In recent weeks and months, parts of the Irish media have begun giving a platform to people who wish to stir up hatred towards transgender people. Mike Lovett cuts through the moral panic and the excuses of the media organisations who have allowed it to foment.
On Drivetime on the 15th of June, Sarah McInerney put questions to Peter Woods, head of Radio 1. He acknowledged the hurt caused to trans people on the back of the 3 days of Liveline discussions between the 9th to the 13th and apologised for it but said he would not want to see anything done differently were it to happen all over again. This is an extraordinarily strange statement, suggesting that the national broadcaster sees nothing wrong with giving a platform to organised bigots to spread misinformation and fear about a marginalised minority group. Any claim RTÉ makes about fairness, balance, impartiality and journalistic integrity is now totally undermined.
Allowing this misinformation to go unchallenged is dangerous because trans people are a very small minority whose lives and struggles the majority of the Irish public aren’t familiar with. The far-right are using this as a wedge issue. RTÉ has joined in with what the print media have been up to for the past 3 years or more: whipping up a mania about trans people to generate revenue while shutting out the very subject of the “debate” for fear some facts would be presented that would show that all “concern about the danger trans people pose to women and children” is completely manufactured – a false premise being used to attack trans people while disguising the fact we did nothing to deserve this vilification.
Transphobia is a danger to all queer people because encouraging a clampdown on gender non-conformity encourages more scrutiny of the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. Far from “defending women and girls”, transphobic activists are opposing fundamental ideas about bodily autonomy that are central to women’s right to control their fertility because there is a slippery slope from claiming trans people can’t be trusted to know what’s best for them to claiming women can’t decide whether or not to continue a pregnancy.
While trans-exclusionary radical feminism has its roots in the 2nd wave feminism of the 1970’s, those who claim to be flying that flag now are building bridges with the far-right. Instead of engaging in a liberatory project seeking to tear down women’s oppression and the capitalist system that perpetuates it, trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) are engaged in a project of pessimism, of drawing clear borders around the category of womanhood and protecting those within from those without.
The group calling themselves “The Countess” who rang into the Liveline program fit firmly into this category. As outlined by Izzy Kamikaze in The Beacon, their claims to have been innocently asking questions and standing up for the rights of “women and girls” are patently false. On Liveline, they claimed they wished to question the National Women’s Council about their support for the use of inclusive language in legislation that deals with pregnancy, childbirth and related leave from the workplace. In fact, they were refused access to the AGM because they had issued a press release stating their intent to “stage an action” opposing the election of a transgender woman, Sara Phillips to the board of the NWCI. This is a continuation of a long campaign of harassment that Sara Phillips has been subjected to, just for being openly trans and advocating for trans rights through her work with TENI.
If we want to get down to biological reality, sex is a strange category that describes (among other things) chromosomes, dominant sex hormone, genitals and secondary sex characteristics. All of those can be changed apart from chromosomes and not everyone fits neatly into male or female categories in all aspects. It is the transphobes who are denying biology.
When TERFs claim cisgender women and girls are at risk from trans women they tend not to explicitly outline the threat trans women pose, but imply that trans people are sexual deviants and therefore will sexually assault cis women. There is no evidence to suggest trans women pose a threat. In fact, trans women face far higher levels of assault than the general population. However, dancing around the issue functions like a psychological horror movie that never reveals the monster until the end. The reality of trans women being ordinary people who face disproportionate hurdles in life is too mundane to build a hate movement around.
On the subject of inclusive language, transphobes claim the use of inclusive language such as “person” in legislation and technical documents constitutes the erasure of women, and additionally that “woman” is a strictly defined biological category – only women get pregnant, and so on. In reality, the bill needs to say people rather than women to avoid creating loopholes which would allow discrimination against trans people who aren’t women but might get pregnant. In addition to that, I would hope it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that all women are also people. Nobody is proposing to ban calling women “mother” or anything like that, but legislation must use specific, impersonal language to avoid grey areas and to prevent people falling through the cracks in our public services.
Although trans-exclusionary radical feminism has its roots in the 2nd wave feminism of the 1970’s, those carrying the TERF banner these days are so fixated on the exclusion and marginalisation of transgender people that they have abandoned all commitment to any other ideas they may have previously had. This is demonstrated in their links to the far-right. There is evidence that The Countess have links to antisemitic conspiracy theorist Jennifer Bilek who fearmongers about “the Jewish aspect of the men involved” in advocating for trans rights. After the radio appearances, The Countess were praised by US far-right figure Andy Ngo and have asked him to broadcast their lies to his followers. Whether they themselves hold far-right views, they are advocating for less bodily autonomy and for demonising a minority group which puts them on the same side as the far-right. Though they may moderate their language for public consumption in order to seem reasonable and fool people who don’t know any better, they don’t moderate their views that trans people are either lying or deluded about who we are, and that this is some kind of plot against cisgender women. Even when presented in a calm tone of voice without slurs and swear words, these views are false and offensive.
The reaction in the press to the outrage this provoked within the LGBTQ+ community was mischaracterised as unreasonable, denying that anything really objectionable was said on Liveline at all. Dublin Pride are not, as one journalist described, acting like the Catholic bishops of decades past by terminating their association with RTÉ. They are refusing to stand over irresponsible, inaccurate coverage which has the potential to sway public opinion against members of a group Dublin Pride is supposed to represent. Their response has been entirely reasonable.
The Left has not yet won the majority of people to a solid understanding and support for trans rights, and this motivates the far-right to use trans rights as a wedge issue. This was demonstrated when far-right groups, The Irish Freedom Party and The National Party, held a protest in front of Dáil Éireann in July of 2020 targeting Minister for Children, Roderic O’Gorman, both on the basis that he is a gay man and as such cannot be trusted around children and also because he had promised to make it possible for trans people under 18 to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate – a document which would allow them to update their identity documents to reflect who they are.
It is crucial for socialists to recognise that trans people are indeed oppressed – the dismal state of transition-related healthcare including the lack of any provision for under-18s for the last year and a half, the high unemployment rate and prevalence of poor mental health should be evidence enough – and that our rights are not in any conflict with women’s rights. As such we need to include demands that give dignity to trans people in our struggle for decent public services and against bigotry and division in society.
It is morally abhorrent to platform such hateful discourse on the national broadcaster, but we don’t have the luxury of ignoring it. Refusing to engage with hostile media outlets will not get us anywhere as there is currently no alternative outlet that reaches a large section of Irish society. This is, of course, deeply unpleasant and disturbing, not least for trans people.
But we have no option but to stridently oppose them, on the streets and in the media. We cannot afford to be put on the defensive against ludicrous conspiracy theories. We must instead cut through the manufactured “trans debate” about whether or not we deserve basic respect.
The antidote to this is the building of real movements of solidarity to beat back the hatemongers, and fight for free healthcare based on informed consent through an All-Ireland NHS.