December 31, 2021   5 mins

When, just over two years ago, I published a blog and stitched a matching piece of embroidery questioning the dangers of gender identity ideology, little could I imagine that the comparatively small ripple it caused would form part of a towering, unstoppable wave that would crash over 2021.

It was a wave that meant that when I was publicly “cancelled” by the Royal Academy of Arts this summer, I was swiftly “un-cancelled” in a spectacular fashion. More importantly, it was a wave that finally smothered Stonewall’s ‘No Debate’ strategy — and dragged a conversation they had tried to avoid for so long kicking and screaming into the public sphere.

Things started to fall into place when, within a few weeks, Maya Forstater won her court case, protecting gender critical belief in law, my own story hit the headlines, and the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published a damning essay, It Is Obscene, revealing the horrendous treatment she had been subjected to after saying that transwomen are transwomen and not women.

Of course, it was a moment that had been brewing for a long time. Many feminists had been warning about the concerning impact of gender identity ideology for years, sounding the alarm and being vilified, ridiculed and ostracised in response. No doubt, the inimitable JK Rowling’s decision to make her views on the subject known last year helped pave the way for an increasing number of women to stand up and speak out; finally, everything is out in the open.

Yet this debate is far from won. Activists often still succeed in framing it as a “trans rights issue”, rather than something that actually concerns women. Looking at the vast political capture, it’s sometimes easy to lose hope. We see the Mayor of London tweet ideological dogma such as: “Trans women are women, trans men are men, and all gender identities are valid.” We see the leader of the Labour Party say: “it’s not right to say that only women have a cervix, it shouldn’t be said”. We see MPs such as David Lammy, who has made clear that he doesn’t even know what a cervix is, state unchallenged that there are “dinosaurs hoarding rights in the Labour Party”, referring to brave women like Rosie Duffield who keep pushing back against this ideological land grab.

To be fair, that last point resulted in a new trend for wearing dino costumes at most feminist gatherings and protests, so I suppose a thank you is in order, Mr Lammy.

Yet even his buffoonery shouldn’t be laughed off — if only because it distracts from the more insidious repercussions of the transgender debate. In many institutions and companies, “preferred pronouns” are now being implemented from the top down under the guise of “diversity and inclusion”. Anybody who dares to question this may find themselves quickly under investigation for alleged “transphobia” or called a bigot and cowed into silence.

Let’s make no mistake: “preferred pronouns” aren’t, as some would have you believe, just a courtesy. They are a form of compelled speech; they ask people to no longer trust their eyes, but instead do as they are told or be ostracised. I have previously written about the parallels between the current climate and the East German Stasi under which my whole family used to live. And it is becoming clearer by the day that those comparisons were not an exaggeration.

Just look at the state of academia, where professors who dare to acknowledge the biological reality of the sexes are being de-platformed and hounded, regardless of the toll the often-aggressive behaviour has on their well-being. The use of smear campaigns and intimidating “protests”, with individuals donning balaclavas and waving smoke flares, seems to have washed over from the US and are now commonplace whenever a “heretic” has been identified and needs “dealing with”. Just ask Professors Joe Phoenix and Kathleen Stock.

That this ideology has also crept deep into the Arts, once the most tolerant of disciplines, was clearly highlighted by my attempted cancellation. It was by no means the first time an artist has been attacked and ostracised publicly for her alleged thought crimes, but it was certainly a turning point due to the involvement of the Royal Academy. The public apology and reinstatement of my work in their shop thrust into the spotlight something that has been happening quietly but constantly for quite some years now.

Petty groups like ‘Terf’s out of Art’ and ‘The White Pube’ have long bullied artists, most of whom are women, into silence. Their success is proved by the fact that many of these cases don’t make the headlines, even though they still cost these women dearly, in some cases their entire career. Meanwhile, for those who are yet to be publicly called out, there’s another chilling effect: don’t expect to be invited to give talks at universities or to create public artworks with Arts Council funding. If you’re deemed ‘unacceptable’, you’re on your own.

These silent cancellations are just as vicious as those fought out in public; perhaps even more so, because they leave their victims utterly defenceless. Being de-platformed for your views is something one can challenge. Being quietly excluded from any kind of platform and conversation altogether leaves you with nothing.

When I wrote on these pages in August about the deafening silence within the arts establishment following the attempt to cancel me, I did so with a sense of despair. It seemed to me that the blue-haired activists had won; that ‘diversity and inclusion’ now only matters as long as you repeat the mantras and toe the party line.

Things still look bleak. But after everything that has happened this year, a sense of optimism has started to creep in. That isn’t merely because the alternative is a dystopian hellscape of authoritarianism that history has seen many times before. It’s because the truth has a habit of prevailing.

What’s striking this year is the growing number of women and men who have started to say: Enough. One court case verdict follows another, holding the line against a vicious new orthodoxy that seeks to burn witches while screaming “JUST BE KIND”.

The Forstater ruling has cemented the protection of “gender critical belief” in law. The charity LGB Alliance has now firmly established itself as a much-needed alternative to Stonewall. Grassroots organisations such as FiLiA, FairPlayForWomen and Women’s Place UK provide support and resources to a vast and growing number of gender-critical women who have found their voice. And for everybody who dares speak out regardless of the consequences, there are many more waiting in the folds, preparing for their moment to be brave.

Fortunately, in my own case sanity prevailed and, like a monsoon rain, the stains my detractors tried to smear me with have washed right off, leaving me free to continue to create work without censorship, encouraged by a rapidly growing number of patrons and supporters. And I am not alone: despite great efforts to the contrary, heretical artists are finding new ways to exhibit work and bypass gatekeepers.

That is the lesson of the past year. Finally, the tide is turning. We have not been silenced; let alone defeated. So to those art students with a firm grasp on reality who may feel a bit hopeless: don’t be afraid. Come on in, the water’s fine.

Jess De Wahls is an embroidery artist based in London. Buy her work here.