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Trans rights, TERFs, and a bruised 60-year-old: what happened at Speakers’ Corner?

How an event about gender led to an attack in Hyde Park.

On the evening of Wednesday 13 September, pictures of a 60-year-old woman with bruises on her face began to circulate online.

The person in the picture is called Maria MacLachlan. She claims on both Mumsnet and Facebook that she was “beaten up by a bunch of kids” at Speakers’ Corner after “some kid in a hoodie” tried to take her camera, which was looped around her wrist.

(From Mumsnet)

MacLachlan was waiting to attend an event called “What is Gender?” – its location was announced at Speakers’ Corner last night, and while waiting she came into contact with people she describes as “trans activist bullies” who were protesting against the event. MacLachlan has not responded to a request for comment.

The event she wanted to attend was initially scheduled for Wednesday 13 September from 7-9pm at the New Cross Learning centre in Lewisham, south-east London. The speakers would be discussing the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 (which is now under review by the government).

What is Gender? flyer from Twitter

When the event was announced, activists, including the campaign groups Sisters Uncut, Goldsmiths LGBTQ+ Society, and Action for Trans Health London, organised a protest against it. None of their call-outs to their members that are visible on Facebook incited violent action. All three organisations have been asked for comment but have not yet responded.

Some protesters encouraged contacting the organisers of the event to ask for it to be cancelled. This is because the speakers included the writer and self-described “fabulous transsexual” Miranda Yardley, the “radical lesbian feminist activist” Dr Julia Long and jewellery designer Venice Allan.

They are all well-known feminist figures who are accused of being “TERFs” – short for “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists” – by some in the trans community and beyond, who find their views on gender threatening towards trans women in particular (Long calls trans women “he”, for example, and Allan’s most recent tweet at the time of writing states, “trans women are NOT women”.)

The protesters argued that there was no “debate” aspect to the talk, and therefore the prevailing message would be an attack on trans people.

On Tuesday 12 September, the New Cross Learning centre announced that it would be cancelling the event. “After completing a risk assessment the Management Committee believe the potential risks to the library, volunteers, public and building are beyond our risk appetite,” it wrote on its Facebook page. “Our decision is not due to outside pressure but is purely taken for health & safety reasons.”

(From the New Cross Learning Facebook page)

Although the venue denies outside pressure led to the event being cancelled, Goldsmiths LGBTQ+ Society claimed some part in the decision on its Facebook page: “GOOD NEWS! This protest has been cancelled, because the event has been cancelled!!”, it announced. “We succeeded in putting enough pressure on the organisers that the[y] decided to cancel for 'Health and Safety concerns'.”

(From the Goldsmiths LGBTQ+ Facebook page)

The venue has not yet responded to the New Statesman's question asking if it received threatening calls or emails from any of these protest groups, and there is currently no evidence to suggest it did.

On the day the event was due to take place, the speaker Yardley tweeted a meeting point – Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park – for heading to its new location:

Protesters as well as attendees like MacLachlan gathered in Hyde Park in response to this, which is when the incident occurred. There is some footage of the altercation on YouTube:

It is difficult to tell in the clip what exactly happened – there is a scuffle that involves MacLachlan in physical contact with a younger person, a piece of equipment (her camera) crashing to the floor, and then being hit in the face by a third person in a hoodie who eventually runs off.

There are cries of “call the police” at the end of the clip. The identity of the perpetrator or perpetrators is unknown.

After initally saying twice that they had no record of the incident, the Metropolitan Police later said they had been called to an the incident at 7:30pm and spoken to the victim. There were no arrests and and enquiries continue. 

Although the circumstances of the attack are still unclear (and will probably remain so, unless clearer footage emerges or the police investigation procves fruitful), voices from both camps – those who were in favour of the event taking place, and those against – are claiming what it reveals about their opponents.

Trans activists warn that the incident could be used to claim they are violent, or that it might be described as an episode of male violence, which would be offensive if the attacker turns out to be a trans woman.

(From the Action for Trans Health London Facebook page)

Others, such as the speakers and those who are sympathetic towards them, are asking why we can’t all condemn an attack on a woman.

No conclusions can be drawn without further evidence or testimony from the parties involved, so it’s probably best to end with the writer and comedian Shon Faye’s Twitter take on the story, and condemn both transphobia and violence against women:

This article was updated at 10.45am on the 20 September 2017 after the Metropolitan Police corrected their earlier statements that there was no record of the incident. They had previously stated on two occasions that no incident had been reported.


Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Nick Timothy’s defence of Theresa May raises more questions than it answers

It would be better for May’s reputation if she had known about those vans.

Nick Timothy makes an eyebrow-raising claim in his Telegraph column today: that Theresa May opposed the notorious “Go Home” vans that trundled through diverse parts of the country advising illegal immigrants to leave the country – actually claiming she went as far as to block them – but the scheme was “revived and approved” in a press plan while she was on holiday.

Some people are assuming that this story is flatly untrue, and not without good reason. The Times’ Henry Zeffman has dug out a written answer from Amber Rudd saying that while Mark Harper, a junior Home Office minister, approved the vans, he informed May of the scheme ahead of time. The timeframe also stretches credulity somewhat. This is the same government department that having decided to destroy the landing cards of Windrush Britons in June 2009, still had yet to locate a shredder by October 2010. Whitehall takes years to approve advertising campaigns and even the process of hiring a van is not simple: so it stretches credulity a tad to imagine that the Home Office would sign off a poster, hire a van and a driver, all without it either coming across the desk of the Home Secretary or her special advisor. That no official faced dismissal as a result stretches it further still.

However, it is worth noting that Mark Harper, the minister who approved the vans, was the only serving minister to have worked with May at the Home Office who did not continue on in government when she became Prime Minister – instead, she sacked him from his post. The Home Office acting off its own bat would support the belief, not uncommon among civil servants at other Whitehall departments, that Britain’s interior ministry is out of control: that it regularly goes further than its ministerial mandate and that it has an institutional dislike of the people it deals with day to day. So while it seems unlikely that the vans reached the streets without May or her advisors knowing, it is not impossible.

However, that raises more questions than it answers. If you take the Timothy version of events as true, that means that May knew the following things about the Home Office: that they were willing to not only hide the facts from ministers but to actively push ahead with policy proposals that the Secretary of State had dropped. Despite knowing that, she championed a vast increase in the powers and scope of the Home Office in the 2014 Immigration Act and at the peak of her powers in 2016 did the same as Prime Minister. She made no effort to address this troubling culture for the remaining three years she served as Home Secretary, and promoted three of her juniors, none of whom appear to have done anything to address it either, to big jobs across the government. It means that she had little grip over her department an no inclination to assert it. (Indeed, this is why the Secretary of State is held responsible even for decisions that they don’t sign off – as otherwise you have no democratic accountability at all.)

If those vans were sprung on May and her political team, that is even more troubling than the idea that they approved them.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.