Transgender people seek State recognition to escape gender ‘limbo’
Lack of legislation forces people to jump through hoops to prove identity
Ben Power (right) and Broden Giambrone from Transgender Equality Network Ireland pictured in Smithfield, Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Applying for university isn’t easy for anyone, but if you’re a transgender person the lack of protective legislation can create an added difficulty.
When Ben Power applied to return to UCC as a mature student, the name on his Leaving Cert results did not match the gender in his application. The 32-year-old had to call the university to explain before he was offered his place.
“I contacted UCC because it had happened to a friend of mine, so I knew to watch out for it. Had it not happened previously, I wouldn’t have known,” he says.
“People don’t realise how much this can affect people on so many levels. Once the birth certificate is changed everything is indisputable.”
Ben’s story is just one of many situations where lack of legislation means significant barriers to everyday life for transgender people.
“You are constantly being asked to provide large files of physical evidence to prove your identity,” says Sara Phillips, a facilitator with Transgender Equality Network Ireland (Teni). In the past its main focus was on personal coping skills but “in workshops we don’t talk about emotional issues anymore”, she says.
“People want to know how to deal with documentation, drivers’ licenses, employers and social welfare.”
High Court victory
The battle for transgender rights in Ireland was sparked 20 years ago by Dr Lydia Foy, a transgender woman who wrote to the Registrar General in 1993 requesting a birth certificate identifying her female gender. In 2007 she won a High Court case in which the State was found to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. Since then the State has been obliged to provide a mechanism for people to have their gender recognised.
Despite this ruling – and despite the assurance made by Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton last year at the Transgender European Council in Dublin that legislation was due by the end of 2012 – no further progress has been made.
The Government’s legislative programme suggests 2014 is a more realistic date. In January of this year, Dr Foy launched new proceedings against the State. Ireland is the only country in Europe still in breach of the convention on this issue.
Nineteen-year-old student Tyron (he wants to be identified only by his first name) says it is easier to be young and transgender today but the lack of legislation does enable discrimination. “It’s easier than it was and it’s becoming a more known term,” says the NUI Maynooth student, who is currently looking for a job to pay his way through college.
“In interviews I only bring up my gender identity if they want to contact a previous employer,” he says. “Of the last three job interviews, only one was willing to hire a transgender person. The other two said it was not suitable for their working environment.”
Travelling abroad can be an obstacle. Tyron has been unable to access a new passport. While the 2008 Passports Act gives a transgender person the right to apply, Tyron says the result depends on the day.
“I was told by one person at the Passport Office that not enough time had passed for me to apply under the male gender marker,” he says. One month later, when he tried to reapply as female, another person said he needed to provide “proof of use” of his female gender marker.
“Despite this, my friend who is also transgender had no issues, so it’s at the discretion of who you’re dealing with,” he says. “It feels like I’m stuck in a hole with no place to go. I can’t go forward and I can’t go back. Full, inclusive legislation is my ladder out.”
Attempts to rectify the situation have been slow-paced, prompting Sinn Féin to propose a Private Members’ Bill on the issue.
Teni director Broden Giambrone describes it as “a progressive and inclusive Bill that puts the individual’s rights to privacy and dignity first”.
However, the Bill – modelled on groundbreaking Argentinian gender recognition legislation – is in direct conflict with proposals based on the findings of the State’s inter-departmental gender recognition advisory group report, published in 2011.
Giambrone says the advisory group’s research is dated, as it was conducted in 2010 and the area of transgender rights is changing rapidly. “There are Bills coming in the Netherlands and Sweden that move towards self-determination,” he says.
While the Argentinian legislation model allows for a person to have their gender recognised without undergoing any medical procedures or psychiatric evaluation, the proposals recommended by the advisory group would require a transgender person to provide evidence of surgery or a diagnosis of gender identity disorder.
The Government’s proposed legislation would also require a married couple to divorce in order for the transgender spouse to have their birth certificate changed.
Philippa, who was biologically male when she married her partner Helen 25 years ago, describes this proposed divorce condition as “infuriating”.
“I have a supportive partner, family and workplace and I know I am lucky,” the mother of one says. “If I were to apply for another job where a birth certificate was requested, my entire gender history would be revealed.”
While accessing her birth certificate is a deeply held wish, she says divorce is not a realistic solution. Both she and her wife Helen plan to fight for their marriage, she says.
“The gender recognition advisory group proposals will cause all sorts of court challenges. You can guarantee if it passed, Helen and I would be before the European Court of Human Rights.”