UPDATE: In a tweet late Thursday night, Simon Fraser University announced that the sponsor of the event has decided to cancel it for “security reasons.” Mark Collard, the professor who organized the event, told the Canadian Press it will be moved to another location due to possible violence and ticket-holders will be informed a few hours before.
Simon Fraser University (SFU) Students and faculty are planning demonstrations as a controversial anti-trans speaker who drew hundreds of protesters in Toronto earlier this week is set to speak in Vancouver Saturday.
Meghan Murphy, a self-described feminist writer who believes transgender women endanger and undermine women’s rights, will be part of a panel organized by SFU anthropology professor Mark Collard, which also includes Post Millennial writer Anna Slatz, Quillette editor Jonathan Kay and free-speech advocate Lindsay Shepherd.
The event is titled “How media bias shapes the gender identity debate” and will take place on Nov. 2 at SFU Harbour Centre, in downtown Vancouver.
“Canadian (and most international) media outlets almost exclusively frame the debate on gender identity ideology and legislation as irrelevant or non-existent, aside from the occasional blowout between progressives and a so-called hateful fringe of women and right-wingers,” the event description reads. “The truth is not so simple.”
Students and faculty have been calling for the event’s cancellation since it was announced mid-September.
Human rights violation
SFU student Sabia Hurley, who is non-binary, wrote an open letter to the university last month calling on them to cancel the event.
“Under BC’s Human Rights Code, LGBTQIA2S students and faculty members at SFU have a legal right to an educational environment free from discrimination and harassment, and inviting [this panel] to SFU means inviting anti-trans discrimination,” Hurley wrote.
In a Sept. 25 statement, SFU vice-president academic and provost Jon Driver defended the panel on free speech grounds.
“Universities operate on the principle that freedom of expression is a core component of intellectual enquiry and central to the pursuit of knowledge,” he wrote. “As such, we support the right of faculty and other SFU community members to engage in free speech within the limits of the law.”
However, Hurley told HuffPost Canada that it’s not about stopping free speech, but allowing trans and non-binary peoples’ rights to be respected.
“We’re not trying to remove someone’s rights to free speech. We’re just still fighting for our own,” they said. “We’re still fighting for our own rights to be respected.”
They said the university does not have to platform Murphy.
“SFU is not obligated to platform those kinds of ideas, especially when they infringe on the human rights of the transgender students, faculty members and community members of SFU,” Hurley said.
Toronto event draws crowd of hundreds
A similar event was held Tuesday night at a Toronto Public Library branch, and drew hundreds of protesters.
In the lead-up to Murphy’s talk, the Toronto library defended the decision to not cancel in. City librarian Vickery Bowles said the library has “an obligation to protect free speech.”
Hurley, who uses the they pronoun, says only a fraction of that number of people have responded to social media callouts for protests in Vancouver. They say that’s likely due to the fragmented nature of Vancouver’s organizing scene.
“It’s hard to spread information. Every time I tell someone this is happening, they just they had no idea,” they said.
But Hurley says it’s important people continue to protest events like this if they want to pressure institutions to change, but it’s also important that LGBTQ and arts groups are well-funded to fight transphobia.
“It’s going to keep happening until there are more organized groups forums that are interested in tackling this long term,” they said.
The Vancouver Pride Society barred the Vancouver Public Library from participating in Vancouver Pride this summer after the library hosted a similar event with Murphy. However, the organization has not publicly denounced this week’s event at SFU.
Watch: Author Lee Airton explains how a strict gender binary hurts us all. Story continues after the video.
Universities are different
SFU assistant professor Hannah McGregor has been one of the most vocal faculty members against the Vancouver event. She co-wrote an open letter to administration with other faculty members that received around 1,500 signatures calling on them to cancel the event.
Like Hurley, she says inviting a speaker like Murphy to campus endangers trans and non-binary students, staff, faculty and community members.
“We have plenty of evidence that transphobic speech, including things like claiming that trans women are ‘actually men,’ actually turns into real violence against trans women,” McGregor told HuffPost.
McGregor said that while there are a lot of similarities between the Murphy event in Toronto and Saturday’s Vancouver event, the fact that one was in a library and one is at a university reframes the discussion.
“There are just different sets of public responsibility happening at universities and libraries,” she said. “The reality is that universities are not actually public spaces, right. Our classrooms are closed, you have to pay money if you want to go to them.”
She says the big question with the Vancouver event is one of academic freedom.
“Academics need to be free to do the work that we want to do without political pressure, without government censure without people voting on whether or not they like it,” she said. “But does academic freedom extend to the point of causing real harm and reducing the safety of staff, faculty and students at the institution?”
Ultimately, she says the university is ill-prepared to handle this kind of event and the reaction to it. She also says that with the seeming lack of attention and coverage of the Vancouver Murphy event, she hopes the Vancouver LGBTQ community and its allies look to the Toronto event as a model for speaking out against transphobia.
“That’s a question that folks in Vancouver that we should all be asking ourselves — ‘are we actually standing up against transphobia strongly enough?’ You know, chances are the answer’s ‘no,’” she said.