Alison O'Connor: We can have a rational discussion — and still protect trans people

'This bullying and utterly totalitarian attachment to a particular ideology was always going to end badly'
Alison O'Connor: We can have a rational discussion — and still protect trans people

RTÉ was told it had stoked 'the flames of anti-trans rhetoric' and caused 'untold hurt' through Joe Duffy's 'Liveline' show.

What a terrible pity it came to this. Discussions not being had for entirely wrong reasons — festering away for a long time — bursting onto the national stage. The repercussions are really unfortunate.

The trans debate launched on the national talking shop that is Liveline. The RTÉ programme devoted days to this topic, so highly controversial that in recent years to raise concerns in any way would lead to immediate accusations of transphobia. This bullying and utterly totalitarian attachment to a particular ideology was always going to end badly. The surprise is that it did not happen sooner.

Arising from this, on Tuesday evening Dublin Pride announced it was terminating its media partnership with the national broadcaster saying it was “angered and disappointed” by the Liveline discussions on the transgender community. It said RTÉ had stoked “the flames of anti-trans rhetoric” and caused “untold hurt”.

This was all kicked off by a protest at the National Women’s Council AGM last Thursday week. A group called The Countess had protested outside and later told Joe Duffy they had been denied entry to the meeting.

As it happens, I was inside that earlier part of that meeting, chairing a discussion on what we might expect in any debate ahead of the “woman in the home” referendum, due to be held soon.

Part of the Liveline discussion centred around the word women being removed, through amendments, from the Maternity Protection Act 1994. It is being amended to ensure it extends certain rights that already exist to trans people. In April, the Government approved the drafting of a Work Life Balance Provisions Bill. As part of that, apparently, “legislative anomalies” that had been identified in other Acts needed to be addressed.

If you take a look at those proposed changes to the Maternity Act you will see the reasons for concern. Here are a few of them — “the replacement of ‘woman’ with ‘person’, or “a word importing the feminine gender shall be read as also importing the masculine gender”, or “For the avoidance of doubt, ‘woman’ is being substituted for a gender-neutral term, such as ‘person’.

Who came up with this nonsense? Have Irish women as a gender not had enough issues over the decades, without this attempt to vanish us from laws governing women giving birth?

 You couldn’t make it up! On a practical and crucial level, how can you advocate for women if our gender is written out of this legislation?

National Women’s Council

Belatedly this week the National Women’s Council came out with the clarification that it had always advocated for the word “woman” or “women” to be retained or included in policy and legislation. This should never have been in any doubt and the Council could have saved itself a lot of trouble by saying so previously.

In its statement, it mentioned as an example the screening service CervicalCheck. In that instance, it had advocated for the word “women” being included in screening literature, along with “transgender men, intersex, and non binary people with a cervix” to come forward for a smear test.

As it happens CervicalCheck currently uses the term “women and people with a cervix” which seems entirely appropriate, rather than that somewhat over-the-top NWCI approach. You see two years ago CervicalCheck also fell foul of the over-zealous trans policing. We learned then it had removed the word “woman” from these information sheets about cervical screening and replaced it only with “people with a cervix”. Happily, they then changed it.

The mystery question here, and in other instances, is who is driving this officially, within the system?

 From where are these efforts on the part of officialdom to vanish women coming? The Department of Children and Equality says the Maternity Act amendments are being proposed to ensure the entitlements are available to all pregnant employees and is based on our old reliable “legal advice”.

Why two years ago did the HSE, via CervicalCheck, take the approach that it did obliterating the term “women”? How could anyone advocate for inclusiveness and equality and not see the damage done by not using “women” in these instances? What women have gained we must hold dearly. Sadly this applies all the way to the basics of our very identity.

Trans people have exceptionally difficult lives, often suffering horrible violence and discrimination. They do not deserve more hurt and stigmatisation

 We have a duty to further understand their world. Tragically, and ironically, they have been further victimised by those who stand guard stringently, and often times viciously, over any effort to raise a discussion about certain issues. Needless to say, the online aspect is particularly aggressive.

At the height of it this week I received an interesting text on the matter from a national politician saying a number of colleagues in Leinster House are also concerned about the removal of the word “woman” and other issues, but “we’re afraid of getting cancelled...if certain groups take a set against you, they can literally take you out and end your career....there wasn’t this much fear on the 8th amendment and that is saying something.”

It is a real pity that it was Pride month when this issue burst forth on Liveline. But RTÉ like so many other media has been running scared on the wider debate for a long time, even though there is a clear public interest angle.

In the US this week, a report shows the number of young people who identify as transgender has nearly doubled in recent years.

Surveys from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 2017 to 2020, which were analysed by the Williams Institute, estimate that 1.4% of 13 to 17-year-olds and 1.3% of 18 to 24-year-olds were transgender, compared to 0.55 of all adults. The latest figures included new data from high school students, and clearly, while the total numbers are small, a doubling in that time is very significant.

The study found people aged 13 to 25 accounted for a disproportionately large share of the transgender population.

In the US the issue has become utterly politically toxic. Sadly, US Republican lawmakers across the country are attempting to deny medical treatment by criminalising doctors or investigating parents for abuse.

More generally, young people today clearly feel far freer to explore their gender identity. That is a good thing, compared to the oppression of the past. However, questions have to be asked around the massive increase in referrals to gender services.

A year and a half ago, I wrote of how in the UK there has been a nearly 30-fold rise in child referrals to the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust which runs the main gender identity clinic in the past decade.

Pattern of referrals

Those familiar with the situation in Ireland said a similar exponential growth had occurred here. Likewise, it used to be a majority of young boys here, but that has overwhelmingly reversed with the significant majority now girls.

In 2018 the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland made a submission to the Consultation on the Gender Recognition Act 2015 pointing out there had been a change in pattern of referrals of patients with a younger age profile, a significant increase in those with gender confusion, gender fluidity, and Autistic Spectrum behaviour.

This did not impact on the gender issue for the individual but may, it stated, impact on suitability to progress with medical or surgical treatment. It made the point an issue with gender is not the same as gender dysphoria requiring gender reassignment.

Appropriately managed, it explained, the outcome in individuals with true gender dysphoria, transitioning to their identified gender with appropriate support, is extremely positive.

This really is an issue of our times.

So far we’ve made an absolute hames of discussing it — the only comfort being that in other countries it’s going even worse. It’s not too late to have that rational discussion— while protecting trans people.


  • The National Women's Council of Ireland have asked us to clarify that they issued a statement to the Liveline programme on 9 June which stated: "NWC advocates for inclusive language in legislation and policy. NWC recommended the use of women and people in the amendments to the maternity legislation". 
    NWC have also asked us to clarify that they have consistently advocated for the inclusion/retention of the word “woman" in government legislation and policy documents.

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