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New Space,  Old Politics Photograph by Monika Waber.

New Space, Old Politics

How a new women’s library in Vancouver became a battleground in the fight to define feminism.

Painted on the window at 1255 Kingsway in Vancouver is a scaly ouroboros, the ancient image of a snake eating its own tail that symbolizes endless return, the continuous cycle of creation and destruction. In more ways than one, it’s a fitting choice for the Vancouver Women’s Library (VWL).

On a rainy day in March of this year, the space is quiet—a small group chatting at a table by the window, and a couple people perusing the still-sparse bookshelves. There’s a little cart with free tea and coffee, something founders Em Laurent and Bec Wonders have prioritized as a way of recognizing and accommodating low-income women in the neighbourhood.

A few posters decorate the walls, mostly blown-up covers of feminist books from the early days of the women’s liberation movement. The largest shows the cover of the book SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas, the 1960s second-wave text that defined a man as anyone with a Y chromosome and satirically called for the elimination of men. (The writer is known as much for her attempt on Andy Warhol’s life as her writing.)

It’s not hard to see why the unassuming storefront appeals to some Vancouver women. The library is seeking Chinese- and Vietnamese-language texts to make the place more welcoming to the women of colour who anchor the neighbourhood, and the space hosts speakers, movie nights and workshops; the founders eventually intend to collectivize and step back so that other women can take the lead. But look a little closer and you’ll see the regressive, self-defeating choices that have kept the library from attaining its stated purpose as a safe space for all women—the snake devouring itself.

Initially without its own location, the Vancouver Women’s Library first opened in February inside a shared artist space on Franklin Street, in the Hastings-Sunrise neighbourhood of East Vancouver. Laurent and Wonders bought wine and snacks, and women of various ages arrived for the opening.

Another group, consisting of trans women, sex workers and supporters, came to protest. One sign read, “NO TERFS, NO SWERFS, NO FACISTS.” “TERF” refers to trans-exclusionary radical feminists—those whose definition of womanhood rejects trans women—and “SWERF” refers to sex worker-exclusionary radical feminists. The group demanded Laurent step back from organizing on the grounds that her trans-exclusionary views have caused real harm to women in the city.

Laurent used to volunteer with Vancouver Rape Relief (VRR), a women’s shelter in Vancouver known for campaigning to abolish sex work and refusing to serve trans women; in 2007, VRR won a decades-long, high-profile human rights case filed against them by Kimberly Nixon, a trans woman who was refused a volunteer position on the basis of her gender identity. The shelter continues to uphold its anti-trans, anti-sex work views. According to the Facebook page of the Guerilla Feminist Collective, which has shared transphobic and anti-sex-work posts as recently as August along with its support of the VWL, Laurent is one of three founders. In July, they referred to a story about the first BC baby to receive a gender-neutral birth certificate as “white lunacy.”

At the VWL opening, voices were raised and a poster was ripped off the wall. Wonders grabbed her phone and called the police, and the protesters left.

That same day, an anonymous group of trans women, sex workers, queer people, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) and supporters published an open letter to the library demanding again that Laurent step down and that the most transphobic books in the catalogue—titles like Intercourse by Andrea Dworkin, a second-wave feminist who once wrote that creating a perfectly androgynous society would eliminate transexuality, and Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, in which the author lumps together transsexuality, cyborgs and weapons of modern warfare as stemming from men’s envy of motherhood.

The letter was widely shared on social media and the backlash was swift. Radical feminist writer Meghan Murphy published a piece on her website Feminist Current identifying one of the protesters in a video of the opening, misgendering her, sharing her Instagram account and referring to her by her former name (an oppressive erasure tactic known as “dead-naming”). Portland-based radical feminist Terri Strange posted the protest video on her YouTube channel, alongside another video where she derides the protesters and refers to some of the trans women present as men. The Vancouver edition of Xtra, Canada’s major gay and lesbian publication, framed the two sides as equally at fault for the conflict.

To maintain the authors’ anonymity, the open letter was circulated by Gays Against Gentrification (GAG) and Killjoy, a group that organizes events for queer BIPOC.  After a few days,  TERFs had repeatedly reported the letter to Facebook and were flooding GAG’s Facebook page to vent their frustrations. GAG asked people to stop sharing the letter publicly; Killjoy took the letter down altogether. Listen Chen, a member of Killjoy, says they had become concerned that the letter writers were being harassed and threatened.

Despite all this, Wonders and Laurent believe they are the victims of anti-feminist hatred. “I think there is a way to approach this with dignity,” Laurent says. “And that was not dignified.” According to Laurent, the protestors poured wine on several books, smoked in the stairwell and prevented others from entering the building.

Wonders adds, “I was shocked by that behaviour from my peers. I wasn’t sure, after that night, if we were going to continue.” Laurent describes the experience of being the target of a protest as “traumatizing.”

Video of the incident shows a group of about half a dozen people holding cardboard signs, asking pointed questions of the organizers. As VWL supporters get closer and closer to the protestors, and the dialogue gets heated, Wonders threatens to call the police and the group leaves.

Wonders feels safer in their new storefront on Kingsway Street. The rent has been paid up for a year, thanks to the roughly $20,000 in donations made to the library in the month following the initial opening. Most of it came in small amounts, anywhere from $10 to $100, but there were a few notably large donations. Cathy Brennan, for example, an American lawyer with a history of outing trans people and working to keep trans women out of women’s spaces, tweeted that she had donated $5000.

Women’s spaces have long been an important part of the feminist movement, but their roots are often bound up in the essentialist, biologically deterministic feminism of the seventies and eighties that excludes or dismisses trans and genderqueer people. (Some notable trans-positive exceptions did exist in that era, including the Olivia Records collective and some members of the Daughters of Bilitis.)

Despite Laurent’s connections and accusations—in the letter and by protestors at the opening—that she had made transphobic comments privately against individuals, Wonders and Laurent emphasize that the library is bigger than their individual politics and subjectivity. They claim the library has members who are, or were, involved in sex work, and point to the public support of Morgane Oger, chair of BC’s Trans Alliance Society, who told the Georgia Straight in February (prior to the library’s opening) that she had high hopes for its ability to represent “all kinds of women.” VWL membership is limited to “women and girls,” but Laurent and Wonders added via email that they do not “adjudicate how individuals identify.” While this position is not as hard-line as that of the library’s second-wave predecessors, it runs in contrast to moves by many contemporary feminist groups to emphasize inclusivity of trans, non-binary, two-spirit and genderqueer individuals.

Both founders also vehemently deny that texts can cause harm. “We can’t be the moral guardians of peoples’ behaviour,” Laurent insists.

Wonders and Laurent both identify as lesbians (they bristled when asked if they identify as “queer”; they do not) and are white university students in their early twenties—part of a larger trend of nominally progressive millennials adopting second-wave politics, often after encountering second-wave texts in university classes without sufficient critical guidance.

Concerns about the library’s theoretical underpinnings, in fact, led one of its original founders to cut ties. Thirty-two-year-old Andrea Wheeler connected with Wonders and Laurent at the 2016 Vancouver Art/Book Fair. Wheeler thought the VWL would offer a chance to take feminism out of academia—where people were judged by the books they read and the theories they could quote—and open it up to a broader audience.

But she quickly started noticing red flags. Facebook messages linked Wonders and Laurent to longtime trans-exclusionary radical feminist Meghan Murphy and Vancouver Rape Relief. Wheeler had participated in VRR’s volunteer training program, but left as soon as she learned about the organization’s politics.

Wheeler recognized the folly of her younger self in Wonders and Laurent. “I was also a twenty-two-year-old activist. There’s something that happens when you enter into university, no longer under the protection of your parents. You realize there are things happening in the world. You’re young and have all this energy. You want the world to be a better place.” The danger, Wheeler explains, lies in the fact that these students haven’t had the time to sit with the new ideas they encounter, to determine which ones have value and which ones don’t. And from the sheltered world of academia, it’s easy to preference theory above lived experience, and to dismiss people who don’t have access to theoretical language.

Wheeler realized her collaborators didn’t share her goals, and after much discussion, she stepped back before the first opening.

After the initial backlash began to subside, a small group of people involved in the arts in Vancouver wrote a new letter in solidarity with the trans and sex worker communities, trying to spread the word about VWL’s politics. The goal was to reclaim a narrative that had become about book banning and protest tactics rather than about achieving justice and material safety for trans women and sex workers.

“They’re not going to change their ideologies,” explains Listen Chen. “We just wanted to collect people who were conscious and critical and won’t allow themselves to fall for that rhetoric.”

Jane Yang*, a visual artist and arts organizer who has lived in Vancouver for seven years, wanted to use her connections in the arts community to create something like an awareness campaign about the realities of community space in the city. “Within Vancouver, there’s a long history of some really fucked up shit here,” she says. “The goal of the letter was not to get them to close; it was just to inform the public what the roots of the organization are. Because they present themselves as a straight-up feminist organization, and with that, a lot of assumptions about what would be included or not included. They aren’t open about being transphobic.” Lots of organizations, artist-run centres in particular, Yang notes, strive to be inclusive but lack the background and the relationships to look beyond the feminist front of the VWL to the harmful ideologies behind it.

Yang suggests the appeal of radical feminism in 2017 could partially be a matter of visibility. Trans stories and questions about legal protections for trans people are hitting mainstream media more than ever before, so the average person is forced to confront their own ideas about what it means to be a woman. As a result, the backlash has been afforded just as much ink, if not more, than the stories of improved access to healthcare and openly trans politicians making history.

University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson garnered as many supporters as detractors for his refusal to use his students’ non-binary pronouns. In a lecture posted to his YouTube channel, Peterson says that viewing gender as a spectrum, distinct from sex, is “a politically motivated and ill-informed opinion.” Along with Peterson, Vancouver Rape Relief collective member Hilla Kerner spoke out against Bill C-16—legislation passed on May 17 that expands the basis of federal legal protection to include gender identity and gender expression—arguing that protection for trans women is a threat to the safety of “female-born” women. Meghan Murphy continues to find space in prominent Canadian publications, such as the Walrus, to defend the honour of the VWL founders against the “anti-feminist” trans women and sex workers demanding accountability. And the VWL itself recently invited Max Dashu and Terri Strange, two transphobic activists, to give talks at their new location.

Over the course of reporting this piece, I reached out to several organizations working to support trans women and sex workers in Vancouver. Citing safety concerns, none felt comfortable commenting on the record. These safety concerns are backed up by statistics; a  2014 working paper funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research found that 40 percent  of Canadian sex workers had experienced violent victimization sometime over the past year. In a 2015 follow-up paper, many sex workers attributed this violence to their industry’s stigmatization and criminalization. A 2014 survey conducted by Ontario-based research group Trans PULSE found that one-fifth of respondents had been physically threatened because they were trans, and another 34 percent had been verbally threatened or harassed due to their gender. Moreover, systemic discrimination has historically led to higher rates of sex work amongst trans women in particular, rendering them especially vulnerable to targeted violence.

On the other side of Canada, there exists a model for how VWL could have worked towards a better feminism while holding onto what made feminist spaces powerful forums for change in the first place. Montreal got its first feminist bookstore in a generation when L’Euguélionne opened in December 2016, led by a founding group of six people who represent a range of places on the spectrums of gender and sexuality. One of six co-founders, Nicolas Longtin-Martel, describes their approach as anti-oppressive. “That’s what our feminism tries to be. It’s bringing forward books by women but by marginalized communities too—LGBTQ, racialized people, trying to have a discussion about ableism, too,” they say. “No one is perfect, everyone has their own bias, their own prejudices, but it’s about really underlining other discussions that need to be had.”

It’s possible, in other words, to recognize the achievements of feminists past while simultaneously critiquing the movement and refusing to replicate its shortcomings. The work is already happening in our communities, and unless the VWL can turn a critical eye inward and turn their fight for justice outward, there will be no place for it in the feminism of the future.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.