In truth a 14-year-old male wishing to wear women’s underwear today would probably feel nowhere near as comfortable as George Hook imagines they might, writes Alison O’Connor

IT’S not often we can say our politicians are ahead of the public but when it comes to the issue of transgender they’re way ahead.

This week we were told that almost 150 people have had their gender legally recognised in Ireland since new legislation was passed a year ago. The Act allows over 18s to decide their own gender identity without the backing of a medical professional or gender reassignment treatment. We are only the fourth country in the world to do so.

Now if you are like me, you might have a vague notion of what this means exactly; further you may be more than slightly baffled by the entire subject of transgender and you may worry that your take on it all is not quite what you might like it to be. You might be familiar with the name Lydia Foy. The Co Kildare dentist who fought a two-decade legal battle for a new birth certificate reflecting her gender identity.

From a subject about which we seemed to hear almost next to nothing, suddenly it seemed as if the issue kept cropping up. You may remember there was a bit of a media stir when we heard that RTÉ journalist Jonathan Clynch had identified as “gender fluid” and told colleagues he intended to dress as a woman and take on the additional name of Rachel.

Earlier this year, US President Barack Obama said transgender pupils at public schools must be allowed to use the toilets and changing rooms of whichever gender they identify with.

At home, Peter Mullan, assistant general secretary of the INTO, said ‘gender-neutral’ toilets for junior infant pupils as young as four should be considered to make certain children feel more comfortable in the classroom. He also called for unisex uniforms. People, he said, must accept we live in a changing society, and there must be recognition that some children have gender dysphoria. This is a term used to describe those who feel one’s emotional identity as male or female to be opposite to their biological sex.

Then just a few weeks ago we read in the Sunday Independent how broadcaster George Hook, as a teenager, used to steal underwear from the drawer of a school friend’s mother and wear them to bed.

“I did it because I liked it,” he said, but explained that in 1956 no one had ever even heard of a transgender person. “So I wasn’t going anywhere” with it. These days “at 14, every second person you meet is gay, so wearing women’s clothes isn’t a problem anymore. If I was 14 now and wearing women’s knickers, who knows that I wouldn’t be transgender? The reason I wasn’t was because of society”.

A marginalised section of society ignored because of our ignorance

Things, as George asserts, have certainly moved on, as evidenced by the passage of the transgender legislation a year ago. But in truth, a 14-year-old male wishing to wear women’s underwear today would probably feel nowhere near as comfortable as George imagines they might. The actuality is our transgender legislation was overshadowed by the gay marriage referendum. That is understandable, but also means the issue did not get as much proper public debate as it might otherwise have done.

As a guest presenter this week on the Tonight with Vincent Browne programme, I was delighted when the producer suggested tackling the topic of transgender people. For ages now I’ve been meaning to educate myself on the topic, not to mention tackle some of my prejudices. For instance, when I first came across that idea of gender fluidity — where a person may identify as male, female or somewhere in between, I found it very difficult to take the concept on board. In a discussion on the subject with a friend I was rather embarrassed and uncomfortable to find myself agreeing vigorously when she said: “Your instinct is to say to someone like that ‘will you pick a team and stick to it’.” At the time we both acknowledged that our reaction came from a place of ignorance. This was combined with a horror of being offensive, as well as a fear of not using the correct terminology or correctly identifying the gender which the person wishes to be recognised as.

In an era when we like our news in soundbytes, where complex matters have to be simplified enough to fit into a tweet and the phrase “when you’re explaining you’re losing” has such popular currency, transgenderism can be an almost impossible sell. It’s a bit of a minefield.

The television panel included Vanessa Lacey from Waterford who was once a husband and a father to two sons. Vanessa strongly rejects any notion that she had a “choice’ in her situation, pointing out that it would have been so much easier to remain one gender, and so much easier on her sons. She spoke about how her sons were very comfortable about her coming on television on Tuesday night to tell her story.

Next to her was Sam Blanckensee, a 22 year old who was born in the body of a girl. He explained how he identified as a man while trying to come to terms with his rejection of female as a gender. He has had surgery and hormonal treatment. But he now describes himself as non binary, which means that he identifies as neither male nor female.

A third panelist Catherine Cross is the mother of a transgender man, Lucas. She told of how Lucas had always been a tomboyish girl. However, it was when puberty hit that it became clear there was a problem as the process made Lucas very distressed. At the age of 15 he came out as gay and subsequently as transgender. She spoke of how she had a very hard time when Lucas told her about being transgender. It felt as if she was losing a daughter and needed to mourn that loss. Catherine, like Sam and Vanessa, is involved with TENI — Transgender Equality Network Ireland — which works to improve conditions and advance the rights and equality of trans people and their families. Catherine, as family support and education officer, travels around to schools, secondary and primary, to speak about trans issues.

When you’ve been a journalist as long as I have, there is frequently the feeling of having seen it all before. But listening to these people recount their stories felt somehow ground breaking; like we were dealing with a section of society that has been without a voice for so long. The people on the show came across as very together and articulate, so it is no coincidence that they are involved with a support group. But in truth, the majority of trans people suffer serious mental health issues. In a survey conducted by TENI in 2013 almost 80% of those questioned had considered suicide, and a similar figure avoided some public places or situations for fear of harassment.

At the risk of sounding twee, listening to these people tell their stories, and being allowed to do so in public, means it will make it impossible for us to ignore what they go through personally, and at the hands of society, and to have proper services put in place to help them. It is a cliché but it is through us listening, and them telling of their experiences, that their cause will be advanced.


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