Ireland's emerging trans movement

  • by Heather Cassell
  • Wednesday April 5, 2017
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On the surface, it appears that Ireland is undergoing rapid change when it comes to LGBT rights, but as the Bay Area Reporter learned last summer while visiting Dublin, passage of the Gender Recognition Bill and same-sex marriage is just the beginning.

The B.A.R. met with leaders of Ireland's leading transgender organization, Transgender Equality Network Ireland �" Sara Phillips, chair of the board of directors; Broden Giambrone, outgoing chief executive; and Gordon Grehan, office manager �" at its office in Dublin in July.

Giambrone led TENI through tremendous accomplishments and growth, raising its profile as a leading organization for Ireland's transgender community. After six years at the helm, he will officially step down April 26 to pursue other professional pursuits, according to an announcement.

A new chief executive of TENI hasn't been named.

TENI officials talked about Ireland's landmark year for LGBT rights and the current state of transgender rights.

"The trans community in Ireland is very young," said Phillips, a 55-year-old transgender woman. But it has become increasingly more visible during the past decade, she said.

The top three issues at the front of the leaders' mind are employment, trans youth, and to turn nonbinding policies addressing transgender rights into laws.

The Gender Recognition Bill that passed in 2015 was groundbreaking, but it wasn't necessarily complete or clear. The bill only protects transgender individuals over the age of 18. It also doesn't include intersex, non-binary gender, or gender expression under its protections, the activists told the B.A.R. The bill will come under review sometime this year, they said.


Trans at work

"Legislation doesn't change things overnight," said Giambrone, a 33-year-old trans man. "What legislation can do is it sets a kind of benchmark. It sets, I suppose, a tone about how we talk about things."

Changes with societal attitudes "happen at a much slower pace," said Giambrone.

In spite of the law's passage, trans people continue to face the same barriers obtaining and maintaining employment when they come out, he said.

The flip side is that transgender individuals themselves are so used to being harassed and rejected that apathy limits their vision of what is possible for them when it comes to applying for jobs and advancing in the workplace, TENI leaders said.

TENI has started to address that with the publication in 2012 of " Speaking from the Margins: Trans Mental Health and Wellbeing in Ireland," the organization's first-ever trans mental health study. While the study didn't focus on employment issues, a few questions were included, said Giambrone.

What TENI found was that status of employment definitely played a role in a transgender person's mental health and well-being, both negative and positive.

"People did talk a lot about feeling like there were barriers to access to employment and fearing that they were being discriminated against," said Giambrone.

The other obstacle �" whether someone is trans or not �" is that finding a job is hard. The unemployment rate in the country this year dipped below 7 percent for the first time since 2008, the start of the worldwide economic slowdown.

To mitigate the situation, TENI's leadership launched a program to train and support companies' leaders and employees on transgender sensitivity in the workplace and the value of transgender employees. The organization also launched an employment training program to "up-skill" transgender individuals by identifying skills and strengths, build resumes and teach them how to dress for success, and boost confidence during employment searches and workplace advancement, Giambrone said.

"I think that it can also be a situation where trans people ourselves, sometimes, are afraid that we are going to be discriminated against," he said. "So, we just say, I'm not going to bother applying because they are not going to hire me anyway."

Grehan, a 37-year-old trans man, added that sometimes trans people are afraid that simple mannerisms will give them away during an interview. Employers need to be aware and recognize this to help create a welcoming atmosphere, he said.

"It can be quite difficult to gauge what is actually happening," said Giambrone. "Employers aren't stupid. They know that they can't say we are firing you because you are trans, just all of the sudden after you come out you find that you are not getting shift[s] anymore."

He noted the highly publicized and groundbreaking case of transgender sales manager Louise Hannon. In 2011 Hannon was granted protection under gender equality legislation by the Equality Tribunal after "obstructive dismissal" by her employer, First Direct Logistics Ltd.

However, not every transgender employment story ends badly, the activists pointed out.

"There have been some really positive stories," said Giambrone, pointing to Phillips' experience, "Sara has some great experience."

Phillips has had a positive experience working in a male-dominated field.

"My own story is very positive," said Phillips, who was so fearful when she started working for the company that she went to work dressed as a man. Later she had to undo the damage of her deceptive appearance in order to live authentically as herself at work.

"I was lucky that then, eventually when I did go through the transition, they were very supportive," she said, declining to name the company.

"The company that I work for, which ironically is in the construction industry, was very positive toward me," she continued. "They of course ... had no experience of it at all, but they were willing to let me guide them."

Through her experience Phillips discovered that there are companies that are open to hiring �" and want to support �" transgender employees. However, part of the problem is that employers didn't know how to respond to transgender employees.

In Ireland, there wasn't an avenue or vehicle, particularly through the media, for a public conversation about transgender individuals or where to get support, especially for employers, who wanted to be positive toward their trans employees," she said.

She sees the Gender Recognition Bill as a positive step, pushing companies to be more proactive.

Giambrone pointed out that transgender people's skills developed around authenticity and communication while transitioning can be valuable to an employer.

"I do think that it's about giving people the tools and awareness to make those spaces more open and conducive for trans people," said Giambrone.


New generation

Awareness is key, especially since there are a number of trans people who are expressing their gender identity at a younger age in Ireland.

People are talking about, "How do we support young trans people in schools?" said Giambrone, about how Ireland is picking up the conversation that has already been happening in Canada and the United States. "The structures aren't really there to do that."

Protecting transgender students in schools is particularly challenging in Ireland due to the majority of schools being single-sex and Catholic, the activists said.

"Where do trans people fit there? If a trans person comes out as a different gender or they affirm their gender that is not of the school ... what does that mean and where do you go?" asked Giambrone, noting it can be particularly difficult for trans boys who are forced in some all-girl schools to wear a skirt rather than being given the option to wear slacks. "The legislation isn't clear on that."

Students stay in the school designated by the sex on their birth certificate rather than the gender with which they identify.

Two years ago TENI convened 50 young trans people ages 14-25 together to discuss their experiences. The gathering revealed that some schools were strict while others were supportive, but there wasn't a uniform rule on how to manage and be sensitive to transgender students. Youth at the convening reported experiencing being abused by administrators, teachers, and peers and being supported by administrators, teachers, and peers. The abuse and support wasn't always concurrent.

"There is anecdotal evidence at the moment, but it is being used to stop people from transitioning within schools," said Grehan.

The goal of the convening was to inform TENI�s leadership so they could advise revisions of the Gender Recognition Bill to expand it to include trans youth. It was also to help clarify the law and policies so they can advise parents, school administrators, and students about their rights, they said.

The movement is "about getting that social acceptance and understanding trans people's issues so we can just live our lives," said Phillips.


The future

The activists said they were hopeful about the future for transgender people in Ireland.

"We are seeing a real shift now," said Giambrone, noting that parents are listening to their children when they express their gender identity and reaching out for support rather than rejecting it.

"I think for those young people, instead of trying to bury something for 10, 20, 30 years, they start that process at a younger age," said Giambrone, "which means that they can get their life started in a different way earlier. That's really, really positive. That signals such a massive shift."

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Russian gay community under attack

More than 100 alleged gay men have been rounded up and some killed by authorities during the past month in the southern Russian republic of Chechnya, according to reports.

Men were rounded up by authorities "in connection with their nontraditional sexual orientation, or suspicion of such," reported Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

Two well-known local television personalities are among those who have been accused and detained by the republic's authorities, reported ABC News.

Novaya Gazeta suggested that at least three men have been killed, but didn't provide more details.

The mass detainment follows a campaign promoting "traditional values," according to media reports.

Human rights experts and journalists were alerted to the situation by Moscow-based

Informed by sources in the Chechen security forces, human rights groups, LGBT Russian activists, and independent media outlets said more people continue to be accused of homosexuality and arrested by authorities in a "prophylactic purge."

Chechnya, which is Muslim-majority, is regularly the scene of alleged brutal human rights abuses and anti-gay attacks are common. The region is a stain on Russian President Vladimir Putin's human rights record following two separatist wars with Russia that devastated the republic since 1994, reported ABC News.

Alvi Karimov, a spokesman for Chechnya President Ramzan Kadyrov, denied Novaya Gazeta's story, stating that it was impossible because Chechnya has no homosexuals and called the report "absolute lies," reported ABC News.

However, human rights observers in the region have received reports from reliable sources that there has been, and continues to be, a mass roundup of alleged gay men in the conservative republic.

Tanya Lokshina, the Russia program director at Human Rights Watch, confirmed with ABC News that she's received reports about the large numbers of detentions. She told the news outlet that she was investigating and working on a report about the situation.

Russian LGBT Network is also submitting a formal request with federal authorities to open an investigation into the allegations of the detentions and murders in Chechnya.

Russia project coordinator for the International Crisis Group Ekaterina L. Sokiryanskaya, another expert in the North Caucasus, also was alerted by her sources to the detention of alleged gay men, she told the New York Times.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told ABC News that officials were unsure "to what extent the information was true," adding that it wasn't the Kremlin's role to investigate.

Russia's anti-homosexual propaganda law prohibits the promotion of "nontraditional" relationships.

He suggested that citizens file complaints and go to court, reported ABC News.

Human Rights First urged Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to publicly condemn the attacks on Chechnya's gay community. So far, Tillerson, who is expected to visit Russia next week, has not made any statement.

Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at Skype: heather.cassell, or [email protected].