'They talk about gay or lesbian but never transgender'
A year ago the Government said it planned to recognise the human rights of transgender people in law. What progress has been made, asks ORLA TINSLEY, and how are Irish people with gender-identity disorder coping in the absence of that legislation?IN DUBLIN UNITARIAN CHURCH, on St Stephen’s Green, last summer a married couple renewed their vows before friends, colleagues and their 17-year-old daughter. The occasion was a twofold celebration. First, it was a silver wedding anniversary: Philippa, a transgender woman, had married her wife, Helen, 25 years earlier, when Philippa was a biological male. And now, 12 years after coming out, she was about to fly to London for full gender-reassignment surgery, at Charing Cross Hospital.
Philippa had begun the medical path to transition in 2003, by getting the diagnosis of gender-identity disorder that she needed before she could have hormone treatment in Ireland and be referred for gender-reassignment surgery in Britain, under the Treatment Abroad scheme.
The scheme would be paying for her surgery – as it had paid for that of about 14 other Irish people between 2005 and 2010 – meaning that medical costs, sometimes an issue for transgender people, would be taken care of. Male-to-female surgery is less expensive, but female-to-male surgery is estimated to cost up to €60,000. Transgender people without a referral must go privately, at their own expense – a financial impossibility for many, according to transgender activists.
“I’ve done everything slowly, carefully and with as much consideration for everyone as possible,” says Philippa. Starting hormone treatment in her mid-40s while married with a young daughter was both a relief and a conundrum. “Once I started it was a release of stress, but then I wanted more, because I was on the right route, and I said, Okay, how do I get to the next step?”
Helen needed longer to accept the transition in her family home. Social pressure left her exasperated. “Should I be in a relationship with a woman? I feel heterosexual, but love is love and we are in love,” she says.
Philippa had begun expressing her gender identity in intimate situations with Helen; it became more significant when their daughter was born. “I took it as Philippa wanting to role-play or dress up at first, and then it developed. It was almost like for every inch I was willing to give she was trying to run a mile.” Helen, having met other wives of transgender people, says there is a common feeling that their partners want to explore more because they are “just so happy to find someone who accepts them for who they are”.
IN 2007 THE High Court ruled in favour of Lydia Foy, a transgender woman who fought for 15 years to have her acquired gender recognised on her birth certificate. The court ordered the government to create a method of recognising the situation of people whose gender was different from their biologically assigned one.
The European Convention on Human Rights has guaranteed gender recognition since 2002; Ireland was one of only a handful of European countries still without legislation, and as such the court found the State to be in breach of the convention by failing to have a way to recognise Foy’s gender.
In 2010 the Government set up the interdepartmental Gender Recognition Advisory Group, to propose new laws. A year ago it gave Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton a series of proposals.
Among the conditions it recommended is that, as in the UK, people must be formally diagnosed with gender-identity disorder or provide evidence of gender-reassignment surgery to a panel of three judges (who will represent legal, medical and general fields, it is believed). Candidates must also live in what is referred to as their acquired or preferred gender for two years before seeking gender recognition.