After two failed interview attempts and feeling like I’d become best friends with Ben, the very patient receptionist at BeLonGTo, Ireland’s leading LGBT charity, I finally got the opportunity I had been waiting weeks for: the chance to speak with Moninne Griffith, the prominent LGBT activist recently tasked with driving social change forward in Ireland as the newly elected Chair of the Gender Recognition Act Review Group. The group is mandated by the government to review Ireland’s gender recognition law and to recommend any changes they feel it requires.
Just off the phone with policymakers in Iceland, having discussed the gender recognition legislation they are hoping to bring in there, Griffith sighs in frustration while apologising for keeping me waiting. It seems the Icelandic government has once again collapsed, delaying the enactment of this vital piece of legislation she is collaborating on. Griffith wryly points out that delay and frustration are all too common themes in the area of advocacy, but that’s just the way it is when you’re trying to bring about social change. “It takes time and it takes patience”, she tells me.
From our short but insightful interaction, this is one of the key themes that crops up repeatedly: social change isn’t easy, and it takes a lot of hard work, but that doesn’t mean we should stop pursuing it. It’s essential that those in the LGBT community who have for so long been marginalised by society are continually told that they “are worth fighting for” and that they are valued. Whilst Griffith firmly believes this happens through changes to our legal infrastructure, she is keen to stress that some of the most fundamental work can be done at a grassroots level by “ordinary people talking to other ordinary people about issues that impact their lives”.
Ultimately, what has been made by people can be changed by people, and I think that’s an incredibly powerful way to look at things.
When asked where her passion for advocacy comes from, Griffith admitted that a lot of it probably has to do with the fact that she came from a very “socially aware family” who never shied away from talking about the difficult issues society faced. But it wasn’t until she completed her master’s in women’s studies in University College Dublin that she seriously considered pursuing a career in the field. “That course challenged the way I thought about power infrastructure, about legal systems and how everything that controls our lives are things we have built around us. That made me feel empowered to take things on that I didn’t like or didn’t think were fair. Ultimately, what has been made by people can be changed by people, and I think that’s an incredibly powerful way to look at things.”
It is for all of these reasons, and Griffith’s wealth of experience in championing LGBT rights – as executive director of BeLonGTo, current member of the oversight committee for the National LGBTI+ Youth Strategy and previous director of marriage equality – that it seems as if the perfect person has been chosen to chair the review of Ireland’s most significant piece of legislation on gender recognition. While Griffith recognises that Ireland “has come a long way” in the last number of years, she fervently believes we still have so much further to go. As someone who has always had that “pull in her gut to advocate for people, and help them enforce their rights”, there is little doubt that those in the LGBT community who still face chronic under-recognition and protection by the law will soon have their voices heard loud and clear by the government about the changes so desperately needed to our legal landscape.
Activists and advocates from all across the world are following what we have done in Ireland as a shining example, but that doesn’t mean the work has finished
No longer the fixed concept we once thought it was, society’s views of what gender is have changed massively in the last number of years. For a country with a legislature that has proved itself more than capable of conservativism, the 2015 Gender Recognition Act was a huge landmark. For the first time, it meant that transgender individuals in Ireland could self-declare with relatively limited restrictions. While Griffith acknowledges that at present, this piece of legislation “is a leader on the world stage” for progressive gender recognition, the law now needs updating if this is to remain true and adequately provide for all members of the LGBT community. “Activists and advocates from all across the world are following what we have done in Ireland as a shining example, but that doesn’t mean the work has finished. My aim as Chair of the Review Group is to ensure the progress we have made keeps moving forward and we keep delivering for those who need it most.”
Griffith points out that at present, for transgender individuals who are over the age of 18, the “legislation is quite progressive” in allowing them to self-declare and change their gender marker. But for those who are younger, the process is significantly more difficult. Sixteen and 17-year olds who wish to have their gender legally changed can only do so after they are furnished with a court order. The process they have to endure for recognition is significantly more onerous than that of their older counterparts and can, in some cases, result in exacerbating stigma and mental health problems for these individuals. These deficiencies seem stark enough until Griffith points out that the current legislation also doesn’t provide for non-binary or intersex people, nor does it make any provisions for individuals under the age of 16.
Speaking candidly about the shortcomings of the current legislation, Griffith commented, “what I hope the review group will recommend in the next couple of months is that we should lower the age of those who are able to self-declare to 16″. She also hopes to see that “individuals younger than 16 would be able with parental support go through an administrative process rather than go to court and have doctors brought in”.
In regards to non-binary individuals, she said: “I hope the review group would recommend the government introduce legislation to recognise them in some way, whether that be through an X or a gender marker and for intersex individuals, that the law would allow them to make a choice for themselves, whenever they feel it is appropriate and until that point they be identified with an X marker. Whether they decide to stay the way they are or become male or female is their choice. It is not a medical decision. Doctors are not the gatekeepers of somebody’s gender.”
If this is what the review group advises over the coming months and what the government subsequently adopts, then gender recognition law in Ireland will have taken a major step forward. But there is still an overwhelming lack of support for transgender issues. The ability for everyone to be recognised under Irish law would be a major victory, but it would only be the first step on a very long journey.
We need to start having conversations with one another and tackling one of the biggest issues faced by LGBT youth, especially trans students, which is bullying and stigma
That obstacle is why individuals like Griffith are so key in propelling Ireland forward. While passionately advocating for essential change in the legal sphere, Griffith is keen to emphasize that while we wait for this, there are so many things all of us could be doing to help support transgender individuals and the LGBT community at large. As Griffith comments, change only comes when it’s a “whole community approach. We need to start having conversations with one another and tackling one of the biggest issues faced by LGBT youth, especially trans students, which is bullying and stigma”. It takes everyone working together to “weed out the cause and treat it much more effectively”.
Given that Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) has been recently mandated to lobby for change to the Gender Recognition Act and a new “gender-neutral” term has been created for first and second-year students, it’s clear that efforts are being made by the college community to combat even a fraction of the issues transgender students face. But as Griffith points out, more still needs to be done. “Diversity and inclusion happen in lots of different ways, from providing safe spaces on campus, having all health professionals trained to support LGBT youth and even just really simple things that to someone not in the LGBT community would go completely unnoticed, like having gender-neutral bathrooms. These sorts of things are invaluable and send out a huge, huge message to people that they are valued, respected and they belong.”
While the face of Ireland is changing and becoming, in the words of Griffith, a much “more realistic, kinder and fairer country that is better at listening to people”, there is undoubtedly still a long way to go. But with people like Moninne Griffith leading the charge, it feels like we might just be going in the right direction.