June 27, 2023 - 5:15pm

Time and again, women are having to go to court to protect themselves against trans activists.

The cowardice of organisations that won’t stand up for free speech and women’s legal rights is one reason for this. The latest institution to be shamed for its behaviour towards people who hold gender-critical views is Arts Council England (ACE), which has just lost a claim brought by a former employee, Denise Fahmy. The Leeds Employment Tribunal came to the unanimous decision that Fahmy, who had worked for ACE for 15 years, was subjected to harassment because of her gender-critical beliefs. 

Her problems began in an internal Microsoft Teams meeting attended by 400 people in April last year. She was shocked to hear that the LGB Alliance, a lesbian and gay rights charity that wanted to make a film about the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, had been accused of transphobia by ACE staff. When a senior executive said it had been “a mistake” to give funding to a “divisive organisation with a history of anti-trans exclusionary activity”, Fahmy challenged him. A grant of £9000, made by an intermediary that receives funds from ACE, was later withdrawn from the Alliance.

The following month, a petition was posted on the ACE staff intranet, attacking people who believe in biological sex. It was taken down after 26 hours, but by then it had been viewed 700 times and signed by more than a hundred of Fahmy’s colleagues. “People signed it, and made comments, citing gender-critical people like me and the LGB Alliance as parasites, neo-Nazis, needing to be stamped out,” she said

Fahmy was signed off sick and eventually resigned, lodging a claim with the tribunal for harassment and victimisation. She has now succeeded in the first part of her claim and will be awarded compensation at a further hearing. The amount will be increased by 10% because ACE failed to follow the ACAS code of practice when it refused to allow her to appeal against the outcome of her internal complaint. 

All of this is scandalous. ACE is a publicly funded body, which means that the cost of defending the case — and Fahmy’s compensation — will be paid for by taxpayers. It’s been clear for more than two years, thanks to the Maya Forstater judgment, that a belief in biological sex is protected in law. So why did ACE waste public money to oppose Fahmy’s claim, instead of offering an apology and asking itself how such a toxic atmosphere was allowed to develop within the organisation? 

The irony is that ACE is widely regarded as a “liberal” institution, prepared to take risks on what should be regarded as art. But we know from bitter experience that “liberal” organisations, including Left-wing and centre-left political parties, have been among the first to genuflect before trans activists. They appear to be afraid of their own staff, raising questions about how far gender ideology is influencing other decisions.

ACE distributed close to £900m of public money last year. Are artists and musicians now required to repeat “trans women are women” if they hope to get a grant? Fahmy’s lawyers rightly greeted the decision in her tribunal case as “a victory for women and for common sense”. But I think we are entitled to ask the Culture Secretary, Lucy Frazer, what on earth is going on at the Arts Council — and what she is going to do about it.

Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.