Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in front of the Toronto Public Library’s Palmerston branch Tuesday night to protest writer and speaker Meghan Murphy, who’s known for speaking against rights for transgender women.
Murphy is the founder of Feminist Currents, self-billed as “Canada’s leading feminist website.” She was banned on Twitter last year after several instances where she referred to trans women as “male” and with he/him pronouns. Murphy, who denies being anti-trans, also insists that trans women are not women and that it’s simply not possible for an individual to transition into another gender or sex.
She explained her perspective in detail via an email interview with the National Post: “A woman is a female. That’s it.” And that “If you are born male there is no way to become female. It’s simply not biologically possible. And beyond that, why would a male ever NEED to ‘become female’?
Murphy has since described trans activists as being hellbent on trying to shut down her speech, though she’s also widely published and has spoken on multiple TV news shows.
Over a dozen Toronto police officers showed up outside of the library Tuesday night. Some of them lined up beside the entrance as a barrier between those attending (and then leaving) her talk, and the protesters.
Murphy’s notoriety and controversial positions have earned her the moniker TERF, or “trans-exclusionary radical feminist”—a term widely used by protesters Tuesday night, many of whom chanted, “No hate! No fear! TERFs not welcomed here!” Others held signs that read, “No free speech for hate speech” or “No transphobia in our library.”
Murphy’s talk was organized by a group called Radical Feminists Unite who note on their website that “Biological sex is innate (male/female/intersex)” and that they’re “critical of the politics of transgenderism.” They did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The Toronto Public Library has come under intense criticism for renting out space for Murphy’s talk. Almost 9,000 people have signed a petition against the library’s decision to rent out space for Murphy’s speech. Writers like Carrianne Leung said in the petition that they’ve decided to no longer participate in future TPL events.
Multiple complaints about how Murphy violates the library’s own policy of not renting out space to those “promoting discrimination, contempt or hatred for any group or person on the basis of […] sex, gender identity, gender expression” did not move Toronto’s City Librarian Vickery Bowles to cancel the booking. The talk’s Eventbrite page shows that it sold out.
This prompted trans rights activists, including trans poet and essayist Gwen Benaway, to call for Tuesday night’s protest.
“I came to call for the protest simply as a concerned member of the Toronto community and as one of the few trans writers of the literary community,” said Benaway in an interview with VICE. She had just received the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry on the morning right before the protest.
“Murphy, and others with her belief system, see trans women as a threat to the rights of cis women,” she said. “They see us as potential rapists and predators who, when given public space and allowed to participate in society, takes away from their rights as cis-gender women, it’s really a fringe belief system or ideology.”
Benaway also added that Murphy’s views are not being suppressed, given how she continues to grow her profile as a writer and speaker on these issues through multiple platforms. The decision to allow space for Murphy’s talk came down to Vickery Bowles, who has repeatedly defended her choice as an exercise in upholding intellectual freedom. Bowles went on CBC-Radio’s The Current days after the petition first circulated to explain her position as one defending free speech, saying at one point that, “You may recall we had a neo-Nazi group a few years ago rent one of our facilities and we allowed it.” She’s referring to the 2017 case where the library allowed a memorial service to be held for Barbara Kulaszka, a lawyer who made her career defending Holocaust-deniers.
“To frame the issue with Murphy as a debate or discussion implies that there are two equal sides and both deserve to be given attention, except in this case one side says that trans women don’t have a right to exist,” said Ceilidh Wood, an activist with Artists for Climate & Migrant Justice and Indigenous Sovereignty, which worked with Benaway and others to organize the protest.
“This rhetoric is demonstrably leading to violence against trans people, so it’s not even a debate,” she added. “It doesn’t seem appropriate for the public library to spend people’s money on hate speech.”
Wood, Benaway, and others decided that instead of having the protest be about blocking Murphy from speaking at the library, that they’d instead use the opportunity to “celebrate of trans, non-binary, and two-spirit voices” by holding a reading of authors from that perspective.
Protesters also booed those going in and out of the library to attend Murphy’s talk. Murphy herself said she’s “unimpressed” with the protesters’ behaviour and that women who attended her talk clearly felt unsafe.
“I wish they’d actually engage with my arguments,” she said in an interview with VICE, “instead of trying to bully the library into not letting me speak.” Murphy added that she’s not arguing that trans women don’t have a right to exist, but when asked if she's essentially worried about men disguising themselves as woman and entering women's-only spaces she said "yes."
She left Tuesday night through the library’s back entrance escorted by a bodyguard and several police officers.
Follow Steven Zhou on Twitter.