Speech at a reception in honour of Transgender Equality Network Ireland
Áras an Uachtaráin, Wednesday, 23 November 2016
Is mór an pléisiúir a chugann sé dom fáilte a fhearadh romhaibh chuig Áras an Uachtaráin. Is mian liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le bhur Stiúrthóir Feidhmiúcháin, Broden Giambrone, as scríobh chugam agus moladh dom comóradh cinn 10 mbliana Líonra na hÉireann um Chomhionannas Trasinscne a cheiliúradh libh. Tá áthas orm an deis seo a fháil bualadh libh agus aitheantas a thabhairt daoibh as an tacaíocht luachmhar a thugann bhur n-eagraíocht do mhuintir trasinscine na hÉireann agus a gclanna ó bunaíodh sibh sa bhliain 2006.
[It is my great pleasure to welcome you all to Áras an Uachtaráin. May I thank your Executive Director, Broden Giambrone, for contacting me and suggesting that we celebrate together the tenth anniversary of Transgender Equality Network Ireland. I am delighted to have this occasion to meet you and to acknowledge the crucial support which your organisation has been providing to Ireland’s transgender people and their families since your foundation in 2006.]
May I also thank my friend Michael Farrell for his letter in which he commended the work of the Transgender Equality Network. Michael has played such an important role in advocating for human rights on this island over the years that it should come as no surprise that he lent his expertise as a solicitor to the cause of transgender equality.
Your visit here today provides us with a welcome opportunity to look back and take stock of the significant – if overdue, and painfully slow – advances that have recently been secured in our country as to the fundamental right of our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) citizens to live equal, dignified and fulfilling lives.
The atmosphere that served as source to such opposition, delays, or lethargy, was an early twentieth century, rather than any essential aspect of Republicanism in its best sense, or the product of literary work of the Revival movement.
Transgender people experience what it is to live deprived of full rights, in the shadows of society, and stigmatised and mistreated. Over the past months, we have seen two significant steps on the journey towards equality – steps which were secured thanks to the watchful, determined and creative activism of organisations such as the Transgender Equality Network. These of course are the Marriage Act 2015 and the Gender Recognition Act 2015.
The Gender Recognition Act of 2015 is hugely significant in that it enables transgender people to achieve full legal recognition of their preferred gender identity and acquire a new birth certificate that reflects this identity.
As all of you here know very well, birth certificates are foundational documents that have, not just great symbolic value for the identity, and integrity, of the self, but also significant practical importance. Indeed, birth certificates are customarily requested for such important matters in the life of any citizen as accessing social welfare, obtaining a PPS number, or applying for a passport.
Since the passing of the legislation, 149 new certificates have been granted and 4 of those were to applicants under 18 years of age.
This afternoon I would like to acknowledge and pay tribute to all those who campaigned for such life-changing legislation. The effective and sustained advocacy carried out by Transgender Equality Network Ireland, across Ireland’s legal, political, but also medical, structures has been instrumental in ensuring that both policy and legislative enactments can foster a positive recognition of the rights to inclusion and equality of transgender people in our Republic.
It is so worthy to recall that support was received in this advocacy from opposition and backbench legislators, who raised the issue in the Houses, introduced Private Members Bills, and advocated on behalf of Ireland’s Transgender Community.
A crucial role – one that must never be forgotten in the history of campaigns for equality – was played by such unyielding campaigners as Claire Farrell and Lydia Foy, both of whom I am so glad are with us here this afternoon. Dr Lydia Foy’s long running action against the Irish state, in a bid to have her female identity recognised on her birth certificate, lasted for 20 years. Indeed, it was in 1993 that Lydia first wrote to the Irish Registrar seeking a new birth certificate reflecting her gender identity.
Hers was a long journey, requiring much more than patience. The support of the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks, was brought to bear in 2012, and in January 2013, Lydia Foy began her third and last set of legal proceedings against the Irish State, which eventually led to what Michael Farrell, who represented her throughout her lengthy legal struggle, referred to as the “welcome, if overdue” positive conclusion to her 17 years of litigation.
May I mention that Commissioner Muižnieks is going to visit me tomorrow morning, here in the Áras, and I very much look forward to discussing with him the new landscape of LGBTI rights in our country.
While an adequate legislative framework protecting the rights of our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex citizens is the necessary infrastructure for any enduring social progress, we must, I believe, go further and seek to craft, together, such a public discourse as will enable us to effectively eliminate all forms of discrimination in our society, be they based on gender identity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, cultural history, physical appearance or mental abilities. That is what is required to achieve full participation on equal terms. We might reflect on the fact that labelling has usually served the projects of exclusion, and their rationalisations, so much more than they have assisted egalitarian tendencies or anything emancipatory.
I know that all of us here are committed to a vision of an Ireland where transgender people are understood, accepted and respected. An Ireland where every citizen can lead happy and fulfilling lives, without being excluded from employment or from adequate healthcare services – and without being stigmatised or marginalised, or ever subjected to harassment and violence, for the persons who they are.
In achieving this vision of a fair, inclusive and equal Ireland, we might draw inspiration from the emancipatory vision which animated so many of the revolutionary men and women from our past. This year’s commemorations of the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916 have been such an important occasion for Irish people to rediscover previously neglected aspects of the writings and work of those who participated in Ireland’s Revolution, particularly the women, and indeed their writings in the decades preceding the Rising.
The new atmosphere of the Ireland of 2016, and its more inclusive practice of commemoration, has enabled us to discuss more freely the fact that, for example, a significant number of the women and men who led the Irish Revolution were not just radical in their political outlook, they were also people who made quite radical choices about their personal lives, and they respected such choices by others.
This is particularly true of the women of 1916. Margaret Skinnider, for example, who fought with the St Stephen’s Green garrison was, by her own account, an adept of cross dressing, and she enjoyed drilling with the Irish Volunteers without her male comrades ever noticing that she was a woman. We can think, too, of Dr Kathleen Lynn, who was an officer of the Irish Citizen Army during the Rising and who shared a prison cell with her lifelong partner, Madeleine ffrench Mullen, after the surrender. The two of them lived and worked together for decades afterwards. Neither should we forget that Elizabeth O’Farrell, the nurse who famously brought the order to surrender to rebel garrisons across Dublin, is buried with her life partner, Julia Glenon, in Glasnevin Cemetery.
Thus, notwithstanding the traditional gender roles ascribed to them in the Ireland of the time, many women, especially those who were members of James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, did play a prominent combatant role during the Easter Rebellion and chose to follow in their private and public lives paths that were then highly unconventional, according to the norms of the time.
In a recent lecture I delivered at Congress Hall, London, building on such work as that of Dr. Sonja Tiernan, I sought to redress the neglect of the life and achievements of Eva Gore-Booth, Constance Markievicz’s younger sister, who was a prominent suffragist, pacifist and organiser of women’s trade unions in Manchester at the turn of the last century. Eva Gore-Booth’s campaigns in support of, for example, pit brow workers, barmaids, or women circus performers, as part of her trade union activism, manifested her radical conception of gender equality. Despite her own very delicate health, Eva Gore-Booth went so far as to work as a pit brow lass herself in order to prove that there was no physical limitation to women’s work.
Both Eva Gore-Booth and her life-long partner, Esther Roper, were pioneering, not just in their opposition to any kind of discrimination based on gender in the workplace, but also in their view of gender performance as simply learned behaviour and convention. In 1911, both of them joined Thomas Baty’s Aëthnic Union, which claimed that
“upon the fact of sex there has been built up a gigantic superstructure of artificial convention which urgently needs to be swept away.”
Together with other members of the Aëthnic Union, they established the journal Urania, in which one can find articulated their view that
“sex was an accident and formed no essential part of an individual’s nature.”
Yes, a century ago, the goal of Urania was to highlight how individuals could achieve their full potential if the constraints of gender were removed. The journal usually opened with an editorial commentary, and comprised a letter section, book reviews, progress reports on co-educational schools and various reprinted articles from worldwide newspapers, relating in particular to cross-dressers and individuals who transgressed gender roles. Most issues contained a ‘star dust’ section which recorded details of women who achieved success in areas usually associated with men.
One such article, listed under the category “Athletics”, thus related the case of a 19-year old Japanese girl who, having woken up to discover a burglar in her room, managed to throw him to the ground and overwhelm him. The girl was a student of jujutsu! Contributors to the journal were also unusual in their rejection of the institution of marriage, which few feminists contested in the early 20th century. Articles thus challenged the notion that all women aspire to be married and that only those who are undesirable remain unmarried.
Interestingly, and I believe it is an important contextual point, one can trace a connection between the radical gender politics of Eva Gore-Booth and her friends, and the unorthodox forms of spirituality in which they were interested. Many radical feminist thinkers of the time, but also members from Eva Gore-Booth’s Celtic Revival literary circle, thus became members of the Theosophical Society, whose basic principles, derived from Eastern religions – such as reincarnation and the law of karma – defined gender and sexuality as fundamentally fluid. A soul, they argued, would not remain the same sex throughout multiple incarnations.
There is also in these writings an important consideration of the fullness of nature, of a spirituality that fitted easily with the Romantic Movements, of the value of intimacy, of friendship, of the solidarity of shared perspective, of the bonds of commitment to a shared aesthetic of emancipation.
In 1913, Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper moved from Manchester to 33, Fitzroy Square, in London’s Bloomsbury neighbourhood. The lower floors of their house harboured Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop, and the two women soon began to mix with the so-called Bloomsbury group: people such as John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Vanessa Bell, who were challenging accepted views on economy, sexuality and patriotism, who were celebrating life in all its diversity and possibilities.
May I conclude by inviting you all, dear friends, to revisit the writings of these inspirational figures, such as Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper, as a source of courage in continuing to challenge, relentlessly, the unquestioned assumptions that still largely underpin the way our society conceives of gender, gender identity, gender expression, and cultural freedom.
By drawing both on this rich well from our past and on the courageous and passionate activism that all of you here bring to the cause of transgender equality, we can, together, build a hospitable Ireland, in which all citizens are enabled to flourish, encounter happiness, and love.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.