How a Feminist Library Opening Became All About the Definition of a Woman

A controversial “women’s library” reopened in a new Vancouver location Saturday, rekindling debate over the exclusion of trans women and sex workers.
March 13, 2017, 3:54pm
Lead image via The Vancouver Women's Library Instagram

Members of Vancouver's feminist community gathered in a small artist's studio the evening of February 3 for the opening of the Vancouver Women's Library, a feminist reading room and salon.

It's probably safe to assume those who would attend such an event would have hoped for, at best, a rousing speech and a generous pour of opening-reception wine.

They would have been surprised, then, when nine protesters hijacked the congratulatory speeches to deliver their own indictment of the library and those who had brought it into being.

Protesters handed out a pamphlet that said: "This library is run by women who hate other women."

One protester ripped down a poster for the S.C.U.M. Manifesto, published by Valerie Solanas in 1968, the year she shot Andy Warhol.

The fire alarm was pulled, police were called.

It was the latest, if somewhat ill-advised, skirmish in a decades-old battle on the front lines of feminism: What is the role of transgender women in the movement?

"There has always been a segment of the feminist community that has been uncomfortable with including trans women in their movement," says Brenna Bezanson, a transgender woman and community liaison at the PACE Society, a Vancouver organization that provides support and services for sex workers.

"I would not say that that represents the majority of feminism, but it does represent a very vocal segment of the feminist community," Bezanson told VICE.

Indeed, the role of what were then called "transsexuals" has been in dispute since at least the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1970s.

Though the debate has waned as transgender women have won hard-fought rights, there remain a stream of self-described "radical feminists" that view being raised a girl in a misogynistic society as central to the female experience.

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie set off a social media shitstorm on the weekend over her comments on transgender women in an interview with a British TV program.

Gender is about experience, said the bestselling feminist author.

"It's not about how we wear our hair, or whether we have a vagina or a penis, it's about the way the world treats us," she told Channel 4 News.

"And I think if you've lived in the world as a man with the privileges the world accords to men, and then sort of changed, switched gender, it's difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are."

"And so I think there has to be—and this is not, of course, to say, I'm saying this with a certainty that transgender should be allowed to be. But I don't think it's a good thing to conflate everything into one. I don't think it's a good thing to talk about women's issues being exactly the same as the issues of trans women, because I don't think that's true."

Critics said Adichie's comments ignored higher rates of violence against trans women, and were rooted in belief that trans people are not who they say they are.

The Michigan Women's Festival, the largest festival for women in North America, folded in 2015 mired in controversy over its "women born women" policy.

In 2007, following more than a decade before the courts, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed an appeal from a transgender woman, upholding the right of the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter to reject her as a counsellor for raped and battered women because she was not born and raised a girl. The BC Supreme Court and BC Court of Appeal had previously ruled that Vancouver Rape Relief had not discriminated against Kimberly Nixon.

"And now we have this library," Bezanson told VICE.

One of the founders of the library, Em Laurent, is a supporter and former volunteer at Vancouver Rape Relief. Among the protesters' demands is that Laurent end her involvement in the library.

Laurent defends her views, saying there has been over the past 30 years a "conflation of what a woman is." Women's issues and trans issues are equally important, she said, but there are "strict and specific delineations between them."

"I've taken on a few dissident positions but that doesn't mean you get to burn the witch," she told VICE. "It's about conversation and there are political disagreements that are genuine and that are real and there will always be differences."

In a statement, protesters made six demands, including the release of information on library funding and the election of a new board that is not exclusively cisgender and white.

They have a list of books they want banned and demand a greater array of books by women of colour, sex workers, incarcerated women, and trans women.

Bezanson was not one of the protestors but she said the dispute arises from a history of "anti-sex work rhetoric and anti-trans rhetoric" on the part of some of the library organizers. It has played out largely online and has included "outing" of transgender sex workers, not by library organizers but by their supporters.

"The protest that happened, I don't know that that is how I would have held that protest," Bezanson told VICE. "But there were many, many weeks of marginalized people being silenced by people who have harmed them and being ignored and I don't know how it could have gone anywhere but such a visible cry of frustration and hurt."

Bezanson was among 101 groups and individuals signatories of an open letter that voiced support for the library protestors, and decried the space "opened by individuals with a history of transphobic and anti-sex worker practices."

"We strongly condemn a radical feminism that perpetuates violence on women's bodies through the discrimination of trans women and sex workers," the letter reads. "People who gaslight, exclude, misgender, and troll trans women and sex workers are not feminists in our eyes, but bigots. Projects that welcome support from these groups and their hate-lobbying leaders endanger the lives of sex workers and trans women."

The debate is far from over, even as the Vancouver Women's Library reopened Saturday in a new space.

Organizers felt it best, in the wake of the protest, to vacate the original location in an artist studio shared with other artists and artisans, not all of whom were affiliated with the library. The landlord agreed that was best.

The new Downtown Eastside location was released shortly before the opening, in an effort to curtail a similar confrontation.

"I'm a seasoned protester myself, and it's people's right to express their disagreement," said Bec Wonders, one of the founders.

But "it was very aggressive and hostile," she said. "I don't mean to sound like we're doing everything right. We do welcome constructive feedback and we definitely welcome book donations if people feel certain things are missing but this was simply an act of vandalism."

The library has a trans literature section and has not, nor never intended, to censor trans voices, Wonders said.

The library founders say they would welcome a public discussion about the issues but they will not ban any books.

"That was one of their biggest demands and it just goes against what we aim to do, as a library that values intellectual freedom," Wonders said.

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