This is my most recent article for GCN. ‘TERF Wars’ was prompted by the disruption of this summer’s London Pride parade by a group called Get The L Out. In this article, I analysed a few reasons why trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) seem to be less prominent here in Ireland than they are in Britain. To read the full September 2018 issue of GCN, click here or look out for a physical copy in one of their stockists throughout Ireland.
While my article was designed to offer a general overview of this situation, far more detailed information is available in the three Twitter threads linked below (including a number of very insightful points about how the history of the UK’s colonial rule over Ireland has impacted the feminist movements in both countries). They are highly recommended reading!
The hijacking of London Pride by a group of trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) last month is indicative of the rise of what seems like a bitter division within Britain’s LGBT community. But in Ireland, TERFs and trans exclusionary rhetoric have barely been seen or heard. So, what’s diferent about the queer community here, and why is important that we stay tuned to what’s happening across the water? Aisling Cronin reports.
LGBT+ Pride parades were originally conceived as occasions of protest, solidarity, and courage: they were statements of open defiance in the midst of prejudice. Anyone familiar with the history of Pride will know that this vitally important aspect of queer culture would not exist without transgender women of colour. Long before Pride became a heavily promoted and commercialised event in the Western world, transgender activists such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson risked their safety and even their lives to ensure that future generations would enjoy basic rights and freedoms.
This was why shockwaves reverberated through Britain’s LGBT+ community back in July, when London’s Pride parade was hijacked by a group of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (colloquially known as TERFs) who pushed their way to the front of the parade and demanded that they be permitted to lead it. Carrying literature that was aimed at spreading hatred and misinformation against trans people, this group – Get The L Out – professed their desire to separate lesbians from the wider LGBT+ community.
One person who was horrified by the spectacle was British lesbian activist Lottie L’Amour. ‘I had an unfortunate front row seat to this debacle – I marched in the parade with my partner on a bus directly behind the women – and I was mortified as both a bystander and a cisgender female lesbian.’
Lottie was far from alone. Messages of support for the transgender community from cis female lesbians poured out on social media, and a hashtag campaign gained traction, #LWithTheT and #NotADebate.’
This outpouring of support was mirrored here in Ireland. During Dublin’s first-ever Trans Pride march, which took place on the 28th of July, many cisgender lesbians – together with other cisgender members of the queer community – were inspired to create placards expressing strong statements of support for transgender people. Within Irish feminism, trans-exclusionary rhetoric has not gained the same level of widespread acceptance that it currently enjoys in Britain.
Community-driven solidarity acts as a unifying force in Ireland.
Gordon Grehan, Operations Manager of Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) feels that while Ireland does have TERFs, their presence here is muted: a marked difference from the situation across the Irish Sea, where trans-exclusionary voices are often given a platform to air their views through large media outlets and political parties.
’We work with trans organisations based over there, and some of the things they are dealing with are horrific and deeply unpleasant,’ he explains. ‘We don’t have that to the same degree over here – there are some trans-exclusionary feminists here in Ireland, but there are only a handful of them, as far as I can tell. They pop up on Twitter from time to time! There are lots of reasons for that: one would be the mobilisation of the Irish LGBT+ community through grassroots campaigns. Trans people definitely played a huge part in the marriage equality campaign and in the Repeal the Eighth campaign.’
One example of Irish cisgender feminists’ willingness to stand in solidarity with transgender people was the January 2018 publication of an open letter addressed to the organisers of a British TERF-led tour called We Need to Talk. This tour was founded with the express aim of opposing the much-needed reform of the UK’s Gender Recognition Act. The tour organisers planned to visit Ireland in February of this year, erroneously claiming that efforts to advance the rights of transgender people were in some way interfering with the closely related struggle for reproductive rights.
On that occasion, Irish cisgender feminists stood up, en masse, to make it clear that they would not tolerate this level of bigotry and exclusion. The open letter received thousands of signatures.
The authors of the letter wrote: ‘Trans people and particularly trans women are an inextricable part of our feminist community. The needs of trans people are part of our campaigns. Together, cis and trans, we are Irish feminism. Trans women are our sisters; their struggles are ours, our struggles theirs. They were our sisters before any state-issued certification said so and will always be no matter what any legislation says, either now or in the future. In the south of Ireland, trans women have been able to declare themselves women and have the state change their documentation to reflect that declaration since 2015. The sky has not fallen. Cis women have not lost anything whatsoever from this. If anything, all of Irish feminism has gained: our struggle for bodily autonomy gains in strength and momentum through this victory for our trans sisters. There are few things as feminists in Ireland we can say we have been pleased to see passed by the state. This, although flawed in its lack of recognition of trans children and non-binary people, is one.’
A small population encourages close cooperation within Ireland’s LGBT+ community.
Another deterrent to the widespread acceptance of trans-exclusionary ideas in Irish feminist and LGBT+ circles is the simple matter of our small population size, relative to that of Britain. In a small community, contained within an already-small island population, there is less scope for UK-equivalent divisions to emerge – which is not to say, of course, that no problems exist within Ireland’s LGBT+ or feminist circles.
While it can be tempting to view trans-exclusionary groups such as Get The L Out as minor, extremist fringe voices, Gordon strikes a cautionary note in that regard. ‘What we have to remember is that however small these groups may be, vulnerable young people, or people questioning their gender identity, can still read their words and be deeply affected by them. You can easily look at the people who are trying to sow division and say, oh, they’re just a tiny, vocal minority … but they do have a damaging impact on vulnerable people.’
Many problems affecting LGBT+ people in Ireland urgently need to be addressed – homelessness, direct provision, and the ongoing process of separating the Church and the State, to name a few – but for now, it appears that we need not fear TERFs wreaking havoc to the same extent as they have done in Britain. However, as we move forward and face the injustices that remain within Irish society, it is vitally important for us to remember the solidarity that has carried us forward to date. We can never afford to become complacent in the face of intolerance and bigotry.