As the trans community celebrates victory against terrorism the Irish media continue to stoke a culture war

As the trans community celebrates victory against terrorism the Irish media continue to stoke a culture war

Over the last few weeks two internationally significant events pertaining to the trans community took place on this island. On the one hand Belfast became the focal point in a decisive campaign which resulted in the trans community successfully taking down an international terrorist organisation. This incredible achievement was largely ignored by Irish media, which instead played its part in enabling the global harassment and bullying of a transgender teen.

A failure to report

Most people at this stage will be well aware of the ongoing saga pertaining to Christian fundamentalist secondary school teacher Enoch Burke — who in his insistence on some god-given right to be able to dehumanise a student he didn’t even teach — disrupted a school event to shout at his boss and was subsequently placed on paid administrative leave pending a disciplinary investigation. His response to this was to repeatedly trespass on school grounds and cause disruption to school operations despite a High Court injunction banning him from the school and eventually ending up in Mountjoy Prison for contempt of court. The disgraceful behaviour which ultimately led to his imprisonment didn’t stop RTÉ initially framing the High Court injunction as due to Burke being opposed to the use of They pronouns and the Irish Independent deceitfully headlining an article stating that a judge was seeking the arrest of a teacher in a row over using said pronouns.

Many people both within the community and beyond expressed outrage at the framing of the case. RTÉ subsequently amended its coverage to reflect the true context. This shift may have come in the wake of previously coming under fire for platforming a gender critical group — which previously interacted with far-right and antisemitic individuals  — and resulted in Dublin Pride severing its relationship with the broadcaster. Conversely, the Independent’s response has been to insist that pronouns were somehow the dispute at the heart of these proceedings and not the teacher’s inexcusable behaviour. The resulting consequences have been immense. 

Genspect, a controversial organisation based in Ireland and the UK that has been accused of conversion practices and has been involved in influencing transphobic legislation globally — particularly in the US — framed the case on social media in terms of the legalities surrounding teachers’ treatment of trans students and linked to a speech by UK Conservative Politician Suella Braverman in which she attacked European human rights. The group’s executive director appeared on GB News framing trans people as requiring people to “collude in their belief”. Reactionary media in the UK and US, already seven years into a culture war against the trans community, picked up on this angle and released a barrage of articles leaning into this false equivalency, increasingly decontextualising events until a fictitious narrative framing Burke as a victim of “trans ideology” and “compelled speech” emerged, even prompting the likes of celebrity misogynist and transphobe Jordan Peterson to weigh in on the media pile on. 

Eventually Reuters felt compelled to write an article debunking the lies, a rare occurrence in such contexts. However, the Independent has remained entrenched in its framing of events and continues to use offensive terms such as “transgenderism” in relation to coverage of the case. Whereas media transphobia in the past could have been brushed off as wilful ignorance, in this case the Independent’s coverage and its subsequent consequences should be characterised as deliberately incendiary.

Trans Victory

Meanwhile, Clara Sorrenti, aka Keffals, a trans, Twitch streamer and political organiser had fled from Canada to Belfast, seeking refuge in the home of local activist Ellen Murray. Ellen is a founding member of Transgender NI, the Belfast Trans Resource Centre, and former Policy Officer with the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI). Keffals had recently been the victim of a swatting attempt where police stormed her home in London, Ontario, and arrested her at gunpoint in response to a false report originating from the website Kiwi Farms on top of ongoing and relentless doxxing, harassment, false accusations of “grooming”, and death threats targeting her and her family. 

Kiwi Farms is a far-right extremist online forum specialising in stochastic terrorism and has been active since 2012. Trans people, sex workers, journalists, and other vulnerable individuals have been subject to trolling, stalking, defamation, doxxing, as well as in-person harassment, violence, and death threats from its users. The website was also linked to at least one rape and three suicides of trans people who were targeted by its users. Kiwi Farms had previously gained international notoriety for republishing both the livestream and the manifesto of Brenton Tarrant, the perpetrator of the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings. Although subsequently blocked in New Zealand, previous attempts to have the website shut down had been unsuccessful partially because of the website’s predisposition towards targeting particularly vulnerable and minoritised individuals but principally due to Cloudfare, a content delivery network and DDoS mitigation company which refused to end its commercial relationship with the website.

Keffals, now operating from her new safe house in Belfast, decided to fight back and continued to stream from Ellen’s apartment. Utilising her platform and experience as a political organiser, she spearheaded a renewed campaign to have the website shut down. Along with Ellen and many adept experts and volunteers from the trans community already working in the background, the wider global trans community were mobilised into action under the Drop Kiwi Farms campaign which focussed its efforts on Cloudfare. However, members of Kiwi Farms were able to track down her address by examining a door handle that was visible in her stream and cross referencing it with images published on a Twitter account dedicated to Ellen Murray’s cat! As a result, one user who claimed links with loyalist paramilitaries attempted another, albeit, unsuccessful swatting attempt and posted an image online situated outside Ellen’s home featuring a letter containing death threats. 

When Keffals mentioned the possibility of sampling some poutine at a local takeaway, bomb threats were called in targeting various locations in Belfast city on two occasions. As a result of this the PSNI opened a terrorism investigation and very soon after — while under immense pressure — Cloudfare reluctantly dropped Kiwi Farms “Due to an imminent and emergency threat to human life”. The heat caused by these acts of terrorism in a city with a history of devastating bombing campaigns along with the Drop Kiwi Farms mobilisation ultimately resulted in effectively killing off Kiwi Farms which is now relegated to increasingly obscure and unstable hosting alternatives that are regularly shut down, thus neutering its effectiveness, stranding its user base, and ending their ability to organise. However, despite making international news, including a stint on CNN, the story was largely ignored in Ireland.

A Tale of Two Communities

The contrast couldn’t be more stark. Keffals, a 28-year-old who was able to transition as a teen, avail of informed consent healthcare in Canada, and who grew up with the support of her family and community, was resilient and resourceful enough — building on the already ongoing hard work and support of the trans community — to take down Kiwi Farms, something even New Zealand was unable to achieve and which is almost unprecedented in the history of the Internet. An incredible story which took place in our own backyard was deemed irrelevant. The community’s victory and demonstration of our capacity flies in the face of how elements within Irish media are determined to parrot a narrative that seeks to negatively portray trans people as both the bogeyman imposing some ill-defined “ideology” on respectable society and too inherently mentally disturbed to permit self-determination and bodily autonomy. 

In Ireland, trans healthcare for adolescents has collapsed while the National Gender Service has threatened to close its waiting list. But instead of the media highlighting the consequences and impact this has had on us, clinicians in the adult service are given free reign to advocate for more stringent pathologising models of care that are increasingly traumatic, dehumanising, and go against international best practice without criticism. The talking head directors of organisations operating out of Ireland accused of promoting conversion practices are shielded from scrutiny. Trans teenagers’ legitimate and legally protected requests for dignity and respect are distorted beyond recognition for clickbait regardless of the consequences. Far-right groups, increasingly emboldened and platformed in our media for “balance” are defended.

Hate-motivated violence against the wider LGBTQIA+ community is on the rise, reflecting a pattern that had already emerged in the UK as a result of ongoing transphobic media campaigns there. The ongoing US and UK culture war against trans people existing and asserting their right to be treated as equals in public life, access services, have legal recognition, and healthcare, that was initially distorted into a “debate” around a non-existent conflict between feminists and “trans activists”, has morphed into stochastic terrorism, bomb threats both in Belfast and the US, along with increasing state oppression and anti-trans laws. The new Prime Minister of the UK, Liz Truss, openly dehumanised trans women during her leadership campaign and has appointed the most homophobic cabinet since the Thacher era, signalling further attacks on previously fought for and secured rights in the UK.

Personally, as someone who grew up near the border during the Trouble, I carry vivid childhood memories of British army helicopters regularly flying over my garden, armed soldiers patrolling during family trips to Jonesborough Market, and daily news reports of bombings, kneecappings, and punishment beatings. Seeing recent events unfold in Belfast was eerily reminiscent of those times and our media’s silence felt deafening in the context of the manipulation of Burke’s theatrical distractions. As Irish people, we are well aware of our history of being the targets of a concerted anti-Irish media campaign in the UK press during the height of the Trouble, which lead to many ordinary Irish people being unfairly vilified, discriminated against, and scapegoated in day-to-day life. The same has been the case for other marginalised groups such as Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11. LGBTQIA+ people have previously endured negative campaigns characterising us as groomers and sexual predators. Today it’s the turn of the trans community to be vilified by a reactionary media and its Irish cohort has now shamefully played its part. 

However, instead of being able to point to examples of some sinister “trans activist” fringe carrying out acts of terrorism, the trans community is itself being threatened with violence, shootings, and bombs with escalating frequency along with the growing threat and reality of legalised torture as a result of conversion practices, anti-trans laws, hate speech from politicians, continued pathologisation, and removal of life-saving healthcare. Our media has arrived late to a culture war that many columnists, journalists, and editors seem so enthusiastic to participate in, that on the international stage is already mutating into something far more sinister and dangerous and aided by an emboldened far right that again in an Irish context is being downplayed and ignored. Unfortunately it is its trans victims, despite the victories of the wider community, that are targets all the while our children continue to suffer the most.

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 Facebook – Screenshot/ Wikimedia Commons – Clara Sorrenti

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