Open Letter to the Scottish Poetry Library on Transphobia

This is a public record of correspondence between a group of trans writers and the Scottish Poetry Library, initiated by their public statement on so-called “no-platforming”.

The original open letter: 28/2/20
Our follow-up letter: 31/3/20
The SPL’s full reply: 4/8/20
Our rejection of their reply: 28/8/20

This letter was sent on 28/2/20.

Dear Asif Khan and Aly Barr,
(copied to Gordon Munro, Chair of the Board of the Scottish Poetry Library, and Mairi Kidd, Interim Head of Literature, Languages and Publishing at Creative Scotland)

We are writing to you as trans and non-binary authors (1), working in or with connections to Scotland, and supported by people from diverse backgrounds and identities, to express our deep concerns regarding the Scottish Poetry Library’s recent public statement on so-called “no-platforming”. We are worried that current communications may reflect serious institutional transphobia, and a failure to understand the Library’s obligations regarding trans people’s legal protections from discrimination. We have all heard extensive distress from our trans friends, both readers and writers, as a result of your recent communications. Despite the Library’s previous work supporting LGBT+ writers and events, many trans people do not now think the Scottish Poetry Library is a welcoming and supportive space. We also write in solidarity with writers combatting racism, misogyny, ableism and other structural oppressions, so that oppressive action can be freely spoken about. We are asking for clarification on your Code of Conduct, your grievance processes, and the work you do to support and respect trans writers. We hope you will take seriously the need to rebuild trust.

Trans and non-binary people in the UK in the last two years have been under an extraordinary level of media scrutiny and online abuse. A thorough 2019 study from Brandwatch details the escalation of this situation and the link between increasing abuse, media reporting and political events. Poets and poetry are certainly not free from this. Only last week, a trans poet in Scotland published a poem about daily struggles of non-binary life; when this was tweeted critically by a television host, the poet received thousands of abusive comments a day across multiple platforms. One of this letter’s authors published a short pamphlet on trans politics with a Scottish art gallery in December; when a Scottish writer and television contributor tweeted critically about it, this led to hundreds of abusive comments across multiple platforms, including personal email.

We are therefore very sympathetic to attempts to decrease bullying and harassment in the literature sector. Anyone reading your statement would, presumably, be against bullying and for freedom of expression. However, your statement contained contradictions and biases which led us to be very concerned about its intent and effects. The language used and the manner of communication led us to worry that the statement provided cover and comfort to public transphobia, and failed to protect and respect trans writers. We outline the reasons for our concerns below, and then move on to our questions.

First, you state you are against “no-platforming”. However, you call upon all who work with you to abide by your Code of Conduct, which expects all individuals to uphold “equality, diversity and inclusion”, and which lists as possible sanctions cancelling events, terminating agreements and removing people from the library — in other words, refusing people a platform for being discriminatory. These statements cannot both be true. We are all against bullying and for equality, diversity and inclusion: you have now made it very unclear how you interpret these terms. For example, if a writer working with you is being transphobic, and this is brought to your attention as per your Code of Conduct, will the writer face appropriate action? Or will you support people expressing transphobia, and accuse those raising it of bullying? How will trans people be involved in applying your Code of Conduct to transphobia?

Second, given this lack of clarity, your use of the term “no-platforming” thus risks being read as being directly about calls from trans people to act on transphobia. As detailed by Evan Smith, “no-platforming” is a term most frequently used when discussing fascist and transphobic speakers. Whether or not this was your intent, the coverage of your statement in The National and The Times made the connection explicit, as many quickly did on social media, discussing your statement in the context of opposition to transphobia. Both the newspaper articles were shared with approval by Asif Khan, again suggesting the connection to trans people is intended. The statement, in this context, could and has been read as active support for transphobic speech.

Third, the only public reply from Asif Khan to anyone questioning the statement on social media upon its release was to a single anonymous user who said “your code of conduct lists groups whose rights are in conflict”, by which they meant women’s rights and trans rights. (2) To this, Asif Khan replied, “Fair comment”, before continuing. It thus seems clear to us that there is a serious lack of understanding of trans rights, women’s rights (which are trans women’s rights), transphobia and misogyny (which affects trans women) at the Scottish Poetry Library, and that this informed your statement.

Fourth, authors of this letter have, alongside and intersecting with transphobia, experienced racism, antisemitism, misogyny, ableism and workplace harassment — in our personal and professional lives, and in our workplaces. We believe that it is a vital right of people to name oppressive action when we experience it, and to seek accountability from people and institutions who have acted oppressively and made space for oppressive action. While internal processes are crucial to addressing this, we also believe that public statements describing such incidents are often necessary. We are very concerned that your statement, and the manner in which it was issued and received, could have a chilling effect on people reporting such incidents. The statement currently seems to suggest that reporting bullying and harassment is itself bullying. When there are issues of racism in the poetry sector, we want poets to be able to speak up without being accused of bullying for simply naming the problem. If someone is misogynistic at a Scottish Poetry Library event, or if a staff member experiences bullying and harassment, we want to make sure they are able to speak up about it. If there are current or former staff members who would like to contact us in confidence regarding this, we would be happy to hear from them.

We therefore have urgent questions for you and for the Library’s Board. As a final comment before asking these questions, we will note that the Library has legal duties under the Equality Act, which protects people from discrimination on the basis of gender reassignment status — a person who is “proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex” — that is, a trans person, at any stage of social and/or physiological transition. We would also note that, as per Forstater vs CGD 2019, holding so-called “gender critical” beliefs does not grant the believer special protected status against action should they discriminate against trans people, and thus “freedom of speech” is not a valid legal protection for transphobic statements. As an example, believing that a trans woman is never a woman was ruled “not worthy of respect in a democratic society” in law.

These are our questions. We would expect a response within the month, or will assume the answers to be in the negative.

  1. Were any trans people consulted in the writing of your statement, which has had a serious effect on trans people?
  2. Did you consider how your statement might be perceived by the trans community, or by those opposing trans civil rights?
  3. Have you taken any action to mitigate transphobia in the reporting of your statement?
  4. Will the Library ensure that trans people are protected and respected in its operations and statements?
  5. Will trans people be involved in the operation and governance of the library going forward?
  6. Will the Library undertake new work to understand transphobia and trans discrimination when it comes to putting the Code of Conduct into practice?
  7. Will the Library work to support and defend trans writers in a climate of media hostility, when even our poetry publications are subject to abuse?
  8. Will the Library reassure trans writers in the wake of your statement, and will you materially support trans writers in an ongoing way?
  9. Does the Library support poets being able to discuss structural oppressions publicly and forthrightly?
  10. Will the Library defend poets from accusations of bullying when they are discussing structural oppressions?
  11. Has the Library had to act on workplace bullying, and were these issues resolved to the satisfaction of all parties?
  12. Is there a robust system in place to protect staff from workplace harassment?
  13. What is the timeline for dealing with issues of oppression and bullying in the workplace, and has it been met in the past?
  14. Are the Board and the Poets Advisory Group satisfied with processes that are currently in place?

Yours sincerely,

Sy Brand, AR Crow, Callie Gardner, Harry Josephine Giles, Etzali Hernández, Morgan Lev Edward Holleb, Bibi June, Jonathan Kinsman, Caspian Reid, Kerry Rush and Eris Young

Supported by:

Fionn Duffy-Scott, Category Is Books
Charlotte Duffy-Scott, Category Is Books
Dr Samantha Walton, Poet and Co-editor of Sad Press
Jo Lindsay Walton, Sad Press
Jess Brough, Fringe of Colour
Siobhán Carroll, Poet
Claire Askew, Listen Softly
Lauren McCombe, Queer Community Group Leader
Ryan Van Winkle
Jo Ross-Barrett, Writer
Ross McFarlane, Co-founder, In The Works
Dominic Stevenson, Author and Host, Listen Softly and Authors Unedited
Beth Frieden, Poet
Helen Sedgwick, Writer
Allie Kerper, Poet
Andrés N. Ordorica, Writer
Rosa Campbell, Poet & Managing Editor of The Scores
Stella Hervey Birrell, Co-host, Listen Softly
Rachel Hamada, Journalist
Helen Charman, Writer
Christina Neuwirth
Ali Maloney, Writer/Performer
Heather Pearson, Writer
Nat Raha
Iain Morrison
Sandra Alland, Writer, Interdisciplinary Artist, Curator
Ryan Vance
Dave Coates
Penny Andrews, Writer and Broadcaster
Charlotte Geater, Poet and Editor
Wren Mitchell
Innes McKendrick
Laura Waddell, Publisher and Writer
Asta Kinch, Poet
Dr Stewart Smith, Arts Journalist and Academic
Kirsty Logan
Melissa Jennings, Poet
Lucy Atkinson
Gloria Dawson, Writer
Cecilia Garrison, Writer and Social Worker
Helen Wright, Co-founder and Festival Coordinator, SQIFF
David Devereux, Writer & Producer, Tin Can Audio
Will Harris
Alycia Pirmohamed, Writer
Rebecca Oliva, former Head Librarian, Scottish Poetry Library
Alyson Kissner
Em Still, Writer
Jay Stringer, Writer
Finn Bain, Writer and Poet
Dr Juha Virtanen, Poet and Co-editor of DATABLEED
Dr Eleanor Perry, Poet and Co-editor of DATABLEED
Eve Livingston, Journalist
Jane Flett
Alison Mayne, Researcher
Roz Kaveney, Poet and Novelist
Lisa-Marie Ferla, Arts Writer and Blogger
Dr Tòmas MacAilpein, Writer
Zoë Brigley Thompson, Assistant Professor, the Ohio State University
Jenny Lester, Feminist Activist & Poet
Rose Fraser, Director, High Language Consultants
Evie Brill, Artist and Performer
Jay G Ying, Writer
Rachel Plummer
Kaite Welsh
James Harding
Mary Jean Chan, Poet and Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University
AJ Clay, Writer
Andy Summers, Architect
Mairi Oliver, Owner, Lighthouse – Edinburgh’s Radical Bookshop
Jim Taylor, Manager, Lighthouse – Edinburgh’s Radical Bookshop
Peach, Poet
Noor Hemani
Lindsay Kyle
Dr Anita Jeyam
Nish Doshi
Andrew Scott
Dom Miller-Graham
Jeda Pearl Lewis, Writer
Jen Calleja
Calder Hudson, Chief Editor of The Ogilvie
Jade Mitchell, Poet
Nathaniel Kunitsky, Publisher at Knight Errant Press
Michael Lee Richardson, Writer
G A Matthews, Writer
Carol Dow
Daniel B Yates, Co-founder, Exeunt @Theatremagazine
Dr Colin Herd
Kate O’Sullivan
Fred Carter
Emily McEwan-Fujita, Bradan Press
Jane Goldman
Aaron Kent, Publisher, Broken Sleep Books
Lynsey-Jane Gray, Legal Executive and Freelance Writer
josie sparrow, Philosopher, Artist, Writer. Co-Editor, New Socialist
James Barrowman, Writer and Researcher
Lydia Roy, Writer
Laura Mckee, Poet
Dom Hale, Poet
Dr. James Benstead
Muireann Crowley, UCU Edinburgh
Nelly Kelly, Playwright
AJ McKenna, Poet
Ruth Aylett, Poet, Member of Scottish PEN Writers for Peace Committee
Dr Claire Trevien
Jazmine Linklater, No Matter
Hilary White, No Matter
Nell Osborne, No Matter
Kathrine Sowerby
CL Gamble, Artist
Tristan Gray
Tim MacGabhann, Author
Ruth Gilbert, PhD researcher, University of Glasgow
Llaura McGee
Myriam Mouflih
Books Beyond Bars UK
Heather Parry, Writer & Extra Teeth Publisher/Director
Catherine Moy
Catriona MacLeod
Johanna Linsley, Lecturer, University of Dundee
Roddy Shippin
Emma C Lawson
Bex Sherwood, Poet
Syd Briscoe, Writer and Journalist
Meryl Pugh, Writer and Poetry Tutor
Carrie Marshall, Writer
Antosh Wojcik, Writer
Dr Carrie Etter, Reader in Creative Writing, Bath Spa University
Christian Guyton, Journalist, Future Publishing
Tomiwa Folorunso, Writer
Dr Scott Hames
Rory Scothorne, Writer
Grace Rogers
Reece Harvey
Hannah Raymond-Cox, Poet and Theatre-Maker
Dr. Matthew Fellion, Library Worker, former Scottish Poetry Library staff
Sam Hope, Writer
Jonathan MacBride, Co-Chair of the University of Edinburgh Staff Pride Network
Danni Rowan, Poet
Eoin Dara, Curator
Victoria Bennett
Ely Percy, Writer
Éadaoín Lynch
Axe Marnie
Rayya Ghul, Writer and Academic, University of Edinburgh
Eloise Birtwhistle
Kelsey León
Lola Keeley, Writer
Gray Crosbie
Rachel McCrum
Chelsea Welsh, Co-Founder, The Selkie
Teddy Hope
Pratyusha, Writer and Co-Editor of Amberflora
Emily Benita
Amy Key, Writer
Dr. Polly Atkin
Mau Baiocco, Writer
Camilla Grudova
Peter Manson
Hava Carvajal, The Right Lube
Maz Murray, The Right Lube
Harris T, Musician and Music Educator
Kathryn O’Driscoll
Cassie Howie, Writer
Emeline Morin, Lecturer
Xavier de Sousa, Performance Maker and Cultural Worker
Tom Byam Shaw. PhD in Creative Writing, University of Aberdeen
Nina Mingya Powles, Writer
Madhu Krishnan, Professor, Bristol University
Ceridwen Ball
Dr Kevin Guyan, Researcher, EDI Scotland
Cai Draper, Poet
Emma Bolland
Andy Spragg
Doireann Ní Ghríofa
Jane Pennington
Kim Smith, Photographer
Fionn O’Shea, Librarian at Small Trans Library, Glasgow
nicky melville
rae hughes
Linden Katherine McMahon
Sisters Scotland
Emily Prince, Library Worker, Former SPL Staff
Katherine Inglis, Lecturer, University of Edinburgh
Chris Silver, Writer
Caro Clarke
Katy Lewis Hood, Co-Editor of Amberflora
Liz Antell
Sarah Currier
Jules Danskin, Co-Director, Extra Teeth
Sarah Bernstein
Nik Williams
Dr Russell Jones
Vin Tanner, Writer, Poet, and Illustrator
Sara Shaarawi
Helena Fornells, Poet
Mara Fojas
Anya Grace Portus
Arianna Introna
Helen McClory
Dru Marland
Alexa Winik, Writer
Kit Fryatt, Lecturer, Dublin City University
Olivia Hicks, Independent Comics Creator and Doctoral Researcher
Xenia Foe
Nicky Imrie
Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo
Jay Whittaker
Anna Nicholson
David Paisley
Penny Haddrill
Lewis Brown
Jo Clifford
Imogen Forster
Sarah Stewart
Calum Barnes, Bookseller and Writer
Rita Faire
Atom Atkinson, Poet
Genna Bard, Writer
Ottavia Silvestri
Diana Hendry
Isla Macfarlane
Ellen MacAskill, Writer
Claire Hamilton Russell, Author and Poet
Barry Esson, Arika
Moira Waugh
Neil Anderson
Guillierme Chervenski Figueira
Dr Amy De’Ath, Poet and Lecturer at King’s College London
Sarah Grant, Writer and Filmmaker
Hannah Nicholson, Writer
David J Thomas
Robbie MacLeòid, Gaelic Writer
Alex Robin Gardner
Dr Natacha Kennedy
joe isaac
Katie Hawthorne, Journalist and PhD candidate, University of Edinburgh
Rowan Evans, Editor of Moot Press
Amy Taylor, Arts Journalist
Luke Pell
Jade Mars, Writer
Brian Hutchison
Steven Fraser, Writer and Artist
Ben Tyson
Katie Goh, Intersections Editor and Acting Books Editor for The Skinny and Journalist
Laura Clements, Writer
Lesley Storm
CAConrad, Wave Books author
Kate Stevens, Writer, Theatre Director, Creative Learning Practitioner
Arlene Mccafferty
Sarah-Jane Shearer
Esmond Sage
Aniela Piasecka
Hannah McCooke, Poet
Kathryn Evans, Author and winner of Edinburgh Book Festival First Book Award.

(1) There are some trans people who are also non-binary, and some non-binary people who are also trans; these terms are overlapping but not equivalent. We use “trans” throughout this letter, but include within that all trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming and gender minority people who are affected by transphobia and related structural oppressions.

(2) We would explain that, like “no-platforming”, the implications of this person’s statement are very clear in context. We also believe that no such conflict exists, as Sally Hines and others have discussed.

This follow-up letter was sent on 31/3/20, Transgender Day of Visibility. We received an acknowledgement of this email, but not any outline of when we could expect a full response.

Dear Asif Khan and Aly Barr,

We’d like to note that a month has passed since we wrote to you, the original length of time we requested for a response. We have no had a response to our questions beyond a simple acknowledgement of receipt. We of course understand that the coronavirus crisis has placed many urgent and critical demands on both individuals and organisations, and so that this will have delayed a response. As trans people, we are becoming increasingly cut off from healthcare and support resources, are more likely to be in vulnerable and self-isolating groups, and so have urgent needs of our own that makes community and institutional support even more vital. We would be grateful if you could acknowledge receipt of this email and outline when we can expect a response.

Yours sincerely,

The authors

This reply was received on 4/8/20. There was no signature.

Dear Signatories to the Open Letter (28/02/2020),

Staff and the Board of the Scottish Poetry Library (SPL) are listening to and recognise the concerns that you have articulated. The intention of our statement was to respond to bullying within the Scottish poetry community. Our hope was to minimise hurt and foster dialogue. Discrimination against writers of marginalised communities is antithetical to the values of the SPL.

Our mission is to ‘Bring People and Poems Together’. We have a good track record of supporting equalities communities, including LGBTQ+ writers, whose voices we value and will continue to showcase.

We would like to open up a conversation on the profile of the library and to gain a better understanding of any issues pertaining to safety and access to our building and services. To this end, we would like to participate in a mutually agreed timetable of discussions with you through nominated representatives.

This rejection of their reply was sent 28/8/20. It was written and agreed by all the original signatories.

Dear Asif Khan and Aly Barr,

The unsigned reply sent to us by the Scottish Poetry Library could have been sent in the days or weeks following our open letter of 28th February 2020, rather than five months later. We would have been very glad of a conversation in response to our open letter, and indeed an early reply offering this would have done much to alleviate concerns. Now, after waiting over five months for a response, we are dismayed that all you have to offer is a meeting. We do not accept this response.

We asked fourteen clear, fair questions in our open letter. You cannot claim to be listening to and recognising our concerns without attempting to answer even one of our questions. We must decline any invitation to a meeting unless, at a minimum, you are able to answer these questions.

We recognise that the coronavirus pandemic has placed great strain on all individuals and organisations, ourselves included. But, even with taking this into account, with full understanding of the difficulties facing public organisations, we are shocked at the length of time it has taken to provide a response, and that the response shows no understanding and offers no change. We also note that the Scottish Poetry Library has continued public activity and commissions in this time, and that time was found to give inflammatory statements to the press about our letter even while we lacked a response.

In the interim, our concerns have deepened, the transphobia we have faced has intensified, the rancour within culture which you claim to seek to address has worsened. We call for a deep rethink of the Scottish Poetry Library’s response to criticism and concerns, at both Management and Board level. Unless significant institutional change is made, all of these problems will continue to grow, along with the determination to hold you accountable.

Yours sincerely,

Sy Brand, AR Crow, Callie Gardner, Harry Josephine Giles, Etzali Hernández, Morgan Lev Edward Holleb, Bibi June, Jonathan Kinsman, Caspian Reid, Kerry Rush and Eris Young

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