Amid outcry, Seattle Public Library weighs decision to provide venue for ‘radical feminist’ event criticized as anti-trans

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The Seattle Public Library’s Microsoft Auditorium. The Women’s Liberation Front plans to hold an event in the room, and SPL is in the middle of a heated debate over who should and shouldn’t be allowed to rent space in the library. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Community members including transgender locals and trans allies have inundated the Seattle Public Library with calls and emails, asking the library system to cancel an upcoming event hosted by the Women’s Liberation Front— a self-described “radical feminist organization” that has publicly espoused what critics call anti-trans views.

The group’s event, titled “Fighting the New Misogyny: A Feminist Critique of Gender Identity,” is publicized as “a critical analysis of gender identity” that will “make powerful arguments for sex-based women’s rights,” according to the event page. The event, scheduled to be held Feb. 1 in the Microsoft Auditorium at the Seattle Public Library’s Central Library, has placed the library at the center of a firestorm over how it can maintain its commitment to evolving ideas of intellectual freedom, provide access to information for the entire community, and be an inclusive space where all patrons feel safe and welcome.

Marcellus Turner, chief librarian for the Seattle Public Library (SPL), said in a statement that the event request from the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) was initially processed because it was labeled as a women’s-rights talk.

Since then, SPL has heard from patrons insisting the event be canceled due to the speakers’ views, as well as from patrons insisting the library has a duty to protect free speech and should allow the event.

“Controversial groups like these can test our limits as democratic centers of free speech and intellectual freedom, as well as our limits as a united community and organization,” Turner wrote. “I hope you can recognize the difficult situation this has created for us.”

Offensive speech and hate speech are protected under the First Amendment, unless the speech is deemed targeted harassment or to be a threat. However, when the American Library Association (ALA) considered amending its policies to explicitly allow members of hate groups to rent rooms last year, many ALA members pushed back, arguing that hate speech threatens the physical safety and validity of patrons and library staff from marginalized communities.

The Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) prohibits discrimination because of “gender expression or identity,” defined as “having or being perceived as having a gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior, or expression, whether or not that gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior, or expression is different from that traditionally associated with the sex assigned to that person at birth.”

Library administrators are consulting other libraries, transgender staff and organizations, and with the city’s legal department to determine their next steps, Turner said.

The Gender Justice League, a Seattle nonprofit that advocates for gender and sexuality justice, said in a statement they will speak with SPL leadership to help them consider the issue’s complexities.

“The end result of a hate group using the library as a venue to ‘critique’ the existence of a minority group creates a hostile environment and is unacceptable,” they wrote.

WoLF is not listed as a hate group in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s extensive documentation of such groups in the U.S. However, WoLF has frequently been referred to by others as a hate group or trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) group, including in an online editorial for Out Magazine by Chase Strangio, the deputy director for transgender justice with the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT & HIV Project.

WoLF and scheduled speaker Meghan Murphy, a writer in Vancouver, B.C., who is founder and editor of Feminist Current, deny that they engage in hate speech, and reject labels like TERF. Both say the term TERF is offensive and dangerous, and say that they are not trans-exclusionary because they don’t recognize trans men as men; rather, they believe they are women.

“Women are female and men are male. It’s just not complicated,” said Kara Dansky, a lawyer, WoLF board member and a scheduled speaker at February’s event.

Tobi Hill-Meyer, co-executive director of the Gender Justice League, says the League characterizes WoLF as a hate group because “their stated purpose is to critique the existence of trans people and in this current climate that’s a serious threat.”

According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the dehumanization of transgender people and anti-trans stigma intertwines with racism, sexism, and marginalization to create higher risks of violence against trans people.

Dansky and Murphy both say that trans women being categorized as women poses a physical and legal threat to women.

While there have been very few documented cases of trans women committing violence against women, there have been 331 documented cases of trans and gender-nonconforming murders globally this year alone, disproportionately affecting black trans women, according to the HRC.

WoLF has filed several court briefs arguing that the “redefinition of sex to mean gender identity in civil-rights law means the erasure of women and girls as a category worthy of civil-rights protection,” according to Dansky.

Recently, they filed a brief in the R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a pending landmark Supreme Court case regarding transgender rights involving Aimee Stephens, a trans woman who was fired when it was discovered she is transgender.

Stephens’ case argues that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ+ people from discrimination on the basis of sex. WoLF’s brief argues that “sex” should not be replaced with “gender identity.”

Since SPL issued their statement on Friday, several events have been organized in opposition to the event, including plans to attend upcoming library board meetings and a protest on the planned day of WoLF’s event in February 2020.

This isn’t the first time that SPL’s relationship with trans patrons has been fraught.

In 2017, Ryan “Comet” Alley, who is trans, filed a complaint with the Seattle Office for Civil Rights against the Seattle Public Library, after he was refused access to what was then the Central branch’s only publicly available single-stall bathroom.

Jery Che, an organizer of the February protest, wrote to The Seattle Times that by providing a venue for the event, the library is “not taking trans safety and dignity seriously.”

“Seattle’s trans community, especially trans women of color, are greatly affected by poverty, violence, harassment, discrimination, homelessness, social isolation, and the resulting increase in risk of suicide,” they wrote. “Public library facilities can be one of the only places many of us can access needed resources and information to cope with this marginalization.”

The Seattle Public Library’s room rental policy does not specify that it can deny rentals to outside groups based on the content of the group’s event.

On her Facebook page, Murphy urged supporters to contact the chief librarian and ask to keep the event at SPL.

“Naturally, activists are trying to get the event canceled,” she wrote. “Please contact the chief librarian and remind him that libraries have a duty to uphold the First Amendment and that feminists are not a hate group!”

Although WoLF hopes the event will not be canceled, the group has previously sought to have other public library programs discontinued.

In November, WoLF sent a letter to the board of directors of the Hennepin County Public Library asking them to discontinue Drag Queen Story Hour events held at Minneapolis public libraries, claiming that it “exposes children to homophobia and an unhealthy image of lesbian, bisexual, and gay people.”

Murphy, who is not affiliated with WoLF, said her own work does not involve trying to shut down events.

Hill-Meyer says that society already regulates certain behaviors and speech based on the idea that it prevents public participation. Allowing WoLF in the library, Hill-Meyer says, would create more danger and prevent public participation more than swearing would.

“At the point where they’re telling people politely that we shouldn’t exist; that’s not actual politeness,” said Hill-Meyer.

Claire Scott, a former SPL librarian, pointed out that Seattle Municipal Code Chapter 14.06 addresses unfair public accommodations practices, including harassing a person on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, or publishing materials that make patrons feel unwelcome.

According to Scott, this incident is part of a larger issue about access, intellectual freedom and the role of libraries.

“(Intellectual freedom) is something that libraries value deeply and our understanding of what that looks like has changed over time. Libraries are constantly evolving,” she said. “There is an opportunity for the library to step up and for the city to step up to deplatform hate.”

In the past, libraries have upheld segregation and banned married women from having library cards in their own names, Scott noted as an example. Despite what many would like to believe, she said, libraries have never been neutral because they are institutions that reflect the society around it.

“Libraries are an institution that are situated in a society that is inherently sexist and homophobic and transphobic and reflects those views, so we have to push back against those views in order to create safe and welcoming spaces,” said Scott.

Though they disagree on what the outcome should be, Murphy agrees that events like this one have created a “really interesting and important conversation around free speech and free expression and the purpose of libraries that it seems that many people have lost sight of.”

“They really don’t understand the repercussions of (shutting down events at libraries) if they were to be successful,” she said.

However, Che believes that shutting down events like this is necessary to delegitimize hate.

“By using public institutions such as Seattle Public Library to host their events, hate groups gain legitimacy in the eyes of the public,” said Che.

Scott encourages Seattleites to contact SPL to voice their feelings about its role in Seattle.

“As we consider what we want the library to be and how we want to remove barriers to access for every single person in Seattle,” she said, “how can we step up and encourage the library to enact policies, its rules of conduct, and its meeting room policies in a way that allows them to serve folks who are farthest from justice in Seattle?”

 

This article has been updated to clarify a statement from Tobi Hill-Meyer & from WoLF’s brief in the Supreme Court case.

 

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Crystal Paul: cpaul@seattletimes.com; . Crystal Paul is a features reporter at The Seattle Times. She is interested in stories about the people, places and histories that capture the soul of their communities.