Ireland: 'They talk about gay or lesbian but never transgender'
A year ago the Government said it planned to recognise the human rights of transgender people in law. What progress has been made, asks Orla Tinsley, and how are Irish people with gender-identity disorder coping in the absence of that legislation?
In Dublin Unitarian church, on St Stephen’s Green, last summer a married couple renewed their vows before friends, colleagues and their 17-year-old daughter. The occasion was a twofold celebration. First, it was a silver wedding anniversary: Philippa, a transgender woman, had married her wife, Helen, 25 years earlier, when Philippa was a biological male. And now, 12 years after coming out, she was about to fly to London for full gender-reassignment surgery, at Charing Cross Hospital.
Philippa had begun the medical path to transition in 2003, by getting the diagnosis of gender-identity disorder that she needed before she could have hormone treatment in Ireland and be referred for gender-reassignment surgery in Britain, under the Treatment Abroad scheme.
The scheme would be paying for her surgery – as it had paid for that of about 14 other Irish people between 2005 and 2010 – meaning that medical costs, sometimes an issue for transgender people, would be taken care of. Male-to-female surgery is less expensive, but female-to-male surgery is estimated to cost up to €60,000. Transgender people without a referral must go privately, at their own expense – a financial impossibility for many, according to transgender activists.
“I’ve done everything slowly, carefully and with as much consideration for everyone as possible,” says Philippa. Starting hormone treatment in her mid-40s while married with a young daughter was both a relief and a conundrum. “Once I started it was a release of stress, but then I wanted more, because I was on the right route, and I said, Okay, how do I get to the next step?”
Helen needed longer to accept the transition in her family home. Social pressure left her exasperated. “Should I be in a relationship with a woman? I feel heterosexual, but love is love and we are in love,” she says.
Philippa had begun expressing her gender identity in intimate situations with Helen; it became more significant when their daughter was born. “I took it as Philippa wanting to role-play or dress up at first, and then it developed. It was almost like for every inch I was willing to give she was trying to run a mile.” Helen, having met other wives of transgender people, says there is a common feeling that their partners want to explore more because they are “just so happy to find someone who accepts them for who they are”.
IN 2007 THE High Court ruled in favour of Lydia Foy, a transgender woman who fought for 15 years to have her acquired gender recognised on her birth certificate. The court ordered the government to create a method of recognising the situation of people whose gender was different from their biologically assigned one.
The European Convention on Human Rights has guaranteed gender recognition since 2002; Ireland was one of only a handful of European countries still without legislation, and as such the court found the State to be in breach of the convention by failing to have a way to recognise Foy’s gender.
In 2010 the Government set up the interdepartmental Gender Recognition Advisory Group, to propose new laws. A year ago it gave Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton a series of proposals.
Among the conditions it recommended is that, as in the UK, people must be formally diagnosed with gender-identity disorder or provide evidence of gender-reassignment surgery to a panel of three judges (who will represent legal, medical and general fields, it is believed). Candidates must also live in what is referred to as their acquired or preferred gender for two years before seeking gender recognition.
Language is contentious. Transgender people prefer to refer to their gender identity as their “true gender”, and some activists say it is dehumanising to assess a person’s life before granting a gender-identity change.
Perhaps the most controversial element of the proposals is the recommendation that, in order to be recognised, the person must be single and outside an existing marriage or civil partnership. The Government’s logic is that to allow otherwise would be to go against the Constitution by effectively permitting same-sex marriage. (The passage of gay-marriage legislation would change this, and last month Burton said her department was developing a draft heads of bill and had sought advice from the Attorney General on the marriage issue.)
Being forced to choose between her marriage or her life as a woman is impossible, says Philippa. “Do I choose to have my gender identity recognised by my own country or do I break up my family?”
Some activists say the stress caused by these legal problems, and by wider social issues, can push transgender people to the brink. “When people are unable to access healthcare and housing and are isolated from their families, that’s what causes high rates of suicide within the transgender community,” says Broden Giambrone, director of Transgender Equality Network Ireland.
Activists are unhappy with the Government’s plans for legislation, saying the proposals simply copy UK laws. The UK automatically allows the marriages of people seeking gender recognition to be converted to civil partnerships, for example. Although it is one route, activists here say it would not be good enough, as marriage and civil partnership are not equal in law.
They also say that their suggestions were not taken on board. Although lobby groups were invited to submit proposals, Transgender Equality Network Ireland says it was told of the contents of the advisory group’s report only half an hour before it was launched.
There are certainly other paths to follow. In the Oireachtas recently, Senator Katherine Zappone cited a 2011 report of the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, which described legal recognition of preferred gender as crucial and recommended that medical treatment and single status be dropped as requirements. And last month Argentina passed a progressive gender-identity law that allows adults to change their legal gender without needing either a medical diagnosis of a disorder or surgery. It also allows under-18s to change gender with the approval of their guardians. Under the proposed Irish legislation, transgender people under 18 would not be recognised.
THE MOTHER OF A 16-year-old Irish transgender girl who repeatedly tried to take her own life before getting treatment in the UK says children need access to hormone therapy before they reach puberty. “My child was so effeminate growing up we thought they might be gay initially.”
When puberty began, her child could not be left alone, as her facial hair and breaking voice were making her suicidal. They looked for support in Ireland but could find little. “The endocrinologist we saw in Dublin said they could see the distress in our child but they were inexperienced and their hands were tied.”
A mobile library that visited school pushed her daughter to breaking point. Boys and girls were told to line up separately. Her daughter, who then lived as a boy, stood up with the girls. “She came home distraught, saying she had had enough of being talked to as a boy, and when my husband and I took her to our local psychologist the three of us broke down.”
The psychologist referred the family to the Tavistock Centre, a mental-health trust in London, which put her on a pilot scheme for transgender children. After 12 months on hormone blockers, to stop male puberty, her daughter has started hormones to facilitate the first stages of female puberty.
“I think the fact that our daughter was so close to taking her own life, and had attempted it, helped our case. I don’t know what would have happened otherwise.”
Now at secondary school, her daughter has no issues from classmates or the school generally. “When she came out, in sixth year, the principal said she could start dressing as a girl, but she told us she wasn’t ready.” The principal spoke at assembly to explain her daughter’s transition and warn against bullying.
For the mother, early help is key. “It takes great courage to do what our child did, but these children need to be treated and acknowledged before puberty sets in.” She draws parallels with her daughter’s situation and gay rights. “Years ago it was illegal to be gay, and now it is getting better. In SPHE classes” – social, personal and health education – “they talk about gay or lesbian but never transgender. It should be included in the conversation. Then any prejudices can be nipped in the bud early in life, so children know this is not a lifestyle choice.”
Her daughter will be regularly assessed until she is ready to transition, “and that will be her choice too”.
'It was only when I started getting periods that I realised I was not biologically a boy'
Clarity about the difference between sexuality and gender is paramount, says Darrin Mathews, a 22-year-old arts student and transgender man, who was born biologically female. “One of the common misconceptions is, ‘Is it easier to be a trans man than to be a lesbian?’ It makes me angry when people ask, but it’s typical from a heteronormative society that doesn’t understand.”
When he was a child his morning routine involved shaving alongside his mother’s boyfriend. “It was only when I started getting periods and other boys weren’t that I realised I was not biologically a boy,” he says.
Long spells lying in bed after school as a teenager, particularly during menstruation, prompted visits to a GP and a diagnosis of depression. It was Mathew’s mother who changed things. “She asked me if I was transgender. She described it as though a man was walking towards her and she just knew.”
Hormone treatment left Mathews wiped out and low, so his mother took him to the UK for treatment. Now he gets the bus on a Sunday to arrive on a Monday and come home on a Tuesday. “I’m two years doing that now and two years on testosterone,” he says. His moods have improved, and he is leading workshops for transgender young people.
But binding his chest to fit in with his male gender, which he has been doing since he was 17, has left him with painful ribs, and he can no longer do it every day. “Chest surgery is the next step for me, but the diversity of transgender experience means some people seek surgery and others seek only hormone treatment, while others wish only to have their gender legally recognised.”
Mathews, who says the proposals are a step in the right direction, is unsure whether to opt for full genital reconstruction, in case he wants children later in life.