Transgender people need laws that reflect reality
OPINION:Legislation on gender recognition should not include concepts that will make the situation worse for people
I MET Danny, a transgender boy, at Leinster House recently. He told me how he used to be scared of himself. As he put it, he spent a long time hiding from “the inside of me”, “the core of me”.
The educator Margaret Wheatley, a great leader for progressive change, speaks of fear as being “fundamental to being human ... what is important to notice is what we do with our fear. We can withdraw or distract or numb ourselves. Or we can recognise the fear, and then step forward anyway. Fearlessness simply means that we do not give fear the power to silence or stop us.”
This is what we as legislators must do – step forward and embrace the realities of transgender (trans) people’s lives. Our legislation needs to recognise that there are Irish people who do not “fit” traditional notions of gender (the binary model of male/female) and those who regard the biological sex into which they were born as not matching their known and felt gender.
Our laws must not be numb and insensitive to lives that traditional values frown on and silently reject, often with disgust (known as transphobia). Our legislation must not be based on fear, nor embody that fear in its terms. One of the primary challenges of the 21st century is for lawmakers to catch up with the full continuum of humanity, so that no one person is shamed by law, or shamed by the lack of law, such that they are forced to hide or suppress who they are. Fortunately, there are courageous trans individuals who organise, advocate and educate the rest of us about their realities, their dignities and their humanities. They assist people like Danny to meet himself in his true colours.
I think we need law that protects our citizens from shaming. What does shame feel like? I know something about what shame feels like because my sexual identity did not fit in an exclusive/excluding heterosexual norm as I was growing up. And although Irish and other societies have gone a long distance to normalise homosexual identity through law and policy, some people still don’t get it – like a man recently who looked through me then away from me as I introduced Ann Louise Gilligan to him as my spouse and life-partner.
That we are likely to have legislation brought forward “in the coming weeks” in relation to transgender people should be a cause for celebration – and yet Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton was not greeted warmly by a group of trans people when she announced it. Their concern, and mine, is that it will include concepts that will make the situation worse. Trans people may be required to choose between undergoing intrusive surgeries or accepting a diagnosis of a mental illness in order to have their gender recognised.
Worse still, a forced divorce clause may be included, so that by recognising that someone is trans we do not create “gay marriages” as an unwanted byproduct.
If we are to make law that embraces humanity we are obliged to review best practice around the world. A recent report from the European Commission has recommended that member states go beyond the minimum standard of protection established in EU case law to adequately protect trans people in national laws.