Irish feminists must avoid British trap of transphobia

Trans-exclusionary ideas lack compassion and must be repelled from Ireland

A recently formed feminist group called the Irish Women’s Lobby (IWL) had their inaugural conference on March 8th, International Women’s Day. Before the event had even taken place, there was controversy on social media. On perusing the IWL website, this controversy might seem strange. The group’s aims are shared by most feminists: protecting women’s rights; improving women’s political and media representation; tackling male violence; and advocating on women’s issues. More power to them, surely?

However, for those familiar with the profiles of some of the speakers, it was apparent that the exclusion of trans women from female spaces and on the abolition of the sex industry was likely to be a focus of the conference . These are issues on which feminists very certainly do not agree.

Ireland passed its Gender Recognition Act in 2015, allowing trans people to declare their gender without the approval of medical or legal gatekeepers. This is known as self id. Self id makes it easier for trans people to have their identities recognised; it helps them to avoid the prejudice they are apt to encounter within the medical and legal systems; and it removes coercive stipulations that people "live as" their gender for a given period or undergo surgeries to prove that they are trans.

Riding the coat tails of the marriage equality referendum, which removed some impediments to self-id, the Irish legislation passed with little opposition and much celebration. Not only was Ireland the first country to legalise gay marriage by popular vote, it was also home to some of the most progressive gender recognition laws in the world.

Pathologising trans people

By contrast, the UK's gender recognition legislation is from 2004, and it requires a panel including legal and medical experts to consider evidence before providing a gender recognition certificate. In 2016, the Women and Equalities Committee reviewed the law and found that it pathologised trans people. In spite of evidence that public opinion favours change, in September 2020 the UK government decided not to update the law. It might surprise you to learn that feminists played a significant role in this decision.

Some UK feminist groups opposed self-id for a number of reasons, including the fear it would make women vulnerable to predatory trans women (or men pretending to be trans women) in single-sex spaces such as changing rooms, women’s shelters or prisons. They defended their right to call trans women males or trans men females – and their right not to use trans people’s pronouns – on the basis that sex and gender are not the same characteristic and that their language is referring to sex. If you take away their ability to refer to sex, they claim, women stop being able to talk about their oppression.

In 2018, a trans-exclusionary speaking tour called “We Need To Talk” planned events in four UK cities as well as in Dublin. Many Irish feminists, who were, you’ll remember, quite busy at the time, took a break from the campaign to Repeal the Eighth amendment to draft a plainly worded open letter proclaiming that trans-exclusionary rhetoric was not welcome in Ireland. Irish trans people already had the right to self id and the sky had not fallen in. Moreover, trans women were sisters in the struggle for Repeal. The letter accused the UK group of showing little interest in Irish feminism beyond spreading transphobia, and it critiqued the imperial dynamic of British feminists lecturing the Irish from some assumed position of authority.

There’s been a tendency since this moment to celebrate the trans-inclusionary nature of Irish feminism and to frame the culture war around trans rights as a British issue.

Toxic debate

The IWL conference was organised and implemented with a keen eye to proving its Irish credentials. Its Twitter account offers na cúpla focal. Its logo is Celtic. Its promo video features traditional music. The conference moderators were Irish, and half the speakers too. In the busy chat forum, participants anticipated attempts on behalf of Irish feminists to dismiss them as "West-Brits". One said, "There are a lot of us Irish women who agree on this. They're going to have to confront that at some point."

In the UK, the outgoing chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission warned that the toxic debate surrounding trans rights was harming British society. He urged both camps to listen respectfully and find common ground.

And there is common ground – in the presentations I listened to on March 8th there was much that spoke to concerns most feminists share. There was smart analysis of the intersections of class and sexism, and of migrancy and sexism; there was keen attention to protecting vulnerable women and girls from male violence and societal misogyny.

There was also shocking transphobia, and a stone-cold absence of compassion for the humanity and wellbeing of trans women.

UK academic Kathleen Stock’s presentation revealed what may be a reason for which trans-exclusionary feminists may have been so eager to expand westward. In discussions about British gender recognition law reform, Stock said she often encountered the argument, “They’ve got self-id in Ireland, and it’s all fine there.” For trans-exclusionary feminists, there’s a lot riding on being able to show that Ireland is not fine at all.

What happens now is important domestically and internationally. Since 2015, Ireland has stood as a symbol of self id working – and working alongside a robust feminist movement. To continue to set this example, Irish feminists need to acknowledge that trans-exclusionary ideology has a foothold in the country. They need to know when to listen and find common ground. And, most importantly, they need to continue to stand in solidarity with trans people.

Emer O'Toole is associate professor of Irish performance studies at the school of Irish studies, Concordia University in Montreal