A chronic lack of nuance & a love of the hypothetical: a library story

Author’s note: Content warning  – this post contains discussions of transphobia and TERF rhetoric.

I’ve been doing my best not to engage with the Toronto Public Library situation, because I’m exhausted by it and all the other similar examples out there. But these situations demonstrate how so many libraries seem determined to drive out their marginalized library workers and patrons  – and so I felt like I should say something rather than potentially be complicit in my silence. And, to be fair, it is not like libraries are the only places doing this. For instance, Facebook is currently under fire for including Breitbart under its tab dedicated to quality news, a decision Zuckerberg defended as a need for a “diversity of views.” There has been a steady increase in providing space and amplification for the “views” of bigoted outlets, individuals, and groups -like Nazis- in the interest of “hearing both sides.” But it seems especially isolating and sad when institutions like libraries, that pride themselves so much on the values of inclusion, are so determined to exclude the ones who need support the most.

So, for those who may not know, there is a conversation surrounding Toronto Public Library (TPL) and the hosting of the conservative writer/journalist, Meghan Murphy, who is regarded by many as a trans-exclusionary radical feminist or TERF. For those who are unaware of the rhetoric of TERFs, here are some of the main arguments/beliefs:

  • only those born with vaginas are women
  • trans women, therefore, are not women
  • trans women are men pretending to be women to encroach into women’s spaces and rape them
  • and many other, awful, and bigoted beliefs.

The issue of meeting room spaces and hate groups have been a growing conversation in libraries. The main argument for proponents of letting hate groups use the library is “neutrality.” Jennifer Ferretti has done an amazing job at demonstrating how neutrality is hostility and polite oppression. In fact, she, Anastasia Chiu, and I will be releasing a book chapter about how vocational awe and neutrality intertwine to uphold white supremacy in librarianship. But, the long and short of it is this:

Libraries were, aren’t, and can NEVER be neutral because they are an institution situated in a white supremacist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic society and therefore reflect those hegemonic, bigoted views. It is only through ACTIVE work against those values that libraries can push back against the “natural” and therefore “neutral” state of things. And thus, “neutrality” in most all cases upholds white supremacy and further marginalizes communities in need. Subsequently, upholding “neutrality” goes directly against the “safe and welcome spaces” that libraries purport themselves to be. Because the only people who can be safe in a space with Nazis (or in this case TERFS) are those who are either or both:

  • comfortable with the ideology
  • privileged enough to not be harmed by those with said ideology


That’s it. No one else.

And the thing is, bigotry is the norm. I’ll say it again. White supremacy is the norm. Transphobia is the norm and enforced by state power. And we all have access to it, all of the time. It’s policy. We’re swimming in it. It isn’t a radical act to create a space where bigoted voices are “heard” and people are marginalized. And libraries, like other institutions, have demonstrated with these instances that it isn’t marginal speech that is being protected, but that of the bigoted powerful. Library workers told the Nashville chapter of Black Lives Matter (BLM) that they weren’t allowed to host meetings in the library because the BLM meetings were only open to people of color and therefore excluded white people. Yet, wouldn’t a Nazi meeting by its very ideology exclude people of color? Jewish people? Why is the outrage suddenly present when the marginalized want to protect themselves? The Nazis or TERFS might not explicitly put “no Black/trans people” can come, but the sentiment is there. The very ideology driving the groups’ need to speak and meet, explicitly says to the marginalized person: “You should not exist, and we are meeting with the goal of figuring out how to make sure you don’t.” But because they don’t fill out meeting space paperwork that says the marginalized groups are not invited, they, or anyone with an interest in propping them up, can lean on the hypothetical Black or trans person who technically can attend the meeting (as well as the extremely rare case in which such things do happen).

But – let’s be honest, if a large group that was all-white had a meeting in most libraries, would it be pegged as exclusionary? No, like most whiteness, its power lies in its invisibility, the extreme normality of its exclusionary existence. Another example was the outcry by some librarians when they learned of a Black Lives Matter book display a librarian created in the library’s teen space. She received pushback stating that “all sides” should be heard and therefore All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter displays should be created as well. But when library displays have all white and/or all straight authors/characters, how often is it noticed as exclusionary? Are these same “champions of neutrality” raising their voices at every YA book display with only white authors? If so, those voices would be very hoarse by now. Again, why is it only when the marginalized come together as a collective that it is suddenly important to include the “other side?”

Toronto Public Library’s statement shows that they privilege some hypothetical LGBTQ group that isn’t harmed by homophobia and transphobia rather than the very real people of their community who are protesting the event, explaining how TERF ideology harms them and their ability to safely exist in the same space. TPL argued that protestors are asking them “…to censor someone because of the beliefs they hold and to restrict a group’s right to equitably access public space and we cannot do either.” Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences. TPL cannot purport to be a safe space for LGBTQ people and also invite someone who does not believe in their humanity and personhood. There is no such thing as “civil discourse” between someone who doesn’t believe in your very existence and someone who does. Not only does the onus then fall on the marginalized group to “prove they should exist,” but – as hatred and bigotry are based on ideology and not facts – there’s no way for the marginalized to “win” in what, is again, a hypothetical “dialogue” TPL claims it must “champion.” In fact, TPL is most honest when it explains what it means when it says it welcomes the LGBTQ community: “Libraries have always been committed to supporting vulnerable communities by welcoming and creating space for different perspectives…” Indeed, TPL “welcomes” the vulnerable by creating space for entrenched “perspectives”  like that those vulnerable people should not exist. They don’t at all claim they’ll value marginalized perspectives like those expressed by community protestors: we’d like to be welcomed into a library free from those who would harm us.

So again there is, and never was, a dialogue or debate to win. The only people “winning” here are the bigots and the complicit. And a place where the bigoted feel safe cannot also be a place where the marginalized feel safe. In fact, let’s break that down a little bit. What has TPL “won” by showing that they privilege hypothetical people and ideals over the reality?

  • the alienation of real LGBTQ patrons and community
  • the alienation of real LGBTQ library workers
  • the alienation of LGBTQ allies (e.g. Toronto literary community)
  • the approval of hate groups

It seems to me then that the only thing Toronto Public Library has shown is that it does not actually want to represent the community, but instead represent “ideals” and hypothetical patrons and debates. They are not the first library to make these decisions, nor, unfortunately will they be the last, but I believe that change can occur. And, in fact, I believe that libraries are situated in a place where they can truly begin to counter these larger misunderstandings of neutrality and other instances of “both sides” rhetoric.

Currently, the sociopolitical climate is such that marginalized voices are being even more repressed and hatred and bigotry are increasingly endorsed outright by those in power. As such, wouldn’t “the other side” we need to hear be that of the marginalized? Having all Black or all queer displays are seen as political, because the identities of the authors who get published and the stories that are told, are so entrenched their identity politics are not recognized as such. Yet these “mainstream” authors and stories don’t accurately reflect the demographics of America and the world. So, there is a “side” that truly needs to be lifted up and heard, it is that of marginalized people. Where there is an inherent imbalance of narratives, giving equal weight to the privileged and the marginalized does not create balance, it gives more weight to the privileged. So, when libraries use “welcoming all” to give equal weight to hate groups and activists, they are not in fact being neutral, but instead giving more support to hate groups and bigotry.

Libraries, as repositories of information, hold the keys to understanding the nuances of marginalization and power. If anyone should be able to replace hypotheticals with realities, it is the library.


6 Replies to “A chronic lack of nuance & a love of the hypothetical: a library story”

  1. Thank you very much for this post. It is challenging to know when you are supporting intellectual freedom or censoring. A quandary I have work is do I allow “The Epoch Times,” to stay in the lunchroom for staff (someone has been donating their copy). I currently provide The Seattle Times and New York Times for staff to read. But, after the New York Times put out an article how this paper provides a vehicle for misinformation, I’ve been unsure how to handle it. But, this article helped me understand that I was creating a safe place for bigots and racists in the school.


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