"I feel now that with the endorsement of Europe and the endorsement of Ireland, I can say yes, maybe I was doing something right for the good of people, for access to the law and for future generations when it comes to diversity. Hopefully we'll have a more open mind and won't be marginalising anybody," said transgender rights activist Dr Lydia Foy after receiving the European Parliament's Citizen's Prize in Brussels.
She received the prestigious award at a formal ceremony last week, becoming the first transgender person ever to receive an award from the European Union. She was also the only Irish recipient of the award this year.
Ms Foy said it was a “very big surprise” and “quite a big honour”.
The prize was recognition for her two-decade legal battle for a new birth certificate reflecting her gender identity. She settled her case with the State last year and received her new birth certificate last month.
"Not only from an Irish point of view, but hearing she's the first transgender person to receive any sort of European award or recognition is a really important message to send to transgender communities across Europe," said Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan, who, along with fellow MEPs Martina Anderson, Matt Carthy and Liadh Ní Riada, nominated Ms Foy for the award.
Although a High Court judge found the State's failure to enact gender recognition laws incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights in 2007, it took another eight years for the Gender Recognition Act 2015 to be passed.
But now Ireland has one of Europe’s most progressive gender recognition laws.
"We have leapfrogged from being the country in the EU with the least provision to being the country in the EU with one of the best provisions for transgender people," said Michael Farrell, senior solicitor at the Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC). Mr Farrell worked on Ms Foy's case from 2005.
Foy travelled to Brussels with a delegation that included members of the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI), The Focus Trust and FLAC. They met with MEPs and groups such as the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association(ILGA) Europe to discuss Ireland’s progress.
Mr Farrell says the EU's selection of a transgender activist was "an endorsement from the European Parliament of the need for rights for transgender people," and the case now "has wider significance than legislative change in Ireland".
He thinks the EU will consider trans rights in countries that want to join the EU, since “it’s now a condition of EU membership that each country comes up to a certain minimum level of human rights protection”.
He said: “It started with the rights of an individual who we clearly felt was being treated unjustly and unfairly and should be entitled to be recognised in her true gender. It dawned on us over time that if she succeeded, there would be implications for others.
“But that was all still within Ireland. It wasn’t our objective in the beginning, but it appears [the case] is significant for other countries too, and that’s a wonderful bonus.”