I DIDN’T intend to spend my evening eavesdropping on one of Canada’s most prominent transgender rights activists. I was in Vancouver, attending a high-profile event featuring the country’s leading feminist journalist, and shortly after I took my seat I became aware of a running commentary from immediately behind me. I heard a nasal male voice pointing out “that poster woman” before issuing a barbed verdict: “She’s a lot more old and irrelevant than I thought.”

A lot of “old and irrelevant” women – by which I mean experienced, wise and inspiring adult females – had gathered to hear Meghan Murphy talk on Gender Identity Ideology and Women’s Rights. Joining Murphy on the panel was the old and irrelevant Lee Lakeman, who first opened her home to abused women in the 1970s and spent four decades providing frontline services to those fleeing violence; and the old and irrelevant Fay Blaney, an activist, educator and advocate for indigenous women who currently runs a project empowering marginalised women to create social change.

When old and irrelevant women get together in large numbers, you can feel a buzz in the air. There’s something electrifying about occasions when these women – the ones who certain men really, really wish would shut up – stand their ground, pick up microphones and share what they have learned from a lifetime of resistance.

READ MORE: Women must not be silenced in the debate on gender identity

It turns out that buzz is amplified, rather than muffled, by the presence of 14 security guards and a couple of cops. These extreme measures – for an audience of 300 – were deemed necessary by Vancouver Public Library after the event “attracted significant attention” and protests were organised. Contributing to that was a statement made by the city’s chief librarian that “Meghan Murphy’s opinions are concerning” and that the library disagreed with the views articulated on Feminist Current, the website she edits.

The library – which is supposed to be politically neutral – demanded that the event be moved from 7.30pm to 9.30pm and have twice as many security staff, then applied an additional charge of $2000.

Murphy, who is by now accustomed to attempts to silence her, pressed ahead. Last year she was permanently banned from Twitter after tweeting “Men are not women and trans women are not women” – significantly curtailing her ability to promote her work and keep abreast of the latest developments in the so-called gender wars.

She says that after it was announced she would be speaking in Vancouver, she received violent threats via a ticketing platform.

READ MORE: Conflating sex and gender does nothing for equality

However, when we spoke ahead of the event she was looking forward to it, and not particularly concerned about disruption. “Generally those protests are all talk and little action,” she said, and so it proved. In contrast to those who have descended on similar events held in the UK, the library protesters were mostly unmasked. There were no attempts to physically block access to the venue and there was no screaming in the faces of those attending. The closest thing to intimidation was a furtive figure weaving in among the onlookers, muttering about badges bearing the slogan “fuck TERFs” (ie “trans-exclusionary radical feminists) in the manner of a street-corner pusher. Whether these calm scenes can be attributed to the innate politeness for which Canadians are famed or the presence of numerous police officers is hard to say.

Some of those who joined chants against the event had bought tickets, but they proved surprisingly shy when it came to the Q&A session. For some the evening seemed to be an exercise in narcissism rather than activism, if breathless whispers such as “we’ll see how many times she mentions me” and “that person’s here because of me – there’s no other reason” are anything to go by.

READ MORE: Fighting each other over gender is getting us nowhere

Morgane Oger, who chairs the Trans Alliance Society of British Columbia, told me ahead of the talk that she would be in attendance to observe and “make sure that the authorities deal with what happens appropriately”. She later argued that by allowing the event to be live-streamed online, Vancouver Public Library knowingly took part in “publishing to the internet an incitement to discriminate on the basis of gender identity or expression, an action prohibited by section 7 of the BC Human Rights Code”, adding that she would be asking local police to recommend charges.

Amid this climate of legal threat, it’s easy to see why people might be nervous about attending such events. Many of those I spoke to had felt that fear and come along anyway; not one regretted the decision. “Poster woman” – whose crime, it transpired, was simply standing next to a woman wearing a “pussy hat” and holding a poster at last January’s Vancouver Women’s March that stated: “Transwomen are men: truth is not hate” – was surprised and mildly amused to learn that she had been singled out for comment. Was she intimidated? Was she hell.

The National:

The poster displayed at the Vancouver Women's March in 2018 that led to its creator becoming a target

It will take more than trumped-up claims of human rights violations to stop strong, passionate women like these from assembling, asserting their rights and naming biological sex as the source of their oppression. Lee Lakeman spoke not just for old and irrelevant women, but for unstoppable young activists too, when she issued a warning that raised the roof: “To those who imagine you can bully us into submission: you are clearly unfamiliar with us.”