Hundreds of trans activists and their allies gathered in Seattle last Saturday night to protest a much-anticipated discussion at the Seattle Public Library. The event, called “Fighting the New Misogyny: A Feminist Critique of Gender Identity,” brought four prominent feminists together to speak about how they think the trans rights movement is impeding women’s rights. The attempts to shut this event down started immediately after it was announced. Despite protests, petitions, and editorials calling the speaker's positions "bigoted", the Seattle Public Library, citing the First Amendment, decided the event would go forth.
And go forth, it did. While there was ample coverage about this event from local media, including the Seattle Times, Crosscut, and conservative outlets, it does not appear any reporters from those publications actually showed up to cover it.
While outside, protesters yelled, chanted, banged on drums—and, at some points, sounded like they were about to burst through the library doors—inside, the event went on with just a few hitches. The crowd was largely female and skewed older—I spotted one pussy hat, one fallopian tube hat, a Michigan Womyn's Music Fest hoodie, and a couple of face masks, although I'm not sure if this was to prevent illness or identification—but there were a surprisingly high number of men in the audience as well. The man sitting beside me came up from Vancouver, Washington, and afterward I spoke to a couple of men who said they were there to support women’s rights as well as the freedom of speech. Mostly, however, it was women—old, young, liberal, and conservative, some there to support these speakers and some there to protest them.
The disruptions began immediately. Lierre Keith, a radical feminist and environmental activist, got as far as thanking the Seattle Public Library before air horns, flutes, and chants of “trans rights are human rights” rose up from the crowd. Others in the crowd responded with chants of their own (“let women speak”) and eventually, after some prodding by the event organizers, the police forcibly dragged several protestors out (according to this oddly uninformative piece in the Seattle Times, two people were arrested). Immediately afterward, more protesters popped up in the audience. An older man with a Russian accent started shouting about Nazis and free speech, and a woman behind me said, “A beautiful penis. Now sit down.” They were not there to hear any man speak, even one who supported their right to do it.
— Benjamin🛤Boyce (@BenjaminABoyce) February 3, 2020
The disruptions lasted for 10 to 15 minutes before the final protester walked out, shouting “You’re all terrible people” as she left the auditorium. The response to this was laughter and applause, and, finally, the speakers were able to talk.
First up was Meghan Murphy, a Canadian feminist and the publisher of the Feminist Current. Murphy has been banned from Twitter for misgendering a trans woman (she sued Twitter but lost), and deplatformed in Canada and the U.S. (a variety of canceled events). Her name has taken on almost mythical status to some trans activists, as though if you say it in front of a mirror three times, she’ll appear just to misgender you. Her talk, however, was more measured for someone who is often called a “Literal Nazi.” She spoke about her own experience in this fight, being deplatformed, and the stripping of city funding for the Vancouver Rape Relief Center by trans activists like Morgane Oger, a leader in the ruling New Democratic Party in BC, because the center refused to serve transgender women.
Still, while little of what Murphy said struck me as particularly inflammatory, she did continually misgender Oger and other trans women, as did other speakers (something I personally find not just unkind but counterproductive). At one point, Lierre Keith said that the trans movement is really a men’s rights movement in disguise, which I also disagree with.
While there have been isolated cases of seemingly predatory males using the veil of gender identity to enter women’s spaces (see: the strange case of Jessica Yaniv), for the most part, I believe trans people are just trying to live their lives in peace. However, I also think that people without gender dysphoria identifying as trans and/or nonbinary can reinforce gender stereotypes, and that rapid-onset gender dysphoria is a real phenomenon that’s contributing to a spike in the trans-identified population. In my opinion, this spike in trans-identified minors is contributing to the backlash we’re now seeing in states that are trying to criminalize pediatric transition.
Murphy was followed by feminist organizer Saba Malik, who talked about the frequent—and, she thinks, offensive—comparison of “gender-critical” women to racists. Malik also read a talk by Cherry Smiley, an indigenous activist in Canada who was unable to attend. Smiley’s talk was largely about gender roles in indigenous tribes and elsewhere, which she thinks were less intractable in pre-modern societies, when women weren’t just mothers but also had to be hunters.
Lastly, there was Kara Danksy of WoLF. Danksy spoke about how the passage of the Equality Act would impact female-only spaces. According to Danksy, the Equality Act would amend federal civil rights law to include gender identity rather than sex, which would mean anyone who identifies as a woman would be permitted in all-women’s spaces, including bathrooms, locker rooms, prisons, and shelters for victims of domestic violence. WoLF has asked that the gender identity provisions be struck from the amendment, and she told the audience to contact their state lawmakers to do that same.
During the Q&A period, I asked a question that has been bothering me about WoLF. The reason WoLF chooses to host their event at public libraries is because their rights to do so are protected by the First Amendment. This doesn’t always work out—WoLF and Murphy were deplatformed by the New York Public Library just last month—but WoLF has far more protections in public spaces than in private, where business owners can and will refuse to accommodate them because they disagree with their views or because they are pressured to do so by activists. And yet, while WoLF benefits from the First Amendment, and the Seattle Public Library’s commitment to intellectual freedom, the group has also tried to get Drag Queen Story Hours banned at public libraries. So I asked Danksy, the head of WoLF, how she can support deplatforming drag queens reading to kids after being deplatformed herself. Doesn't that show some hypocrisy?
Danksy’s answer was essentially that there is a difference between opening libraries to events like WoLF’s—which was held after hours and was not endorsed in any way by the SPL—and sponsoring and hosting Drag Queen Story Hours, which SPL, along with many other libraries, does do. When I asked if WoLF would be okay with Drag Queen Story Hours if they were held at but not endorsed by public libraries, she said the group would have to consider it. It’s not an answer I find satisfying, but I also don’t find Drag Queen Story Hours offensive or problematic in the first place. Radical feminists often compare drag queens to blackface, but for the most part, it’s just people in wigs and makeup reading stories to kids. To me, these drag queens look less like sex objects than they do clowns. Regardless, I doubt my position is a popular one among that particular crowd.
There were a couple of other moments during the Q&A that stood out. A detransitioner spoke about her experience and asked for resources for people dealing with the after-effects of medical transition. A self-identified post-operative transsexual woman said she regrets transitioning and compared medical transition to repackaged conversion therapy of gays and lesbians. A middle-aged woman said that while she agrees with many of the speakers politically, she finds the way they speak about trans people malicious and harmful (and, on this, I often agree). A young black woman asked about the lack of diversity in the gender-critical movement.
I have been on Murphy's podcast, but I had never met her before this weekend, and there were things I heard on Saturday that I disagreed with. Unlike many of the speakers, I do support trans people’s rights to use the bathroom that they prefer (although I think you should make at least some effort to pass if you don’t want to make other people uncomfortable or put yourself in physical danger) and I don’t think the state has any business regulating bathrooms in the first place. I don’t think most trans women are just predatory males, and I strongly believe that everyone is entitled to safety and dignity in this world, not because of their gender identity, but just because they are human. I know, by now, that nothing I can say on this topic will assuage those who already believe I’m transphobic, or a "TERF" (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), or just plain evil, but I suspect my position on this is a fairly mainstream progressive one.
After all the drama over this talk—the letters, the petitions, the march, the interruptions, the rumors of bomb threats and assaults—the event ended with little fanfare. The trans activists outside had mostly left by the time it was over, although there were a few small groups of protesters outside the library shouting “TERFs go home!" at attendees on their way out. The last thing I heard before heading down the street was a woman muttering under her breath, “It's over. We're leaving."
This post has been updated to note that a Crosscut editorial didn't call for the event's cancelation but criticized the feminist's positions as "bigoted." It has also been updated to correct an erroneous reference to the Equal Rights Amendment. It is the Equality Act, not the Equal Rights Amendment, that WoLF opposes amending.