Her face told me everything I needed to know. Her fixed, neutral expression showed flickers of the disdain and anger she struggled to contain as I spoke. I recounted experiences of harm that I’ve lived through as a trans woman living in Toronto. When I described being accosted in a public washroom by a cis woman and being physically assaulted on the street, my voice wavered briefly, but no one on the Toronto Public Library (TPL) Board seemed to notice. Vickery Bowles, Toronto City Librarian, stared blankly ahead into the space above my head.
I continued speaking—calmly explaining why freedom of expression must be reasonably balanced against the need to protect vulnerable communities—knowing that my words and expertise as a community-based scholar and writer would be ignored because I am a trans woman. I asked Bowles if she thought I should use a men’s washroom. Her face briefly showed a flash of rage and alarm before she carefully adjusted her expression back to its lifeless blank stare. She never answered. Then I asked the entire board if they would say trans women are women. Again there was silence. I finished with the words “May history hold you accountable” and walked out of the library and into the night.
A few minutes later, the board announced its decision to rent the publicly funded space to Meghan Murphy, a “gender critical” activist who has stated that trans rights impinge on the rights of women. We—my community of trans and cis allies and I—discovered that the board’s decision had already been made before they even heard anyone speak; they were releasing public statements on Twitter while they sat listening to us and eating their catered sandwiches. [Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated the sandwiches were from Chick-fil-A, which is known to support anti-LGBTQ organizations; however, this detail could not be confirmed.]
This outcome shouldn’t come as a surprise. While we’re living in a time when many are calling for the fundamental human rights of all groups and communities to be recognized, the resistance and backlash seem to be just as loud. The justification for this attitude is invariably “freedom of speech” and tolerating “different opinions”—except that many of these opinions are the very definition of intolerance.
This was highlighted recently when Ellen Degeneres, staunch liberal and champion of the LGBTQ community, defended her friendship with George W. Bush, who has a history of being anti-LGBTQ (he tried to ban gay marriage), after the two were pictured together at a football game. In response to criticism, Degeneres said she can be still friends with someone who doesn’t share her opinions and that we should all be kind to one another in spite of our differences. Which is a warm sentiment—but not if it comes with the expense of denying others their human rights.
I spent the days after my meeting with the TPL being attacked on social media by “gender critical” activists who called me a man, said I was ugly and called my speech “narcissistic” and “nuts.” The connection between the TPL’s decision and the emboldening of transphobic speech and attacks on trans women in public life seems to have been lost on most commentators, but it’s clear that the TPL’s actions have already resulted in significant harm to trans folks in Toronto and beyond.
Under these conditions, explaining the difference between free speech and providing a publicly funded platform for thoroughly discredited viewpoints that are likely to cause significant harm to an extremely vulnerable community seems pointless. Debates like these serve to offer up trans life for public discussion, as something that people can have an opinion on—but other people’s humanity should not be subject to your opinion.
Trans people shouldn’t have had to beg the TPL Board to not grant publicly funded space to promote misinformation. I shouldn’t have had to ask Vickery Bowles if she thought I should use a men’s washroom or if she considered me a woman. Yet talks like Meghan Murphy’s are designed to normalize questioning trans folks and the notion that recognizing our fundamental human rights is causing harm to others. And they work.
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Free speech is important, but there is a critical need for reasonable and factual speech in public life. In private, people can make whatever bigoted comments they wish, but public speech is a different situation. What we say in public matters because it impacts the world around us.
For someone like Meghan Murphy, using a space like a public library is deliberate. It forces confrontations like the one I had and legitimizes these unscientific viewpoints. It takes safe spaces away from trans folks in Toronto and gives rise to transphobia. I have no doubt that an alternative space could have been found at no cost to the organizers.
I learned long ago that I can’t convince anyone to confront their prejudice. Either you are willing and able to look other people who are different from you in the eye and see their humanity or you aren’t—and no amount of explanation or discussion from me can change that. What does matter is that when we witness injustice, we refuse to stay silent.