Juno Dawson has pulled out of the Bradford Literature Festival after expressing concern about what she called "bigoted" speakers slated to attend the event.
The YA author tweeted her decision to withdraw from the festival– which has ‘Gender Politics' as one of its themes- after saying that “hiring bigoted people to speak at literary events lends them (the speakers) credibility”.
Dawson appears to have been speaking about the attendance at the festival of Germaine Greer and the BBC's Jenni Murray, who have both separately sparked controversy recently for comments they have made about transgender people.
The festival’s organisers have said they “very much regret” Dawson’s decision to pull out, saying that she was an “important element of the programme”. They added that they had listened to the trans community’s views on booked speakers Greer and Murray, but did not believe that “cancelling programmed speakers would be productive or help to progress dialogue in these areas”.
The statement said: “Events on gender have been a key part of the festival programme since its inception. We work actively with LGBT+ organisations to curate and promote a range of LGBT+ events annually… Bradford Literature Festival has a zero-tolerance policy on hate speech and does not give a platform to any speakers to express hateful views. All speakers have been briefed to speak on specific topics related to certain areas of expertise and have all been carefully selected in order to present a wide range of voices, perspectives, opinions, races, religions, genders and sexualities.”
Dawson confirmed that she would still visit one of the local schools, as arranged, for free outside of the festival, and tweeted that the festival organisers were “dead nice people” despite the disagreement.
The 10-day festival begins today (29th June) with more than 300 events across the city including writers such as Greer, Joanna Trollope, Jackie Kaye,and Ben Okri. Themes this year include 'Gender Politics', 'Empire' as well as the event’s first 'Comic Con Weekend'.
Dawson shared her withdrawal with her 19,000 Twitter followers on Tuesday (27th June) from her @junodawson account: “After much soul-searching, I've decided to drop out of my Bradford Lit Fest events. I just felt ick,” she said.
Dawson had been due to speak on a panel with author and Women's Equality Party co-founder Catherine Mayer and writer Jodie Matthews at an event, 'Can There be a Post- Gender Utopia?' on Saturday (1st July).
The writer later posted a longer statement which said: “With great sadness, I’ve decided to withdraw from Bradford Literature Festival this year. Although the festival has, and has shared, its policy on Hate Speech, I expressed concern at some other booked speakers.”
Dawson admitted that her decision might draw criticism but that she did not want to suggest that “transphobia is a more tolerable form of hatred” than any other discrimination.
The author of Margot & Me (Hot Key Books) said: “I’m quite sure I’ll get called a ‘snowflake’ and suchlike, but I do not believe ‘free speech’ is a guarantee of payment, a microphone and a platform to express bigoted views. As the festival doesn’t book noted homophobes, xenophobes, anti-Semites and racists, I feel it’s sending the message that transphobia is a more tolerable form of hatred. Hiring bigoted people to speak at literary events, on any subject, lends them credibility.
“I thought long and hard about the logic of removing the only trans voice from the festival. After a lot of soul-searching, I felt like my participation in the event was tacit approval of the other speakers.”
Dawson said that anti-trans voices encourage transphobia. “Transphobia is real. On a daily basis, I – and countless other trans and non-binary people – encounter mockery and abuse. Anti-trans voices add to this mockery and continued ‘debate’ about lived experiences of which they have no understanding,” she said.
The festival’s organisers said that the line-up had been arranged and shared months ago but that cancelling speakers would not be “productive”.
“Our programme of speakers was decided many months ago and has been publicly available since April," they said in a statement. "We have taken the time to hear the concerns of the trans community with regards to the presence of Germaine Greer and Jenni Murray in the festival. However, we do not believe that cancelling programmed speakers would be productive or help to progress dialogue in these areas. We apologise for any upset this may cause our trans visitors and appreciate the feedback we have received on this issue.
They added: “We sincerely hope that in future years we can revisit our plans to work together with Juno.”
Greer is discussing gender two talks at the event, 'Women for Life on Earth: The Inevitability of Ecofeminism' at the University of Bradford and 'Gender Expectations in the Live of the Brontës' at the Midland Hotel, both on 8th July. The Australian writer angered many in the trans community in 2015 when she said “just because you lop off your penis… it doesn’t make you a woman”. Last year she sparked further controversy when she said it “wasn’t fair” that “a man who has lived for 40 years as a man and had children with a woman and enjoyed the services – the unpaid services of a wife, which most women will never know ... then decides that the whole time he’s been a woman.”
In March, Women’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray was given a warning from the BBC over impartiality over her comments around transgender issues. She had said that a sex change could not make a man “a real woman”.
Last week the festival’s directors were featured in a report from the Guardian about women “transforming the literary festival”. Journalist Claire Armitstead said: “Irna Qureshi and Syima Aslam have upended the traditional festival model to create a 10-day cultural jamboree that holds appeal across the city’s diverse communities”. Aslam and Qureshi founded the festival in 2014 based on the belief that cultural engagement through literature has the power to change people’s lives.
The festival secured a further five-year title partnership with Provident Financial plc in March following a two years of the support from the company.
The festival runs until 9th July and covers current affairs and topical subjects, as well as history, literature and poetry.
For more information or to book tickets, visit bradfordlitfest.co.uk.
Last week, historian Rebecca Rideal pulled out of Chalke Valley history Festival in protest over a lack of people of colour speaking at the event.