Trans and Sex Worker Communities & The Vancouver Public Library: A Reflection by CATA

This letter was submitted at the Vancouver Public Library board meeting on April 24th, 2019.

Vancouver Public Library
350 West Georgia Street
Vancouver, BC V6B 6B1
unceded Coast Salish territory

To Christina De Castell, Head Librarian;
Councillor Christine Boyle, Board Member;
Jennifer Chan, Vice Chair, Library Board;
Kurt Heinrich, Board Member;
Zahra Hussein, Board Member;
Rebecca Jules, Board Member;
Kevin Lowe, Board Member;
Stuart MacKinnon, Board Member;
Raji Mangat, Vice Chair, Library Board;
Barb Parrott, Board Member;
Harlan Pruden, Board Member;
John Schaub, Chair, Library Board; and
Rhonda Sherwood, Board Member:

April 24, 2019

We are writing to you as residents of Vancouver, patrons of the Vancouver Public Library (VPL), and members of Coalition Against Trans Antagonism (CATA) regarding the VPL Meeting Rooms & Facilities Rental Policy and the talk hosted at the VPL-Central Branch on January 10th, 2019 entitled, “Gender Identity Ideology & Women’s Rights: A Talk and Q&A”.

CATA is a grassroots community group whose mission is to identify and challenge oppressive ideologies and practices within (and not limited to) governmental bodies, non-profits, academia, unions, community organizations, and individuals, to reduce and eliminate the harms experienced by trans and sex worker communities. We are made up of members who are trans, Two Spirit, intersex, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming, some of whom have experience with sex work. We envision a world where there is safety, support, acceptance, dignity, autonomy and self-determination for trans people, especially trans women, and sex workers.

On January 10th, CATA organized a rally and shared a press release speaking out against the talk and the VPL’s rental policy, and now we are reaching out to the VPL in hopes of working together in finding solutions to ensure that further harms towards trans and sex worker communities no longer occur.

CATA has witnessed the VPL Head Librarian, board, and employees minimize the safety and concerns of trans and sex worker communities by allowing Meghan Murphy to rent at the VPL despite the very strong and well-articulated community opposition. Murphy is widely known and understood as a TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) and SWERF (sex worker exclusionary radical feminist) who promotes hate speech and rhetoric that targets trans women, trans people as a whole, and sex workers. Framing this issue as a difference of opinion demonstrates a lack of understanding and relationship to local trans and sex worker communities, many of whom rely on the VPL as a safer space and a site of community connection and resources. We expect the VPL to believe people who have experienced violence, marginalization and oppression, and respond to these instances with the seriousness it requires and deserves.

The VPL Head Librarian, board, and staff are in need of deeper education about current and relevant trans and sex worker issues led by trans people and sex workers local to Vancouver. We have consolidated a list of requests based on community discussions CATA has hosted over the past 6 months at our Trans Community Town Halls, as well as our own collective expertise rooted in our lived experiences.

CATA requests the VPL to:

  1. Release a public apology to trans and sex worker communities, acknowledging the harms caused by the VPL hosting an event by Meghan Murphy, an internationally-known racist, anti-trans, anti-sex worker fascist, whose oppressive ideas are well documented.
    • We also ask that in this apology, the VPL’s statement from November 2018 is re-posted onto the VPL website and that the VPL takes responsibility for its role in enabling anti-trans, anti-sex worker bigots such as Meghan Murphy in having a platform.
  2. Develop a robust space rental policy that prevents anti-trans, anti-sex worker ideology—and by extension, any and all fascist ideologies—from having access to a platform to spread exclusionary ideas, including ideas that question the validity of people’s identities and existence.
    • Provide opportunities for trans and sex worker communities to review the VPL board’s progress and offer input.
  3. Commit to, at the very minimum, annual trans and sex worker sensitivity training for all VPL staff and board members led specifically by trans women and sex workers (and preferably trans women and sex workers of colour).
  4. Co-host trans and sex worker community dialogues with CATA for VPL staff and board members to hear directly from trans and sex worker community members in the spirit of transformative justice, especially because CATA is not representative of the entire community.
  5. Provide free rental space for trans and sex worker groups and individuals as a form of reparations and as a commitment to ongoing relationship-building with trans and sex worker communities.
    • Vancouver is sorely lacking in free and accessible spaces to gather, organize, and build community; the VPL has an opportunity to fill this gap.

Action #1:

Release a public apology to trans and sex worker communities, acknowledging the harms caused by the VPL hosting an event by Meghan Murphy, an internationally-known racist, anti-trans, anti-sex worker fascist, whose oppressive ideas are well documented.

  • We also ask that in this apology, the VPL’s statement from November 2018 is re-posted onto the VPL website and that the VPL takes responsibility for its role in enabling anti-trans, anti-sex worker bigots such as Meghan Murphy in having a platform.

We cannot solve a problem without first acknowledging that it exists. Many trans, sex working, and queer individuals, groups, and organizations (and cis hetero allies) have spoken up about their disappointment with the VPL’s actions through letter-writing and emails, in private meetings with VPL staff, by pulling their organization’s programming from the VPL, and at the final Open Book series event.

Sadly, the calls from the local community to cancel the event featuring Murphy were not met, and instead a public statement was released by the VPL claiming that while the VPL did not agree with the views of Murphy, the VPL is committed to free speech and intellectual freedom. As such, “[VPL] will not refuse to rent to an individual or organization simply because they are discussing controversial topics or views, even those we find offensive.” This statement is no longer accessible on the VPL website. For the sake of transparency and historical record, we ask that the VPL re-post this statement, as well as address this statement in the apology.

In order to more fully comprehend the anger, outrage, and hurt expressed by trans, sex working, and queer communities, it is important to know the history of TERF/SWERF organizing in Vancouver, including Murphy’s history here in Vancouver and beyond. In the mid to late ‘80s, the feminist movement in Vancouver began to diverge, with a small contingent of cisgender women coming together behind the banner of “Radical Feminism.” This contingent took a conservative and staunch gender essentialist anti-male position, thereby rejecting the validity and existence of trans women, who they see as men, and rejecting the reality of consensual, by-choice sex work, which they believe cannot exist and is inherently exploitative. The remaining feminist movement embraced intersectionality and decolonization as important, foundational principles integral to fighting oppression and injustice. Despite TERFs and SWERFs not being representative of contemporary feminist ideas, they continue to organize in Vancouver, with the most notable organization being Vancouver Rape Relief (who has also previously rented with the VPL). Other examples include the TERF/SWERF contingent who show up annually at the Vancouver Dyke March with anti-trans signage, the Vancouver Women’s Library which only recently closed down due to lack of funding, and, of course, Meghan Murphy’s Feminist Current.

At her events, Murphy creates hostile and oppressive environments for trans people, and incites hate speech from her supporters. For example, when a trans person spoke at the January 10th event during the Q&A, a Murphy supporter and attendee shouted, “Pedophile!” at the trans person, and Murphy did not address or correct this comment. While Murphy may not necessarily say these things out loud, in public, these beliefs and statements are inferred through her speeches and in her writings.

There are endless examples, online and offline, of the ways in which Murphy has perpetuated harm towards trans women, trans people as a whole, and sex workers. Aside from spreading misinformation, Murphy has posted online the personal information of trans people and sex workers without their consent, including photos, deadnames (birth names), place of work, etc. (which led to her being banned from Twitter). She has also instigated online swarms, where her followers hone in on individuals and harass them. Some people have taken their own lives as a response. All of these examples indicate that the extent of these harms would not exist without Murphy having access to platforms to normalize these ideas and behaviours in the first place. Also, the examples give further context to understand why we and other people have asked, and continue to ask, for Murphy (and anyone who shares her hatred of trans people and sex workers) to not be provided a platform, especially by a public institution.
As such, the VPL needs to acknowledge and apologize for its role in enabling anti-trans, anti-sex worker bigots such as Murphy in having a platform, enabling the resurgence of TERF/SWERF activity in Vancouver, and undoing the decades-long work of community organizers and activists burdened with speaking out and pushing back against TERFs and SWERFs.

Action #2:

Develop a robust space rental policy that prevents anti-trans, anti-sex worker ideology—and by extension, any and all fascist ideologies—from having access to a platform to spread exclusionary ideas, including ideas that question the validity of people’s identities and existence.

  • Provide opportunities for trans and sex worker communities to review the VPL board’s progress and offer input.

CATA recognizes the importance for public institutions to uphold intellectual freedom. At the same time, the freedom to express oneself does not mean entitlement and access to a platform, and shouldn’t come at the cost of marginalized communities. An individual’s gender identity and expression and whether someone engages in consensual sex work should not be minimized and treated as academic and intellectual fodder.

The VPL’s decision to allow a platform for an anti-trans and anti-sex worker speaker to espouse their hateful ideas is a direct violation of the principles put forth in the VPL’s mission, vision, values and statement on diversity and inclusion. It is the responsibility of the VPL to listen to and work with marginalized communities, and to ensure that such under-represented groups are outreached to and engaged with in regards to VPL services, resources, and facilities.

Hate speech is not only limited to what is recognized legally through legislation and court decisions – it should be defined by the people who are affected by the rhetoric. It goes beyond overt, obvious bigoted language, as hate speech also includes narratives, philosophies, or ideas that question the validity of the existence of marginalized people – in this case, trans and sex worker communities.

All the above have negative, material effects on individuals and groups. These beliefs and attitudes have a profound impact on trans people in relation to securing stable employment, finding permanent housing, accessing health services, pursuing education, and living day-to-day life with a sense of security and dignity. Trans and sex worker individuals are also negatively impacted in their personal relationships, including whether or not they are accepted and supported by their families, partners, friends, neighbours, and coworkers. Some people have taken their lives because of these attitudes, and many people, especially trans women and trans feminine people, are murdered.

The decision to allow Murphy to speak contravenes Vancouver City Council’s diversity and inclusion policies, statements, and Council decisions regarding trans and gender-variant inclusion within the City of Vancouver and its public facilities and services, including the Vancouver Public Library. The VPL has pushed the narrative that any group is able to rent a space because it is viewed as a “private event”. While contractually this may be true, the VPL is still funded by the City of Vancouver. Therefore, the VPL has a responsibility to have policies in place which ensure that discrimination, oppression, and violence are not promoted and/or does not occur as a result of the use of resources provided by the VPL.

Action #3:

Commit to, at the very minimum, annual trans and sex worker sensitivity training for all VPL staff and board members led specifically by trans women and sex workers (and preferably trans women and sex workers of colour).

A significant reason why the VPL is in the position it is in today, is because of the lack of in-depth education regarding trans and sex worker issues, and to a larger extent a lack of understanding anti-oppression theory and principles. Sensitivity training should be consistent and frequent, and led by those most affected by the issues of trans antagonism and sex worker antagonism.

Participating in workshops and trainings about these subjects will provide the VPL opportunities to develop a better understanding about the marginalized communities who use the VPL and the oppressions they face daily. This will also build the VPL’s overall capacity to better engage trans and sex worker patrons and respond more appropriately when conflict and issues arise.

Action #4:

Co-host trans and sex worker community dialogues with CATA for VPL staff and board members to hear directly from trans and sex worker community members in the spirit of transformative justice, especially because CATA is not representative of the entire community.

This is a chance for the VPL to take accountability and to directly engage with community members that have been harmed by the platforming of an anti-trans, anti-sex worker bigot. It is important for the VPL to bear witness to these harms and an opportunity for the VPL to practice what they preach regarding trans inclusion. It is essential for the VPL to move towards a place where trans and sex worker patrons genuinely feel accepted.

We feel these community dialogues are important for moving forward and that they are in-line with the VPL’s stated mission and vision of a free place for everyone to discover, create, and share ideas and information to make an informed, engaged, and connected city. We want to be clear that CATA’s intentions are to engage in transformative justice and host a meaningful dialogue that is not about placing blame on specific individuals. We are interested in looking at the structures and policies that allowed this to be possible, and to figure out solutions collaboratively to transform these harms. We hope that one day the community can look back and point to this time as the pivotal moment where the VPL shifted from being an enabler of oppression to an institution working in allyship with marginalized communities.

Action #5:

Provide free rental space for trans and sex worker groups and individuals as a form of reparations and as a commitment to ongoing relationship-building with trans and sex worker communities.

Due to gentrification, the City of Vancouver is sorely lacking in free and accessible spaces to gather, organize, and build community. The VPL is uniquely positioned as a public institution with the opportunity to fill this gap. While the VPL hosts programming for trans people, it would be important for community-led initiatives to also take place at the library so they can maintain their own autonomy.

This is a tangible act of repairing harm that can be undertaken by the VPL to rebuild trust and to demonstrate a desire to commit to the VPL’s stated values of diversity, access for all, patron-centred services, community-led planning, community partnerships, respectful spaces and communication, and effective use of resources. It is also a way to signal to the community that the VPL aims to be a safer space for trans and sex worker individuals and communities, and to a greater extent, marginalized communities overall.

Conclusion:

CATA’s members have our own personal memories of VPL as a site of inclusion and as a starting point for community – reading books, accessing the Internet, building skills, learning English, and accessing a variety of resources. The VPL has also acted as a form of sanctuary, for those of us who were homeless or did not have safe homes to live in. Libraries should be as accessible as possible to continue being a recognizable, relevant, and important institution in our communities.

As trans people who have come together to address issues faced by trans and sex worker communities local to the region, we feel it is an unfortunate reality that we must dedicate our time to protesting events like January 10th. We would rather dedicate our energy and resources towards trans and sex worker community-building. We don’t want the harms of the January 10th event to go unaddressed, nor do we want this to be the defining moment of the relationship between the VPL and trans and sex worker communities. Our hope is to move forward once the VPL apologizes and implements the requests made above.

We encourage board members to deliberate over this letter, as well as undertake your own research regarding these issues. Please do keep in touch with us as we seek to keep this conversation going and work toward solutions.

With fierceness and sincerity,

Coalition Against Trans Antagonism
againsttransantagonism[@]protonmail[.]com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s