Urged to cancel event criticized as anti-trans, Seattle Public Library board postpones final decision

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The Seattle Public Library’s Microsoft Auditorium is the site where the Women’s Liberation Front plans to hold an event. Seattle Public Library is weighing its options as outcry arises over the scheduled event. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

The Seattle Public Library needs time for further legal guidance, board members decided Thursday, as the organization decides whether it should provide a venue for an event that has been criticized as encouraging discrimination against the transgender community.

The event, scheduled for Feb. 1 at the Central Library’s Microsoft Auditorium, was organized by the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF), a group of self-described “radical feminists” who argue that trans women being categorized as women poses a physical and legal threat to women. Those beliefs dehumanize transgender people, many transgender activists and allies say, and contribute to the higher risks of violence they experience.

Board President Jay Reich told about 50 attendees who came to a public board meeting Thursday that SPL had received numerous emails and social media requests related to the event. While making meeting rooms publicly available is “a long-standing practice,” Reich said, “we’re certainly aware of the public interest.”

More than two dozen people spoke during an hour-long public comment period at the beginning of the board’s meeting, most of them LGBTQ rights activists and allies who urged the library to cancel the event.

“Transgender women are women. Transgender men are men. Nonbinary people are valid. These are the things that WoLF is arguing against,” said Sophia Lee, board chair of the Gender Justice League. Lee cited state law protections for LGBTQ individuals, and support from the Seattle Women’s Commission. “It is not feminist to argue against the rights of transgender people,” she said, adding that “this is an opportunity to show your dedication as allies to our community.”

Others emphasized they expect the library to be a safe and welcoming space for everyone, free of hate speech.

“As a child, I felt safe here,” said Elayne Wylie, co-executive director of the Gender Justice League. “Do transgender people, do nonbinary people feel safe in this library and in the Seattle Public Library system?”

A handful of speakers who advocated for the WoLF event to go forward as planned emphasized the importance of free speech and said they felt their beliefs had been mischaracterized by the transgender activists and allies in attendance, rejecting accusations that their views constitute hate speech.

“We abhor violence, bullying, mistreatment,” said one, who declined to give her name. She urged those opposed to the event to “see what we’re actually saying.” 

“I fought for your rights,” she said. “You don’t know us. Please come and listen.”

The event’s proponents also echoed statements like the one WoLF’s Kara Dansky made to The Seattle Times earlier this month, saying, “Women are female and men are male. It’s just not complicated.”

Anne Cisney, president of SPL’s union, told the board the issue had caused harm to library staff who are transgender. “There are hundreds of Seattle Public Library employees who are standing in solidarity with transgender and nonbinary people in the community,” she said.

Ultimately, the board members could not reach a decision about allowing the event to proceed as planned. Board Vice President Ron Chew left early after the comment period, requesting additional legal guidance and the possibility of postponing the decision. Other board members expressed similar misgivings.

“This is not an easy discussion, I think, for anyone,” said board member Kristi England, adding that policy change might be one solution. “I’m struggling with my desire to be a good ally… my personal view versus my role at the library.”

England also wondered about the validity of applying a new policy retroactively to an event scheduled under the one currently in place. The Seattle Public Library’s current room rental policy does not specify that it can deny rentals to outside groups based on the content of the group’s event.

Reich described the tension between the library’s responsibility to honor free speech and to support marginalized communities. “The First Amendment hasn’t changed … speech is not crime,” he said, and while a motion would be needed to cancel the event, “I’m not hearing that motion today.”

Some who oppose the event say the library’s obligation to delegitimize hate groups should supersede free speech arguments.

Reich suggested that the board seek additional legal guidance on the matter before revisiting it at the board’s next meeting, scheduled for Jan. 23, and emphasized the need “to provide a safe and welcoming place … for our trans patrons and employees.”

“Rhetoric is not enough,” he said. “We need to be real about it.”

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