Grace Lavery is a trans author and tenured assistant professor at UCBerkley, currently in preparation for her UK tour for her book "Please Miss: A heartbreaking work of staggering penis". As part of this she had started recently booking a series of debates with "Gender Critical" figures, which were highly anticipated by the Gender Critical movement and a subject of considerable concern and alarm for the UK trans community. A barrage of toxicity had faced her in the lead up, with anti-trans campaigners calling for her to be banned from entering the UK (she is a British citizen), getting her suspended from Twitter for an off the cuff remark about the Queen in response, and then first attacking her friend (who relayed a message after her suspension) and then her mother (who expressed shock at the levels of abuse Grace was facing).
Because of quite direct involvement in the circumstances around this case, this piece is going to open with a comment on the circumstances which will hopefully put things in context, and after that will be an extension of our previous documentation of the ongoing harassment campaign.
The comment here seems necessary because for non-trans readers, it is likely quite difficult to understand just how intensely harmful the circumstances around this are. While we try in general to focus on factual reporting, it seems important here to give perspective as well as the facts.
We're also publishing Grace's statement as the other sources are only linked on social media and subject to the whims of Twitter's automated suspension algorithm.
Grace Lavery's intended debate tour was undoubtedly controversial. She has spent a great deal of time in the last year being accused on Twitter of various improprieties. For instance Dennis Noel Kavanah, Legal Correspondent for a news website closely linked to the LGB Alliance had written a lengthy and florid prose poem last year in protest of her support for abortion. We'll quote the last two tweets of this as his tone helps illustrate the depth of animosity. It also shows the general atmosphere with regard to the dehumanising way people talk about trans public intellectuals with controversial views:
So sleeps the maggot, the sweet smell of flesh about it, like the spray of blood across the 100 imagined murders it loves, like the tubs of discarded surgeon’s flesh across social media it adores, like the imagined aborted foetus it <3.
This thing that speaks like carrion dreaming of dead flesh. This dream that sounds like the raw rasp or tearing sinews, the wet yawn or ripped muscle, the discordant busy buzz of a fly transformed made mad by the scent of the dead.
When it came to the debate, many within the Gender Critical sphere were insistent that Grace Lavery would simply withdraw from the debates
She had also faced some criticism from those in the trans community who were skeptical of debate and especially concerned that the first was being promoted as a pay-per-view event by a publisher which frequently launders far right views. In full disclosure, the authors of this piece were among those raising these concerns both publicly and privately with Grace, with a particular concern about fascist and Nazi-sympathetic content published on the platform which has been gaining circulation and popularity within openly fascist organisations.
After a meeting with community members Grace pulled out of the first debate, stating that she intended to carry on with another future debate. For that first debate, the venue had not been one of her choosing, but, she said, provided as a poison pill - if she turned away from it, she would have forfeited and "proven" the supposedly inherent impossibility of defending trans politics and beliefs.
Her message of withdrawal, which was passed on by her friend lead to an enormous backlash against her friend, who is currently dealing with cancer, with vengeful Gender Critical twitter members taunting her friend about the fact Grace had left them to face their punishment. In reality, Grace was suspended and had no access to the platform to speak for herself. This happened as a result of a quip responding the day before to attempts to get the home office to ban her from entering the country (despite being a British citizen). She had responded hoping the Queen would die resulting in a permanent suspension.
Over the following evening and morning, with Grace herself no longer available to abuse, the targetting shifted over to her mother who had tweeted her confusion at the abuse Grace had been facing for being trans. Anti-trans Twitter accounts sent her many abusive messages, with two different people posting private sexual content belonging to Grace Lavery and her husband at her own mother, and another using a common anti-trans dog whistle to express a wish that Grace commits suicide.
Grace Lavery contacted one of the authors in the early hours of yesterday morning (23rd February 2022) to let her know she was shaken by what had happened, and that she was withdrawing from the remaining debate.
A little while later, a friend of hers published this statement on her behalf (reproduced in full at the bottom of this article), saying:
"The hatred, misogyny, and rage that were being directed at my mother were simply too much to bear. I could not, and can not, ask her to bear the vicious attacks that I have become used to. The other was that I was, finally, terrified, in a way I just hadn’t been before. I no longer felt like I could understand exactly how my advocacy could be useful to the UK trans community [...] I am scared of those people, and I am not prepared—in a literal sense, I am not prepared, cannot afford the preparations that would be necessary—to feel physically safe at a debate. My friends and supporters, who have been encouraging me to move ahead with this, finally encouraged me to call it a day for my own safety, including my emotional safety, which is frayed."
There had been a lot of disagreement in the Trans community about whether debating Gender Critical figures was a good idea and whether it might result in an increase in hate crimes against others. Many worried whether it would instead end up like the GenderQuake debate of 2018 which saw transphobes deliberately brought in to the audience and encouraged to yell obscenities at trans panellists. That being the last major debate in the UK on this topic was, effectively, a televised mass-media-organised hate crime which affected many trans people across the country deeply in being witness to it. It was also a pivotal point in crystallising wide scale hostility and dehumanisation of trans people, which ultimately led to Munroe Bergdorf's eventual stalking and monstering out of a charitable appointment a year later.
Nonetheless, others at the community meeting with Grace felt that with the current levels of exclusion from media presence it was important to at least try to take up space and talk about trans issues wherever we as a community can get it.
In effect, Grace Lavery has proved a point here. Through this failed effort to break open the toxic and smothering discussion UK trans people are living under, the unfortunate abuse that she, her friend, her husband and her mother have been through is proof that there currently is not meaningfully any room for civil debate on trans issues in the UK. At least there is not one where engaging in it does not immediately turn into a risk of harm to one's loved ones. And under those conditions, why would, or should any trans person participate in public life?
Trans Safety Network extend our solidarity to all of those affected, and our respect to Grace for her reflective and conscientious engagement with the UK trans community during this absolute fiasco.
The Further backlash
Following Grace's withdrawal from the debates there was a predictable cycle of victim blaming that followed, mixing misinformation, denial and rationalisation.
1. "Trans people cancelled Grace Lavery"
One of the first narratives spread in response to the cancellations was that trans people had "cancelled" Grace Lavery. This largely followed on from an article in UnHerd by executive editor Freddie Sayers entitled "Was Grace Lavery silenced by her own community?" This spread widely and quickly on the Twittersphere, eclipsing any nuance in her actual statement on the topic.
2. The harassment never happened
Another narrative promoted by gender critical accounts on twitter was to deny the harassment happened, with gender critical twitter users expressing doubts that the harassment was real, or responding as though it would be absurd that other gender critical twitter users would do such a thing - demanding proof that GC accounts were involved. This is in spite of the fact that a link to the harassment website the images came from were being shared in replies to a well-known anti-trans activist. The account sharing this link to a website notorious for stalking, harassment and abuse is also followed by large gender critical accounts and influential gender critical activists, including a member of the UK's House of Lords.
3. It wasn't that bad
Other gender critical accounts insisted that the abuse wasn't that bad, downplaying the abusiveness of sending private sexualised imagery to Grace's mother. Accounts that had previously doubted the abuse happened at all, then pivoted to downplaying the seriousness of the harassment, or denying that it is meaningful to consider it harassment at all (more info on the harms of image based sexual harassment can be found here). Another gender critical account suggested that the harassment was being exaggerated or 'spun', in response to claims that the harassment wasn't serious enough to warrant withdrawing from the debate.
4. It was bad, but mitigated because the posts were 'public'
The lewd images of Grace and her husband had been published to a private instagram two years ago, from which they were leaked by Gender Critical activists leading to the account being shut down. However, a pernicious narrative excusing republication was repeatedly put forward, claiming that the images posted were all public, and insisting that Grace's mother must have seen the images before, as though that would make it acceptable to post sexualised imagery at anybody without their consent. Another gender critical twitter user suggested that Grace was at fault for creating the images in the first place, a standard tactic in victim blaming. Other tactics involved suggesting that by creating a twitter account, Grace's mother had implicitly consented to being shown sexualised images of her family. The claim that the images were made public spread quickly, being repeated as an excuse by various accounts multiple times. Others insisted that Grace's mother deserves to be targeted in this manner because she posted on twitter.
5. The account isn't really Grace's mum
In the midst of all this, and even afterwards as a response to the harassment, twitter users began to deny or doubt that the account being targetted was actually Grace's mother (example). Several accounts insisted that the account was actually Grace herself (example, example, example) despite the account having existed since June 2015.
6. It was all planned
Finally, some accounts appeared to be urging others to see the entire situation as some form of trap potentially planned by Grace in order to deceive anti-trans activists. Another twitter user managed to synthesise multiple aspects of the above disinformation patterns into a single tweet whilst insisting the entire event had been orchestrated by Grace.
This is not a new pattern we are documenting. This is an age old trajectory of normalising and excusing abuse, one which trans people are familiar with already, feminists are also familiar with, and so on.
Because of their out-sized influence in the public conversation, anti-trans mobs online have the power to largely control wider public perception through a layered strategy of lies and denial, as well as through their ability to ultimately drive even quite robust public figures into hiding.
This process of escalating hostility, switching casually from blaming trans people for the silencing, through denial that abuse has happened through to justification for the abuse the perpetrators already knew was happening, is a profoundly powerful way of obstructing any amount of effort trans people make to make this harm visible over the noise. The fact that at any point in the conversation, there may be 4 or 5 contradictory narratives being promoted by anti-trans users is part of the strategy, as it generates confusion and noise that obfuscate the truth and the voices of victims.
Grace Lavery's statement
I want to offer a brief note of explanation for my part of the chaos of the last few weeks. I do so, of course, fully aware that my credibility as a commentator on contemporary trans politics has been utterly shot. Accordingly, I’m going to concentrate on my scholarly and creative work from now on.
I initially asked Helen Joyce and others to engage me in debate on trans civil rights last year. Helen Joyce never acknowledged my entreaties directly, but a few months later I was contacted by UnHerd, who told me they had an exclusive agreement with Joyce, such that if I declined their offer to host a debate, I’d effectively be walking away. I agreed, somewhat grudgingly, since I knew they were a far right organization—which, of course, was why Joyce had put me in that position in the first place.
Separately, I discussed a second event with Julie Bindel, who did talk with me directly, at least at first. I discussed the event with Tortoise, a conservative news organ, and was generally very moved and struck by the evenhandedness of their approach. Ironically, while I remained fairly confident about my ability to defeat Joyce, whose public appearances always strike me as vague and unpersuasive, I was much more anxious about Bindel, who is persuasive, thoughtful, funny, vigorous, and was an active feminist organizer years before Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the front cover of Vanity Fair. But for some reason, Joyce’s supporters seemed convinced I was terrified of her, and going to drop out—a belief I found variously funny and tactically disadvantageous to their side, because of course I didn’t want to drop out, and I couldn’t see any possible reason why I ever would.
Once UnHerd made their announcement, however, things became obvious. One group of comrades seemed to think, as people often do, that “debate” over trans civil rights is itself bad, and perhaps that it is connected to state crackdowns on trans people. I didn’t and don’t agree with that position: in my view, trans people need to be seizing as much camera time as possible, if we are to resist the extraordinarily rapid and far-reaching takeover of UK and US institutions by the so-called “gender critical” activists. But another group pointed out that UnHerd were a significantly more toxic platform than I had realized, pointing to obviously anti-Semitic content on the website, including articles lavishly praising the SS officer Ernst Jünger and the Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt. I held a meeting with some members of the UK trans community who had expressed concern, and was persuaded by those who spoke there that it would have been a strategic mistake for me to align my own political interests with those of a far-right news organization that was actively working to mainstream fascist authors and ideas.
So, I publicly withdrew from the Joyce debate—ironically therefore proving her champions right, who still believe that I backed out from fear of Joyce’s apparent debating prowess. And understandably, the GC Twittersphere went bananas: Jesse Singal, of all people, called me a “huckster”; Joyce herself, apparently unconcerned about her commitment to a platform that celebrated Schmitt and Jünger, suggested that someone make her an actual blackshirt to celebrate her association with fascism.
There then came the matter of the second debate, to be hosted by Tortoise and featuring Julie Bindel. My understanding of the UK trans community perspective on that had been some kind of split: one group of activists urged greater participation in public events and advocacy of that kind, and another group argued that such debates would necessarily harm the most vulnerable members of the community, especially to the extent that even the question of Bindel’s or Joyce’s apparent transphobia would be misguided if it did not also explore the connections between GC ideology and white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and other aspects of far-right ideology. Nonetheless, my perspective at the end of that meeting was that the Bindel event would go ahead.
A couple of things happened yesterday (02/23) that changed that. One was that my mother was mobbed on Twitter by the same gender critical activists who have been hounding me for the last few years, with some going so far as to post pictures of my husband and I having consensual, loving, and mildly kinky sex that GC activists stole from a private instagram account some years ago. The hatred, misogyny, and rage that were being directed at my mother were simply too much to bear. I could not, and can not, ask her to bear the vicious attacks that I have become used to. The other was that I was, finally, terrified, in a way I just hadn’t been before. I no longer felt like I could understand exactly how my advocacy could be useful to the UK trans community, which after all remained in some parts now fairly skeptical of me after I had missed the Nazi stuff on the UnHerd website. But more, I realized that my UK tour would likely become a focal point for the same kind of people who would send my mother pictures of me and Danny having sex. I am scared of those people, and I am not prepared—in a literal sense, I am not prepared, cannot afford the preparations that would be necessary—to feel physically safe at a debate. My friends and supporters, who have been encouraging me to move ahead with this, finally encouraged me to call it a day for my own safety, including my emotional safety, which is frayed. I am a sober alcoholic, and I have felt my sobriety pressured the last few week or so. So I need to put that first—and I’ve not lost my sobriety, I’m happy to say.
So, for these reasons, I’ve canceled the Bindel event, with mixed feelings and genuine gratitude to Julie Bindel and to Tortoise for handling the matter so professionally—a marked difference from the attitude demonstrated by Helen Joyce and UnHerd. I’ve considered scaling back my UK events, or abandoning the UK leg of the tour entirely. I’ve decided not to do that, in the end, because I have written a book I’m proud of and I want to connect with those who have read PLEASE MISS. I hope those who are critical of my work and advocacy will be welcome at my events— some of that is up to my hosts, but I want to say here that for my part, I am available to speak with Julie Bindel, Helen Joyce, or anyone else at those events. I hope the book tour does not go by without at least some capacity to engage my opponents directly, even if in an ad hoc way.
The lesson for me is clear. For the last few years, I’ve tried to be a scholar, a public intellectual, and an author of creative prose. One of those has had to go, and it’s the second one. If I were willing to claim I’d been “canceled,” maybe I could salvage my reputation among the chattering classes, but I don’t want to do that, because it isn’t true. So again, I’m not going to be doing any more political engagements other than those to which I’ve already agreed. For others, I’m not so sure. I maintain that making political choices based on predictions about how our enemies will feel about them is misguided—the GCs are an unhinged and cruel group, and they will mock someone for expressing discomfort with Nazi ideology, and send revenge porn to a proud mother. So let’s not do anything just because we think it will make them feel bad. Let’s decide what our priorities are and commit to them instead. I’m not going to be part of those conversations moving forward, at least not in public, but I am always ready to take instructions and act with my comrades and siblings when it’s helpful to do so.
I remain quite sure that changing one’s entire hormonal system is not “cosmetic,” that lesbians do not need the state to define lesbianism for them, that feminism does not need and should not seek an apparently natural account of womanhood, and I am quite sure that women’s rights are not, have never been, and must never be, “sex-based.” I hope someone can tell me why I’m wrong without justifying those harassing my mother.