Maria MacLachlan is a mother, a feminist, and a humanist celebrant. In September 2017, she was assaulted at Speaker’s Corner in London while waiting to attend a discussion on changes to the UK’s Gender Recognition Act, hosted by We Need to Talk. Her assailant, Tara Flik Wood, identifies as a transwoman and was recently convicted of Maria’s assault. At the trial, Maria was asked by the Judge to call Flik Wood by his preferred (female) pronouns. Julie Moss interviews Maria via email about her experiences with regard to and following the assault and trial.
Julie Moss: You were involved in a violent attack from transgender activists and also a resultant court case. As a result, you have been pushed into the spotlight in terms of the debate surrounding women’s rights and reforms to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). How are you feeling about all this?
Maria MacLachlan: The memory of the physical attack is fading. Although it wasn’t extremely violent and I wasn’t badly hurt, I was traumatized by it for a while. In the weeks that followed, I had a few panic attacks when I was out and about in London, but that phase soon passed. However, I haven’t recovered from what happened afterwards — the hateful response on social media is still going on, eight months later. The court case felt as though I was the one on trial, and the falsehoods presented by the defence were reported as fact in the media.
JM: How well do you feel mainstream media and commentary online represented what happened to you at Speaker’s Corner?
MM: The mainstream media was mostly awful. Most reported it as a scuffle, a brawl, even a punch-up, which made it sound like we were evenly matched and equally at fault. In fact we were a group of perhaps 30 women and a few men, peacefully standing around and chatting in a park, waiting to go to a nearby venue for a meeting. My assailants were part of a group who had deliberately come to bully and intimidate us.
The newspapers also kept calling me a radical feminist, in spite of the fact that I had never called myself one. I considered myself simply an old-school feminist — concerned about proposed changes to legislation and how they might affect the lives of women and children and wanting to find out more.
The worst thing was that the popular press used the term “TERF,” which is a derogatory label pinned on anyone who questions transgender ideology in order to dismiss and dehumanize us. It’s applied to feminists, to conservatives, and even trans folk themselves who disagree with proposals to make gender declaration for transgender people a simple matter of declaration.
The day after the assault, a completely revised version of events — which positioned me as the aggressor — was circulated on social media. This story reached hundreds and thousands of people. At first I didn’t believe anyone would seriously think that I, a woman then aged 60 with no history of activism on transgender issues, would have initiated or deliberately provoked a violent assault by a group of youngsters less than half my age. I was astonished to find that in fact many people did believe this. The whole incident was captured on several videos taken from different angles and there is clip of a couple of seconds showing me holding onto one of my assailants from behind. This person, who was never identified and arrested, had just wrested my camera from me and thrown it to the ground and I was trying to stop him from picking it up and running off with it. He was thrashing about as you would if someone was holding onto you from behind. This clip was circulated attached to the narrative that I had attacked this person (who was young, athletic, and taller than me) and was “thrashing him around and lifting him up and down” as if I was the bionic woman.
JM: Following this incident there has been a groundswell of grassroots groups asking for full consultation on proposed changes to the GRA. For example, the group, “We Need to Talk” and “Women’s Place UK” (WPUK), as well as the #ManFriday movement which began via Mumsnet. Do you think the Speaker’s Corner incident was a galvanizing moment for women?
MM: Definitely. In fact, WPUK was set up as a result of the attack on me. It was Venice Allan who organized the “We Need to Talk About Gender” meeting that I was waiting to go to when the attack on me happened. About 30 women attended it. Now there are hundreds of attending meetings organized by both groups around the country. I’ve been to several of these and at each one I’ve had women come up to me and say it was what happened to me that roused them to find out more and start fighting back.
JM: The male trans activist who attacked you was one of three people who were captured on mobile phone footage at Speaker’s Corner. Can you tell us about your experiences in court, particularly with reference to the judge’s requests that you to call your male attacker by female pronouns?
MM: My experience of court was much worse than the assault. I was the one on trial that day and if it hadn’t been for the clear video evidence that I’d been assaulted, my assailant wouldn’t have been convicted, even though there were over a dozen witnesses who could have said what happened. I was asked “as a matter of courtesy” to refer to my assailant as either “she” or as “the defendant.” I have never been able to think of any of my assailants as women because, at the time of the assault, they all looked and behaved very much like men and I had no idea that any of them identified as women. After he was arrested, the defendant posted vile misogynistic comments on his Facebook page that no woman would ever make. He was also filmed aggressively intimidating a woman on a picket line, shouting obscenities at her. In what sense is this person a woman?
I tried to refer to him as “the defendant,” but using a noun instead of a pronoun is an unnatural way to speak. It was while I was having to relive the assault and answer questions about it while watching it on video that I slipped back to using “he” and earned a rebuke from the judge. I responded that I thought of the defendant “who is male, as a male.”
The judge never explained why I was expected to be courteous to the person who had assaulted me or why I wasn’t allowed to narrate what happened from my own perspective, given that I was under oath. His rebuke and the defence counsel’s haranguing of me for the same reason just made me more nervous and I so continued to inadvertently refer to my male assailant as “he.” In his summing up, the judge said I had shown “bad grace” and used this as an excuse not to award compensation. One writer said, “It was as if the state had colluded with the defendant to take one last stab at the victim,” and that’s exactly how it felt.
That wasn’t the worst part, however. The worst part was when four friends of the defendant gave evidence claiming that, prior to the attack on me, I had been going around abusing the protestors and filming although I’d been repeatedly asked not to. There was no video evidence of this because it simply didn’t happen, but the judge still chose to believe it. In fact there is video evidence that, prior to the assault, I was nowhere near the protesters and was simply chatting to new acquaintances, but that footage wasn’t admitted in evidence nor were the witnesses invited to testify.
JM: On your blog you write that you wanted to go to Speaker’s Corner to find out what was happening with regard to the GRA reform bill with an open mind. What is your sense of the situation at the moment and where reforms to the GRA might be heading?
MM: It was pretty clear, when “reform” of the GRA was first mooted, that the Minister responsible was aiming to change the law so that individuals could simply self-identify as the opposite sex via an online form. But now, based on the government’s response to a petition demanding they consult with women on the proposed changes, to which they responded, “The Government has not yet decided whether or not to introduce a self-declaration model, and will not change the Equality Act 2010 provisions which support organizations to run single sex services,” it sounds like the changes are off the table for the foreseeable future. Perhaps they’ve realized it wouldn’t exactly be a vote winner and would cause more problems that it will solve. But they still want to make the process of applying for a Gender Recognition Certificate “less bureaucratic and intrusive for trans people,” and it’s impossible to know what they might come up with instead, so it’s too soon to celebrate.
JM: Finally, where do you see yourself going forward from here, personally? What has this experience brought to you?
MM: It’s brought me nothing good I’m afraid. While my experience seems to have woken up a lot of people to the issues and I see that as a silver lining, I feel much of my faith in basic human decency has been crushed and it’s hard to feel positive about the future. Maybe it’s too soon.
Julie Moss is a freelance journalist who lives in Melbourne with her partner and three dogs.