On July 25, one day after the Vancouver Pride Society (VPS) announced that the VPL is no longer welcome at Pride, the VPL board heard from community delegates regarding their revised May 2019 draft Meeting Rooms & Facilities Use policy.
Both the Vancouver Adhoc Committee of Women for Women and the Lesbian Collective of Vancouver spoke in favour of a policy that upholds democratic values such as freedom of assembly, expression, and speech. The Coalition Against Trans Antagonism (CATA) urged the board to amend their draft policy to prevent gender critical feminists from using the library’s public rental space. West Coast LEAF (Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund) stated the draft policy is “adequate” from a legal standpoint, but has also signed onto a joint letter, with CATA, PeerNetBC, and other groups, asking for changes. (The VPL told me, via email, that they have not yet received a copy; CATA and West Coast LEAF did not respond to requests to elaborate on the specifics of the letter, at the time of publication.)
The battle over the VPL booking policy began after a January 2019 event (#GIDYVR Still Talking Series: Gender Ideology and Women’s Rights) featuring three feminist speakers: Meghan Murphy, Lee Lakeman, and Fay Blaney. Trans activists attempted to force the VPL to cancel the event over false claims that Murphy is transphobic, incites discrimination, and engages in hate speech. A “heckler’s veto” via a time change and large security fees the VPL attempted to impose nearly did just that. Despite efforts to shut down the event, organizers (disclosure: I am one of them) managed to keep the booking, after enlisting legal assistance from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF). Since then, the VPL board announced they would be reviewing their booking policy, and has heard from delegates on three occasions. In May, they released their revised, draft policy, which has not been well-received by several activist groups.
During the meeting, CATA activist, “Vee,” who “identif[ies] as queer, non-binary, abled, thin, and financially stable,” said the VPL has not changed their stance and is “conflating freedom of expression with entitlement to a platform.” Vee claimed the VPL has lied and gaslighted the LGBT2Q+ community by stating they work to “reduce discrimination and create a welcoming environment,” adding, “The library offering a platform to TERFs, SWERFs, and fascists in general is a passive validation of their bigoted, oppressive beliefs.”
Vee argued that the VPL should issue an apology and “just be honest.” CATA submitted a letter in April (that includes numerous defamatory statements), and appeared as a delegate before the board, asking the VPL to amend their policy and adopt a similar policy to the Toronto Public Library (TPL). Language in the TPL policy ostensibly would prevent gender critical women from renting their public spaces.
Alana Prochuk, West Coast LEAF’s manager of public legal education, said that, while the organization finds the draft policy “adequate,” they “urge the library board to consider social context” and stereotypes that “undermine the existence” of transgender persons. She argued that to disagree with the notion that trans-identified males are biological females (or vice versa) erases their existence and therefore invalidates any claim they have to human rights. She referred to “discriminatory activities” occurring in the library.
Kim Zander and Erin Graham of the Vancouver Adhoc Committee of Women for Women also spoke to the board, and distributed a written statement with photographs of common hate speech gender critical feminists are subjected to, such as a photo with the transgender flag superimposed with the words “SELL SWERFS INTO SEX SLAVERY; MANDATORY SEX CHANGES FOR TERFS.” From their written statement:
“Dissent and debate are essential components of a healthy democracy, and public libraries are the ideal arena for such discourse. We will fight for the library to maintain accessible spaces for diverse views, heated debate, uncomfortable conflict, and the development and growth of knowledge and shared wisdom. Our society depends on it.
We ask that you ensure your policies reflect the role the library and other public institutions are meant to play — encouraging exploration of ideas and differing perspectives. Don’t shrink from that, embrace it.”
Natalie Wlock of the Lesbian Collective of Vancouver (LCOV) told the board she is concerned about a lack of lesbian representation and spaces in the city and hopes the VPL will maintain low-cost spaces that can be used by women and lesbians for “public conversations” around women’s right to “sexual and bodily autonomy,” which includes speakers like Murphy. She said the LCOV “asks the library board to ensure women and lesbians’ sex-based rights are respected and protected.”
The BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) was not present at the July 25 VPL board meeting but submitted a letter to the VPL in support of the May 2019 draft booking policy, describing it as a “principled commitment to intellectual freedom and freedom of expression.” Micheal Vonn, previously the BCCLA Policy Director, states in her letter:
“In our view, libraries that set themselves up as adjudicators of appropriate speech not only undermine library values, but also invite deeper involvement in public controversy and complaint as essentially ‘sanctioning’ speakers.”
Vonn argues that there is public misunderstanding about the difference between library programming and events that occur in public meeting rooms, “where anyone is free to exercise their constitutionally protected rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association.”
CATA’s letter contained a list of demands including (as mentioned) an apology, as well as reparations in the form of free rental spaces for transgendered people and “sex workers.” A July 17 management report from the VPL board states they will review the demands after policy decisions are made.
The same report states the VPL received 25 total letters in response to their draft policy, and that they have heard from nine separate delegations. Of the 25 letters, according to the VPL, 15 emphasized the importance of respecting intellectual freedom (of these, 12 referred to women’s sex-based rights or Murphy’s right to speak); five expressed concern the draft policy would exclude some from VPL spaces; two expressed concern that the VPL issued a public statement disavowing Murphy’s supposed beliefs prior to the January event; and five requested the library board “implement a policy that restricts freedom of expression more than the current law in British Columbia…” After considering all feedback, the VPL states they “chose to use the BC Human Rights Code and the Criminal Code as the threshold for denying rentals.”
During the July 25 meeting, head librarian Christina de Castell addressed the TPL booking policy, as several delegations previously requested the VPL “mirror their language” and the VPL declined to do so:
“We discussed the Toronto policy with our legal counsel and with [the TPL], on how they apply that section of the policy. Because it gives the impression that they would be using different criteria from what VPL has been discussing, what we learned from Toronto is that the threshold that they apply is the existing law, and that their decision making process, in the risk assessment process we’ve described, is the same. So while the Toronto policy gives the impression that the decision making process might be different, it is in fact what we are proposing here: That the library needs to come to a reasonable belief of a risk of a violation of human rights code or criminal code. And so the board has discussed and chosen to use language that is as transparent as possible…”
During the meeting, the VPL board confirmed they will consider the feedback from the delegates who presented on July 25 and revisit their revised policy at a future meeting. I contacted de Castell, but she declined to offer further comment on the controversy surrounding the policy.
If a conclusion can be drawn from the 25 letters sent to the VPL about their policy, it is this: While the activists opposed to free expression of feminist theory and defence of women’s sex-based rights are loud — and while some have ways to punish and humiliate institutions, such as by banning them from important events — they do not represent the majority of Canadians. Most of us recognize the crucial role public libraries hold in supporting a free and democratic society where all people, with a diversity of political views, are allowed to share their ideas.
My hope for the activists attempting to silence Vancouver’s gender critical women is that their frustrated attempts to coerce and bully a public library into arbiter of “acceptable” speech will be an opportunity for learning and growth; that they will find in their failed efforts a way to build tolerance for diverse views and resiliency to withstand disagreement. I hope they will come to understand that to disagree is not to hate, and that, while feminist speech is powerful, it does not have the power to erase anyone’s existence. And if you listen closely, it might even elevate your own.
Amy Eileen Hamm is a writer and registered nurse educator in New Westminster, BC. You can find her on Twitter @preta_6.