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Meghan Murphy makes her way toward the back entrance of the Toronto Public Library at Palmerston before her talk 'Gender Identity: What Does It Mean for Society, the Law, and Women?' on Oct. 29, 2019.Tijana Martin

People exiting a speaking event at a small Toronto Public Library branch were met with a chorus of boos as they descended the staircase at its front entrance on Tuesday evening. The branch has been at the centre of a firestorm over the line between free speech and hate speech.

Hundreds flocked to the TPL’s Palmerston branch in protest after weeks of heated debate over the library’s decision to allow writer Meghan Murphy to speak Tuesday at an event put on by a group dubbed Radical Feminists Unite.

Ms. Murphy has been called a “transexclusionary radical feminist," or TERF, because of her argument that including transgender women in the feminist movement is harmful.

She has also been critical of the transgender rights movement, and she appeared in the Canadian Senate in 2016 to oppose a law that added gender identity and expression to the federal list of prohibited grounds of discrimination.

LGBTQ advocates have been harshly critical of the library’s decision to let Ms. Murphy speak, and they launched petitions, a phone campaign and a flurry of social-media posts preceding the protest, which took place at the same time as the speaking event.

“I hope that the Toronto Public Library realizes that trans people matter,” Gwen Benaway, a transgender poet who won a Governor-General Award on Tuesday, said at the protest. “Hosting transphobic speakers that promote intolerance in Canadian society is damaging and against the work of the Toronto Public Library.”

Also Tuesday, drag artist duo Fay and Fluffy, who hold a popular storytelling event for children at several TPL branches, announced they have severed ties with the library over their decision to play host to Ms. Murphy.

“I could not call myself an ally and fighter for my community if I continue a relationship with a space that will host someone who is actively fighting to take away my legal rights as a human,” wrote Kaleb Robertson, one half of Fay and Fluffy, on the duo’s Instagram page. “It’s heartbreaking to be put in this position by a place I have loved since I was a child.”

Despite the fierce opposition and public rebukes from prominent figures, including Toronto Mayor John Tory, city librarian Vickery Bowles backed the event because the TPL has “an obligation to protect free speech.” She said earlier this month that Ms. Murphy’s event was not in violation of the library’s room-booking policy, which allows the library to cancel events that “[promote] discrimination.”

Ms. Bowles also said that Ms. Murphy has never been charged with or convicted of hate speech. Toronto city councillors tabled a motion Tuesday calling for stricter room-booking policies at TPL branches, to “ensure that activities enabling discrimination and tolerance, including transphobia and transphobic activity, are given all due consideration as a human rights violation.”

Two hours before the event, a crowd of about 100 gathered in the heart of Toronto’s gay village for a preprotest rally organized by Pride Toronto and The 519, a local LGBTQ resource centre.

A mural depicting a diversity of LGBTQ people towered over the crowd as former Ontario MPP Cheri DiNovo led them in a chant proclaiming that “trans rights are human rights.”

Julie Hamara, who works with The 519, helped stage the rally. She said she’s grateful for the support her cause has received, but that she’s waiting for the day when these kinds of protests will no longer be necessary.

“It is amazing, the way the community rallies behind these causes, Ms. Hamara said. “But it’s a matter of when will we not have to.”

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