It was a quiet night in downtown Vancouver, like most nights are. The Vancouver Canucks were playing a home game a block down the street, but the main branch of the city’s public library was sleepy at 8:00pm on January 10th, 2019.
If I hadn’t arrived for the occasion, I would never have guessed that the most controversial lecture in the city’s recent memory was going to happen a mere hour later.
Since the event, billed as a discussion about gender identity ideology and women’s rights, was announced in November, it has drawn ire from trans activists and community groups. It even inspired an imposter to pose as an event organizer and to contact news outlets, telling them the event was cancelled.
The chief librarian of the Vancouver Public Library, Christina de Castell, although refusing to bow to pressure to cancel the event, called Murphy’s views “concerning” and stated that “VPL … does not agree with the views of the Feminist Current.”
That mild condemnation could constitute a breach of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, according to the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, since the library is a government institution that is duty-bound to uphold freedom of expression.
The library also imposed an additional security fee of $2,000 and forced the organizers to hold the event off-hours, from 9:30-11:30pm. Vancouver’s new mayor, Kennedy Stewart, even called Murphy’s views “despicable.”
So what are these views that are causing such a fuss? Meghan Murphy is a feminist—just not the kind that the intersectional elite approve of. She’s critical of gender ideology and thinks the “whole burlesque/sex work is empowering/feminist porn aspect of the third wave is making a mockery of the movement.”
She thinks trigger warnings are bad for discourse and can amount to censorship. She’s in favour of free speech and open to dialogue with people she disagrees with.
All this seems to push her over the edge of what is acceptable for public consumption in Vancouver, and a demonstration was planned for the library square the night of her talk.
It’s the first protest of a public lecture in a long time. Jordan Peterson has spoken in Vancouver more than anywhere else in the past two years, and Ben Shapiro spoke at the University of British Columbia in October, but despite some backlash, neither of them drew a single demonstrator.
Peterson has even commented that Vancouver’s leftists seem a little lazy. Most protests in Vancouver are ecological in nature, mostly in opposition to pipeline expansions and other industry projects that often conflict with indigenous rights. Aside from that, Vancouver is a laid-back place, so when I arrived at the library square and saw real, live protestors, I felt like I had entered a land of myth and legend, previously seen only in YouTube videos.
There were about seventy people loosely gathered in a circle. They carried banners with typical sayings—“TERFs Kill,” “Love, Equality, and Acceptance,” and most bafflingly, “Honour Trans Migrants.”
How specific, I mused as I wandered in and amongst the masses. There can’t be many trans migrants. And why is there a sign about migrants at all? That has nothing to do with radical feminism.
That became a theme, the more time I spent near the protestors. It seemed like none of them really knew what they were there to protest, or maybe just didn’t care. Most of the chants and rambling speeches had nothing to do with the event.
There was a veritable potpourri of progressive talking points as various activists took their turn at the bullhorn. Chants called for the abolition of borders and for an end to Islamophobia.
When I got in line to enter the event, the radical feminists around me were laughing at the chants. “No argument there!” one woman chuckled as the crowd took up a chant of “racist fascists go away!”
Although it was more relevant, one chant baffled me more than any other: “Trans liberation, not assimilation!” I listened to it a few times, trying to puzzle it out, before locking eyes with a bow tie-wearing older lesbian.
“That doesn’t make any sense!” I spluttered.
She shook her head ruefully and said, “They never do.”
There was one moment of hilarity during a break in the chanting. When one organizer invited anyone who wished to speak to take the bullhorn, one girl went up and began singing an a cappella rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” She only got a few lines into the song before some shouts broke through.
“Lady Gaga supports R. Kelly!” one woman yelled.
The singing girl either stepped back or had the mic taken away. The next amplified voice hastily apologized to anyone who had been hurt by the song.
It would be easy to endlessly critique the calibre of protestors, but I think it’s interesting that they were there at all. Progressive activists in Vancouver don’t bother standing outside Jordan Peterson’s or Ben Shapiro’s lectures.
No, it’s women defending women’s spaces, questioning intersectional dogma, and refusing to be silenced that makes them stand outside and hold up signs late on a January night.
It’s women discussing what they see as male oppression—male-bodied people seeking to stay in women’s domestic violence shelters, demanding that aestheticians perform services on them, and campaigning for the right to use women’s change rooms.
I don’t share the views of trans-exclusive radical feminists, but it’s hard to argue that they shouldn’t feel threatened by biological men trying to force their way into women’s spaces and using intimidation to make them afraid to speak up about it.
Though Murphy and the other speakers, Lee Lakeman and Fay Blaney, share this suspicion of gender activists, most of the topics covered in the talk were far from TERF fire and brimstone. A diverse range of opinions were represented. Murphy spoke about the library’s failure, in their handling of the event, to uphold their mission of providing free access to information.
Lakeman, a local feminist pioneer who works with Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, spoke about the suffering of women at the hands of men through harassment, rape, and murder, and the lack of justice for these victims.
The third speaker, Fay Blaney, an indigenous women’s rights activist and founding member of the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network, spoke passionately about those she sees as interlopers into the indigenous rights movement: young people who never lived on tribal land and didn’t grow up in their tribal culture who now feel emboldened enough to proclaim that indigenous cultures recognize five genders.
“That’s absolute B.S.,” Blaney said. A few minutes later, she spoke of white women on the board of a women’s march barring her from speaking.
That comment, about the censorship of an indigenous woman who survived Canada’s genocidal residential school system, drew gleeful applause from the few members of the audience who belonged to the opposition.
Morgane Oger, transgender activist and vice-president of the BC NDP (the political party currently in power at the provincial level), scoffed, “I’m disgusted at this conversation!” from her seat in the middle of the room.
The room filled with boos and one woman exclaimed, “You’re the real racist, Christ!”
The things that struck me most throughout the evening were the audience’s reactions. When a speaker made a point that resonated, it rippled out over everyone’s faces.
Women nodded fervently, on the edges of their seats, and they clapped and whooped at frequent intervals. People nodded at each other and leaned in to whisper stories to their seat mates. Heads tilted back in reverence and the whole room would exhale at once.
There was a confessional aspect to the night—it felt like many women in there were overjoyed to finally be in a room full of people who thought like them.
It felt like an Intellectual Dark Web event, where audience members talk to each other using language they’ve probably only ever typed out in YouTube comments, clumsily stumbling over terms they’re finally saying out loud, no longer feeling alone or afraid.
Though Lee Lakeman responded to an audience question—“do you believe in free speech?”—with “no,” saying instead that she believes in “freedom-making speech,”
Meghan Murphy loudly declared that she believes in free speech for all, and that spirit certainly won the night. That was my takeaway as I exited the Vancouver Public Library at 11:30pm and walked through a small group of straggling protestors, who inexplicably shouted “ableist TERF!” as I walked by.
There’s something stirring in radical feminists. A trusted institution like the library failing them so profoundly seems to have opened some eyes. I can only hope that it won’t be long until all of us have woken up.