February 22, 2022 - 10:23am

Grace Lavery is a prominent trans activist and professor of Gender Studies at UC Berkeley in California. As part of the promotion of her new book, Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis, about living as a transwoman since 2018, she had been offering to debate a “gender critical feminist”. She specifically invited The Economist’s Helen Joyce, author of Trans, to do so. Joyce agreed in theory — but nobody would host the event. It was considered too fraught and too much of a risk that Grace would pull out.

At UnHerd we believe it is important to talk about difficult topics — amazingly, this would seem to have been the first in-person discussion between a gender-critical feminist and a trans activist. So we agreed to host the potentially difficult conversation. We managed to find a date, venue, format and title that both Helen and Grace were happy with. I would moderate, as someone who has no corner to fight in this discussion — Grace’s team found me to be “a great, steady moderating presence” in my YouTube interviews.

Behind the scenes, the emails remained extremely civil, and Grace was at pains to emphasise how she was “utterly committed” to the event going ahead. But things soon started getting a little odd on her Twitter feed.

Earlier in the process, she had shared screengrabs on Twitter of a private email saying that Helen couldn’t do certain dates, apparently to show that it wasn’t Grace being difficult. Then, after the event had been announced, she posted an extraordinary Twitter thread:

I don’t consider Helen Joyce, a fascist, “worth” engaging and ideally her grift, which plays on the bigotry and fear of a large cohort of British idiots, would have been corrected *long* before it got to this stage… I’m saying this because I definitely want it to be clear (1) I don’t think Helen Joyce is smart or that her book is interesting. I think they are *powerful* and need to be demolished; (2) I still think no-platforming fascists is still the right move and the UK should have tried it. Also, to be clear, (3) if the events go ahead, no trans people should attend them, or give their money or data to the fascist enablers who are profiting off transphobia. Fuck all of these people, I have no interest in legitimating these ppl and I’m not going to be nice to them.
- Grace Lavery, Twitter

Grace, it seemed, had been coming under pressure and was getting nervous: the most generous explanation for this outburst was that by calling the person she had invited to debate a “fascist” and implying that her host was a “fascist enabler” she signalling her bona fides to the more jittery elements of her community. It was starting to feel very unpleasant, but we felt it was still worth trying to make the discussion happen.

Grace herself explained what happened next. She has been getting “a few” messages from trans people in the UK asking her to reconsider doing the event. She invited them to a private zoom call to share their concerns. Her tone on Twitter was already different, and she sounded notably more fearful:

I’m open to discussing this issue. My goal is to build up and support trans civil rights activism in the UK, not to harm it… if I’ve made a mistake, I’ll acknowledge it gratefully.
- Grace Lavery, Twitter

And then, one day later, she pulled out. Her team emailed to explain how her community had persuaded her to stand down:

I’m writing on behalf of Grace here to let you and UnHerd know that after a difficult meeting this morning with members of the UK trans community, Grace has decided she cannot proceed with the scheduled UnHerd debate. Too many people in the community felt strongly that it would do more harm than good, and she simply doesn’t believe she can participate if she doesn’t have the support of other trans people.
- Grace Lavery's team via email

Even Grace Lavery, it would seem, who is a standard-bearer for her community, can be intimidated into silence by them. She was so insistent that she wouldn’t cancel that she had offered £100 to each person who bet that she would — which she is now paying up. One can only imagine the pressure applied on that “difficult” zoom call.

Perhaps naively, I had hoped that, once there in person, we would be able to find some common humanity and maybe even have a civil and productive conversation. Instead it seems that voices within the trans community are so powerful that they are forbidding any discussion from taking place — and the result will surely be to increase alienation and lack of understanding. Grace’s original instinct to reach out and talk was the right one; it’s a loss for both communities that she was talked out of it.

So here is our offer. We have a beautiful venue, an engaged audience, Helen Joyce has generously agreed to still take part. We would like the event to go ahead. Will any prominent figure from the trans community step forward and take part in a good faith discussion?

is the Editor-in-Chief & CEO of UnHerd. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of YouGov, and founder of PoliticsHome.