Picture credit: Hollie Adams/Getty Images
Artillery Row

The art world must escape gender theory

Grim, irrational ideas still dominate the Arts

With the recent news of yet another employment tribunal win for a woman who believes biological sex is real, and the acceptance of the shocking findings of the Cass review by the majority of Parliamentarians, you’d be forgiven for thinking the gender wars have been pretty much won. Common sense is back in town. Of course, there are only two sexes and, naturally, there are times when that fact is important, “in real life”!  

Allow me a hollow, embittered cackle! Here in the art world we continue to be trapped in a weird Narnia winter of gender ideology in which anyone can “identify” as anything and institutions bend over backwards to satisfy the 0.5 per cent of the population who report they don’t identify with the sex they were born.

Now we’re past the paralysing period of “no debate”, when in 2022 we were all expected to pretend it was reasonable for York Art Gallery to interpret a 1635 portrait of St Agatha, patron saint of rape victims, clutching her tortured amputated breasts, as a depiction of gender euphoria, the Arts are actually doubling down. 

Pity Arts Council England (ACE), recently called to defend their award of £64,000 drawn from National Lottery Good Causes for Krishna Istha’s show, First Trimester, in which 2 transmen interview audience members to find a sperm donor for their child. Without irony ACE asserts “First Trimester is an entertaining show that explores questions about what it means to create a family”. We can expect substantially more of this entertaining, exploratory genre now that ACE has invited First Trimester’s commissioner, Marlborough Productions to join its National Portfolio on £225,000 a year. Marlborough, a “catalyst for queer culture”, can now properly propagate its stable of performers over the next 3 years, to realise new work for stages and festivals across the world.

It’s hardly surprising organisations that promote gender ideology — by which I mean the extreme view that sex is not binary — appear to be well positioned with ACE, when the funder itself is a believer. For example, despite ACE noting last year in its Inclusion Review that it is considering aligning data collection categories to those of the ONS census, its equality monitoring  for its open access grant programme continues to differentiate between sex and “gender identity”. You can, should you choose to, still apply for funding, ticking your sex as female and your fictional “gender identity” as a man. The Government has called for evidence on this type of dodgy data. As it has led to ‘the loss of robust, standardised data on sex in the UK’, how in future will we be able measure, for example, the gender pay gap ?

ACE is not alone in continuing to prop up gender ideology. Creative Scotland were happy to dole out £84,555 to director Leonie Rae Gasson to make a show with “Queer” people and sex workers. Until that is her open call for performers clarified that on-stage sex would not in fact be simulated. Whilst an embarrassed Creative Scotland argued Gasson had breached her funding contract, as “actual sex… is not appropriate for public funding”, it quickly became apparent that Gasson had actually been entirely upfront with the funder about her plans. She is now generally fed up with the “aggressive political, anti-trans, and anti-sex worker activity” that has seen her grant revoked and calls for the dismissal of the Creative Scotland boss.   

One wonders whether national lottery players, who fund so much of the arts in the UK, are amongst the audience to Gasson and Istha’s creative endeavours. Whilst funders’ monitoring tells us quite a lot about arts audiences, no one appears to ask them “did you buy a lottery ticket this week?” Meaning, despite lottery players funding the Arts since 1994, we still don’t know what proportion of them actually benefit from their donations.

Lottery players don’t get much, if any, say in how their contribution to Good Causes is spent. The twelve national lottery distributors should bring together focus groups comprised, not of audiences or grant recipients, but of lottery players, and actually listen to their views. Because whilst significantly less Brits now than in 2019, think people should be able to change their sex on birth certificates (down from 53% to 30 pre cent of the population) the Arts gatekeepers, insulated from public opinion, continue to promote gender ideology, as though nothing has changed.  

A fortnight ago the Museums and Heritage Show made a Special Recognition Award to the University of Leicester’s Research Centre for Museums and Galleries for their guidance, Trans Inclusive CulturePublished in September 2023, the guidance makes 43 recommendations including that “trans (museum) visitors should be free to use the bathroom they feel most comfortable using” and encouraging museum staff to affirm “Trans children’s gender identity”. As I’ve argued before, because the guidance is so biased (going as far as to assert “Outspoken objections to trans content frequently intersect with homophobia, misogyny and racism”) museums who follow its recommendations risk discriminating against their existing staff, volunteers and audiences.  The RCMG has rebuffed my criticism, but in any case I thought it wise to submit their guidance to Kemi Badenoch as part of her drive to root out incorrect guidance on single-sex spaces and gender self-identification.  

The bigger point is, here we see it again; whilst the rest of the world has woken up to the extremism of gender ideology, the Arts is continuing to back pat its adherents. Indeed one of the authors of Trans Inclusive Culture, influential and ambitious curator EJ Scott has been touring UK museums to collect artefacts for his/her Museum of Transology.  Fresh from exhibiting his/her amputated breasts at The Wellcome Collection’s Cult of Beauty show, Scott appears to be bucking government advice to de-accession human remains, or remove human tissue from display. And of course the Arts love it, with seemingly no concern for girls and young women who may be influenced to follow Scott’s example.

Will the Narnia winter ever end in the Arts? Gender critical women in the arts, like Sara Morrison in dispute with her employer Belfast International Film Festival, are still finding themselves in employment tribunals for their views, despite the plethora of cases that have now been upheld in virtually every sector. Will we have our own “Cass moment”? Self-censorship is endemic in our sector and there’s no regulator, although the new Creative Industries Independent Standards Authority is making noises. Culture ministers come and go whilst faltering audience figures aren’t a commercial driver when lottery players subsidise empty seats. In the end, let us hope, as the Arts is the greatest follower of fashion, a new craze will emerge and we’ll look back on those whacky days, when we all had to pretend we’d always known Joan of Arc was “non binary”, with merely a wry smile.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover