Lily Madigan Plans on Being the UK's First Trans Member of Parliament
The 19-year-old teenager made history when she became the first transgender woman elected as a Labour Party women's officer. So why has she been viciously targeted by online bullies?
Lily Madigan. Photo by Zing Tsjeng
In another time and place, Lily Madigan would be hailed as a role model and a trailblazer—a 19-year-old teenager thought to be the first transgender woman elected as a women’s officer in the Labour Party.
Instead, she’s spent the last few weeks at the center of a British right-wing media storm, facing down vile Twitter abuse and being subjected to articles with such headlines as “Lily Madigan Is Not a Woman”.
“It got pretty bad,” she says when we meet in London. “Lots of people inciting violence and stuff like that. My friends were like, ‘If you don’t block them, you’re not allowed to go on Twitter.’ So it was an easy choice.”
At a time of widespread concern over youth disengagement, Madigan stands out for her age and commitment to local politics. So how did she become the target of such vicious and abusive online bullying?
In September, Madigan learned that a Labour women’s officer named Anne Ruzylo had been allegedly posting transphobic messages on her Twitter account. In July, Ruzylo tweeted about a young child who had recently come out as trans: “Kerching… here’s the next Jazz [Jennings]! Nice money maker for the parents. Child abuse!” Ruzylo did not respond to a request for comment.
Madigan filed a complaint with the secretary of Ruzylo’s constituency Labour Party (CLP), Bexhill and Battle. For those less-versed in local politics, CLPs are groups of local activists who organize around constituency lines and are able to select Labour parliamentary candidates and campaign on their behalf.
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She didn’t hear anything back. “It didn’t go anywhere,” she says.
In November, Ruzylo stepped down from her position, claiming that a member of Bexhill and Battle CLP had organized a smear campaign against her. It prompted the rest of the executive council to resign en masse with her, and Madigan was named in the resulting press coverage as one of three people who had filed formal complaints against Ruzylo.
“My complaint wasn’t even acknowledged,” Madigan says. “They seem to think we all have meetings and exchange ideas—I don’t. Like a ‘trans agenda’—I don’t know what that is!”
She maintains that she was doing the right thing by lodging a complaint against Ruzylo. “Labour is supposed to be the party of equality, so I definitely think views like hers shouldn’t be in our party.” (Ruzylo has since quit the Labour Party.)
But Ruzylo’s alleged behavior got Madigan thinking. Her local CLP of Rochester & Strood was heading for its annual general meeting in November, and it would be voting in a new executive committee. Why not put herself forward as women's officer?
Madigan was already active as a Labour activist; she had campaigned against Conservative plans to shutter the local nursery and Sure Start Centers and represented her area at the Young Labour Conference, the national gathering of Labour youth activists, where she met Jeremy Corbyn and shadow youth minister Cat Smith. Madigan was also a well-liked student politician at the University of the Creative Arts, where she studies fashion design—she had been elected Women’s Officer, LGBTQ+ Officer, and Campus Executive Officer for her campus.
“I always like to run for stuff,” she says, a small smile on her face. “It makes me happy when I get it.” She loves her area: “Rochester is historic, it has its pretty castles and cathedrals. Rochester High Street reminds me of Diagon Alley because all the buildings are leaning in weird ways that make it look like it’s going to fall down.”
Growing up in Rochester, Kent, the soft-spoken but stoic teenager first realized she was trans when she was around 14. “I remember I heard someone talking about it in the library and thinking, Oh, that’s probably me,” she says, with characteristic understatement. “It just kind of made sense.”
She came out to friends when she was 16 and then to her family and her school, St Simon Stock Catholic School, a year later. That’s when the problems started with the school administrators: “They wouldn’t call me by my name—and it was my legal name [by deed poll] at that point—they used the wrong pronouns, and they wouldn’t let me use the right changing rooms and toilets.”
Madigan was already “pretty depressed” due to the lack of support she received from her family, and the treatment she received at school made it worse. Her grades started dropping, and she spent a bit of time in hospital “because it got that bad.”
“I reached the point where I was like, I have to do something otherwise it’s not going to get better ,” she says.
Madigan got on a train to London by herself and started knocking on doors of law firms, reasoning that the school was discriminating against her and that she might have a legal case against them. “In the end, I did find one who did it for free. They brought the case against my school, and my school backed down because of Labour’s Equality Act.”
The landmark piece of legislation from 2010 made it illegal to discriminate against trans people. Last October, the school apologized to Madigan and allowed her to access the correct bathroom and uniform for the remainder of her education there.
“Since then,” she explains, “I’ve kind of felt like I owed Labour.” There was no other political party for her, especially once Jeremy Corbyn was voted in as Labour leader. “I feel like he speaks sense and he cares about the young, not any more than he cares about votes.” When she ran for executive officer at her university, her election poster had a picture of her and Corbyn.
On November 17, Madigan stood for the post of women’s officer in front of a church hall full of other Labour activists voting in their new executive committee. It was later described as one of her CLP’s best-attended meetings yet. The previous women’s officer was stepping down to run for another position; Madigan was up against one other contender for the role and delivered a two-minute speech about fighting transphobia in the party and in society.
“I didn’t feel that confident, to be honest,” she acknowledges. “My speech was just good enough to turn people to me.” She won “pretty clearly, but it wasn’t a landslide.”
That’s when the online abuse began in earnest. On Mumsnet, an online forum better known for going viral for unintentionally hilarious posts from its userbase of mothers, Madigan was repeatedly misgendered and called a “19-year-old boy” and an “odious little creep.” Countless people on Twitter have misgendered her: “He was born a man and he will die a man,” one said. Madigan was accused of bullying Ruzylo out of her role—even though she does not belong to Ruzylo’s CLP and says she never interacted with Ruzylo beyond filing her complaint.
"I think I'm someone who's very easy to target because I'm young, trans, and a trans woman," she says of her online trolls. "I just let it bounce right off. It must suck being them. They just think so backwards—it makes no sense in my head.”
Some people even found a Twitter account from 2013 using Madigan’s dead name, featuring an old pre-transition picture of Madigan making a blowjob gesture and linking to a nonexistent website called rape.com/savillesapprentice. The account has since been taken down, but screenshots have been tweeted as proof that Madigan was unsuitable for the role of women’s officer.
The Twitter account, she explains, was made by her brother as a joke several years ago. “But I don’t think he should be dragged through the mud for something he did when he was 13,” she says firmly. “I don’t get why people think I would insult myself. I think they’re really reaching for anything they can.”
On November 25, right-wing British newspaper The Times ran a story announcing that Madigan had applied for Labour’s Jo Cox Women in Leadership Programme, a mentoring scheme set up in the wake of Cox’s murder to get more women into party leadership positions. That sparked another round of online abuse: Now she was accused of trying to take a cisgender woman’s spot on the program. (In fact, the Jo Cox scheme already had a trans women in its first year, and its application form explicitly states that it is focuses on groups who are "currently under-represented in our democratic institutions.")
At the time, Madigan hadn’t even hit send on her application, though she had already gotten statements of support from a fellow Labour member and Tristan Osborne, a local Labour councillor. But that only served to solidify her desire to apply for the scheme. She later tweeted about submitting her application with the words: “Trans women are women.”
“I’m on the right track but I think I need more skills and experience to apply for roles like councillor or parliamentary candidate,” she says. “We still haven’t had a transgender MP. That’s my goal.”
Fifty-five women from the year’s previous programme signed a letter saying that they were “disappointed” with the Times' coverage of Madigan’s application. “Rather than celebrate what [the scheme] has achieved,” the letter said, “it focussed on sowing divisions with regards to who applies.”
An open statement of solidarity with Lily also began circulating on Twitter last week under the hashtag #IStandWithLily, reaching over 295,000 impressions on the site and attracting close to 300 signatures.
“We are writing this open letter to show solidarity to Lily Madigan, a young trans woman and political activist who has been subject to violent transphobic abuse,” the statement reads. “It is past time that young trans people should be able to feel safe to participate fully in politics and express themselves without fear.”
At the time of writing, 162 self-identified Labour Party members—including women’s officers from at least four Young Labour university groups—have signed the document.
“As the volume of transphobic abuse directed at Lily continued to increase, the support and solidarity needed to increase too,” explains Phill Dowler, 22, one of the co-creators of letter. He is the current vice-president of UCA Student Union, where Madigan occupies several positions. “It’s disgusting that anyone thinks the way that people have treated Lily is acceptable. Transphobia in any form is unacceptable.”
The online bullying that Madigan has faced is horrific, but not uncommon. According to Stonewall research, over a third of young trans people have experienced online abuse in the last month, and two in five trans people have experienced a hate crime or incident in the past year.
"Many trans people are facing a torrent of hatred and abuse both online and offline, just for being themselves,” Stonewall told Broadly in a statement. “It shines a light on the vicious transphobia that exists in Britain today, and we all have a role to play in standing up and loudly condemning it.”
Madigan says of the abuse: “I know I’m a lot stronger than other trans women, so I don’t let it bother me. I think we’ve definitely won the argument already.” Even Conservative politicians like Theresa May, she points out, support reform of the Gender Recognition Act, which would make it easier for trans people to self-identify as the correct gender. “Which is quite a stark contrast with America,” Madigan adds. “So we’re winning.”
In the meantime, she just wants to get on with the job of women's officer of her CLP. She plans to start a Women’s Forum to book female speakers and hold female-only canvassing sessions so that local women are able to make their voices heard. “There have been models in Islington North and they’ve shown that they’re really good at building up experience and confidence,” she explains. “Hopefully in turn that will lead to more women going for councillor roles and parliamentary candidates.”
And that includes trans women like herself. Britain is ready for a transgender MP, Madigan says. Why not her? In this respect, the UK lags behind the US, which just elected Danica Roem to Virginia state legislature. The closest the country got to its first trans MP was Labour candidate Sophie Cook, who narrowly missed out on unseating an incumbent Tory by just over 5,000 votes in the June election.
"Cat Smith said to me at [Young Labour] Conference and it stuck with me: 'The youth are the leaders of today,'" Madigan says. "It's kind of my mantra at the minute. I shouldn't have to wait 'til I'm older to go for it."
"Plus," she adds, "I think being young is way more inspiring anyway."