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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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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”