Reflections on Farkas II: TERF Wars, or the WoLF is at the Door

Can you imagine some of these titles being discussed in libraries?

“to have an educational and open discussion on the concept of blacks living in white neighborhoods and its ramifications on the safety of white women in the United States.”

“to have an educational and open discussion on the concept of Jews as teachers and its ramifications on our impressionable children in Germany.”

(Meredith Farkas, When libraries and librarians pretend to be neutral, they often cause harm)

Thinking about the false dichotomies hate groups fabricate to position their personal prejudices as relevant to the larger culture. In the examples above, the oppositions of “blacks” to “white women” and “Jews” to “children” are political ploys. If you don’t support the Ku Klux Klan, you must be against white women; if you’re anti-Nazi, you’re an enemy of the children. But, of course, you aren’t. You see through the false claims and rightly reframe the opposition as “hate group vs. target,” “society at large vs. hate group.”

Both of Meredith Farkas’s articles open with the news of transphobic speakers lecturing in public libraries, first Megan Murphy at the Toronto Public Library (TPL) and then the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) at the Seattle Public Library (SPL). TPL and SPL fall back on neutrality to excuse their decisions to host the anti-trans events. Farkas says that this is a betrayal of public libraries’ duty to take the side of the marginalized, to maintain a welcome and safe space for society’s most vulnerable. Murphy and WoLF are examples of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) that deny trans-women’s right to be recognized as women and so allowed into women’s spaces (like the women’s public restrooms and battered-women shelters as well as organizations working toward equal rights for women, as I understand it). (They also typically stand against male feminists, sex workers, and other “threats” to women’s liberation.)

TERFs, like the KKK, propose a false opposition between two large groups (cis-women vs. trans-women). Unlike the KKK, TERF strategy claims that their target group (trans-women) is an oppressive majority group (men) in disguise. If we look beyond the rhetoric, however, we have a frequently abused and vulnerable group (trans-women), those who would deny them safe space (TERFs), and a larger group of vulnerable people falsely pitted against them (cis-women).

The ethical imperative for a public library is to reach and empower both vulnerable groups. As Farkas says,

In a world where marginalized people are less safe expressing themselves and their words are given less weight, the equality implied in the marketplace of ideas doesn’t exist. … If libraries want to promote free speech, creating an environment where everyone feels the psychological safety necessary to participate is vital.
(When speech isn’t free)

​At the same time, public libraries are no more obligated to welcome TERFs than to make the KKK feel at home. However, the message gets muddled to the extent that the public buys the TERFs’ terms. How do we deny the TERFs without seeming to deny cis-women altogether?

Every message has an unspoken companion, which might or might not reflect the truth. Recipients of a message often infer that the opposite of the explicit claim cannot be true: “We welcome TERFs” means “Trans women are not welcome” to many. Similarly, but not identical, the claim “Trans-women are welcome” might generate an inference that “cis-women are not welcome.”

But this is ridiculous. The library fairly crawls with cis-women: any literature depicting a traditional family, for instance, or for that matter a typical broken family. The covers of magazines and romance novels scream cis, most books geared toward girls and women assume a cis-female audience, etc.

If a library runs into a situation where a group (and by “group,” I do not mean a small and small-minded cabal of adherents to an exclusionary political belief) feels unwelcome, it can overcome that by sending a companion message, unrelated except perhaps in its reasonable proximity. Displaying materials or developing programs and services that appeal to that group or a significant and identifiable part of it, the library explicitly lays out the welcome mat. Hence, to use an example from a previous post, the library can target white working class patrons who feel shut out by the focus on non-whites with programs designed for the subgroups McCook suggests (veterans, drug addicts, union members).

With limited resources, decisions must be made: a room booked for a pro-trans event is a room that cannot be booked for an event geared toward cis-women at the same time. More materials by Black authors mean fewer materials by white authors. Still, the balance is so far in favor of white folks and cis-women, this argument against increasing resources for marginalized groups is purely academic.

We should send messages such as “Women’s rights are important” and “Western civilization has some good stuff in it” when they are appropriate. General programs and services related to employment, education, entrepreneurship, health, and on and on appeal to community members of all kinds. Equity demands, however, that we take special care to reach those who are beaten down by elements outside the library. Equity means that we speak more directly to marginalized groups. Equity poses no danger of white or cis erasure.

A reasonable degree of neutrality might be a positive principle for a public library. But reasonable boundaries blocking those who undermine the existential reality of marginalized groups must be outside of that neutrality. Basic humanity and its attendant rights cannot be up for debate.

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