There are over one million books in the Halifax Public Libraries holdings, but this week it seems like the city only cares about one: Irreversible Damage, written by journalist and notorious trans-exclusionary radical feminist Abigail Shrier. “I did go and put it on hold the other day, because if they're gonna keep it I'm gonna look into it,” says Morgan Dambergs, a member of the trans community. “I was the 90th hold.”
- The book's cover (not pictured: the note from Halifax Public Libraries inside the cover, directing the reader to a living list of resources to support trans youth).
To be clear, Dambergs doesn’t want to read Shrier’s book—a volume they describe as “not your average text: It's full of intentional pseudoscience and misinformation to denigrate trans people, and particularly to undercut the voices of trans children.” Rather, they’re worried about the 89 people in line ahead of them, and how Shrier’s words could be used by some of them to legitimize transphobic viewpoints and rhetoric.
They aren’t the only one. Halifax Pride released a statement on May 28 announcing its plans to sever ties with the library over the decision to keep the book on shelves: “Halifax Pride will refrain from booking library spaces until this issue is addressed with some combination of internal review, policy change, and training.” (When The Coast reached out for further comment, Pride declined.)
Additionally, 2SLGBTQ+ writer Tom Ryan recently announced via Twitter he’d be cancelling an upcoming presentation at the library, in solidarity with the local trans folks who want the book gone.
Related Halifax Pride Festival announces dates for 2021 event: The summer staple will happen from August 12-22, 2021.
An online petition on change.org—which Pride says prompted its decision—has garnered over 2,500 signatures, Dambergs’ included, in an attempt to convince the library to pull the title (a similar push is currently happening at Ottawa Public Libraries). The petition says that books like Irreversible Damage create a narrative that “feeds into systemic oppressions that make trans youth one of the most likely populations to attempt suicide” by “tricking concerned parents” into mistaking trans identities as a phase. (The book makes it “so that adults are less likely to listen to [trans children] and actually help them have their needs supported and have any medical interventions met that they could have before puberty, which can be extremely helpful to trans children. I wish I had those opportunities,” says Dambergs.)
Åsa Kachan, chief librarian & CEO of Halifax Public Libraries, gave an exclusive interview to The Coast, discussing the situation and expanding on the statement HPL released May 27. She says the title ended up on the shelves because “several members of the public submitted a request for a purchase.” Once requests for a new title are received, it is measured against the Libraries’ collection policy, which includes “popular demand” and if a book “representing challenging, though extreme or minority, points of view in order to provide insight into human and social conditions” among the many considerations included in acquiring a new title.
“So, that was a pathway that it found itself to us,” Kachan says. “Then, the staff looked and saw that The Economist had identified it as one of the ‘20 books people were talking about in 2020,’ and it was being talked about in the public space and in the media. And so on that basis, we believe that there was interest and it was purchased.”
The collection at any given library is almost always in flux. “We're not an archive. While there have been classics that are in the library for longer periods, much of our collection comes in on the basis of interest, and leaves—is replaced—when interest wanes,” Kachan says. Out-of-date books, for instance, are pulled by librarians, as are multiples of a book as popularity decreases. (This is why you’d probably be unable to find a manual to fix a VCR at the library or obtain numerous copies of Fifty Shades of Grey.)
But when it comes to controversial titles, things get murkier. “I think it's important to think about all of this in the context of the foundation that is the public library,” Kachan begins. “So, the public library is founded on these ideas of freedom of expression and the freedom to read and learn and discuss. And it's part of democracy, so having different ideas and different perspectives. And when you take that concept across a million items in the public library, there will be things that each of us may disagree with: Different things, not the same things. But there will always be things there that you disagree with and that's just the nature of a democratic institution like a public library.”
While Kachan adds that receiving a petition to remove a book is uncommon for Halifax Public Libraries (“we’ve had some requests not to hold programs”), it’s not unheard of for libraries in general to field such requests. She mentions that the American Library Association was fielding requests to remove the young adult novel The Hate U Give—the story of a Black teen’s struggle after witnessing her friend being shot by police—for being considered by some as anti-police last year.
Why is Irreversible Damage considered transphobic?
Since Abigail Shrier released her new book Irreversible Damage, it’s been getting people talking—mostly about how it’s full of misinformation that could make people think being trans is a choice or a political ideology rather than a person’s genuine need to have their true gender identity affirmed. (To catch you up if you’re new here: A person who aligns with the gender given to them at birth is cisgender, while someone who doesn’t is transgender.)
As physician and researcher Jack Turban put it in Psychology Today: “Within medicine, gender-affirming care for transgender and gender diverse youth is not controversial.” Yet Shrier acts as if it is, painting a picture of a crisis in which people are making snap-decision gender-affirming medical interventions and surgeries that they will later regret. Turban says the book is full of “outright falsehoods”—and he should know, because he wrote for the New York Times about how the situation Shrier claims is *actually impossible* with the current care plan for trans youth that’s the standard in today’s medicine.
Since our culture is cisgender-centric, trans youth face an uphill battle, often dealing with mistreatment and predjudice from peers and parents alike. The common statistic that 40 percent of trans youth attempt suicide highlights the stakes for the community, who also face some of the highest rates of violence and and discrimination (47% of trans people have been sexually assaulted, according to America’s National Resource Centre on Domestic Violence, and for trans folk of colour, the number climbs to 53%). As the Halifax petition to remove Shrier’s book from Halifax Public Libraries puts it: “Transgender Identity is not a choice, a craze, or a fad as the literary work Irreversible Damage attempts to trick concerned parents into believing.” —MM
These resources will all stand in stark relief to the work by Shrier, a TERF cut from the same cloth as J.K. Rowling, who misgenders people on purpose and believes the existence of trans people threatens women and girls. (For a full idea of Shrier’s vibe, it’s worth noting the journalist has past bylines in The Quillette and she counts Ben Shapiro among her fans.)
“You know, we really did listen, and our intent is for people to learn more and to more deeply understand,” Kachan says, adding that, to her, the resource list “is much of what we do at the library, which is trying to engage people more with our collection and deepen their understanding on issues.”
When it comes to where things will go between Pride and Halifax Public Libraries from here, she says: “My hope is that we can find some way through this and find a way to work again. I would say you know the library, we remain committed to supporting the LGBTQ community in an intentional and impactful way. We want—just as Pride does—awareness, acceptance and care for the community. So I hope that we can find our way, our way back to each other.”
But will HPL ever change its mind and remove Irreversible Damage from shelves, as Pride stipulates will be required for reconciliation? Kachan takes a breath. “If I look back historically, censorship has never been on the right side of history. Censorship does not solve the problem that people believe it will. Also, to me, what moves us forward is more conversation, more discussion and challenging the perspectives and the claims,” she says.
“What is challenging is if we begin to allow censorship of public library collections: Then who will be the voices that will censor and whose voices will they silence? We fundamentally couldn't censor the book, we said. But what we can do—and what we do do at the public library—is to give more resources and provide more information.”
Dambergs sees it a bit differently. “So to me, as someone who's both trans and Jewish, it's sort of akin to if they had gotten in a copy of The International Jew or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and were trying to argue that: ‘This is just a book on Jewish theory, it's just a book about the theory that Jewish people are reading the world. How not carry that?’” they say. “Well, unfortunately, that is completely not true and harms Jewish people, when you put a book out there saying ‘Hey this is a legitimate theory that needs to be considered.’” (It’s worth noting that a search for both those titles on HPL’s site turned up a list of books and films on the Jewish experience, but no copies of said books. Hitler’s Mein Kampf, meanwhile, is available as an ebook according to a web search of HPL’s catalogue.)
Since being vocal about their desire for Halifax Public Libraries to remove the book on Twitter, Dambergs—and other trans Haligonians speaking out against the book—have been targeted by Shrier herself. She posted their photo on Twitter, and then her followers swarmed them online. (“I've had a number of people attack me online, presuming wrongly that I'm a trans woman because of Shrier reposting my photo and comments on to her feed,” Dambergs explains. “Happens every single time I get involved in something like this.”)
“There are a lot of ways for a book like this to negatively affect the lives of trans people that unfortunately I don't think cis people consider when they just think of in terms of freedom of speech,” Dambergs says. “It's not about speech for trans people, it's about being safe to live in Nova Scotia and not have hate speech out there being legitimized by a public library system.”