THE transgender phenomenon is a new sexual revolution and fast becoming the defining issue of this demanding decade. It is only a matter of time before Ireland is faced with a difficult test case and I shudder to think how it will divide opinion in a fundamentally conservative society where a cake with the message ‘support gay marriage’ spent seven years in the courts.
Scotland and the Republic have already had to face dilemmas triggered by people who are non-binary or simply not comfortable with the gender in which they were born. In Scotland the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon dithered after a trans-woman, who was once a man with convictions for raping women, was sent to a female prison. Her handling of the matter may have contributed to her surprise resignation. Legislation making gender transition easier for people opened up a new front in the long war between Westminster and the independence lobby after London overruled the Scottish parliament. Writer JK Rowling, who lives in Edinburgh, has been persecuted by people who accuse her of transphobia simply because she used the expression ‘people who menstruate’.
In the Republic schoolteacher Enoch Burke has been jailed for contempt of court, lost his job and faces bankruptcy because he believes his religious views are above the law and more important than his duty of care toward a child who simply didn’t want to be labelled she or he. He refuses to purge his contempt of court and seems determined to make himself a martyr for his cause. It is easy to see him as a lone eccentric but he has considerable support among the Catholic conservative community that has opposed the liberalisation of Irish society every step of the way for 50 years.
The transgender issue is widening a gap between the rights of people on either side of the Irish border. A citizen of the Republic is legally permitted to change the designation of their gender on government documents through self-determination. In 2015 it became just the fourth state in the world to permit such alterations to a birth certificate. Within two years 230 people had been granted gender recognition certificates under the law. It is a tiny but growing minority. The Transgender Equality Network has been campaigning for change since 2006 and acknowledges the progress that has been made but maintains that the Republic remains a place where it is difficult for transgender people to lead, safe, healthy and integrated lives.
In Northern Ireland transgender people do not even have the same rights as those living elsewhere in the UK where it takes two years to navigate the paperwork required for a gender recognition certificate. They cannot apply for a certificate if they are married or in a civil partnership. Trans Pride NI campaigns for improved rights and highlights institutional discrimination and hate crimes. Transgender people in the North face problems applying for social housing because transphobia is not recognised by the state run Housing Executive, on its application forms, when applicants seek to move to safety. Attitudes are slow to change in the North where politics and debate have been stalled by the year-long suspension of the Assembly.
There is very little non-binary identification recognition available for transgender people in the six counties and they have experienced open hostility from elements of the protestant conservative community. An academic survey, conducted by Northern Ireland’s two universities in 2019, revealed 21% of people in the North felt prejudice toward the transgender community. A Trans Pride NI spokesperson said: “Homosexuality was de-criminalised in Northern Ireland in 1982, we now need to stop discriminating against transgender and non-binary people, in 2023.”
The liberal protestant ethos in which I was raised taught me to be tolerant of people who are different though the concept of gender fluidity was simply unimaginable to my parents’ generation. But I recognise and share the concerns of women who fear they will lose the few remaining safe spaces where predatory males are not permitted. Women are the victims of violent abuse at the hands of men on a daily basis in both parts of Ireland and we must do more to make them feel secure.
It is 30 years since I first met a person who was transitioning and was struck by the physical and emotional pain they were suffering. I hope they found security and happiness with a new life. It was clear to me that no rational person would undertake this extraordinary journey unless it was necessary but it is also a statistical certainty that there are those who will abuse legal rights designed to support honest people.
It is four years since the World Health Organisation ceased defining transgender health issues as mental and behavioural disorders and now places issues of gender incongruence under a chapter on sexual health. Human Rights Watch said the change would have a ‘liberating effect’ worldwide. While we have progressive legislation in one part of Ireland it remains to be seen how quickly Irish attitudes will respond. It is reassuring, however, that hundreds of people from all backgrounds attended vigils in Belfast and Dublin over the murder of British teenager Brianna Ghey who was transgender.
It is clear we are entering a brave new world but it need not be a Huxleyan dystopia though there is no easy path through this modern moral minefield of competing human rights. There is much to debate and a great deal of prejudice to be overcome but the concept of live and let live has deep roots in Irish society for the Irish have faced persecution and prejudice in the past. The conservative right cannot be allowed to dominate this debate and stir up hate. Liberal and tolerant people must make their voices heard too. The state must deal with each issue, each case and each person individually, move with caution and apply compassion and common sense while social mores and the law play catch-up with the growing complexity of humanity.