“I’ll wipe my hands on my penis.”
Essayist and activist Sophie McAllister is confident she’d never uttered those words before this week. Now, she tells Rolling Stone, she must have said them over a hundred times, thanks to a quick encounter in a London pub, which she believes made her the unwilling target of a Daily Mail article.
In a bitter case of irony, the only reason Sophie, who asked to be referred to by her first name in this story, went into the Marquis of Granby Pub on a February evening was for safety. She and eight other friends had attended a vigil for 16-year-old transgender girl Brianna Ghey, who had been killed earlier that month, and wanted to make sure they didn’t run into any problems on the way home.
“We went to regroup and make sure that we stayed together before traveling home because of the risk of attacks from bigots,” Sophie says, noting that she doesn’t even drink. “It’s a big concern that we’re going to be targeted by people who want to do us harm.”
While at the pub, Sophie used the restroom and made awkward small talk with a woman in the cramped space. “Towards the end, I was trying to use the hand dryer. It was terrible and she was like ‘We’ll have to shake,’” Sophie says. “I said ‘Oh, I’ll just wipe my hands on my jeans’ and I left.”
But on Feb. 25, the U.K.’s Daily Mail published an online article from local politician Ruby Sampson titled “How a friendly chat in the ladies of a London pub turned menacing and plunged a Tory councillor, 22, into the clash between trans rights and women’s safety.” In the piece, Sampson writes about an encounter she had with a trans woman in the women’s room at a London pub. She said she was proud of herself for not treating the clearly trans woman any differently. Sampson writes that she and the woman talked about how dreadful the hand dryer was — with Sampson saying they would simply have to shake their hands dry — she alleges the woman turned to her and said, “I’ll just wipe my hands on my penis.” Sampson wrote that she was shocked, and considered the phrase a threat — one that made her feel so unsafe she couldn’t bear the thought of going to the bathroom at that bar alone ever again.
The article, and its underlying assumptions, don’t exist in a bubble. Rather, it is just one example of how rampant anti-transgender rhetoric is becoming in the U.K. These trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFS, as critics call them, have spent the past two years holding rallies, pushing for legislation, and stoking anti-transgender sentiments — all under the guise of excluding trans people from single-sex spaces. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has received major backlash for being a prominent face of this movement, which she says is about women’s safety rather than transphobia. But the trans community and its allies have accused Rowling and British politicians like Kemi Badenoch and Rosie Duffield of painting a target on trans backs. And on Feb. 11, when Ghey was found fatally stabbed to death in a park in Cheshire, England, the death of the transgender girl quickly became a rallying point for trans women.
After the article came out, Sophie says, she and her friends thought it was funny. The phrase “I’ll wipe my hands on my penis” sounded absolutely absurd, and they assumed the woman was simply making up the entire interaction in order to write more anti-trans articles. Until they realized the woman was talking about the same bar they went to. On the same night. At the same time.
“We all had a laugh about it,” she says. “And then we slowly realized that the story which was obviously ridiculous to everyone who’s read it … it was about me.”
Sophie tells Rolling Stone she can’t be 100 percent certain she’s the woman Sampson is referring to in the article, but a plethora of similarities line up, including the pub, the night, the upstairs event referenced in Sampson’s article, their conversation, and of course, the description of herself. The Daily Mail article uses what Sophie calls an “absurd, nonsensical lie” to make the case for more single-sex spaces in England. But in its descriptions of the encounter and Sophie — whom the author describes as towering, big-shouldered, and deep-voiced — the short writeup says that sharing bathrooms with trans women puts cis women in danger, and uses rhetoric that suggests Sophie is a predator for her supposed penis comments. Sampson did not respond to Rolling Stone’s requests for comment, but has been active on Twitter liking and responding to comments praising her for her strength and bravery in speaking out. She has not acknowledged a thread Sophie posted alleging that the conversation hadn’t happened as Sampson wrote.
“It was funny for a couple of days,” Sophie says. “And then it kind of hit me. I feel a little less safe using public bathrooms. We all feel less safe when we see these articles. As a trans person, it makes me quite terrified. And as a sexual assault survivor myself, it makes me disgusted that people like me are constantly and frequently painted as sexual predators based on nothing.”
Sophie came out as trans in the summer of 2020, an experience she calls initially lonely due to the pandemic. But while she was supported and welcomed by her trans friends, the danger that trans individuals can face made her nervous to be so public about it. And in the days since the story was published, the incident has also compounded Sophie’s already frustrated feelings towards outlets helping to spread anti-trans messages.
“Trans people don’t like to speak to journalists, because journalists are complicit in the machine that is most directly getting us killed. Journalists don’t listen to us when we say that we are experiencing a genocide,” Sophie says. “There’s a reason that the number of hate crimes against us has [increased]. It’s not out of nowhere. It’s people publishing articles that insinuate that we are sexual predators, which encourages people to attack us.”
She points to the recent death of Ghey as just one example. Reports in the British media, from several major outlets, either omitted Ghey’s trans identity, or used her deadname — an act that has incensed the transgender community, and sparked several nationwide rallies, like the one Sophie attended that night. Sophie tells Rolling Stone that as long as the British press continues to publish articles that fearmonger and promote insidious rhetoric around trans issues, they’re complicit in the deaths of trans people.
“Within the community, there’s a lot of feeling that we have to do more. We are going to do more to make people take us seriously and make it so they can’t ignore what’s being done to us,” Sophie says. “And I hope that every journalist at one of these outlets, every time they lock eyes with a child for the rest of their lives, they see Brianna Ghey. I hope they can one day understand the guilt that they bear. And seeing them go on to take away her dignity even in death … It’s despicable.”
While the Daily Mail article has made Sophie fear for her safety, she says she finds hope in the support of her friends and community. Fighting for your existence is exhausting, Sophie tells Rolling Stone. It’s why she hopes that cisgender people will help take up the mantle, not just to make trans women like herself feel safer about simply using a pub bathroom — but to hopefully save lives.
“When we chant ‘Show me what community looks like,’ the crowd responds ‘This is what community looks like.’ Community helps enormously,” she says. “We won’t have to fight if cis people [help]. It’s entirely in [their] hands. I am entirely confident that we can live in a world where we get to live the way that we want. But I have to try not to think too hard about how many people will die before that happens.”