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Hysteria in the Hinterland

By Helen Meera



WEEK ONE


International Women’s Day, small town southern Ontario, March 2021


A few days before International Women’s Day, on the spur of the moment, I phoned my village's weekly newspaper, which I will hereby call The Journal, to ask the price of a half-page ad. An organization called Canadian Women’s Sex-based Rights (CaWsbar) had recently posted coloured pdfs of a French and English poster describing seven issues most central to its goals. The ad described how the confusion of "gender identity and expression" with biological sex is negatively impacting women's sex-based protections, as enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, with respect to:


-same sex washrooms, change rooms, hospital rooms;

-same sex rape and domestic violence shelters;

-same sex sporting competitions;

-sex-based programs, resources, awards;

-same sex prisons and law enforcement;

-statistics based on sex;

-same sex attracted women (lesbians):


The editor quoted me $270 plus tax and said it would be published in the next edition which would appear a couple of days after International Women’s Day. Since I was a supporter of women’s rights in the 70's but did not get many chances to participate because I had preschool children, I emailed, “Great, let’s do it.”


“I’ll bill you at the end of the month,” he responded.


The Journal is free for readers but is distributed in boxes around the district. Because of the purple and green suffragette colours in the logo, I was eager to see how the ad come out so on Wednesday, I picked up a few copies for family and friends. The ad looked great so I took the papers home and I thought no more about it.



WEEK TWO


I was shocked to read two scathing letters in the following week’s edition. The ad meant to be celebrating IWD was interpreted to contain “truly hateful rhetoric unjustly vilifying trans women,” one letter commented and “goes so far as to refuse to identify them as women at all” and “chose to propagate harmful and inaccurate Hollywood tropes of trans women as perverse sexual predators,” others said. I was gobsmacked by the idea that supporting biological women and our spaces was being interpreted to be “hateful and transphobic.”


Social media, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, erupted with a “firehose of venom” in the space of a few days with over a thousand posts. The poster, the editor and the newspaper were all called bigoted, hateful and transphobic which, I was coming to realize, is the usual language used when the rights of women and transgendered people collide.


Some threatened the editor’s livelihood in addition to human rights complaints and lawsuits. The young owner-father was confronted with screams of “transphobe” while walking his children to school. The newspaper’s future was in doubt as advertisers were bullied, especially real estate companies. The editor quickly published a hostage letter acknowledging hurt to neighbours and perceptions of harm to members of the community.


“I am reviewing more vigorously the content and spirit of the advertising messages in this paper. I want to do better. . . . .I also look forward to joining friends and community members this Sunday for a planned protest to march in solidarity.”


WHO PLACED THE AD?


Of course the witch hunters did not take long to find out who had placed the ad. In fact, I made no secret of it. I had originally asked the district librarian to post both the French and English versions and she readily agreed to post in all eight branches. As a retired school librarian myself, I never doubted that they would be approved because the Canadian Federation of Library Associations promotes the universal principles of intellectual freedom as evidenced by the Pride flag at the library’s front door. Weeks later when the libraries opened up again after lockdown, I submitted the posters, but suddenly they were rejected without reason given.


THE DEMONSTRATION


Sunday, March 21st, the first day of spring, was excellent weather for a demonstration in the local park. Social Media was alive with planning for the event including colourful signs, banners, music, and kids. I was personally invited to come to the park to defend myself by a burly guy in his thirties driving a black pickup who appeared at our door in a rage. He demanded rather than invited me to appear. When his manner became aggressive my husband closed the door on him.


COVID-19 and a recent hip operation had meant few visitors except friends kindly arriving with casseroles. The tall and imposing man impatiently ringing our doorbell was neither expected nor welcome, particularly after hearing his abusive language towards my husband. Minutes later a local businesswoman called to inform us that demonstrators planned a street march on our house.


We did not take the call as a friendly gesture and talked with the police about security issues if the demonstrators appeared. We took some comfort from the policewoman’s promise to “keep an eye” on the park but she cautioned that “people are free to march in the street.” However, the afternoon was quiet at home.


WEEK THREE


Ten of the twenty pages in the next issue were devoted in whole or in part to the TRANSPHOBIA SCARE. The community was alleged to have experienced outsized fear and harm by reading about the seven issues relevant to women. The paper was full of colourful photos of the demonstration, the signs, a transmap cartoon and full page ad entitled “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.”


The publisher wrote a full-page editorial in which he noted that the ad did not fit the legal definition of hate speech, which is how some letters to him described it. He also advised that the ad was consistent with the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards.


The publisher indicated that he and his editor wondered “why they must be publicly flogged, banned, shunned and broken.” He noted the tone of the correspondence and threats of boycotts could threaten the existence of the newspaper. He asked “How will cancelling The Journal make this community better?”


Not to be outdone, another community newspaper wrote their own editorial, article, and letters to reinforce solidarity with those who felt sorely aggrieved.


There is no way of knowing how much this “wrong” cost the paper but a half-page ad costs $270 so the newspaper suffered at the very least several thousand dollars of lost revenue. The 'Friends of the Journal' stepped up and paid for the entire back page. Time will tell if advertisers withdraw permanently as they were exhorted by the transgender advocates. Online, after several weeks, some felt that the editor had learned from his mistake and was “just beginning his journey” while others felt that his mistake was not forgivable under any circumstance. Lawsuits were still being actively discussed.


WEEK FOUR


Business as usual at The Journal.


It seems that the threatened withdrawal of advertisers did not materialize and a full nineteen pages returned to death notices, recipes, obits, nature photos, church and real estate ads. But the twentieth page, the back page, featured an ad from the Public Library for 2SLGBTQIAplus Youth Groups and three organizations with phone numbers and websites. Want to donate? Stephen Leacock would have been proud.


The bill arrived promptly on the last day of the month for $305 including tax, which I paid along with the following letter.


“Dear *************


Thank you for publishing the 7 ISSUES poster featuring ways in which women are suffering due to the attempt to remove women’s sex-based rights which are enshrined in our constitution by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It has exposed a great deal of hate, bullying and violent language towards women in our community.


I was disturbed by the intensity and vehemence demonstrated toward both you and your family, as well as to your newspaper. I am truly sorry that you were required to write a hostage letter and lose so much revenue in order to protect yourself and your family business. I wish that those who wrote, both online and off, had as much respect for free speech and the role of newspapers in encouraging it as you did by publishing the CaWsbar 7 ISSUES on International Women’s Day.”


WEEKS FIVE AND SIX


A group of trans activists wrote a letter presenting their demands to the newspaper. To enforce compliance with their demands they followed up with an online petition hoping for 500 signatures (but it stalled at 227 names.)


The demands are:


1. Recruit editorial advisory committee members who represent the diverse residents.

2. Ensure editorial and advertising content is consistent with Ontario and Canadian legislation and doesn’t perpetuate incorrect information or incite discrimination or harm.

3. Make public your commitment to social justice and anti-oppressive principles in your publication.

4. Publish the Trans Infographic (6 Transgender Truths) on the inside front page and the associated citation links on The Journal website.


I have seen no sign of the “6 Transgender Truths” yet on the website but the last word goes to a reader. This woman wrote in reply to yet another bitter letter of recrimination:


“.....sad commentary on how the woke movement and cancel culture and political correctness have inserted themselves into public discourse to such a degree that independent journalists feel obligated to bow before these movements. If ever there exists a forum where one can freely express opinion or take issue with any segment of society, surely independent newspapers are that forum. Frankly, that now infamous ad did not come anywhere near to satisfying parameters that govern hate speech. I interpret it as simply a bunch of Moms expressing their opinions.”


P.S. CaWsbar received a significant donation to be used to place additional ads in rural communities across Canada, in addition to attracting many new followers.


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