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By Jason Michael

GILLIAN MARTIN MSP PUBLISHED an article on her personal blog eleven years ago that has returned, as these things often do, to bite her on the bum. She described transgender students – people over whom she was in a position of power – in the most disgusting ways imaginable. She reduced some of the most personal and treasured truths of their beings to worthlessness and shame. Since then she has deleted this horrible post and two years ago she made a full and unreserved apology for what she had written. Again, yesterday, she apologised for having written it after it was cast up against her in the Scottish parliament, costing her a ministerial promotion.

This blog is not The Times or The Herald, and so we will not revisit the words that were written. What she said was cruel, malicious, and unprofessional – but that was more than a decade ago. Her now deleted words; words for which she has now apologised twice and been punished twice, must remind us – if we are prepared to be honest – of the cruel, malicious, and unprofessional things we have said and done in our pasts. If we are people of goodwill, people trying to be good, we will regret those words and actions, and we will have apologised and attempted to make good to the people we have hurt. Gillian Martin, if she is good, will have gone through the same.

But let’s not forget the victims, those who have been hurt. Their stories and their woundedness are deeply personal, and so any discussion of them deserves to come from the same place in us. In secondary school, as deputy head boy – check me out, I facilitated the bullying of a beautiful wee girl called M. I never hit her, I never called her names, but – having been cursed with the gift of leadership – I marshalled the troops. Something horribly spiteful in me, a shameful part of me, took pleasure in her suffering. For twenty years M. and what I did to her have haunted me.

A while back I found her on Facebook, and after weeks of tortured reflection I finally found the will to message her. It was the most painful confession I have ever made. I told her that it was never her fault, that what happened came from by badness and childish cruelty. I told her that she did not need to forgive me, and that I didn’t deserve to be forgiven. I still feel that I don’t. In the most miserable state of remorse I told her that all I wanted to do was say that I was sorry – just so sorry. Every day I checked my messages to she if she had read it and responded. Days passed and it still hadn’t been read, until one day I looked and saw it had been read. Later that evening I went back online to see if she had responded. She hadn’t. The screen simply informed me I had been blocked. Twenty years on and the harm I had caused was still hurting her.

In adulthood, having hopefully put childish things behind me, I have tried to recognise the victimhood and suffering of others and reach out to them. I don’t get gender issues. I don’t really understand them. No doubt this comes from being a straight man in a world that privileges the normative status of my gender and sex. People in my position are seldom required to step inside the experience of those who do not fit the social normal. This is alien to us, and it being so we assume everyone has the same carefree existence in our skins as we have. But this isn’t true.

As a young sub-deacon in my first parish placement in Dublin – “the big city” – there was “a man in a dress” who came to Mass every Sunday. She sat at the back of the church and always left before the final blessing, avoiding the awkwardness of the pressing of the flesh and the weekly community bun fight. In the strangest of circumstances, I learned to identify with her. I too wore a dress – a 39-button black cassock and cincture. I too experienced the wrath of society for wearing it. This was when the horror of clerical sex abuse was erupting into light and when people were first beginning to come to terms with the awful sinfulness that was the laundries. The parish had an old vestment box labelled: “St. Mary’s Laundry, Donnybrook.”

Walking to church one morning in my dress, during the abuse tribunal, an elderly woman approached me and called me a “piece of shit” before spitting in my face. I never wore that dress again. I never had the courage. Yet, every Sunday the trans-woman at the back of the church courageously wore hers – with lipstick, wig, and sandals. She always left the church before I could reach her, before I could tell her she was welcome, before I could tell her how much I admired her amazing courage. All I was ever able to say to her, when she filed to the altar in prayer, was: “the Body of Christ.” I tried as best I could to tell her through my smile and the meeting of our eyes that she was so very much part of this Body – this seriously wounded, broken, and heartsore-regretful community of all-too-human people trying to make good.

It takes great courage to be the people we truly are. It takes courage too to see that what we have done to hurt such courageous people is wrong. But we are all capable of seeing this and allowing ourselves to be changed by it. We can change, we do change, and that’s what makes us so special. How much then can we punish those who have said and done hurtful and spiteful things after they have seen the damage they have done – and who are trying to make good?

What Ms Martin wrote in 2007 was bad. It was awful. But what sort of world would this be if we refused to accept that bullies like Gillian and I can change? Do we want to live in a world where everyone is locked into the cells of their past actions and words? When members of the Scottish Labour Party entered the chamber yesterday decked out in rainbow scarves and neck ties they used the symbols of justice to punish someone trying to make good, someone who has already faced up to her actions and said sorry. That’s something Richard Leonard would want to think about when he sets himself and his party up as the champions of justice. What they did was unjust. It was cruel, and malicious, and unprofessional.

We who have done wrong may never get the forgiveness we want, life is like that – it can refuse to give us the absolution we need. Sometimes that’s punishment enough. But we can take some comfort in what John Henry Newman said about our ability as people to be transformed: “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” I’d like to send Gillian a hug.

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Why we need gender-neutral bathrooms | Ivan Coyote


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