Op-Ed: Irish Media and the Trans ‘Debate’

Image Credit: Photo by Oriel Frankie Ashcroft from Pexels

I am a law student, UCD Students Union class rep, DJ fangirl, and a general busybody in the trans community. If one were to define my identity based on what they read about trans people from news outlets in Ireland, they would infer that I am never sure which bathroom I am supposed to go into, that I am eternally, patiently waiting for my turn to receive treatment by the HSE, and that I care about what transphobic celebrities say about my body. It is impossible to say how detached that picture is from my lived reality.

The truth is that most of us don’t have the time to care about the media’s representation of us, as we are eagerly moving through our lives each with our own distinct goals, motivations, interests, and perspectives. We are all far too busy to obsess over one, however stigmatising, aspect of our complex lives. And yet we see an obsession in Ireland about the reality of this facet of our lives, a facet which becomes real the very moment a person starts questioning their gender. To paraphrase a familiar sociological idiom, whether or not trans identity is real, as so many like to debate, it is real in its consequences for us all.

On August 9th 202, the Irish Times published an opinion piece claiming that the Prohibition of Conversion Therapies Bill 2018, which sought to ban any and all forms of practice which would look to suppress one’s sexual orientation or gender expression, would pose a threat to therapists attempting to address gender dysphoria in patients, particularly trans youth, who may not necessarily require transition or may have another underlying cause.

The Irish Times subsequently faced extensive condemnation from across the Irish trans community, leading to the formation of a boycott, Led by the Trans Writers Union, of the Irish broadsheet newspaper until they met the following demands:

Withdraw and apologise for the article.

Take practical, committed steps to adopting a trans-inclusive editorial line.

As the Trans Writers Union explained in their article submitted to the Irish LGBTQ+ publication Gay Community News (GCN), the significance of this article was not merely in its substance, but in representing a long trend of transphobic editorial moves by the Irish Times. They cite articles describing accusations of transphobia as “spurious” under an ironically “feminist” guise, describing gender dysphoria in youth to be a trend. The Irish Times is guilty of presenting this moral panic as superseding in important issues which cause direct harm to the community in Ireland, such as: inaccessibility to clinical treatments, lack of gender recognition for trans youth, the self-medicating community, and our community’s particular vulnerability to poverty and homelessness, to name select few. 

When an Irish news media outlet faces backlash due to its content, the defence given is that it is merely seeking to be fair and neutral with relation to debates around trans issues. In RTÉ’s statement regarding the featuring of Graham Linehan on the programme Prime Time in early 2019, an individual who has a history of harassing, bullying and deadnaming members of the community, they claimed that their goal was to have a programme which would be “a fair and responsible examination of an issue of considerable public performance”. Yet any trans person with any knowledge of Graham Linehan will know that he represents a gross extremist perspective which seeks to stir up a moral panic and paint us as a danger - far from being a person who could be considered by any reasonable observer to be “fair and reasonable”. 

In the few cases where trans people have been brave enough to discuss issues on behalf of a paper, they expose themselves to backlash from a minority who seek to demean and caricaturiste trans people. The original version of the Boycott made available by the Trans Writers Union was a clear illustration of this danger of exposure, with names being added to the petition that were either disgusting puns, or that singled out and dead named prominent Irish trans activists, ultimately leading to the union shifting their boycott to a site which could better protect the names of those listed. Irish news media is a dangerous force in which to involve oneself for any trans person. Many trans organisations I have been involved with over the years have sought to avoid public political statements or in any way to make themselves known by the public at large. 

The protections offered to trans writers are nothing short of scant. Irish news outlets, if they are truly committed to providing fair and balanced discussions of trans issues, need to understand why there can be such reluctance to speak publicly. Even putting aside risks of exposing one’s transgender status to friends, family and work colleagues, there is a depressing acceptance that once you become a public trans person, you will become a target of harassment.

Indeed, in choosing to write this op-ed you are reading right now in my first outing to discuss trans issues to a public audience, I know to prepare for a wave of harassment, even for a publication as niche as a student paper. These are the lessons Irish publications speaking on behalf of the community must realise; your words matter, we are not a philosophical debate. We are real people with real lives, and real hatred is being targeted against us. Until then, perhaps ask yourself why you lack a substantial trans presence in your “trans debates”.