OTTAWA—In a week that saw Parliament edge one step closer to approving a law to protect transgender people from hate speech and violence, a prominent voice for transgender rights was silenced.
But not for long.
Meet Montreal cartoonist Sophie Labelle, a 29-year-old transgender woman, who saw her Facebook page targeted by a vicious and evidently coordinated online attack that deluged her and other transgender activists with hateful comments and death threats.
“It was an orchestrated attack on several trans support groups, trans people, and trans artists’ pages, and, as a community manager who has one of the biggest trans pages on Facebook, I was a target of choice,” said Labelle in an interview Friday.
Things took a more ominous turn when, on top of the trash talk, Labelle was “doxed” or received emails saying “Hey, look what we’ve got.”
Her attackers posted to their own online forums her name and personal address, an aggressive tactic intended to intimidate or invite harassment or worse.
Labelle did not call the police. She said she refrained because the harassment originated online from what she believes to be U.S. based groups bolstered by Canadian commenters, so she didn’t think the police could, or would, help.
On Wednesday, in Halifax to launch her new comic book, Labelle was faced with more online death threats.
She believed calling the police would drive away the very transgender people she hoped would attend and decided, instead, to cancel the event.
Labelle doesn’t believe prominent coverage given to the debate on Bill C16 that played out in a senate committee last week prompted the attacks. The bill, a third iteration of attempts to codify protections in Canada’s human rights code and Criminal Code, now goes to the Senate for a final third reading vote next month.
Labelle says she and others have been increasingly targeted by hateful and “neo-Nazi” groups since last fall’s U.S. election of President Donald Trump, because, she believes, trolls feel “emboldened.”
By Friday, Labelle was back online and speaking out in a series of interviews to highlight the kind of hate she and other transgender people live with daily.
Last week’s attack was different, she acknowledged, because of the volume and the intensity of the threatening language.
It began Saturday when she received what she said turned into a deluge of 20,000 comments, private messages and emails by “mostly neo-Nazi groups, racists and transphobes.”
Her harassers appear to have reported her page to Facebook, triggering an automatic shutdown.
Her readers stepped in, reporting her attackers to Facebook, which, in turn, shut down some of their pages.
Worse, she says, is that her Facebook page was also hacked.
Its content — three years’ of work that she put into creating and publishing an optimistic, positive portrayal of the life of a transgender female character — was removed altogether.
“They managed to make the content disappear completely.”
Labelle says the attacks on artists like her have an insidious intention: to eliminate supportive online spaces for transgender people.
“Their goal is explicitly to raise the suicide rate in trans communities.
“They want us to despair and that’s why they attack support groups and pages like mine.”
Labelle had backed up and saved everything. Working with supportive Facebook employees, she was able to re-launch Friday.
“Hey everyone, the page is back!!” she wrote Friday. “Thanks everyone for your support throughout the week. I’m dedicated more than ever to give you the best I got.”
Labelle spoke to the Star Friday morning. By later that afternoon, she had found a new place to live.
She has no intention of remaining at the address that’s now been publicized by her online harassers, and no intention of relying on police for protection, saying the last time she called Montreal police three or four months ago, she was repeatedly called “Mister,” and by her male birth name.
She also has no intention of despairing about what happened. “It’s mostly positive actually,” she says, because it’s given her the ability to draw public attention to what’s going on. “The worst that could happen is apathy.”
Kimberley Manning, a Concordia University political science professor and mother of a transgender daughter who testified at a senate hearing on Bill C16, said she worried about Labelle.
“There is nothing quite more terrifying than knowing someone you care about is being barraged by a campaign of hate,” said Manning in an email to the Star.
“The whole idea behind ‘doxing’ is to make someone feel vulnerable and exposed; while I can’t speak for Sophie, I know that I was terrified for her. Doxing is a kind of personalized terrorism.”
Manning said she believes this kind of attack meets the criteria outlined in the amendment to the criminal code in Bill C-16.
The proposed law, she said, “is meant to add further penalties to those who engage in transphobic hate crime.
“If this isn’t an example of that, I don’t know what is.”
The bill received a lot of media coverage this past week when one of its opponents, University Toronto professor Jordan Peterson testified. Peterson argues the bill will curtail free speech rights. An online campaign to fund his research has gained the support of 3,332 patrons who are funding Peterson’s work to the tune of $ 36,431 a month, according to a website crowd-sourcing funds for him.