Last year Lana Wachowski gave a groundbreaking speech. When she stood on the podium to accept her Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award she talked about her work, her life and her gender. Globally known as Larry Wachowski, half of the Wachowski brothers who directed the Matrix trilogy and other blockbusters, she was now standing in front of the world as Lana. Perhaps the most powerful line in her speech was: "Invisibility is indivisible from visibility; for the transgender this is not simply a philosophical conundrum, it can be the difference between life and death."
In Ireland transgender people have been fighting for visibility for over 20 years. Last month the Department of Social Protection finally published the draft Gender Recognition Bill, the passing of which would take Ireland out of the embarrassing position of being the only country in Europe that fails to have a method of recognising transgender people legally.
The State was ordered by the High Court in 2007 to do this after it was found to be in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights. The case was won by Dr Lydia Foy, a transgender woman who sought to have her gender recognised on her birth certificate.
Language is contentious: transgender people use the words "true gender" and legislation the phrase "acquired gender". The dichotomy reflects the distance between the emotional reality and legal obligation. Both legally and emotionally, everyday things – from buying a mobile phone to accessing healthcare – are difficult for transgender people because the documents don't match up.
The new draft Bill offers some hope and is an improvement on the suggestions of an advisory group in 2011. Originally it was suggested that a diagnosis of gender identity disorder or proof of gender reassignment surgery was needed, instantly medicalising a process that is globally become decreasingly medicalised. The draft Bill removes the mental disorder diagnosis and a controversial need for a “panel of experts” to determine whether someone is living as a transgender person.
Instead, a statement from a doctor is required to the effect that a person is transgender in order to have a birth certificate recognised. There is no recognition for those under 18 and, perhaps most contentiously, in order to avail of a change in birth certificate the person in question must divorce their spouse.
LGBT rights are moving forward in Ireland, but the T is often misunderstood. A recent survey by the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (Teni) found that 80 per cent of transgender people in Ireland had attempted suicide. A global study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Centre for Transgender Equality last year found a staggering 41 per cent out of 6,400 transgender people had attempted suicide and 90 per cent of transgender and non-gender-conforming people had experienced harassment and discrimination. Last year, the mother of a 16-year-old trans girl told me that after numerous suicide attempts she sought help for her daughter in the UK, as there was no qualified medical assistance in Ireland for someone her daughter's age.
While the Health Service Executive and Teni have begun work on treatment pathways for transgender people in the Irish medical system, including children, the exclusion in legislation of under-18s can only exacerbate the problem. Gender recognition for children is important, particularly in cases where a person is born with non-determined sex organs (intersex) and gender may be decided by their guardians. If what is decided for them at birth does not match how they feel later on they will need options.
A Bill published by Senator Katherine Zappone last month proposed that those under 18 could change their birth cert with guardian consent. But the marriage issue causes the most consternation. Divorce legislation in Ireland requires a couple to live separately for five years. Yet there are people – happily married with children and supported by their partners – who are being asked to make a choice between their family and being legally granted their identity.
While Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton says this issue can be revisited, the transgender community fears that once the Bill has passed there will be a reluctance to return to it. Despite a 20-year battle, controversial proposals by the inter-departmental gender recognition advisory group and two separate Bills suggested by Senator Katherine Zappone and Sinn Féin in the past two months, no transgender person or lobbyist was invited to the draft Bill launch. The legislation was publicly released to the knowledge of no one it directly affected. Broden Giambrone, director of Teni, called the Bill a “tangible, concrete step” that needed work.