The past month has seen an unprecedented number of celebrities caught out retroactively for homophobic and racist language used on social media platforms, especially Twitter, in the years of their relative obscurity. These historical Tweets reveal a darker, sadder side to public figures with avid and impressionable followers.
YouTube celebrity Jack Maynard made headlines on the cusp of his mainstream success when he was axed from I’m a Celebrity after his historic Tweets, posted between 2011 and 2013, repeatedly used the n-word, insulted disabled people and referred to other users as “faggots.” Admittedly, I hadn’t heard of Jack Maynard before this was revealed, and on one hand it’s hard to be angry with someone you have never heard using monstrous language on Twitter. On the other, why can’t I be mad? We all know these stories have a short shelf life: celebrity offends entire community of minorities, apologises, releases follow up work that redeems self, rinse, repeat. But this isn’t the only recent case of history sneaking up on a reformed celebrity.
YouTube sensation Zoella has been stung by her own resurgence of historical Tweets, criticising lesbians and working class people as well as offering the delightful diatribe “I find it funny when gay men spit… it’s like they’re trying to be a bit macho but never works…” Her apology feels a little dismissive and passive, stating “Obviously that is not who I am today and I’d like to think I’m a little older and wiser! I’m not perfect and I’ve never claimed to be, I’m only human!” She may be 27 now, but this would have made her between 19 and 22 when she tweeted about “lesbos”, “trannys” and “fat chavs.” Frankly, old enough to know better. Claiming young people are ignorant is naïve and offensive, especially when considering a generation for whom gender-fluid and non-binary are now commonplace terms.
Even grime darling Stormzy is not immune to hurtful comments he made surfacing years later; in late November, Pink News discovered many Tweets from between 2011 and 2014 rife with homophobia, including calling an EastEnders character a “f***ing fag,” asking another Twitter user “are you a fag” for discussing hair straighteners and instructing his followers to “Put on BBC1, this little black boy is a f***ing fag.” This is not an exhaustive list. Call me a cynic, but I believe a person who so fervently and frequently used language like this as little as three years ago – as well as spouting ignorant and cruel attitudes towards gay people.
He has tried to repent, saying: “I said some foul and offensive things whilst tweeting years ago at a time when I was young and proudly ignorant. Very hurtful and discriminative views that I’ve unlearned as I’ve grown up and become a man … The comments I made were unacceptable and disgusting, full stop. Comments that I regret and to everyone I’ve offended, I am sorry, these are attitudes I’ve left in the past … I take responsibility for my mistakes and hope you can understand that my younger self doesn’t reflect who I am today.”
It’s not as if this is the first time I have heard the words these public figures have so easily, joyfully typed, nor is it the first time that a celebrity has had to address their attitudes towards LGBT+ people in the public eye by any stretch. I resent the suggestion that they were so young then and have matured so much since their hateful outburst. What was it in the following two or three years made you realise that the word “faggot” isn’t yours to use, or appropriate for social media, or a cruel slur? The three people in question – two straight cisgender men and a straight cisgender woman – have no agency to the word and should have known it was not theirs to use. They may well have become more socially aware and sensitive, as we all have (hopefully), but no one is naive enough to think they can use that word without any malice or awareness of its power.
Though what is the end game? Ask everyone who has ever said something offensive to resign from whatever position they hold? Let’s all take it down a notch. However, it feels hard to find a suitable outlet for our anger and disappointment. I am embarrassed to admit I know next to nothing about these specific celebrities, but I still find it impossible to accept their apologies, which range from irked to seemingly genuine; maybe this is because I’m of the generation that still heard “faggot” thrown around in school, and still find myself processing the trauma that word can instil in people. At the risk of allowing it to blossom, especially in online bullying, perhaps taking the high road and accepting these apologies can take the sting out of homophobic and transphobic language. But we need to accept that these words do sting, and can endanger lives. The sooner people – public figures and humble citizens alike – address the power their words carry, the better.