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London’s Royal Academy Apologizes to Artist Accused of Transphobia

After removing her work from its gift shop, the Royal Academy of Arts in London has apologized to artist Jess de Wahls, who was accused of transphobia because of views espoused in a 2019 blog post. The institution said in its statement that it would consider stocking her work in its store again.

“One thing is clear to us now—we should have handled this better,” the Royal Academy wrote in its announcement. “We have apologized to Jess de Wahls for the way we have treated her and do so again publicly now. We had no right to judge her views on our social media. This betrayed our most important core value—the protection of free speech.”

In an email to ARTnews, de Wahls said, “I appreciate the apology and hope that this will somehow bring us back to a place where we can respectfully disagree and artists can make art without fearing this new kind of censorship, destruction of livelihood, and constant harassment.”

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Last week, the Royal Academy said it would no longer sell de Wahls’s embroidery works after an outcry on social media, with some critics alleging that de Wahls was transphobic. In her 2019 post titled “Somewhere over the Rainbow, something went terribly wrong…,” de Wahls expressed concerns over a push to recognize trans women as women. “Women and trans people are both marginalized groups within society, and we need to find solutions for both,” she wrote.

In an Instagram story that was not saved to its page, the Royal Academy said that it had been “unaware” of de Wahls’s views when it began selling her work. On Tuesday, de Wahls told the Guardian that she was considering taking legal action against the Royal Academy. Asked to comment on the 2019 post, she told the Guardian, “I don’t believe that a trans woman is a woman. I don’t believe that’s hateful, I think there’s a space for everyone to exist.”

Calling the controversy a “failure of communication,” the Royal Academy said in its statement, “This has confirmed to us our commitment to freedom of expression and to addressing complex issues through engagement and debate.”

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