Manufactured outrage dominated RTÉ discussion on trans issues

The distorting thread running through several contributions was that trans people represent a threat to women

The great shame is that Dublin Pride no longer feels it can work constructively with RTÉ. Photograph: Alan Betson

You won’t find many opinion columnists arguing against the notion that uncomfortable and difficult discussions are sometimes necessary. If you want guaranteed emotional safety from opinions with which you might violently disagree, reading the op-ed pages is probably not advised. Listening to RTÉ Radio 1′s Liveline certainly isn’t.

But the programme’s recent discussion on language and gender identity went beyond what RTÉ characterised in a statement – after Dublin Pride had announced it was ending its media partnership with the national broadcaster – as “uncomfortable, difficult and contentious”.

What could have been an enlightening and important conversation about trans people’s lived experiences – even one that allowed for robust debate on language or what should happen in women’s sport – descended into three days of slippery slope fallacies and what felt like manufactured outrage over farfetched scenarios.

A number of trans and non-binary people courageously contributed to the discussion, providing some balance and a break from the scaremongering. The implicit thread running through several contributions was that trans people represent a threat to women in both material and academic ways.


In her Ted talk about cultural stereotypes, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes a phenomenon she calls “the danger of a single story”. “Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become,” she says. “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

That is what happened on Liveline. Listeners, some of whom may never have met a trans person, heard one dominant story about them. Its theme was that trans people represent a threat. This goes beyond what Peter Woods, head of RTÉ Radio 1, repeatedly characterised as merely “hurtful”.

The spectre of predatory men declaring themselves women just so they can access women’s toilets, prisons or changing rooms was raised. Trans women were referred to as “a man who wears a dress and wears lipstick”. Listeners were told that removing the word “woman” from legislation and replacing it with the word “person” – in recognition of the fact that trans men and non-binary people can give birth or breastfeed – impinges on the ability of women “to organise as a political class”.

Sandra, representing an organisation called The Countess, said their members had compassion for people who are “suffering” and in “distress” – “anyone who is experiencing gender dysphoria is suffering”. But this is not the only story about trans and non-binary people. Many are not suffering at all, they are leading happy and fulfilling lives far away from the cacophony of online debate and radio talkshows. Being trans is not an illness. Nor is it a figment of the trans person’s imagination.


If it all felt performative and far-removed from the conversations that happen in real life – where most reasonable people simply wish those who are trans or non-binary well – it’s because these arguments are being imported from Britain and the US. While other countries were getting caught up in toxic culture wars in recent years, Ireland was making peaceful and uneventful progress towards a more inclusive society for trans people.

But recently, trans people have identified a worrying shift in the narrative. The clue is in the repetition of certain phrases and ideas – “erasing women’s identity”; the talk of “the Trojan horse of inclusivity” and the “unintended consequences of gender self-ID”, when gender recognition has been in place for seven years now with no discernible negative impact on the lives of anyone else.

Another fallacy aired by callers to RTÉ is the idea that gender recognition was somehow snuck in under the radar. In fact, a High Court ruling in 2007 found the state was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights for its failure to recognise Dr Lydia Foy in her female gender. It took another three years for an advisory group to be set up on the issue. Two private Members’ Bills, an Oireachtas committee, two days of public hearings, a further report, a Dáil debate, a Seanad debate and another Dáil debate followed before it was finally made law in 2015. Hardly the definition of stealth.

Freedom of speech is vital to any society. But it is also important to recognise that the stories we tell about each other carry weight, particularly when those stories are being told about one small and vulnerable section of society by another, much bigger and more powerful one.

The great shame is that Dublin Pride no longer feels it can work constructively with RTÉ, because what we urgently need is more stories that better reflect the rich life experiences of trans people. Shutting down discussion rarely leads to greater understanding.

It’s worth noting that aspects of the coverage of trans issues in The Irish Times and other outlets have also come under criticism in recent months, with some trans people and their allies participating in an ongoing boycott of this newspaper. This makes the job of a journalist and a media organisation interested in giving a platform to the trans community significantly more challenging.

To be clear: I do not mean that we should have a “trans debate”. Nobody’s existence is up for debate. But gender identity is complex and not well understood. Contrary to what the black-and-white tone of so much public discourse suggests, most of us do not arrive at every emerging social issue fully evolved. Away from the testy arguments about bathrooms and prisons and women’s sport, there are many decent people with good intentions trying to figure things out. If we are to stop the race to the fringes on every contentious social issue, we need more nuanced discussion, not less.