Credit: Ajwad Creative/DigitalVision Vectors, The Canadian Press/Chris Young; Francesca Roh/Xtra
Hate Watch
8 min

Meghan Murphy, the Toronto Public Library and fighting transphobia: an explainer

Everything you need to know about the anti-trans speaker, the library and the trans activists and allies fighting against them

It’s been several weeks of frustration, anger and advocacy since LGBTQ2 community members and allies began to organize against the Toronto Public Library (TPL) for renting space to a group featuring self-proclaimed “gender critic” Meghan Murphy as a speaker.

Murphy’s speaking engagement, titled “Gender Identity: What Does It Mean for Society, the Law and Women?” took place on Tuesday evening at Toronto’s Palmerston branch, in the city’s west end. The event was organized by Radical Feminists Unite, an organization that claims to be “critical of the politics of transgenderism” and defines “woman” as someone who is raised female from birth.

Among Murphy’s main talking points for the event was how Bill C-16, which added gender identity and gender expression as prohibited grounds for discrimination in the Criminal Code in 2017, reinforces sexism and undermines the rights of cisgender women.

In response, many LGBTQ2 activists and community members rallied against both the library for hosting the event and Murphy. Here’s everything you need to know about the event, TPL, Murphy and the community members protesting them.

Who is Meghan Murphy?

Murphy is the founder of the blog Feminist Current. It dubs itself “Canada’s leading feminist website,” with a focus on issues of trans rights and how they figure in the lives of cisgender women.

Murphy was also a long-time writer and editor for the progressive, non-profit website rabble.ca, but she parted ways with the publication in 2016 when a post of hers was removed because it included transphobic language.

Since then, Murphy has become a poster child for the anti-trans movement. She has expressed her opposition to C-16, suggesting that the rights and protections of trans folks infringe on the rights of cisgender women by undermining the understanding of how sexism operates in society—she believes patriarchal oppression exists on the basis of biological sex and not gender identity. She has denied the legitimacy of trans identities, has misgendered people and mocks discussions about pronoun usage. (A tank top for sale on her website bears the slogan: “I Identify as a Vagina Feminist. Pronouns: Fuck/Right/Off.”)

On May 10, 2017, Murphy testified to the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs against C-16. “The idea that women could simply express themselves or identify differently in order to escape oppression under patriarchy is insulting and provably untrue. Yet, this is what ideas like gender identity and gender expression communicate,” she told the committee. “The rights of women and girls are being pushed aside to accommodate a trend.”

In November 2018, Murphy was permanently banned from Twitter when she referred to a trans woman as “him” on the platform. While she filed a lawsuit against Twitter in response to her ban, the case was dismissed this June.

What was the initial response to the event?

Concerns over Murphy’s appearance at the Toronto Public Library were first surfaced by journalist Megan Jones on Twitter. (Jones is a regular contributor to Xtra.)

Jones’ tweet sparked online petitions to stop TPL from hosting Murphy. In a Change.org petition started by Carrianne Leung, Catherine Hernandez and Alicia Elliott, the writers expressed “disappointment and dismay” over the TPL’s decision to host Murphy.

In the petition, the authors said they have always been supporters of the TPL and its mandate of inclusivity. They wrote: “While everyone has freedom of speech, we want to once again point to the limits of those freedoms when certain acts and speech infringe on the freedom of others, particularly those in marginalized communities. We also want to point out that hate groups do not have a right to use publicly funded facilities to meet and organize.” Authors Gwen Benaway, Amanda Jetté Knox, Zoe Whittall and others also expressed their support. At the time of publication, more than 8,500 people have signed the petition.

A sign at the protest against Murphy and the Toronto Public Library. Credit: Cameron Perrier/Xtra

Still, city librarian Vickery Bowles told CBC’s As It Happens on Oct. 17 said that the TPL stands by its decision to rent the space out to an organization featuring Murphy as a speaker. “We are a democratic institution and we are standing up for free speech. That’s what I’m standing up for,” Bowles said.

In a statement, Bowles said Murphy is allowed to speak because she hasn’t been charged with or convicted for hate speech. She added that the library has the right to deny or cancel a room rental if they deem the purpose of the event is to promote discrimination, contempt or hatred for any individual or group. Bowles said the TPL believes Murphy’s event would not engage in any of those things.

This sentiment was echoed and supported by PEN Canada, the Canadian chapter of the international organization representing Poets, Essayists and Novelists. In its statement, PEN Canada said that “Murphy’s opinions do not meet a legal threshold for exclusion under the library’s rental policy, though they are clearly at odds with the inclusive spirit which should inform its enforcement.”

“Recognizing that some views held by Ms. Murphy are repugnant to many, PEN nevertheless believes, as a matter of principle, that the Library cannot be forced to adjudicate which opinions—short of those which violate the Criminal Code—can be aired by a third party on its premises,” the group wrote.

Toronto Mayor John Tory also said he was “disappointed” after hearing Bowles statement and the TPL’s decision to move forward and host the event with Murphy. In a statement, Tory wrote: “We’re trying to set an example in a world that is increasingly polarized that we should set that example and not use public buildings in ways that are divisive.”

Prior to Murphy’s event on Tuesday, Toronto-based LGBTQ2 bookshop Glad Day released a statement that the store was also protesting the event. “Trans women are women. Real feminism seeks an end to sexist oppression through inclusion, not erasure of trans women’s experiences and lives. To deny this is not an act of ‘free speech’, it is an act of hate. It is an act of actual harm to actual people, not a point of debate,” the statement reads.

That same day, Kaleb Robertson, or Fluffy, of the duo “Fay and Fluffy Storytime” released a statement on Instagram and announced that they will be pulling out from TPL, where he participates in drag queen storytimes. “I am a trans man who is fiercely protective of trans kids and women. I could not call myself an ally and fighter for my community if I continue a relationship with a space that will host someone who is actively fighting to take away my legal rights as a human,” Robertson wrote.

It’s not the first time the Toronto Public Library has come under fire for providing space to groups espousing hate. In July 2017, prominent members of the neo-Nazi movement in Canada held a memorial at the Richview library branch for a lawyer who defended them in front of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

What happened at the protest?

On Tuesday evening, protesters gathered to show their opposition to the library and Murphy outside of the Palmerston branch where the event took place.

The protest was, for the most part, a peaceful event. The crowd of several hundred expressed their support of the trans community—chanting “trans rights are human rights”—and did “read-ins” of trans, non-binary and Two-Spirit authors such as Gwen Benaway and Vivek Shraya.

“LGBTQ2 people should feel safe to gather in our libraries, and this decision sends the message that we are not safe in Toronto’s libraries,” Benaway told Xtra.

Credit: Cameron Perrier/Xtra

A writer and the first-ever trans recipient of a General Governor’s Literary Award, Benaway hopes the protest reminds the TPL “that trans lives are important, that our communities care about us, that we have the right to be here, and that we’ll hold TPL accountable for promoting discrimination against trans people in Toronto.”

But the protest reached a boiling point at the end of Murphy’s lecture, when some attendees exited the library’s front door to jeers from the crowd. With some protesters inside, TPL staff and Toronto police locked the front doors around 7:40 p.m., nearly an hour before the library closed, and barred others from entering. Many protesters, including Benaway and Toronto activist Desmond Cole, said they were unable to leave until the library closed; Toronto police said people were free to leave through the back door.

Xtra reached out to TPL following the protest. A spokesperson says the TPL will be working with staff across the library, including its group Pride Alliance, and community partners, though they did not specify what they will be working toward.

Similar protests at the Vancouver Public Library

This is not the first time that Murphy’s appearance at an event was met with protests. In January, Vancouver Public Library rented space for a talk hosted by Murphy. This decision was criticized by LGBTQ2 advocacy groups in the city.

In a statement, LGBTQ2 organization Qmunity said: “In providing a platform for Murphy’s hateful views, the VPL is tacitly endorsing these views. Their claim that they ‘seek to be a welcoming place for all’ and that they ‘actively find ways to support the trans, gender variant and Two-Spirit community’ is in direct opposition to their decision to provide a public platform for Murphy’s beliefs.”

In a response, VPL chief librarian Christina de Castell insisted that VPL is “not endorsing or hosting” Murphy’s event and was merely renting out their space. De Castell wrote in a statement that’s since been removed from the library’s website, “VPL has zero-tolerance for discrimination and does not agree with the views of the Feminist Current. However, commitment to free speech and intellectual freedom are fundamental values of public libraries and are bedrock values for a democratic society.”

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, according to a report by Global News, had also “raised concerns about the content of Murphy’s talk; however, Stewart later said it would be “inappropriate for the city to intervene.” Murphy’s talk proceeded as scheduled to a sold-out crowd in VPL’s meeting room.

In September, LGBTQ2 advocates and allies also flagged an event called “How media bias shapes the gender identity debate” at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University (SFU). The event will feature three conservative speakers critical of trans rights, Post Millennial writer Anna Slatz, Quillette editor Jonathan Kay and Murphy. The event will be moderated by Post Millennial columnist Lindsay Shepherd.

After receiving “several questions” about the event, Jon Driver, vice president, academic and provost at SFU released a statement, saying, “Universities operate on the principle that freedom of expression is a core component of intellectual enquiry and central to the pursuit of knowledge. As such, we support the right of faculty and other SFU community members to engage in free speech within the limits of the law.”

The university also stressed its community values free expression and does not endorse the views that’ll be expressed at the event.

“SFU is deeply committed to equity, diversity and inclusion and to safeguarding the rights of our LGBTQ2+ community,” Driver wrote. “As such, we support the right of trans community members to define their own gender identity and to be respected, within SFU and our community at large.”

On Oct. 31, the university issued a statement saying that the sponsor “has decided to cancel the event for security reasons.” As a result of this cancellation, the event won’t be held at SFU.

What now?

Similar to the Vancouver Public Library case, Pride Toronto has threatened to ban TPL from future Pride events for hosting Radical Feminists Unite and Murphy.

In an open letter, Pride Toronto said that, should the TPL not reverse its decision to host the event in question, “there would be consequences to our relationship for this betrayal.”

“Our rights are not up for debate,” the letter reads. “Our lives are not up for debate.”

Meanwhile, Toronto city councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam and Mike Layton have put forward a motion to revise the TPL’s current method of renting space, which allowed for the event to go forward. The motion is set to be addressed by Toronto city council in January 2020.