I have been working on making a living as an artist for almost 20 years now and have even been described as ‘the enfant terrible of British textile arts’, but I’ve never had much interaction with senior figures in the art establishment.
After what can only be described as a crazy rollercoaster ride of events, I received a phonecall at nine o’clock yesterday morning from Axel Ruger, the chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts.
What’s more, he was calling to offer me an apology for the way I had been treated by the institution he leads.
The Royal Academy’s U-turn couldn’t have come soon enough. It was its decision to ‘cancel’ me a week ago after a concerted campaign by trans rights activists that had turned my life upside down.
In the intervening days the abuse has been visceral, horrific, relentless.
The first intimation that something was wrong came as I sat embroidering in my garden last Tuesday. I noticed a message on social media from a friend, defending me from an allegation of transphobia.
The Royal Academy of Arts has apologised to textile artist Jess De Wahls (pictured) after it made a decision to ‘cancel’ her last week following a campaign by trans rights activists
She had responded to an irate post in which a woman had attacked the Royal Academy, that august institution which calls itself a new home for art and ideas, for having the effrontery to stock floral patches I’d designed in its gift shop. (Let me point out that the iron-on decorative patches — of pansies and dahlias — are not remotely controversial.)
It was, apparently, my views on the transgender issue that had provoked this outburst of anger and indignation. It is two years since I wrote an essay about gender identity and my alarm at the rise in accusations of bigotry and hatred aimed at people who don’t buy into it — ‘it’ being the idea of a gender spectrum and sex as a social construct, rather than a biological reality.
This ideology seems to have gained a rather fanatical following and high visibility via social media over the past few years.
As I wrote then, I have absolutely no issue with anyone who feels more comfortable expressing themselves as if they are the other sex. I have compassion for the journey they’re going through, but I can’t make myself believe something I don’t believe to be true.
Growing up as I did in Communist East Berlin for six years before the Wall came down, I cherish the freedoms of self-expression that arrived with liberation.
But equally I fear we are edging ever closer in the UK to a society every bit as sinister as that presided over by the Stasi secret police of my childhood, when ‘wrong speak’ was silenced and punished.
The U-turn came after the Royal Academy in London (pictured) removed her work from its gift shop over eight complaints about comments she made in a 2019 blog about gender identity
Today in our so-called enlightened democracy we are seeing viewpoints that should be considered simple differences of opinion attacked with an avalanche of hatred and bile, while the silent majority hover on the sidelines, too fearful of not appearing ‘woke’ to speak out.
But I refuse to be cowed or silenced. I believe that definitions matter. Respecting people matters and criticising bad ideas also matters.
To express my views as clearly as possible: I believe a woman is an adult human female, not an identity or feeling. The sex of organisms that produce eggs is female. It is as simple as that.
I have always been dismissive of the keyboard warriors who attack me anonymously for this stance on social media.
But this time my assailant was a cultural institution that prides itself on being politically correct and inclusive.
In an essay for The Daily Mail, Jess, who is from Berlin, says it reminds her of the Stasi secret police in her East German childhood and said she cherishes the freedoms of self-expression that came with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Pictured: East-German policemen in 1961
So last week I was shocked by the Royal Academy’s spineless and cowardly reaction to my detractors. Apparently they received just eight emails complaining that my artwork was being stocked in their shop.
They did get in touch to tell me that they were starting an investigation, to which I responded that I was really sorry they’d been dragged into the dispute. I emphasised that I am not transphobic and have many friends in the LGBTQ community, but that I didn’t believe eight complainants were representative of the general public’s view.
I said I hoped that we could find a constructive way forward without escalating it into a public dispute. Yet they responded by peremptorily removing my patches, without telling me or having the courtesy to initiate a discussion or allow me to explain my views. They then inflamed an already volatile situation by informing more than half a million followers via Instagram that they would no longer be selling my designs.
Piously atoning for ‘having previously stocked work by this artist when we were unaware of their stated views,’ they promised, ‘their work will not be stocked in future’.
They went on to thank those who had brought ‘an artist expressing transphobic views to our attention’, adding that they were ‘committed to equality, diversity and inclusion and do not knowingly support artists who act in conflict with these values’. The Academy’s reaction provoked a response of gleeful triumphalism on the part of the woman who had made the initial complaint against me.
She went on to post on social media the ‘joyous news’ that the Academy had redressed its ‘misstep’ in stocking the work of a ‘transphobe’, and had now removed it. I was appalled at this hideous turn of events and went to the police — I felt so hopeless, there seemed to be no other recourse.
But they said there was little I could do other than file a complaint of malicious communication which was unlikely to lead to a conviction.
I phoned the Academy and got only a stumbling, inarticulate response when I told them they had dropped me in the middle of a ‘s***storm’. I asked them how they felt, but there was no cogent answer.
Then, as ‘a gesture of goodwill’ they told me they would be paying me for the stock they were now refusing to sell, for which I was clearly supposed to feel grateful.
She has been working on making a living as an artist for almost 20 years and has been described as ‘the enfant terrible of British textile arts’. Pictured: One of her flower patches
A Royal Academy employee later texted me to say they had not yet arrived at a solution or decision, but that they’d get back to me. That was last Friday. In search of advice, I contacted Maya Forstater, the tax expert who was fired over tweets that criticised plans to enable people to self-identify their gender and who earlier this month won her appeal against an employment tribunal judgment that said her case was not covered by equality laws.
I also enlisted the help of campaigners at Fair Play For Women who then looked into asking the Equality And Human Rights Commission to launch an inquiry into the gallery. Meanwhile, I was bombarded with requests to appear on radio and television.
The pressure eventually told on the Academy. On Tuesday evening I got an email telling me to expect a call the next morning.
When it came, Mr Ruger — a fellow German — could not have been more gracious. He apologised for the way the whole thing had been handled, reaffirmed the Academy’s commitment to freedom of expression and said the Academy would put out a statement on Twitter.
He even made clear that my patches would be reinstated in the Academy’s gift shop.
So, while I have been put through the wringer, for me the story has had a happy ending.
I only hope similar institutions take note and that other people with perfectly legitimate views are not subjected to the sort of kangaroo court that convicted me.