers, despite the fact no feminist engages in these practices.
I am of the political opinion that prostitution is a form of male violence that should be abolished. I am also of the political opinion that gender is a social construct and hierarchy that traps and harms women and should also be abolished. Today, these two sentences are enough to mark me as a violent, hate-filled, supremacist/fascist, and have the ability to destroy my reputation, livelihood, and potential academic or employment opportunities now and in the future. I have already been passed over for some opportunities due to my political analysis of prostitution, asked to leave conferences, told I’m not allowed to speak about prostitution when invited to speak about Indigenous research, and threatened with police involvement. I have been intimidated and harassed due only to my politics, not my behaviour. These are only some examples of some of the backlash that I, and other women, have experienced for speaking our opinions. This backlash, however, doesn’t just include no-platforming, but also threats and acts of violence. To many, this may sound unbelievable, as though I am exaggerating. I wish this were the case. I wish I were exaggerating. Unfortunately, this is the reality of activist and academic circles in Canada and elsewhere.
Speaking of academia, in 2016 I was publicly accused online of being an oppressive “SWERF” and “TERF” by a former employee of the Centre for Gender Advocacy at Concordia University, where I am a student. This is the first time I am speaking publicly about this incident, as I have been too afraid to do so since it happened. Although this individual is no longer employed by the Centre for Gender Advocacy, going on instead to become the president of the Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ), this issue has not been resolved. In the public post, I was accused of oppressing sex workers and being “transphobic,” funders and the university were tagged, a quote was attributed to me that I never said, and individuals went on a hunt to dig up evidence of my supposed bigotry. One person attempted to publicly engage in discussion about these allegations against me, which I’m grateful for, but they were not heard. Some faculty members were concerned that a staff person at a student support organization was making these types of public allegations about a student and alerted some in positions of power at the University, but got little, if any, response. The manager of the Centre for Gender Advocacy was made aware of the situation, and I am not aware of anything that was or is being done to resolve and rectify the situation. No one has reached out to me to apologize for the online bullying I had experienced, or to speak about concerns or questions they had about my politics, leading me to believe this type of hostility is directed at me not only by one staff member, but the Centre for Gender Advocacy as an organization. I explored different options myself, but was unable to find a way to formally hold the individual and Centre to account. I attempted to find support at the University, but those I approached refused to speak out against the behaviour of the individual and the Centre.
Regardless of your politics, this behaviour is unacceptable. It is not ok to tell lies about people or subject them to political persecution over disagreements. It’s important to note that the Centre houses Missing Justice, an Indigenous solidarity group that hosts the march for murdered and disappeared Indigenous women and girls every year in Montreal. As an Indigenous woman who works on these issues, I was already alienated from Missing Justice when, a number of years ago, non-Indigenous organizers told me to stop speaking and attempted to literally grab a megaphone out of my hand when I was invited to make a statement at their gathering by another Indigenous speaker. My crime was a decolonizing and feminist critical analysis of prostitution and speaking out against men buying sexual access to Indigenous women and girls. In other words, my crime was having a political opinion that differed from the organizers. Rather than attempting to silence an Indigenous woman at an event supposedly held for Indigenous women, a better way forward would have been to publicly acknowledge at the event that my statement does not reflect the organizer’s politics and to encourage those in attendance to learn more about the issue.
Although this incident happened many years ago and the online bullying at Concordia happened two years ago, it continues to severely impact my life as a student in different ways. The message I received from the inaction by the University and the Centre for Gender Advocacy is that it is entirely acceptable to attempt to silence those who are critical of prostitution. I still hear this message today. I feel fear about publicizing these experiences. The very fact that I feel intensely afraid to speak about my own experiences speaks volumes about the climate of activism and academia today.
These incidents are bigger than Yuly Chan and bigger than myself. They have and continue to happen against women with a radical feminist analysis of prostitution and gender. Campaigns are launched against us to silence us, destroy our reputations, paint us as violent, hateful, and oppressive fascists. A 61-year-old woman was even physically assaulted by a young trans-identified male for daring to show up to attend a panel discussing gender and legislation in England.
Regardless of your perspective on prostitution or gender, you have a right to be heard. This means that I may not agree with you and I may challenge your ideas, and you may not agree with me and challenge my ideas, but you have a right to your political analysis and to share that publicly, as do I. Threatening women (for example, tweeting that “TERFS” should be raped or killed), destroying women’s reputations, and compromising women’s incomes is completely unacceptable behaviour. This is not how we build and maintain relationships. Relationships with political allies are incredibly important, but so too are the relationships between political adversaries. These relationships are much more difficult and challenging to navigate, but maintaining good relations means being respectful even to those we may disagree with or dislike. Being respectful can mean you passionately disagree, that you challenge ideas and behaviour — even that you express frustration or anger — but always recognizing the humanity of the person you disagree with. “SWERF” and “TERF” are made up categories of women — they are not accurate descriptors of anyone’s politics, certainly not the politics of feminists. These terms take away the ability of women to name ourselves and describe our own political positions – a situation all too familiar for Indigenous women.
Disagreement is not violence, and I worry about the impacts of the term “violence” being redefined to mean almost anything, rendering it meaningless. Causing offense is not the same as committing violence. Words that question or critique political positions are not violence. Words can call for violence, yes, but being critical of prostitution and gender is not calling for any type of violence. Rather, this is a legitimate critical analysis of systems that impact us all. Words and images can contribute to a culture that devalues some, and for many reasons, encourage, normalize, or passively accept acts of violence, but to say that making a statement others find offensive or that challenges their political analysis equates to literal violence right then and there is inaccurate, and is a means to silence those of us who hold critical feminist opinions. This new definition of “violence” also impacts women who do experience male violence, such as rape, physical assault, murder, or emotional abuse, to name just a few examples.
The name of the conference, “Crossroads,” speaks to our current culture, which silences women deemed dangerous. We are at a crossroads: we can choose to open up dialogue and encourage respectful disagreement and really work to hear from as many as we can who are impacted by an issue — even if the political position is unpopular — or we can choose to let only a few individuals decide that radical political opinions are dangerous, and allow them to dictate the terms of their and other people’s public engagement with those ideas; then silence, threaten, intimidate, and attempt to harm anyone who does not agree with their politics.
Doing nothing is no longer an option — staying silent only gives more power to those who wish to silence women with politics that differ from their own.
I stand with Yuly Chan, the Chinatown Action Group, and all women who have dared to speak up and share their critical perspectives on prostitution and gender. I’m proud to be considered a dangerous woman, as I try to be as dangerous to the patriarchy as possible. As women, we are trained to tolerate, accept, and accommodate patriarchy, racism, capitalism, and colonization.
Too often, activists and academics who claim to be working for justice choose to side with individuals who use bully tactics to shut women that they don’t agree with up. There is nothing new or progressive or inclusive or diverse about telling feminist women to shut up. A strategy grounded in recognizing another’s humanity would include engaging, debating, and disagreeing passionately and respectfully at public events or holding an event to highlight one’s own particular political analysis and engaging in public discussion and advocacy around the issue at hand. Silencing women considered dangerous for having thoughts and sharing them is not how we treat each other when we recognize each other as equals.
I encourage all dangerous women and allies to speak out against the no-platforming and assault on women who express radical feminist opinions or critical ideas about prostitution and gender.
Update 05/06/2018: I want to express my gratitude to those who support a woman’s right to speak and to disagree, but I also want to express my gratitude to the women who have spoken out before me and to those who support me and the right to academic freedom at Concordia and in academia and activist circles generally.
Cherry Smiley is a Nlaka’pamux and Diné feminist who refuses to be silent.