The Queerness

Trial by media over Speakers’ Corner fracas

A media circus has blown up over a scuffle between trans and anti-trans activists at Speaker’s Corner. Sam Hope explores some context.


Should we “stand up” to bullies or ignore them? This age-old question came to my mind as I dealt with the vicious online fallout from an incident at Speakers Corner, during which a young trans woman hit out at an older anti-trans activist who had her friend in a headlock.

As a former school counsellor, I already know the answer is that neither ignoring nor standing up to bullies is terribly good advice. Bullies choose their targets carefully. They choose people with less power than them, and they isolate them. You cannot safely stand up to someone with more power than you, and you cannot safely ignore them because they will escalate and provoke mercilessly. Finding support and safe places should be a priority for anyone being bullied.

Let’s take gender out of the equation for a moment. The confrontation at Speaker’s Corner was between two groups – a group led by middle class, middle-aged, socially included people and a group of socially excluded and by and large younger people. The former group’s sole purpose is to campaign against the civil rights of the latter. But we are supposed to believe the younger group hold the power and that it is the others who have reason to be afraid of them.

You cannot safely stand up to someone with more power than you, and you cannot safely ignore them because they will escalate and provoke mercilessly

One trick of these particular bullies is to pretend that (cis) women cannot in any circumstance be oppressive, that they are always, and universally, the oppressed. It’s quite a good get-out, painting yourself as a universal victim. They despise the idea of intersectionality, because intersectionality understands that although Margaret Thatcher and Hilary Clinton experience misogyny, they can still be oppressors in other ways. The idea that a gay, disabled man living in poverty in Kolkata objectively has less power in the world than Clinton and Thatcher is heresy to them.

I have often wondered if they feel this way because sexism is the only oppression they experience. Their expectations in life have for certain been curtailed by being women, because sexism is real. But they are not the sort to reflect on the complex ways in which we all can be simultaneously both oppressor and oppressed. Particularly absent in this narrative are issues of the social status that goes with middle age and class. Let alone any recognition of how being transgender marginalises people and makes them vulnerable.

When they play the victim even for being called “TERFs” it’s nearly impossible to speak out against this hate or find an effective means to protest it. At the same time, of course, the transphobe’s free speech is sacrosanct and portrayed as under threat. They shout very loudly about how “silenced” they are, taking advantage of their upper hand to get their version of events top billing in major newspapers and academic institutions.

I’ve watched and rewatched the videos online and I can’t say with any clarity what happened, except that the accuser emerged from a scuffle with a young non-binary trans person, (someone who was assigned female at birth, it transpires), held in a headlock. Portrayed in the media as a poor, frail, granny this robust 60-year old appears nonetheless to have got the better of the situation. The other anti-trans activists watching on were singing. They appeared unworried, certainly not frightened.

At this point a trans woman, ran across, clearly to rescue her friend, and this was when the alleged assault took place. As in, the young rescuer hit the older woman who had her friend in a headlock.

I’m a pacifist, but I realise that physical violence is not the only kind of violence, and the systemic violence of trying to strip a minority group of rights and dignity has more far-reaching impact. I don’t celebrate violence, but there are times when I can understand how it happened, and understand that focusing on this act of retaliation is a bully tactic designed to distract against the greater violence being enacted here.

Portrayed in the media as a poor, frail, granny this robust 60-year old appears nonetheless to have got the better of the situation.

“Granny beaten up by trans activist” was the story that went around, and let’s be clear, that’s the story that will be believed, because those with more power always get to dictate which version of events becomes cannon. “Humanist minister gets vulnerable young person in headlock” has quite another ring to it.

Bullies pick their targets carefully. They choose targets that are safe to attack, often because of structural inequalities, but have some trait that makes them appear to have a power they don’t. So the autistic kid will be bullied for being a “swot” because they are hiding in books, the working class kid will be labelled “thug” to legitimise piling in, the trans woman is targeted for some mythical “maleness” that is entirely unquantifiable. By denying trans women’s identities and more importantly their vulnerability, transphobes enact and incite relentless violence that particularly falls on trans women.

What is a bully’s aim? This is important: to consolidate power for themself. The people who pull the strings of the “gender critical” anti-trans movement are often white, middle class, and middle-aged. They tend to have positions of power or influence in community organising, within NGOs, in journalism or academia. By creating an external threat, they can coax people to rally to their banner or their brand, to boost their profile. By making it appear like a clear and present danger, they can obliterate any debate on the subject as divisive or treacherous. And thus they control certain feminist discourses and spaces, even when they are very much in the minority, and when academic thinking has moved a long way from their 1970s version of feminism.

I have nothing to say about whether the counter protesters involved acted correctly, understandably, or problematically. I have seen testimony from London Action for Trans Health that suggested it was very much a two-sided scuffle, and my own eyes would seem to confirm this. I do know the police were called, and were shown video footage, and it was their belief the “assault” had actually been self-defence. Personally, I think the matter should have been left there. I find it ironic that having been exonerated by the police, these individuals are now facing trial by media and social media, and the entire trans community appears to be on trial with them. Condemnations are coming from various quarters, as respectability politics shores up the notion that trans people have to always act calmly under fire while pleading for civil rights.

What is a bully’s aim? This is important: to consolidate power for themself.

Would people have just as quickly condemned Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Riviera back in the day? The charity Stonewall, in the ultimate stroke of irony, released a blanket statement about violence which clearly condemns the historical events that gave the charity its name.

Everyone is behaving exactly as scripted. The bullying is overlooked, the lashing out of the victims is given everyone’s focus. We can safely collude with those who have more social capital against those who have less, because the victims are not all perfect angels. Make no mistake, onlookers are always looking for a get-out from standing with the bullied, because standing with the bullied makes you vulnerable too. This has presented Stonewall, and others, the perfect excuse to step back from this ongoing hate campaign against trans people and be a bystander. Which is ironic from an organisation who launched a “no bystanders” initiative.

Imagine Stonewall being equally vocal if a gay kid hit out at a homophobic bully. It’s not so much a question of whether hitting a bully is right or wrong; the question is why is it news? Why the attention on this completely unsurprising event? Why the need to make a national announcement that seems to be a general guidance warning to the entire trans community?

Ultimately, this is about the upcoming vote on whether trans people’s legal recognition could be freed of a mountain of bureaucracy. Bigots and bullies are going out of their way to portray trans people as a danger, despite all evidence that trans people are, in fact, endangered in society, subject to constant abuse and violence, including the specifically toxic and relentless structural violence from “gender critical” feminists, aka TERFs.

It’s not so much a question of whether hitting a bully is right or wrong; the question is why is it news?

As I stated at the beginning, the only way to stop bullying is to get support. Bullies will do everything they can to paint their victims unsympathetically and goad their victims into behaviour that will make people distance themselves. It’s not enough at this point for cis allies to shake their heads and say “trans people aren’t helping their own cause”. That’s a cop-out, a way of not having to risk reaching out a hand to this community. Make no mistake, this community needs the unconditional support of all cis people with a conscience right now, and the actions of a couple of young people, whether right or wrong, should not in any way be changing that.

Follow Sam on Twitter (@Sam_R_Hope)