Alarming words of student as more than 1,000 trans rights activists plan to descend on Oxford Union
This week’s Oxford Union lecture by ‘award-winning adult actress’ Stormy Daniels was, on paper, a seriously hot ticket.
The American porn star was making one of her first public appearances since March, when Donald Trump was arrested and charged with criminal fraud. Daniels is a pivotal figure in this free-wheeling scandal. And she has quite a story to tell.
As the evening sun trickled through the debating chamber’s stained-glass windows, she duly shared the sordid specifics of how the whole thing began, back in 2006, when ‘The Donald’ seduced her at a lakeside resort following a celebrity golf tournament.
‘It wasn’t real consent as he had a huge bodyguard standing outside the hotel room. If I’d left, I might have been shot!’ she joked.
Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, would later pay Daniels $130,000 in ‘hush money’ in an effort to buy her silence during the 2016 election. That transaction, which seemingly involved the unlawful use of campaign funds, has since landed Cohen in jail for perjury. They have now culminated in Trump becoming the first former U.S. President to face a criminal indictment.
A heated and at times utterly unhinged dispute is raging over the woman who will on Tuesday follow Stormy Daniels into its red velvet speaker’s chair. Her name is Kathleen Stock. Pictured: Protestors gathered in Library Square at Sussex University
Stock (pictured) owes her invitation to speak to her role in perhaps the most divisive debate of our times: she’s the philosopher who resigned from her job at the University of Sussex in 2021 during a high-profile row over transgender rights.
The event should therefore have drawn a serious crowd to the 200-year-old club’s wood-panelled HQ. Yet only a smattering of members bothered to attend
‘We’ve all woken up next to someone and not been proud of it,’ was how Daniels described her part in the short-lived affair.
Later, while discussing their eventual falling-out, which is likely to be revisited in fine detail at trial, she declared: ‘Donald Trump has said I have a horse face. That’s him admitting to bestiality!’
Wednesday night’s event was, then, a colourful talk in the best tradition of Oxford Union lectures, which these days require a global celebrity or statesman to shed personal light on a subject of great topical interest.
The event should therefore have drawn a serious crowd to the 200-year-old club’s wood-panelled HQ. Yet only a smattering of members bothered to attend.
To the embarrassment of onlookers, the historic chamber, where a Who’s Who of political heavyweights have cut their teeth (past Union presidents range from Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and William Hague to Ted Heath, Tony Benn and Jeremy Thorpe) was more than two-thirds empty.
‘I would say there were between 150 and 200 lonely souls, in a room that can take around 600,’ says one undergraduate member. ‘The front three rows next to the stage, which are reserved for officials and the speakers’ guests, were full, but after that it was pretty deserted and there wasn’t a single person in the galleries upstairs. In fact, I’ve never seen the place so quiet and I’ve attended around 40 Union events there.’
Wednesday was the second time in recent days that punters have failed to show up at one of the organisation’s high-profile gatherings. The Oxford Union’s annual Summer ball, held last Friday, also attracted just a handful of revellers.
‘Normally, hundreds of tickets are issued and they all sell out because it’s one of the cheaper Trinity Term balls. But this one was a complete disaster’ adds the member. ‘I think people are either deciding to boycott Union events on principle, or they’re staying away out of fear because they’re afraid of what might happen if they go and the wrong people see them there. It’s a mess.’
This week’s Oxford Union lecture by ‘award-winning adult actress’ Stormy Daniels was, on paper, a seriously hot ticket
The American porn star was making one of her first public appearances since March, when Donald Trump was arrested and charged with criminal fraud. Daniels is a pivotal figure in this free-wheeling scandal. And she has quite a story to tell
Doubtless exam season prevented some students attending. But these are troubled times for the world’s most prestigious debating society.
For instead of spending this Trinity Term celebrating a glorious bicentenary (it was founded in 1823 and has played host to everyone from Winston Churchill and Elizabeth II to Albert Einstein and the Dalai Lama), the famous institution finds itself on the toxic front line of the culture wars.
To blame? A heated and at times utterly unhinged dispute over the woman who will on Tuesday follow Stormy Daniels into its red velvet speaker’s chair.
Her name is Kathleen Stock, and unlike many of the Union’s recent speakers — who have included famous pornographic artist, Mia Khalifa, along with actor Derek Jacobi and a star of The Apprentice called Tom Skinner — she has no obvious connection with modern celebrity culture.
Instead Stock, who boasts an OBE and was recently described as a ‘mild-mannered and eminently sensible middle-aged lesbian’, owes her invitation to speak to her role in perhaps the most divisive debate of our times: she’s the philosopher who resigned from her job at the University of Sussex in 2021 during a high-profile row over transgender rights.
That row unfolded after a cabal of students, in collaboration with various academic colleagues, took grave exception to her decision to publish a book on transgender issues called Material Girls, which argued that biological sex in human beings is real and socially important, and that female-only spaces such as changing rooms and toilets ought to be protected.
Stock has also spoken out against proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, which would have allowed individuals to ‘self-identify’ as a man or woman — and be treated as such in law — without a medical diagnosis.
In the hysterical world of modern academia, holding such views amounts to a sort of thought crime. So while Stock had also argued that transgender people are entitled to respect, and some form of legal recognition, she swiftly found herself on the receiving end of what she later called a ‘medieval experience’ of campus ostracisation. Protesters gathered outside her lectures, graffiti was scrawled on campus walls, and balaclava-clad demonstrators hounded her on social media.
Protests against Dr Stock at Sussex University before she decided to quit two years ago
The phrase ‘Stock Out’ was seen written on walls around the campus at Sussex University
Since leaving Sussex, Stock has joined the likes of J.K. Rowling and Julie Bindel atop the trans lobby’s list of prominent hate figures. Her public appearances have been routinely picketed, while strenuous efforts are made to ‘cancel’ people and organisations she collaborates with.
All of which brings us back to the Oxford Union, which proudly markets itself as an organisation devoted to the promotion of free speech. It announced in late April that Stock had been included on its ‘Term Card’ of speakers who will address students in the summer.
There has followed the most almighty row in which a host of noisy student organisations attempted — with grim predictability — to shut down the event.
The students’ union voted to cut ties with the debating society, a host of college Junior Common Rooms issued statements calling for her to be ‘de-platformed’ and the University’s LGBTQ+ society went ballistic, dubbing Stock a ‘notorious transphobe’ and calling for the Oxford Union’s President Matthew Dick to be ‘held accountable’ for asking her to publicly share her opinions.
As the row escalated, supporters of Stock began speaking out in favour of her right to free speech. Last week, 40 prominent academics put their heads above the parapet by signing an open letter arguing that universities ‘must remain places where contentious views can be openly discussed’.
Meanwhile a hundred undergraduates put their name to a second letter saying they were ‘appalled’ by the effort to cancel the event, saying: ‘it’s not necessary to agree with Professor Stock’s views in order to recognise the dangerous precedent that would be set if “the last bastion of free speech” could not stand firm.’
There has, in other words, been quite the row. Coverage of the escalating dispute has in recent days drawn a selection of highly provocative figures to the streets of the City, including a Canadian social media campaigner called Chris Elston, who is known as ‘Billboard Chris’ and travels the world lobbying against what he calls ‘gender ideology’.
Elston surfaced in Oxford in order to parade around wearing a sandwich board with the message ‘children cannot consent to puberty blockers’.
The Oxford Union proudly markets itself as an organisation devoted to the promotion of free speech
This sparked angry confrontations with a cabal of counter-protesters, who turned up with loudhailers in an effort to silence him. Things ended with the police intervening to keep the peace outside the university’s Radcliffe Camera library.
‘I got stuck in an alleyway and assaulted and pushed into a car,’ Elston claims. There were no arrests, though video of the incident on social media has been viewed more than a million times.
A second ugly incident saw Amiad Haran Diman, president of Oxford’s LGBTQ+ society, who had appeared on Radio 4 to argue that Stock ought not to be allowed to speak at the Union, on the receiving end of what he regarded as a death threat.
An anonymous typed letter was sent to the Department of Philosophy and International Relations, where Diman studies, containing lengthy criticisms of the interview, before saying: ‘My advice is to watch your back. There might be “someone sneaking round the corner / Is the someone Mack the Knife?”’ The letter was reported to police.
A sense of mild unease now pervades Oxford’s cobble-filled streets, with posters advertising forthcoming protests and counter protests glued to walls and windows, and a sense of paranoia evident at the Union where jumpy officials — who chose not to respond to the Mail’s requests for comment — have arbitrarily ejected several members and their guests from the premises in recent days.
Further ugly scenes are predicted to unfold on Tuesday, with up to 1,000 trans rights protestors preparing to picket the entrance of the Oxford Union for several hours leading up to the event.
‘Beware that a transphobic counter-protest is likely and caution is warranted,’ warns a leaflet supporting the protest. ‘Some heated interactions are likely.’
That’s one way to put things. A major possible flashpoint, according to concerned Union members I met this week, is likely to be the queue outside the Oxford Union’s entrance gate in the hours leading up to Stock’s talk.
Dr Stock’s Oxford Union appearance on May 30 was announced in the society’s ‘term card’
It’s a relatively narrow pedestrian street where the audience are expected to be corralled behind barriers for an hour or so. The fear is that trans rights protestors, who are not known for their reticence, will attempt to physically prevent them gaining access.
‘It’s an absolute powder keg, in terms of what might happen, and I worry, I really do,’ says Oliver Dobbs, a theology student who was at the Union this week and is concerned about a repeat of scenes that unfolded a few years back when Left-wing protesters targeted a talk by Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. ‘I went to the Lewandowski event and at times was scared for my life. The Union doesn’t let people in until about an hour before the event, and by standing outside in the queue people were in the eyes of protesters deemed to somehow be in favour of the speaker.
‘They were shouting vitriol in my face, I had people pushing me, and when we did finally get into the talk there were five or six instances of people with banners trying to rush the stage. I worry this will be far worse.’
Adding to the sense of foreboding are Snapchat messages reportedly circulating amongst opponents of Stock’s talk. One student who had knowledge of their contents told me they discuss a plan to ‘milkshake’ Union members in the queue.
The term refers to a form of assault that gained popularity following the Brexit vote, when milkshakes were repeatedly thrown at Eurosceptic politicians, including Nigel Farage.
Little wonder that Thames Valley Police are keeping a beady eye on developments.
‘We will have appropriate resources in place to facilitate lawful and peaceful protest,’ a statement said this week. ‘However, where people engage in non-peaceful protest or disrupt those going about their lawful business we will take proportionate action.’
No matter how things do play out, it should be noted that — in stark contrast to their contemporaries at such universities as Sussex — Oxford’s senior officials have taken a relatively robust line in support of Professor Stock’s right to free speech, perhaps reflecting new legislation that means universities have a legal obligation to protect freedom of speech.
Dr Stock has responded to a statement by the Oxford University LGBTQ+ Society (below)
Professor Martin Williams, a pro-vice-chancellor, issued a statement earlier this month telling students they must be prepared to ‘encounter and confront difficult views’ during their time at Oxford.
‘We do not allow the no-platforming of any lawful speech but also support the right of students, staff and societies to protest and challenge speakers at events, as long as they do so within the law and our policies.’
Oxford’s Vice Chancellor Irene Tracey told the Times on Monday: ‘Freedom of speech is what we stand for. She has a right to come and speak. It’s as simple as that.’
Tracey added that she’s even considering giving Freshers a short course on the basics of free speech when they arrive at the University. ‘Our job is to help equip them because they’re going to go into the workplace. You’ve got to get used to views that are going to be absolutely aligned with your own, and ones that you’ll find distasteful.’
In other words, universities should be places where you can disapprove of what someone says while defending to the death their right to say it.
On Tuesday, Kathleen Stock, the Oxford Union, and up to a thousand censorious protesters will find out whether that old saying is still true.