I will do whatever it takes to make sure the new free speech laws are upheld Rachel Ara in The Telegraph 17.02.21

The original article is here.

As a conceptual artist and feminist, I never expected to find myself fighting on the front line of the free speech battle. And yet today, here I am: making news as the first person prepared – as a very last resort – to sue a university under the Government’s new free speech laws.

How did it come to this?

My story begins in 2019, when I was asked to do an Artist’s talk at Oxford Brookes University as part of its Fine Art Research series of lectures. At the time, my work had been gathering quite a bit of interest and I’d been speaking regularly at venues in the UK and abroad.

Some context: I have an eclectic background from three decades in the tech industry – programming and design – coupled with cabinet making. I fabricate complex digital sculptures that address issues around gender, technology systems of power and misinformation. I also work solely with women fabricators.

A couple of years ago, I began to notice that women were getting de-platformed for questioning gender identity. I was also becoming aware of changes within the LGBT+ community: many of us were starting to question certain parts of trans ideology because of the negative impact on young lesbians and women. A year before I had been invited to show with other Queer artists and realised only a handful of us were actually gay. It seemed the world had either gone Queer or were identifying such. This is when I took to Twitter to make sense of this new language: If Queer doesn’t mean gay, then what does it mean?

On the morning of my talk, as I was leaving the house, I got an email from Oxford Brookes saying that the talk had been cancelled as things were “kicking off”. I had been warned the night before that that an account called @TerfsOutOfArt, which advertises that “tip offs are welcome”, had been whipping up the students, saying I was creating a dangerous environment for trans & GNC students. My crime was retweeting some tweets from the LGB Alliance, an organisation set up to protect gay rights.

To this day – it should be noted – the university claims that the reason my talk was called off was that it had “not been booked through the usual process for confirming external speakers”.
As soon as Oxford Brooks capitulated to the people demanding my cancellation, they effectively legitimised the claim that I was “transphobic”. As far as the art world was concerned, the label was accurate. Commissions abruptly stopped, invitations for talks slowed down. Of course, now that Covid has kicked in the whole world has effectively been no-platformed, so it’s hard to gauge the long term effect of the incident.

When I was an artist in residence at the V&A, I’d walk past several pieces by Eric Gill every morning. This man sexually abused his children (and pets) and even wrote about it. I’d often discuss with colleagues why men who did these things were still given such prominence. The response was usually that one must disassociate the artist’s actions from the work. But it seems this rule doesn’t apply to female artists when they question gender identity.

The art world does not want to be seen to endorse troublesome women, especially if they’re still alive. I had thought art was relatively free from censorship, that we were the ones expected to stick our necks out and ask the questions that should be asked. Unfortunately, however, art world people no longer wish to be challenging, they prefer to be safe.

We need to uphold freedom of speech in Universities and, to do that, we need to understand what it is and why it matters. Hardly anyone in the art world knows what the legal definition of “hate speech” is. It is, almost without exception, confused with causing offence – which is categorically different. “Causing offence” is ramped up to a point where it is equated with causing tangible harm, and then used as a tool to silence women. I was not the first LGBTQ+ woman the randomly self-appointed authorities have tried to stop speaking at Oxford Brooks. And I have colleagues at other universities who are getting threatened and silenced too.

The art world has too little appetite to question gender ideology. Curators, writers, academics and artists all need to toughen up. Censors never stop at one target, once they have cleared the first round of perceived “transphobes,” they will widen the definition and start on the next.

Going back to the issue of suing; if the new free speech laws aren’t enforced in the future, then I will indeed consider action – purely to set a precedent. I plan to do whatever it takes to highlight these injustices and get back to a world where we can freely discuss, question and have uncomfortable discussions.

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