Textile artist Jess de Wahls has said she wants the Royal Academy of Arts (RA), London, to apologise after it removed her work from its online shop following complaints about her views on sex and gender.
The row kicked off last week after the RA posted on its Instagram account that it would no longer stock de Wahls’ embroidery work.
In the post, which expired after 24 hours, the RA wrote: “Thank you to all those for bringing an item in the RA shop by an artist expressing transphobic views to our attention. The RA is committed to equality, diversity and inclusion and does not knowingly support artists who conflict with these views.”
De Wahls outlined her beliefs in a 2019 blog post, writing that while she had “no issue with somebody who feels more comfortable expressing themselves as if they are the other sex”, she did not think that gender identity “should override existing protections that are in place as a result of the biological realities of women, since their purpose is to relieve oppression based on women’s physicalities and reproductive functions (not identity or feelings)”.
De Wahls told BBC Radio 4 yesterday that the RA contacted her to say they were investigating eight complaints against her but did not give her advance notice that they had decided to remove her work. She said the pieces stocked in the shop were apolitical and did not reference her views.
“Quite frankly I’m looking for an apology,” she told the BBC, saying the RA had been “swayed by the online mob”.
A recent Employment Appeals Tribunal judgment in the high profile Maya Forstater case found that gender critical beliefs, which hold that biological sex is binary, immutable and legally and politically significant, are protected under the Equality Act 2010.
De Wahls did not rule out legal action if the institution does not apologise, saying: “Right now I have the feeling there is a hope within that institution, and it is mind-boggling to me, that this will just go away and people won’t talk about it. This isn’t going to go away. This is a conversation that needs to happen and it needs to happen in public. And they will have to talk eventually.”
A representative for the RA did not appear on the show.
The controversy is the latest in a public debate about sex and gender identity that has led to deep divisions. LGBTQIA+ rights campaigners have welcomed the RA’s decision, with veteran activist Peter Tatchell telling the Guardian: “If an artist denied Jewish, black or gay people’s identity, most people would say that the Royal Academy would be right to remove their works from the gift shop. But when Jess denies trans people’s identity, she and other trans critics say that it’s her right to free speech and she should not be penalised. This smacks of double standards.”
Trans writer and activist Paris Lees tweeted: “No I don't want to get up at 6am to talk about why a museum has stopped selling tat by someone who thinks that I'm a man and is publicly campaigning to prevent other people in my situation getting the sort of medical care that would have helped me avoid years of misery growing up.”
But others warned the move was a threat to freedom of expression, questioning why the gallery continues to show work by male artists with a history of sexual abuse such as Eric Gill and Paul Gauguin. Cultural commentator Dorian Lynskey said: “I don’t see how the Royal Academy’s decision not to sell Jess de Wahls’ work can be justified or tenable unless every single artist in the shop is subjected to the same criteria.”
The feminist artist Rachel Ara has withdrawn from the RA’s summer show in solidarity with de Wahls. She wrote on Twitter: “Why so silent academicians and artists? For years female artists, students and teachers have been bullied and excluded for expressing feminist beliefs. @royalacademy has amplified what the rest of the art world has done for years in silence.”
De Wahls and the RA have been contacted for comment.
The RA has issued an apology to Jess de Wahls.