Jess de Wahls: Cancelled (and un-cancelled) by the Royal Academy

June 23, 2021
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It all started with an Instagram post. Over the weekend, the Royal Academy thanked those  “for bringing an item in the RA shop by an artist [Jess de Wahls] expressing transphobic views to our attention.” The item in question? A collection of floral embroidered patches that can be attached to clothing. Her crime? Writing a blog in 2019 in which she stated that “humans cannot change sex”.

Shortly thereafter came the now-familiar cycle of organisations bowing to social media pressure and seeking forgiveness. On the basis of eight complaints, RA decided to remove all of Jess’s work from its shop without prior warning to the artist. But then came something less predictable: just a few hours ago, the RA took an unprecedented step and apologised to de Wahls for “the way we have treated her”. The institution said that it had betrayed “our most important core value”, namely freedom of speech, and would re-open discussions about re-stocking her work. Shortly before this apology, we spoke to Jess about what it was like to be in the eye of the social media storm:

It’s the fact that I am a woman with an opinion that’s not willing to go, “Okay, I repent. I will say whatever you like, even if I don’t believe it,” just so that I’m allowed to continue my art career. That’s the point.
- Jess de Wahls, UnHerd

What sort of feminist is she?

I don’t see this incarnation of people who think feminism is a fight for equality for everyone. I mean, it’s in the frickin name. It isn’t for everyone, it centres women. And so when people make those distinctions, like “she’s a radical feminist”, I don’t do labels. I stand up for women’s rights. Right, whatever you want to call that. And beyond that, I’m Jess.
- Jess de Wahls, UnHerd

On the danger to women of the new ideology

This whole ideology removes us from our language. I mean, I have seen women referred through this ideology many times as non-men, bleeders, birthers, menstruators, chest feeders, the thing that JK Rowling wrote about last year. And the situation is that if we don’t have words to describe the problems that we have, which feminism deals with, how are we going to address them?
- Jess de Wahls, UnHerd

On the new authoritarianism

This is authoritarian. And coming from East Berlin, I don’t want to live in a space like that, where I can’t say something, I should be able to say something. And you should be able to say, “Well, that’s a load of bollocks.” And then we can talk about it. 
- Jess de Wahls, UnHerd

On being a “gender abolitionist”

I can understand how someone feels like not in tune with their body and wants to adhere to the stereotype of what a woman is supposed to be — ie gender, which to me is a patriarchal tool used to restrict women. I don’t believe that because a woman is a woman, she needs to like pink or dresses, or Barbie. That to me is gender. It’s a social construct to me. Sex is what you’re born with. It’s just simply your reproductive organs. People go, “why do you care what someone’s got in their pants?” I don’t care about what they have in their pants. But there are certain instances where we cannot look past it like prisons, like the weight lifter Laurel Hubbard, what is that? Basically robbing a woman who’s been training her whole life for this place. So this can’t stand.
- Jess de Wahls, UnHerd

On making more space in society

We need to move away again from this “transwomen are literally the same as women” — we need to make more space in society. When we say we have shortlists for women only. There’s no point in saying, well, this is a trans woman. So she should apply that as well. Why can’t we make a shortlist for women and a shortlist for trans people? Why is that? Why can’t we make more space? I’m sorry, I am so done with this. So what if it makes them upset? It makes me upset that people think that to be a woman is an idea that someone can identify into.
- Jess de Wahls, UnHerd

On trans ideology being “deeply conservative”:

I do not see what’s happening right now as liberal at all. This to me is anti liberal. It’s deeply conservative — not in the way that we understand conservatism to be, but it is deeply conservative, it’s completely regressive to say that someone who likes feminine things, therefore has all these new boxes. It’s conservative. I thought we were past that — we had David Bowie being a flamboyant gender bender, not worrying about it. Now everything has to have a label and if you don’t adhere to the label, and the pronouns. I don’t think it’s liberal at all. I think it’s completely the opposite. And I don’t know how we sleepwalked into it. Because I sleepwalked all along. I mean, until I kind of stopped — it’s not good, it’s not healthy, especially not in the arts, it’s really not.
- Jess de Wahls, UnHerd


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