A Seattle Public Library event drew a crowd of protesters on a Saturday night, Feb. 1, to confront the organizers’ message, which denies transgender identities, and call into question the library’s expressed commitment to transgender people.
Word broke in early December that the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) was holding a talk critical of gender identity at the Seattle Public Library. The announcement quickly drew backlash from transgender people and their allies, many of whom consider WoLF a hate group.
However, library officials contend they didn’t have much choice but to allow the event to go forward under its content-neutral policies, despite the decision of the New York Public Library to refuse WoLF’s request for space, sparking a debate about how Seattle public organizations should handle requests from offensive groups.
“The Seattle Public Library supports our transgender colleagues, families, and friends in their pursuit of personal freedoms and protections,” SPL Chief Librarian Marcellus Turner said in a statement. “The Library Board and I believe the decision to maintain our current policies is consistent with this value — we do not believe that stifling speech for anyone will result in positive outcomes for anyone, particularly marginalized and vulnerable communities.”
City and library leaders could stand up for transgender people while defending the First Amendment, said Elayne Wylie, co-director of Gender Justice League (GJL), a local organization that supports trans rights.
“I’m not witnessing head of Seattle Public Library expressing his own version of free speech,” Wylie said.
“It is largely disappointing to see we didn’t get the reassurances from the city, at the time we needed them, that we were expecting.”
This was the time for the city and the library to stand up and be bold, Wylie said.
“The First Amendment as an American freedom, as an American right, is designed to be challenged, pushed and prodded in specific ways, up to and including what other countries do with free speech,” Wylie said. “Pass a law. Go to court. Make a declaration. Do the right thing.”
WoLF uses public spaces in part because it protects private ones from recrimination, said Kara Dansky, one of the speakers at the WoLF event.
“When women have scheduled events at private entities, men and men’s rights activists — which you might characterize as the transgender community, which I’m putting in quotes — has succeeded in getting women’s rights events canceled,” Dansky said. “They’ve threatened violence, cancellation, to terminate private businesses that have offered women spaces to hold events. And they have succeeded, as men have succeeded for thousands of years.”
Calling trans-identified women “men” can invalidate trans people, who say that their gender identity is theirs to define. Radical feminists, like WoLF members, believe that people should be defined by their biological sex, which they view as immutable.
As such, from WoLF’s perspective, women who were not assigned “female” at birth are interlopers in the female community — men claiming womanhood.
“For thousands of years, men in power have been excluding women from civil society in all sectors, from education, from government, from business and in the law,” Dansky said. “And women are being asked to now deny the reality that we exist as a category and we’re not going to do that.”
While WoLF’s speech is offensive to many, it is protected under the First Amendment.
One way for the library to deny WoLF would be to end event rentals altogether, said Lata Nott, director of the First Amendment Center. There are few exceptions regarding free speech in public spaces, even for known hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
“There are some really horrendous things that you can say, and if you book it in a library, you can do it,” Nott said. “You don’t want a government or public organization picking and choosing.”
Not all libraries have agreed.
The New York Public Library did not allow WoLF to book their space, refusing to take the group’s deposit for the room. Other libraries have allowed the events to take place, but set up displays of materials affirming trans rights.
The protest against “Fighting the New Misogyny,” the name of the event, began hours before WoLF and its supporters even got started.
More than 100 people came to make signs and gather with GJL, filling the Bertha Knight Landes room at City Hall. The show of support was key to fighting against WoLF’s ideas, which help promote violence against trans people, said Tobi Hill-Meyer, co-executive director of GJL.
“Even if speech is protected by the First Amendment, it does not need to be made welcome,” Hill-Meyer said.
Welcome it was not.
From City Hall, protesters marched a few blocks to the Fourth Avenue entrance of the Central Library, where they assembled.
People there to attend the event entered at Fifth Avenue, which was heavily guarded by police.
Inside, people disrupted the event early, despite warnings from the organizers that such interruptions would not be tolerated. That prohibition was backed up by officers, who physically carried one protester out of the library.
Each was greeted by a chant of “Let women speak.”
Outside, protesters yelled, chanted and blew whistles at people they assumed to be a “TERF,” or trans-exclusionary radical feminist.
The goal of the protest wasn’t to threaten them or to intimate that what they say is threatening, Wylie said.
“We’re not threatened by them. They offer nothing up that is actually a threat,” Wylie said. “They have an ideology that is reviled by the majority of feminists.”
WoLF members, conversely, do feel threatened by trans people, particularly the enshrinement of the freedom of gender expression in law. The organization weighed in on the nationwide cases of Aimee Stephens, who was fired for respecting her employer’s dress code for women instead of men, and Gavin Grimm’s fight to use the bathroom of his choice.
“WoLF fights for the rights, privacy and safety of women and girls,” Dansky said. “The entire gender identity movement seeks to redefine that, despite the fact that women and girls have been discriminated against.”
For the protesters, it is the WoLF speakers who discriminate.
“We are judged not as who we see ourselves being, but how we were identified at birth,” Wylie said. “It gives us no room to be who we are.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
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