Three days ago, Lily Madigan – a 19-year-old transgender woman and the women's officer of her local Labour Party branch – made a plea to be left alone. "Please stop," she tweeted. "I can’t handle it any more. I’m so mentally distressed that I can’t sleep or eat or go to school."
It has been a singularly shameful experience, as a journalist and as a woman, to watch what has been done to Madigan over the last few weeks. She is an obviously bright, determined and ambitious young woman, but her brutal exposure to public scrutiny and mockery would test anybody’s sanity, let alone that of a teenager who has only been living publicly as a transgender person for two years.
Madigan first came to widespread attention when Lucy Bannerman wrote in The Times about her election to women’s officer in Rochester and Strood. The report drew attention to the fact that Madigan had previously made a complaint about Anne Ruzylo, the then-women's officer of Bexhill and Battle, East Sussex, for expressing transphobic views. Ruzylo later resigned. Bannerman makes it fairly clear in her reporting that she is proposing Madigan as an emblem of a wider struggle.
"Her appointment highlights the battle being fought between transgender activists," she writes, "...who believe gender should be a matter of self-declaration, and critics who claim that the very category of 'woman' is being erased to appease the demands of a minority group."
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Following media coverage, hordes of outraged transphobes began to attack Lily on social media. The level of vitriol and aggression is genuinely shocking to see, even if you’re used to the nastier corners of Twitter. It’s a grotesque spectacle: a vulnerable teenager being bullied and taunted by people – some of them powerful activists – who are old enough to be her parents.
I'm not here to convince transphobic people that their ideas about gender are wrong. I’m under no illusions that I have any power to move someone who insists that trans women are men in dresses, or that trans men are just confused lesbians with eating disorders. I don’t know how to do that – I wish I did. What I do feel capable of saying is that this cruelty is unacceptable. Bullying a vulnerable young person, using the full weight of the media and the vast hateful horizon of Twitter, is unacceptable. We have seen people bullied and shamed to death this way before, and will again.
One of the accusations being made against Madigan involved a Twitter account from 2013, when she would have been 15, with her former name attached to it. The line goes that the account had a rape joke on it, and that a person who could say such a thing was not fitting to be a women’s officer ("rape.com/Savilesapprentice" was listed as its website, in someone’s unfunny idea of a risque joke).
There were outraged demands for her resignation on this basis. People scolded that she shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it just because she is trans. Of course, the reality is she is not getting away with anything because she is trans. She is being scrutinised malevolently to a degree her cis equivalents would never be.
Madigan has denied authorship and claimed the account was set up maliciously by someone other than her. But frankly, regardless of who wrote it, it’s time to reconsider the now-established routine of searching through the juvenilia of someone’s internet history to undermine them in the present. It’s become an easy journalistic Gotcha! to search a person’s Twitter and Facebook history with offensive keywords and unearth past transgressions. We saw it in November, when Stormzy’s homophobic tweets were revealed.
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Of course, I believe there are some things along these lines which are worthy of being revealed. There is a difference between a politician or public figure being found to have engaged in holocaust denial in their recent past, and a person using common linguistic tropes of their age and generation during their adolescence. That doesn’t mean we applaud it, or tolerate it. It simply means that, for instance, during my childhood a young person using the word "gay" pejoratively was neither unusual nor particularly meaningful. Culture changed, and we with it.
I did a search of my own social media recently – went looking through my Twitter and my Facebook for all the questionable words one might find buried away in the nooks of 2007. I knew, though, there was only one I was likely to find recurring. I knew that I had made rape jokes when I was younger. There was a certain type of humour which attracted me back then, the starkly vicious 4Chan sort. I can't really empathise with the person I was when I found it funny, but my best guess is that it was connected to the sheer outrageousness of the malice, how ludicrous it was to laugh at such terrible things. Before you experience much of the world yourself, including the mundanity and ubiquity of its cruelty, such jokes are easier to make.
A significant part of my career now involves writing and speaking about sexual violence and reproductive health issues. But I made rape jokes. If someone in my life, or someone I followed on Twitter, was to behave that way now, I would exclude them. I would not now do what I did then. But I did make those jokes. I even made them after I was raped myself – and probably laughed along at plenty of other things that would horrify me now.
Are we to give up on each other because of such things? Are we to abandon the idea that people are capable of change, growth, accumulating wisdom? If so, how do we find reason enough to fight our battles? If we accepted this premise there would be no point in going on.
This mindset is not just draining and petty and pedantic. It’s actively antithetical to the premise of revolutionary politics, which relies on the possibility of people becoming aware that better versions of humanity are possible. And it is possible; on the grandest scale of organisation, and right down to the individual kindness we can find within our flawed, afraid, salvageable hearts.
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