The Library Makes a Decision

The Seattle Public Library has made a decision. It will allow a radical feminist group to sponsor a program in one of the meeting rooms at the Central Library. Library policies clearly permit this sort of activity to take place at library facilities, but it took six weeks and consultation with legal advisors to affirm the right of the Women’s Liberation Front to host this meeting. 

At the end of this post, I’ll offer links to library policies and statements about this decision, but I’d like to focus on two different accounts of this decision in local media, The Seattle Times and the Stranger. If nothing else, I hope you’ll agree that we need to keep the Stranger in business. 

In The Seattle Times report of this decision, the headline emphasizes “criticisms from the LGBTQ community” and puts scare quotes around radical feminist. The body of the article reports on the “contentious board meeting in December,” details the objections of people who wanted the library to deny meeting space for the event, and quotes Chief Librarian Marcellus Turner as saying the decision “does not mean the Library endorses the views of this group.” The reporter, Megan Burbank, also includes a statement from the event sponsor who challenges characterization of their views as hate speech. 

Katy Herzog, the reporter who covered this story for the Stranger, offered quite a different article. She provides much more background on the free speech angle of this story. She contrasts public libraries with private facilities, discusses campus free speech issues, and includes examples of college professors whose employment has been affected because of politically incorrect statements. Her links to stories of government run amok in the UK and Germany will have you framing our First Amendment for display on your living room wall. 

Herzog also discusses a new trend on campuses which we might want to nip in the bud. Many colleges are now requiring job candidates to draft diversity statements. If you are applying to a University of California campus, your wording of your contributions to diversity will be scored and used, often early in the screening process, to sift through applicants. Not all fields of academia are excited about this process, which does not mean that people object to diversity. (Read Abigail Thompson here.) 

Neither reporter, Burbank nor Herzog, suggests in their article that the Women’s Liberation Front might have any legitimate concerns. But I’m free to do so here. I don’t believe that women have conquered all obstacles to achieving equality with men, even in “the West,” (a term that is now problematic to some, sigh). But I’m pretty sure we’ve made a lot of progress. I’d rather live in Europe or North America than many other places where the term “oppressors” is still descriptive of men in general. Much work remains to be done in countries where patriarchy continues unabated.

During my lifetime, I’ve witnessed a trend toward greater inclusiveness, and we’re now grappling with granting recognition and rights to people who transition from one gender identity to another. The recent push for trans recognition and rights, coming right on the heels of rapid acceptance of gay rights and marriage equality, seems similar to that recent struggle. In my mind, there are some differences. 

The gay rights movement didn’t do anything to trigger concerns for my personal safety. Yet trans-activists now push for “self-ID” laws which don’t require any sort of vetting for claiming the legal status of trans-man or trans-woman. Simultaneously, they push for access to any and all spaces which might previously have been designated “for women only.” This feels potentially problematic to me, and I’m not sure if anyone is gathering data that might help us understand whether this is or is not actually problematic. 

Even the arena of women’s sports is not capturing information that could help us decide if inclusion of trans-women might be problematic for the women who have been competing in sex-segregated competitions until recently. As for safety concerns regarding women’s bathrooms, shelters, and prisons, anecdotes of transgressions are available, but that’s really not good enough when debating public policy and legislation. We need more data, not just more anecdotes and opinions. 

I want to introduce a term into this discussion: boundaries. Anyone who’s been abused and received counseling in the aftermath will have talked about “setting boundaries.” Children learn that they should be able to control who can touch their bodies. Women learn that they have the right to say no to sexual advances. There’s a lot more to setting boundaries than that, and it’s often a long process to master this task which might be easy for others. But now, the physical boundaries of sex-segregated spaces are being dismantled, and, yes, some women are dismayed. Areas where women might have been able to let their guard down might now require constant vigilance – not a healthy state.

If a person enters a women’s bathroom who presents as a woman, my alarm bells are not going to ring. But if that person looks like a man, yes, I’m likely to be startled and concerned. Since no one transitions overnight, some awkward moments are likely. But it feels entirely reasonable to me to ask trans-activists to have some compassion for women who have had to work hard to establish boundaries.

I’ve read that lesbians and gays have even been admonished for resisting advances from trans men or women who have not taken the step of surgical transition. Perhaps trans-activists just need to acknowledge that everyone has a right to set boundaries. Don’t depend on any other person to validate you by accepting boundary transgressions. You’ll need to find that validation within yourself. 

Links to Seattle Public Library statements and policies:
Special Message from the Chief Librarian
Library Board Statement on Women’s Liberation Front Event
Intellectual Freedom in Libraries
Library Facilities and Meeting Rooms Use

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