Amy Eileen Hamm and Holly Hutton took it upon themselves to organize the first public event about gender identity and women’s rights in Vancouver, at the Vancouver Public Library, on January 10, 2019. Meghan Murphy interviewed them about that experience.
Amy Eileen Hamm is a writer and registered nurse educator in New Westminster, BC. You can find her on Twitter @preta_6.
Holly Hutton owns a business in the medical field and employs 10 talented women.
Meghan Murphy: What inspired you to organize this event?
Holly Hutton [Holly is using a different last name to protect her identity]:
I’ve been really impressed and inspired by the activism by feminists in the UK, and was initially astounded when I learned how a prominent Canadian Feminist such as yourself was getting more coverage in Europe than in your own city. I almost felt an obligation to help you get heard in Vancouver, with all the work you do with Feminist Current, how much I’ve personally got out of it. I knew that we could get something going here, if only some strong feminist voices could be amplified, to offer inspiration and leadership. Canadian women are just as feisty as in the UK. That’s a fact.
When you tweeted after your talk in Kingston, Amy and I piped up, saying that we would help put on a talk in Vancouver, and I was like, here we go! I remember thinking, “How hard could it be?”
Amy and I basically met on Twitter and we just got to work. I’m happy to say, as far as internet friendships go, Amy turned out to be not insane, as well as a truly incredible, brilliant and resilient woman.
Amy Hamm: (Aww, Holly — you’re brilliant!) I saw how successful your (Meghan’s) Kingston, Ontario event was and just thought to myself that this conversation on gender ideology so badly needed to happen in Vancouver! I’ve kind of spent the past couple of years mired in growing frustration over what I believe is a dominant culture of extreme and intolerant “progressiveness,” even among some friends, acquaintances, and peers.
I’m not an expert on feminism (though I now consider myself a radical feminist), but started to learn more after being called a “TERF” on multiple occasions (for voicing some pretty innocuous questions and ideas — not even specifically about trans issues).
I’m stubborn, and when I began to understand how much effort is put into silencing and verbally abusing (or worse) women who speak up about gender, I kind of went into overdrive in terms of wanting to amplify the voices of the “bad” women. And, of course, I love Feminist Current and was incredibly inspired by all of Meghan’s work, so I thought there was no one better to spark this conversation in Vancouver.
M: Were you scared? Were you nervous about the blowback? About being fired? Smeared? Threatened? Did you consider staying anonymous while organizing?
H: My only fear was a vague sense my family and I could be doxxed. I feared more for Amy’s situation, since she’s far more visible (to friends and family on Facebook). I also had a lot of anxiety about you and the threats you were getting. I’ve never experienced that (while we were the ones receiving threats through Eventbrite, most were directed at you). I remember the morning of the hoax about you canceling the event, I couldn’t get a hold of you. I had terrible thoughts about your safety.
A: I second the sentiment about the morning of the cancellation hoax — I was 99 per cent sure it was a hoax but also extremely worried something bad had happened.
By the time I got involved in helping to organize, I had been open about being gender critical/a radical feminist for some time. I had already lost some friends over it, and expected to perhaps lose some more — and I sure did! It’s never easy to hear friends say they think you’re a garbage human being (basically, hah), but I think I’ve steeled myself against this as much as one can.
To have women reach out privately and say they share some or all of these views but are too afraid to speak up — and this does happen — feels great. I believe it’s important, right now especially, for at least some women to put their name and face behind their ideas, especially the contentious ones, to demonstrate that there’s nothing wrong with having “disagreeable” views. I don’t want to have to hide when I’ve done nothing wrong. I’m finished with being anonymous.
I did find the first few anonymous threats we received while planning the event quite distressing. I got the first one on my phone while rolling out of bed one morning and I started shaking and was tearful. Eventually the fear just became anger. What kind of person says this vile stuff to women organizing and/or speaking at a library?
It’s hard to shake the nagging fear that the whacko(s) who threatened us (mostly Meghan) could actually present a real physical threat. It definitely stayed with me right until leaving the VPL after the event. Which, by the way, was through a backdoor, with bodyguards, to a vehicle convoy that took us to another location where we had parked. Sounds insane right?! It was.
The security company we hired recommended this based on their own research into some of the activists planning to show up that night, as well as the threats we received. I think the three of us thought it was a bit over the top, but that we also could not be too careful.
M: Were there negative consequences to your roles in organizing this event? What was the response from friends? Family? Your communities?
A: I have to say the net effect was positive. There was the annoying bit where several people tried to “reach out” to “educate” me in a very condescending manner. Someone was monitoring my non-public Facebook posts and sending screenshots to TRAs. I got some nasty messages. I’ve lost contact with several people as a result.
But I met some amazing women who I’m sure I will always be in touch with. I feel like my community grew as a result of helping to organize. When you’ve received a lot of flak in your personal life for holding contrarian views, it’s incredibly uplifting to have this happen. I think it speaks volumes about the importance and power of women getting together and saying the things we’ve been told not to say. It’s really easy to feel isolated and afraid to speak up, but, on the flipside, it’s also easy to lose that fear when you get into a room of 300 people who (mostly — a majority of people in attendance were supportive of our position or at least our right to speak about these issues… ) are demonstrating with their presence that women (and men) care about this issue and aren’t going away without a dialogue.
M: Had you ever organized an event before? What was the experience like?
H: Not really anything like this. Which is part of why I wanted to do it. Aside from the obvious desire to see this happening, I wanted to demonstrate how, with a bit of work, regular women can pull something like this off. We all made a commitment early to have a feminist talk, presented and supported by feminists. It made it harder in one sense, but we snowballed so much support as a result — I mean so much! I’d like it if women were inspired to start their own events based on the success of this one — to not be distracted from the negative and know that if you have a good thing going, people will turn up to help.
A: I’ve helped with a couple of events. They weren’t controversial in any way and led me to believe event planning was rather easy. We faced one barrier after another planning #GIDVPL, but every time something stood in our way, some group or volunteers came in and generously offered their assistance, time, or money. There were a lot of highs and lows!
M: What was it like dealing with the VPL? The library tried to impose an extra $2000 in security fees and demanded our security team and the organizers conference call with the city. Why? What was that experience like?
H: Well most people know the story — how VPL feigned so much concern over you, (Meghan) and your supposedly dangerous and “hateful” views being spoken out loud. Though they never articulated what those views — or what their concerns about those views — were, either to us or to the media… Though they did find time to Tweet about it! Seemed odd, given the VPL’s stated concerns about the safety of attendees and staff, that they tweeted an inflammatory statement geared mostly in support of the very people who pledged to protest and do harm…
Our lawyers basically were just trying to get VPL to honour their own damn mandate as a public body for different ideas.
Regarding the conference call: Sam Stephens, head security from the City of
Vancouver, asked for the meeting. It was at 8AM on a Friday morning, a week before the talk. There were 10 people in attendance: both of our lawyers; Valerie Dixon, legal counsel for the City; and a number of people from the VPL: Jon Downey, VPL security; Polly Argo, coordinator for the VPL; Julia Morrison, acting director corporate services and facilities; and Christina De Castel, head librarian. Amy was on the call too (sometimes you could hear Amy’s two year old babbling in the background). So here’s all these people arguing and negotiating back and forth, with a couple of tired moms, everyone very serious — SO serious! And I was this close to asking, “Does anyone besides me find this totally absurd? We’re talking about a woman speaking at a library!!” It was bizarre.
A: I got an email from Julia Morrison about two and a half weeks after we paid to reserve our rental and signed the rental agreement. My stomach dropped when I saw who it was from. Sure enough, the letter we received demanded a large security fee and a change to the event time and/or date. I felt it was obvious this was an attempt to no-platform Meghan. I didn’t know what kind of recourse we had; I just knew what we were facing was so wrong. I was already stunned by how many people and organizations (including the VPL) made calls to censor us — does no one understand what the role of a public library is within a free and democratic society anymore? Or are they just embracing fascist ideas when convenient for them?
Personally, I was feeling pretty abysmal about the prospects of the event happening at this point. Then we had the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms come to our aid (more like the aid of Canadians, really, because the work they do is for the benefit of our society rather than the individual clients they serve). I felt confident dealing with the VPL after this.
This was also an illuminating experience in terms of my own understanding and tolerance of free expression. (That’s kind of embarrassing to admit.) I definitely have a history, from several years prior, of agreeing with the no-platforming of extremely right wing or conservative people. But even recently with something like the Munk Debate in Toronto, I still had mixed feelings about it. But I think this experience with the VPL was a further push towards a more absolutist position in favour of free speech.
Going back to the VPL, I echo Holly’s sentiment that the library conference call — with VPL staff, security staff, City of Vancouver staff, numerous lawyers, and two women trying to plan a lecture — was absurd. It could have been sketch comedy from Portlandia or something — like, all these officials, bureaucrats, and lawyers have to convene to decide if some women can get together to give a lecture, or whether it will tarnish the perfectly woke visage of our holy city. Everyone would be drinking a vegan latte and wearing preferred pronouns on their name tags.
There was this one line from the legal warning letter the JCCF sent to the VPL that Holly and I both loved — they signed off by telling the VPL to “Govern yourselves accordingly.” Holly even joked about having T-shirts with the phrase made. I’m pretty sure we’ve both added the phrase to our regular usage. Right, Holly?!
H: It’s an all-purpose slow burn, I highly recommended it.
M: What’s next? Will you do it again?
H: Obviously yes! I actually found it kind of fun dealing with all the bullshit — it didn’t detract us, just made us stronger. It helped having Amy to bitch to on the daily. This is clearly a conversation Canadians want to have in real life, and for all the bluster online, everyone, even the protesters, were basically peaceful. I think this needs to continue.
A: Yes! I loved working with you both. And bitching on the phone with Holly. We are just getting started!
Since this interview, Amy, Holly, and Meghan have begun planning the next event, tentatively scheduled for May 2019. You can donate to support future #GIDYVR events here.