October 3, 2023   5 mins

Louise Distras was once a darling of the anti-establishment Left. An underground punk singer whose hits include “Dreams From the Factory Floor”, this working-class woman is unafraid to speak her mind. Five years ago, she was being invited onstage by Billy Bragg, the folk singer and progressive activist — but since then, a lot has changed. Recently, Bragg has publicly and repeatedly condemned Distras, because she had done what she has always done: speak out against misogyny. This time, though, she was criticising the backlash against women who refuse to recite the “trans women are women” mantra.

Distras has been expressing concern about gender ideology in private since late 2021, but the first time she went public with her opinions was in May of this year. “I’m a woman, and a woman is an adult human female,” she said in an interview with Louder than War, a music website. “I’m a woman that’s experienced domestic abuse.” She later made comments, on Twitter, about how women are silenced for questioning gender ideology: “No amount of rainbows and ‘kindness’ can hide the authoritarianism and misogyny and homophobia that’s on display here, especially in the arts.”

Born in Wakefield in 1987, Distras ran away from home in her teens and, she told me, “stayed with a lot of dangerous people who took advantage of me”. She turned to song writing as a form of escape. Her bravery is remarkable. But as soon as her straightforward resistance to gender ideology became known, she was met with horrendous abuse. Distras has been called every name under the sun, including anti-trans, Nazi, scum, prostitute, grifter, child serial killer, and witch. She soon realised that she had been “marked for life” as a “disgusting terf” — that no redemption would ever be possible. She was told she deserves to be chucked out of the music industry. Her booking agency has said that her attitude towards transwomen could “have detrimental effects on [her] musical career”. Radio stations have stopped playing her songs and venues cancelled her gigs. “If I go back to the industry as it stands,” she says, “if someone had the balls to book me for a gig, I would likely be physically attacked. It’s not safe.”

Having been rejected by the majority of her contacts in the music industry, Distras decided she might as well use her voice to speak out. Alongside five other women, her testimony featured in the Daily Mail about the experience of being ostracised for daring to question gender ideology. One of the first derogatory reactions was from Bragg. “What??”, he tweeted, linking to the feature, which included a photograph of Distras — who usually wears black and leather on stage — wearing a formal dress. “Louise Distras hates trans people so much that she’s willing to dress in a style acceptable to Daily Mail readers in order to have a go at them. What does this have to do with feminism Louise? Or punk rock?”

Bragg fancies himself a bit of a trans ally. And prides himself on being an all-round anti-sexist bloke. In 2014, he posed with a sign, “I pledge never to commit, condone, or remain silent about men’s violence against women in all its forms,” as part of the White Ribbon campaign.

Back in the early days of her career, Bragg championed Distras as one of a “new breed” of singers, tweeting in 2013 that her song Love Me The Way I Am should be our next Eurovision entry. Another of her songs, The Hand You Hold, is about how what women say and do should matter more than how we look, and she tells me that “Billy for some reason loved that song and that’s why he invited me to go play on his stage” — which she did that year, at Glastonbury, and again in 2017. “So for him to now take a pop at me and start criticising what I look like instead of actually listening to what I have to say means he is the biggest hypocrite.”

But it is not only men who have gone after Distras. In a recent interview with Kerrang!, Phoebe Lunny of the Lambrini Girls reacted to Distras speaking out against trans ideology and the silencing of women: “I will scrap any Terf, any day, in person, with my fists.” In a tweet, Distras pointed to the hypocrisy of claiming to be progressive while “inciting violence against women”. She also condemned Kerrang! for publishing the remarks, saying she is “ashamed my face was printed on its pages. Vile!”

Spoken word poet Amelia Vandergast also responded angrily to Distras’s public statements about being cancelled by trans activists. In a feature entitled, “Wipe away the terf tears: freedom of expression was never permission to perpetuate hate in the music industry”, published in A&R Factory website, she wrote:

“In the recent Daily Mail article, which attempted to portray women as the victims of their transphobic hate, Louise Distras bemoaned the journalists, radio stations, and her booking agency who rightly refuse to have anything to do with her for the self-piteous bile spewed across her social media platforms (anyone got a tiny little violin I can borrow?)”

For Distras, the hypocrisy within the so-called radical music scene is appalling. While the misogyny of trans activists is ignored, women are viciously attacked for daring to defend their sex-based rights. She is one of a growing list of female artists criticising cancel culture — a phenomenon of which Bragg denies the existence.

But Bragg has form. He has dismissed feminist concerns about self-identification and argued that, owing to our incompatible “hardware”, lesbians are biologically ill-equipped for sex with other women and should therefore understand the plight of men claiming to be female. When Maya Forstater was harassed by trans activists in the street, Bragg suggested that she could not possibly have been scared or upset, because she appeared to be smiling. This is a classic sexist trope. Too often, women are told by men to “Give us a smile” when we complain about being sexually harassed by them, and yet women are informed we must have enjoyed the harassment if we attempt to laugh it off.

“I think he’s a misogynist,” Distras says, of Bragg. “I think it’s just plain to see for everybody and the way he is — the way that so many men are in the music industry.” She talks about how uncomfortable she has felt with him, describing him as “creepy”. “He’s everything he says he’s not. His words and his actions just don’t match up for me
 The way he goes after women over the trans issue has made it really clear to me that he’s just a misogynist, and that he just doesn’t care about women”. She says what many feminists have said of many men in recent years: “The trans thing is just an excuse for him to bully women with impunity and do it publicly and get applauded for it.”

Bragg also showed no sympathy for RĂłisĂ­n Murphy, another female singer-songwriter who has faced the wrath of trans activists. After a private Facebook conversation in which she criticised the policy of giving children puberty blockers was leaked, she was admonished by Bragg for holding the wrong opinion. “Them’s the breaks,” Bragg tweeted when it was suggested that Murphy was being punished by having BBC coverage and concerts cancelled. “Think before you post is my advice, especially on issues that are contentious.” This is cowardice.

Distras strongly feels that the music industry used to be about “freedom of expression and freedom of speech”, but is currently in thrall to gender ideology and “totally monotheistic”. “There’s an urgent need to build a new one, with a proper counterculture that isn’t dominated by misogynists like Billy Bragg, where women have actually got a proper say,” she says, telling me she has had numerous messages from female musicians who are too scared to speak out — especially after seeing what happened to Murphy. “It’s well established that violence towards women is a massive problem in the music industry,” says Distras, “and here they are inciting more violence, and the rest of the music industry just applauds them for it and tells them they are stunning and brave.”

“We need more musicians to come forward courageously and without apology. There’s been so much support for me, and there will be for the other women. And the more of us that stand up, the more these men like Billy Bragg will not be so dominant.”

Julie Bindel is an investigative journalist, author, and feminist campaigner. Her latest book is Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation. She also writes on Substack.