Despite criticisms from LGBTQ community, Seattle Public Library will allow ‘radical feminist’ event to proceed

The Seattle Public Library board decided Friday that a February event hosted by a group that local activists say encourages discrimination against transgender people will be allowed to proceed.

The program, set to take place in the Central Library’s Microsoft Auditorium, was planned by the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF), self-described “radical feminists” who claim that categorizing transgender women as women endangers cisgender women legally and physically. Many transgender activists and allies object to this belief, saying that it contributes to an increased risk of violence and dehumanizes transgender people.

The library’s announcement followed a meeting between library leadership and transgender advocates, and a contentious board meeting in December during which more than two dozen people spoke — the majority in opposition to WoLF’s event. No decision about the event’s continuance was reached at that meeting. More time was needed to pursue legal guidance before making a final determination, board members decided.

They have now made their decision, Chief Librarian Marcellus Turner announced in a public statement posted to the SPL website Friday. Turner emphasized that the decision is rooted in the library’s commitment to intellectual freedom as “a core value.”

WoLF’s event is not a Library-sponsored event, and the decision to uphold our current policies does not mean the Library endorses the views of this group, or any other group that uses our meeting room spaces for its gatherings,” Turner wrote.

Because of the potential for disruption, Turner said the event has been moved to a time when the library is closed, and that there will be increased security for “all who plan to be on Library grounds that evening.”

“We’re very grateful that the library took a stand on free speech and women’s right to assemble and speak,” said Kara Dansky, a board member of WoLF who will be speaking at the February event. She objected to LGBTQ activists’ characterization of WoLF’s ideology as hate speech. “It’s absolutely ridiculous to call it hate speech to say that men are male and women are female.”

But activists who encouraged the library to cancel say WoLF encourages harmful rhetoric toward a community that is already marginalized and endangered. Gender Justice League co-executive director Elayne Wylie cited the recent death of Nikki Kuhnhausen, a 17-year-old transgender teen whose remains were found near Vancouver, Wash., in early December, and whose death has been charged as a hate crime.

“I have remained steadfast in my assertion that as an entity of the city, [SPL] should remember that the city itself has a commitment to supporting a marginalized and protected class of people,” said Wylie. “And that the way that they handle these situations in the future should reflect that.”

While Wylie empathized with the impulse to be conservative in regard to preserving free speech, “There’s also room to be brave and to take risks,” she said. “And it doesn’t appear that it was the city’s time for that.” She said that Gender Justice League and other transgender advocates and allies plan to respond to the event with a peaceful rally.

In his statement, Turner acknowledged that the event had drawn a significant response from the local community.

“These values are easy to stand by when we agree with the viewpoints being shared, but when viewpoints challenge us in uncomfortable ways, it certainly becomes more difficult,” wrote Turner in his statement. “It is in these difficult moments we must stand particularly firm in supporting the right to free speech in order to preserve that right for everyone.”

It’s a right that Turner has seen challenged before. “In 2019, for example, we saw communities lobby their library systems to censor LGBTQ children’s books in Kansas and West Virginia, a transgender author in Texas, and Drag Queen Story Times right here at home,” he wrote in the statement.

In an ironic turn of events, WoLF itself attempted to have another public library’s event canceled late last year, urging the Hennepin County Public Library to cancel Drag Queen Story Hour at Minneapolis public libraries because “misogynist and oversexualized displays may affect the mental health of children.” WoLF claimed in a letter to the library that the issue was not about free speech.

Megan Burbank: mburbank@seattletimes.com; . Megan Burbank is a features reporter at The Seattle Times.