The trustees of the Booker Prize Foundation have abolished the post of honorary vice-president, previously held by Baroness Emma Nicholson. The decision followed controversy on social media surrounding Nicholson's views on same-sex marriage and her attitude to transgender people.
A statement yesterday evening (Wednesday 24th June) read: "We, the trustees of the Booker Prize Foundation, met today and wish to reiterate that the views expressed by Baroness Nicholson on transgender people are her own personal opinions."
"The issues are complex, but our principles are clear. We deplore racism, homophobia and transphobia—and do not discriminate on any grounds.
"Literature is open, plural and questioning. We believe every author’s work should be approached by readers in the same spirit. Integrity is central to both Booker Prizes, whose judging process is conducted at all times in keeping with these values.
"Upon her retirement from the board in 2009, Baroness Nicholson was made an honorary vice-president, a role that gave her no say in the governance or operations of the foundation or prizes. In recent days there has been some confusion about the nature of honorary titles used by the foundation. Too many believe that these titles in some way symbolise the prizes. That is not the case.
"We have today decided that these titles and roles should, with immediate effect, cease to exist. Those holding them have been informed and thanked for their longstanding interest." The statement was signed by trustees, comprising Mark Damazer CBE (chair), Nick Barley, Carol Lake, Bidisha SK Mamata, James Naughtie, Ben Okri, Professor Louise Richardson, and the Rt Hon Lord David Willetts.
The ending of 78-year-old Baroness Nicholson's role at the Booker Foundation follows a push from writer Damian Barr for her to be removed from her post. Referring to her stance on same-sex marriage, which she voted against in 2013, Barr—who is gay, and married—said "she'd have the wedding ring off my finger".
After Booker communicated the decision, Barr commented: "Sometimes change takes years and sometimes it take days. It is never easy. Today readers & writers everywhere are glad to hear that homophobia, racism and transphobia should have no place at the Booker Prizes. I welcome this reaffirmation of their values and the decisive action they have taken to remove Baroness Nicholson as Vice President. The UK’s most prestigious prizes send a clear signal to other organisations in the arts and elsewhere that there is no room for hate. I trust they will now conduct a full diversity audit and share their intentions so confidence in the prizes can be fully restored. Many individuals and organizations raised their voices in a hopeful chorus. I would like to thank everybody who helped make this change happen. Books are up for debate – human rights are not."
The row escalated following online interactions between Nicholson and trans model and activist Munroe Bergdorf, which saw Nicholson reported to the Lord's Commissioner for Standards over claims of bullying, as reported in the Daily Mail.
The Booker Prize Foundation had earlier released an initial statement which said it wished to point out that Nicholson's "views... on transgender issues" were "her own" and emphasised she "has no role in the governance or operations of the foundation. She is not involved in selecting the judges nor in choosing the books that are longlisted, shortlisted and win."
However many felt the first statement fell short of what was needed. "She is disqualifying herself from the position," Barr told The Bookseller yesterday. "The vice-presidency is a position of great honour and prestige at the head of this organisation and, as such, it sends a very clear message to the world about who you are and what you stand for. By choosing to stand by this person, the Booker Prize is saying we support homophobia, we have no problem with homophobia and we have it at our table."
He added: "We cannot feel confident in the prize when they have as their vice-president the woman who led the campaign against same-sex marriage and who continues daily to pour vitriol and scorn upon anyone who dares to challenge her, to criticise her, or even, as I did, to question her politely about her role in an organisation."
Authors including previous Booker Prize winner Marlon James and Sarah Perry, as well as LGBTQ+ network Pride in Publishing and publishers such as Unbound and Pan Macmillan, expressed support for Barr's position on Twitter.
Unbound, one of the first publishers to vocalise its support, said: "Symbols matter. It is difficult to see how someone who is an opponent of gay marriage can represent a prize celebrated for its dedication to diversity and equality." Pan Macmillan said: "We at Picador and Pan Macmillan condemn Emma Nicholson's views on same sex marriage and LGBTQ+ rights. We stand alongside our writers and readers in celebrating and supporting LGBTQ+ art."
Simon Prosser, publisher at Hamish Hamilton, which publishes Booker Prize winners Bernardine Evaristo and Marlon James, said: "I categorically oppose her values—and I’ve written to the Booker Trust."
Pride in Publishing said: “We’re glad that Baroness Nicholson isn’t involved in judging the prize at all. But we also think honorary vice-presidents should behave honourably. There’s nothing honourable about her views on equal marriage or trans rights or her bullying of trans people online."
Author Sarah Perry wrote: “I am very dismayed by this statement which does nothing to affirm your commitment to the values of diversity and equality, and does not acknowledge the distress caused to @Damian_Barr and others by Baroness Nicholson's behaviour on social media.”
Within hours, the foundation's second announcement saw Nicholson's role abolished.
Nicholson is a co-founder of J K Rowling's charity Lumos. Rowling has recently faced accusations of transphobia in connection with her opinions on transgender law reform, prompting concerns from staff at her publisher Hachette.