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VICTORY FOR FREE SPEECH: Gender talk held in Vancouver despite threats of violence

The free speech event featuring radical feminist Meghan Murphy, Jon Kay, Anna Slatz, and Lindsay Shepherd was preceded by controversy.
Rebecca Christiansen Montreal, QC

The third event in the #GIDYVR Still Talking series—featuring radical feminist Meghan Murphy, Quillette Canadian editor Jon Kay, Post Millennial writer Anna Slatz, and Lindsay Shepherd—was preceded by controversy.

Not only was a similar event with Murphy in Toronto heavily protested days before, but the Simon Fraser University professor sponsoring the event pulled his support after a security report determined the potential for violence was very high. As a result, the university cancelled the organizers’ room booking for the SFU Habour Centre campus in Downtown Vancouver. Luckily, an alternate venue was found, the luxurious Pan Pacific Hotel, and the show would go on.

The Pan Pacific sits on the waterfront in downtown Vancouver, just steps away from the cruise ship port and the torch from the 2010 Winter Olympics. Just before 5 pm on November 2nd, the main square in front of the Pan Pacific was full of tourists snapping photos. I waited, sipping Starbucks and enjoying the chill air in a warm scarf, and counting down until the procession of protestors marching from SFU’s Harbour Centre campus would arrive to shatter the peace.

They arrived, various flags and signs in tow, chanting “No TERFs, no KKK, no fascists here today” and confusing families of tourists who just wanted to get back into the hotel. I had a front-row seat for the chaos.

As they began their tenure at the entrance of the building, I couldn’t help but notice how tightly controlled the protest was compared to previous #GIDYVR protests I’ve witnessed. Only one chant was shouted, and only one speaker had the megaphone, reading prepared marks off cue cards.

At the first installment of the Still Talking series, which I covered for The Post Millennial back in January, protestors had an open-mic system where attendees could tell their stories or make speeches or sing songs. This free-speech policy resulted in a girl taking the mic to sing a Lady Gaga song and being shouted down because apparently Lady Gaga supported R. Kelly. The closed mic tactic, while shutting down any chance of unapproved speech being aired, makes for stale protests. “No TERFs, no KKK, no fascists here today” starts to grate really quickly.

It was a telling strategy, to shut down more open participation in favour of parroted orthodoxy. They couldn’t risk amplifying wrongthink.

The only interesting incident occurred when a man with a sign reading “Let’s Talk” stepped into the middle of the protest and tried to engage the leader in conversation. Other members of the protest force immediately swooped in and nipped his efforts in the bud.

Protest signs and overblown rhetoric abounded, but the most shocking was the woman walking around with a cardboard guillotine labelled “Step Right Up!” with the words “TERFs” and “SWERFs” adorning the sides. A creative way to recycle pizza boxes, but it speaks volumes about the mindset of its carrier.

Inside the Pan Pacific, things were sedate and serious, but safe. While it’s disappointing that the event couldn’t happen on a university campus, where free speech is supposed to thrive, private venues—especially ones as opulent as the Pan Pacific—afford greater security, which attendees and panellists appreciated. The only indications that the protest was escalating outside were the echoes of sirens that drifted upstairs and into the Crystal Pavilion ballroom.

The crowd for this third #GIDYVR event was considerably more varied than the previous two this year, which were mostly comprised of old-guard Vancouver feminists. This time attendees were split about sixty-forty between women and men. Many of those men were local free speech enthusiasts, including members of the Free Speech Club. This was likely due to the inclusion of Jon Kay and Lindsay Shepherd, and it brought an exciting energy to the room.

Sometimes the actual content of embattled free speech events is less important than the miracle that it took place at all. Familiar ground was covered on the topic of gender identity and women’s rights—which can be viewed in its entirety on Meghan Murphy’s YouTube channel. The talk centred on the media’s role in our public discussion about gender identity. All three panellists offered scathing indictments of the Canadian media, including veteran broadcaster Carol Off of CBC’s As It Happens, who compared Murphy to Holocaust deniers in her interview with Toronto’s head librarian Vickery Bowles.

I was struck by the somewhat surprising political alignments of the panellists. Jon Kay was by far the most intersectional in approach, and fully embraced his “token male” status, as teasingly described by Murphy. Kay, though straight, and male, took the side of trans activists more than once, and advocated empathy and civility throughout the event. He defended the legitimacy of gender dysphoria and disapproved of the description of transgenderism as a mental illness. A few attendees during the Q&A made snide comments toward him, both for those concessions and for taking up too much space as a man. I found it interesting that the “token male” on the panel was the most woke, and the most derided for said wokeness. This was one room in which male privilege, for better or worse, did not exist.

Near the end of the Q&A, Morgane Oger, Vice-President of the B.C. NDP and prominent trans activist, stood to ask a question. Oger is a well-known adversary of the Vancouver radical feminist community, and the room was openly hostile to her. Murphy and Slatz offered curt replies to her question, but Kay was the only one to thank Oger for entering the lion’s den and participating in dialogue. Murphy had noted that Oger had slandered her in the past.

I was dismayed at the hecklers who shouted out corrections to Kay’s use of female pronouns for Oger and cussed him out for advising people to be respectful. Radical feminists are angry, and they have a right to be. But when they offer only rudeness to their opponents and refuse to see them as individuals and meet them in good faith dialogue, it’s not so different from trans activists outside the event mounting the words “TERFs” and “SWERFs” on cardboard guillotines.

Though rumours swirled after the event that two protesters had been arrested outside—they were released soon after—the protest had died down by the time attendees left through a side exit. A core group remained, chanting about how sex work is work, while others had simply leaned their placards up against planters to do their chanting for them and left. The temperature had dropped, with moisture on the ground almost ready to turn to frost.

In the end, the event was another victory for free speech and further proof that gender identity is one of the hot-button topics of our age. Vancouver continues to be the stage upon which this drama plays out, and the bellwether city to watch.

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Rebecca Christiansen
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