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‘Arts Council hounded me for not towing line on trans issues’

Denise Fahmy, a former grants officer at the Arts Council, claims the charity is risking 'closing down free speech' - Lorne Campbell/Guzelian
Denise Fahmy, a former grants officer at the Arts Council, claims the charity is risking 'closing down free speech' - Lorne Campbell/Guzelian

Arts Council England (ACE) created a “toxic” culture of fear for staff who dared to question transgender views, a senior grant officer said as she accused the charity of harassment and victimisation.

Denise Fahmy claims Britain’s biggest arts quango risked “closing down free speech” after a grant was withdrawn from a charity that campaigns exclusively for lesbian, gay and bisexual rights.

Ms Fahmy, 54, who worked for 15 years as an (ACE) grant officer, believes she was targeted after she questioned why £9,000 of funding was withdrawn from LGB Alliance.

She has now resigned but is taking the quango to an employment tribunal, claiming she was harassed and victimised because of her gender-critical beliefs.

Last April, LGB Alliance was awarded the grant to make a film for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee to celebrate how the lives of gay men had improved under the monarch’s reign. However, the money was withdrawn amid claims the charity was transphobic – an allegation it denies.

At an ACE staff meeting held a few days before the cash was pulled, Simon Mellor, the deputy chief executive, accused LGB Alliance of being “a divisive organisation with a history of anti-trans exclusionary activity”. He said it was a “mistake” for it to have been awarded the grant through a second body, the London Community Foundation.

At that meeting, Ms Fahmy said she was “shocked” by Mr Mellor’s remarks, which she felt demonstrated ”worrying “bias” that threatened to affect funding of the arts.

‘Glorified hate group’

Afterwards, Ms Fahmy, who oversees the development of the visual arts in the north of England, made a formal complaint about Mr Mellor’s comments to Sir Nick Serota, the council’s chairman, and wrote to Michelle Donelan, the then culture secretary.

However, a petition was set up accusing LGB Alliance of being a “cultural parasite and a glorified hate group” whose supporters were “neo-Nazis, homophobes and Islamophobes”. One of around 100 signatories to the petition, which appeared on the Arts Council’s staff intranet, even said the group was similar to the Ku Klux Klan.

ACE, which is funded by the taxpayer and the National Lottery and overseen by the Department for Culture Media and Sport, insists it was not involved in the decision to withdraw the funding from LGB Alliance.

Speaking publicly for the first time, Ms Fahmy told The Telegraph she was “sad” to be leaving the “really hard-working organisation” in which she had “never seen bias in grant-making before”.

However, she said she felt she had to speak out about the harassment she said she experienced because of so-called “gender wars”.

“The statement made at the meeting seemed to me to be a really worrying turn of events. It can’t be right that a leader of a public body distributing taxpayers’ and lottery players’ money can let their personal or political views shape funding decisions,” she said.

“I have seen too many people’s careers and their mental health ruined by spurious allegations of transphobia, especially in the wider arts community.

“If it was toxic for me in the office, I could only imagine what it’s like now for gender-critical people and ‘the wrong kind of gays’ working in galleries and theatres across the country. Actually, I know what it's like because artists, performers and venue directors have been in touch to tell me that there is real fear in the arts.”

Mermaids court case

LGB Alliance was taken to court by Mermaids, a trans charity that urged the Charity Commission to strip the alliance of its charitable status. The judgment from that hearing is yet to be handed down.

A Telegraph investigation prompted the commission to launch a statutory inquiry into Mermaids, which had agreed to send chest-binding devices to 14-year-old children against their parents wishes.

The Free Speech Union also complained that groups such as LGB Alliance were losing out on taxpayer funding for holding legitimate views.

Ms Fahmy isusing a crowdfunding website called “Fighting bias at the top of the Arts Council” to raise £50,000 for her legal team to fight her case at an employment tribunal hearing in May.

She claims that if she wins she will prevent the public sector from “bullying staff” or deprive funds for organisations that question whether it is possible to change sex or are gender-critical.

A spokesman for ACE said: “In April 2022, London Community Fund made the decision to suspend an award from the Let’s Create Jubilee Fund to the LGB Alliance. The decisions regarding who received funding as part of this fund rested entirely with the UK Communities Fund and its 44 member bodies.

“We are not able to comment on ongoing legal cases, however we strive to create a respectful and caring work environment for each of our colleagues.”

Meanwhile, Very British Gays, the LGB Alliance film, was given its premiere on Friday at a screening in Soho, central London. It pointedly says in its credits: “This film was not funded by Arts Council England”.

Kate Barker, LGB Alliance’s chief executive, said: “LGB Alliance is the canary in the coal mine. The withdrawal of our tiny grant has exposed how the capture of ACE by a minority of bullying ideologues is destroying free expression and creativity.”