Surviving and thriving: The trans community in Ireland

Surviving and thriving: The trans community in Ireland

Discussions on the trans community perpetuated by some influential voices in the dominant Irish cisgender chattering middle-classes more often than not consist of negative or false portrayals. These depictions perpetuate an unquestioned narrative of victimhood, helplessness, confusion, predilection for violence, and predatory sexual deviancy. This is informed by a heady mix of opinion column ignorance, attempted overseas importation of toxic culture wars fuelled by a privileged minority of TERFs, transphobes, and the far right. On top of this is a deference to the opinions of certain clinicians and popular psychotherapists whose framing of our community is informed by status, paternalism, gatekeeping, and pathology.

“Ciscourse” on the trans community in Ireland

This “ciscourse” culminates in the reduction of our humanity to that of an abstract otherness that is very much divorced from true trans identity, bodily autonomy, community, culture, and pride. When trans people do fight for space to speak on these exclusive platforms, discussion is often framed within this manufactured consensus, which reduces us to a reactive role and defensive stance with regards to our very existence and humanity. This is at odds with the positive attitudes and support that the trans community largely receives from the general public as well as from most human and women’s rights organisations in Ireland. Trans people exist, struggle, and thrive in many ways apart from these destructive narratives. But their prevalence does impact us in how we live our day to day lives and obstructs our ability to realise our full potential.

Correspondingly, trans people naturally seek space to express our thoughts, feelings, experiences, and truth safely and to form and implement the independent solutions we require and desire for our liberation. Trans people attempt to develop resources in order to build lives, spaces, and institutions informed by our own interests, our own communities, our own cultural vision, and our own bodily autonomy at their core. 

In many respects this happens already in the cracks and the crevices of society where trans people find themselves and the vacuum that exists where ill-fitting institutions built on cisgender interests fail us. This article attempts to shine some light on the ways the trans community in Ireland is finding ways to survive and indeed thrive outside of the prevailing narrative and mainstream society.

“The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.”

Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) works with families of trans people, offering peer support and guidance particularly for families of young trans people. However, unfortunately for many trans folk, the pseudo-traditional ideal of the nuclear family fails us and harms us.

For some this manifests in consequences as inconvenient as ignorance and misunderstanding or cis people’s feelings taking primacy over our best interests. But for many, including myself, it can result in the cutting of ties from the people who birthed us or those ties being cut. In this absence of such love and understanding to differing degrees, trans people build what’s known as found family. The concept of found family is central to the lives of many trans people and is almost always overlooked and dismissed by wider society.

I have a trans mother. I have four trans siblings and I hope in time to adopt trans children of my own some day. These people hold immense value to me, far beyond that which society recognises. For the first time I have experienced a special form of familial love, free from expectations built on cisheteronormativity as well as religious and societal expectations. We learn from each other, we support each other, share our burdens, failures, and successes in life, and we nurture and build each other up. Our ties are formed through shared identity and experience. But they are also built on mutual respect, understanding, and love. For me at least they are egalitarian, non-hierarchical, consenting, intertwining, and work on respect for individual dynamics and foster community care. I feel very fortunate to have the found family I have. And our relationships transcend and complement the other forms of family and community each of us move through as individuals.

Unfortunately the societal primacy that biological family holds can still be weaponised against us. 

TENI, where I work, has received reports from adult community members, some as old as 30 and beyond, that they are being required to have biological family and partners present with them at the National Gender Service (NGS) in order for psychiatric assessments to take place. On the NGS’s website it mentions a social worker being available for families. However in the FAQ section under Initial assessment and Operational function, the website states “Sometimes, meeting your partner or someone from your family can be an important part of completing the initial assessment.” The website also shows that the referral forms from GPs now require that the patient’s living arrangements, education, and employment status be listed. In some instances people have informed TENI that their partners have been brought into discussions with clinicians without the trans person being present and approval of their healthcare desires has been discussed and fundamental decisions been made by clinicians regarding trans people’s own right to bodily autonomy based on these interactions. 

People have come to TENI and told us of incidents such as a trans person being denied healthcare because they did not have the support of a person they lived with. Another interaction indicated that a trans person was denied healthcare because their sibling was autistic.

Community Care

Mental and physical health advice from our government and its institutions can often come in the form of individual responsibility and individual self-care. While objectively these aspects of health are important they are given a primacy that is ideologically driven, are increasingly used to obfuscate institutional responsibility, and facilitate a productivity and profit motive. We could also point to the government’s messaging on individual responsibility with regards to combatting the pandemic while important issues such as lack of adequately resourced public healthcare, implementing ventilation solutions, as well as a deference to economic activity and international travel didn’t come up for debate. At the same time facilitating family and community gathering outside of the marketplace has also taken a back seat. 

We see this in the notion that self-care is largely popularised in the context of consumerism and a preference to funding forms of therapy that heavily rely on addressing the perceived failures or limitations of the individual. This is done to the detriment of other techniques that incorporate familial, communal, and societal factors as well as the individual and collective trauma brought about by a society that can be hostile and harmful towards minorities and targeted groups. 

In the case of the trans community such individualism does not fully address our shared needs and difficulties brought about by our marginalised status. Part of my work in community development has included working with and helping develop volunteer and peer-led community adult support groups around the country. These groups are one way for the trans community to connect with others like them in their locality and discuss their shared experiences and needs. There are now peer support groups in every city in the country as well as multiple more rural-based groups. They are places where the trans community can talk about difficulties and successes in transition in an environment of understanding and support and share individual responses to common issues and challenges. They are places where friendships and relationships can grow and a forum that combats isolation and minority stress. 

Unfortunately, while community care is possible within these groups, much discussion is often expended on the lack of and ill-defined healthcare pathways, healthcare needs not being met, people languishing for years on waiting lists, and traumatic psychiatric assessments. It is often left to attendees and volunteer facilitators in these groups to pick up the pieces of trans lives, disrupted and traumatised by a dysfunctional and damaging model of healthcare. These topics of discussion also spill onto various private Facebook groups, forums, and Discord servers that trans folk also use to find community and share information online and which are largely invisible to the cisgender population.

Mutual Aid

On a similar front fundraising and mutual aid is another aspect where the trans community has innovated and pulled together in the absence of adequate public healthcare. 

Trans social media is littered with the countless GoFundMes of folks raising tens of thousands of Euros through donations from other trans people, their wider communities and allies, to access hormones and surgeries privately. Each month I find myself donating to the next trans man’s top surgery along with an assortment of fundraisers for laser hair removal, legal name and gender changes, and deposits for rental accommodation for people who need to flee toxic living environments. These fundraisers are, however, limited in their effectiveness. And it is often the more well-connected and privileged within the trans community that find success in this field. Trans women and femmes are very much a minority in many of these fundraisers and very rarely do I see Black and People of Colour reaching the same fundraising goals as their white peers. 

Beyond peer support and fundraisers a number of small grassroots organisations are also filling the vacuum. TransEmigrate is an organisation based in Ireland that helps transgender individuals relocate to safer parts of the world in order to live as their authentic selves. To combat issues of trans media representation and hostility the Trans Writers Union has also been formed in Ireland. The Small Trans Library, based in Dublin and Glasgow, offers a free lending library for the community with LGBTQIA+-specific literature that can be hard to access in traditional mainstream libraries and book shops. At the beginning of the lockdown a grocery fund was also created where trans people can access small amounts of money to cover the costs of food, therapy, medication, household bills, and other expenses that many struggle to afford. Trans activists are also involved in international solidarity efforts with a fund to support a safe house for trans people in Nigeria. 

For those failed by our public health system and unable to afford expensive private healthcare some trans people have made the difficult decision to self-medicate. While not something that TENI advocates, it has to be acknowledged that in the absence of community-based informed consent healthcare, and ever expanding waiting lists for a severely pathologising gender clinic, some trans people feel it necessary to take their healthcare into their own hands in a similar vein to abortion access before legalisation. The Trans Healthcare Network is “a committed and active network of trans people who believe in bodily autonomy and mutual aid while providing info and resources for people looking to source hormones for themselves.” 

On the cultural front Gender.rip is an artistic collective which has provided support and assistance for trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming artists in the community, in part through an advisory role on the We Only Want the Earth artists’ residency for the community and through their own individual cultural and artistic events. The Stairlings Collective, another art and history collective, has worked on a number of trans artistic and historical projects. These have included talks with elders in the community, collage-making workshops, a photographic exhibition featuring portraits of trans women and trans feminine people that was projected onto the GPO and Collins Barracks as well as the ConverSayTrans podcast series where trans people from the community have a rare opportunity to talk about themselves and their experiences for a trans, rather than exclusively cisgender audience. Along similar lines the Irish Trans Archive is a historical project that collects historical artefacts relating to the trans community in Ireland.

Solidarity

Amongst grassroots campaigning for issues such as marriage equality, abortion rights, AIDS activism, ending direct provision, housing and tenants’ rights, and feminist issues in Ireland, trans people are there and fighting the good fight. 

After the recent defeats for trans rights in the UK over legal gender recognition and medical treatment of trans adolescents, many UK sock puppet Twitter accounts were turned on Irish organisations in an attempt to make inroads here. The success of Irish gender recognition legislation is seen as an inconvenient reminder of the false arguments that have worked against legislative reform in their jurisdiction. However, orchestrated online attacks on womens’ organisations and human rights groups for using inclusive language have had little impact, partially due to the role that the trans community had with boots on the ground in campaigning to repeal the 8th ammendment and other campaigns well within living memory.

This can be contrasted with institutions where trans people are excluded and are not afforded the ability to have a proper voice. As the spate of misinformed media articles and commentaries — as was covered in my previous article — shows no signs of abating, the letters sections of the Irish Times has since become a regular platform of false and misleading commentary from a loud but miniscule minority of transphobic and gender critical voices. Even letters written on other subject matters using inclusive language have been edited to remove references to trans people’s bodily autonomy. 

In February the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP) published a guide for GPs on primary transgender healthcare. It was worked on for considerable time with medical professionals and input from TENI. However, almost immediately after publication the guide was removed and a revised edition published with aspects, particularly with regards to adolescent healthcare, being altered in a matter of days. Some of the factors that seemed to have an undue influence on this happening included an incendiary Gript media article being published and protestations from some high-profile popular psychotherapists and clinicians.

The aspects of trans life where we as a community can and do pool resources, build community care and autonomy show that the trans community is resilient and more than capable of looking after ourselves and our best interests when we have the opportunity to do so. Such groups demonstrate models of organisation that can bring about cultural achievements, community care, and love far beyond what our small numbers would imply. 

However, for those with great privilege, who feel they have the right to talk about and make decisions for us and not with us, the march towards equality and liberation can feel like an attack. Journalists lament on social media about being afraid to write about “trans politics” or clinicians refuse to take part in discussions on healthcare reform, refuse to work professionally with the likes of TENI, or fail to facilitate trans representation on their governance committees. These indefensible actions are an attempt to continue to dictate to others and make decisions on our lives without criticism or accountability. But as this goes on our collective movement for equality marches on and momentum for positive change grows.

Lilith Ferreyra-Carroll (She/Her) is a feminist, working-class activist specialising in community development and advocacy. With an MA in International Development, she has 15 years experience working in the non-profit sector. You can contribute to the GoFundMe for her surgery here.

Featured image via Pexels

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