Declan Henry tells Adam Shaw about huge changes in Irish society
Ireland has come a long way. 2015 was the year of inclusivity as the nation emphatically voted to legalise same-sex marriage. It also saw the introduction of the Gender Recognition Act, as Ireland became the fifth country (after Argentina, Denmark, Malta and Colombia) to allow the self-declaration of gender.
It meant that those who were born as males could legally be recognised as women, while those assigned the female sex could declare themselves to be male. It removed the lengthy, often awkward process of going to a doctor for medical verification and allowed transgender individuals to be seen as the people they always had been.
If love had won out, then so too had gender identification.
Declan Henry, an author from Ballymote, Co. Sligo, noticed that, despite these great strides for the trans community, there was still a lack of knowledge on the subject when it came to the general population. There are more and more documentaries springing up, and he acknowledged that the media have taken a more appropriate tone towards the transgender community in recent times.
But it remains a relatively shallow pool, especially when it comes to literature, and, in particular, literature used as a tool to explain.
“It’s not an overly well-researched subject and there’s not much in-depth writing about it,” he explained. “In my book, in very simple, straightforward terms, I tell the readers what a transgender person is.
“There’s still a lot of confusion and there are misconceptions about transgender people and I guide the reader through that bit-by-bit. And at the same time, I put to bed all the myths about the trans community, I hear their side of the story and bring it all together.”
While Declan was aware of the dearth of general writing on transgender people, this wasn’t his sole motivation. As a member of the LGBT community, he knows several gay people and several bisexuals. But, before settling down to do the book, he realised that he knew very few trans people – as he put it, “the ‘t’ bit was missing”.
So a personal venture was what provided the spark, and this snowballed into becoming an overall voice on the matter of the trans community. I didn’t know any transgender people directly so I did some preliminary research and got more and more interested in the subject,” he said. “I contacted major support groups for the trans community and interviewed well over a hundred people for the basis of a book.”
On his journey, he discovered that almost all of those he spoke to could trace their feelings back to childhood. “From a very early age, people realised that their brains didn’t correspond with their bodies and, in adulthood, the penny dropped,” he explained.
“They always felt different and never felt fully attached to the gender they were assigned at birth.” He also noticed that people considered both Ireland and the UK to be “good” places to be trans.
“Society is changing, you’ve seen what’s going on in Ireland – it’s suddenly become a very open-minded country,” he said. “The people I interviewed said it was a good place to be trans and, that in general, it’s a safe place. “It’s nice to see because it can be a hard life, especially when you first come out as trans gender.
“There’s always going to be name-calling and staring but we are lucky in these countries that the number of physical assaults is quite low when compared with Asia or North America.”
Declan admitted that this is likely to be a standalone project, but he hopes to see more coverage on the subject as it will only serve to further people’s understanding and aid those wanting to come out. People realise more and more that the legislation really is on their side now,” he said.
“In 2010, the UK saw the introduction of the Equality Act, which puts the law of the side of the transgender person in terms of fighting discrimination.”
He has been a fierce critic of media coverage of the subject, accusing tabloid outlets of using sensationalist journalism as a way of selling papers. But, at the same time, he appreciates their increased sensitivity and how they have gone about dropping the issue into the public consciousness, while documentaries are now usually filmed for the benefit of transgender people and a given a human interest angle. The trans community has some way to go.
The steps taken, culminating in the parliamentary legislation last year, are a great start.
However, as Declan disclosed, “they’re probably about 15 years behind the gay rights movement”. He noted how they were pleased that someone from outside the community had taken the time out and showed enough interest in the subject to write about it and project it in a positive light. And he hopes to see more of this positivity, alongside a general increased understanding of what a transgender person is, and what they have to go through.
“They deserve kindness, they deserve respect because it’s a difficult situation to be born in to,” he said. “They should be given a bit of slack because it hasn’t been easy and they’ve been given a hard time for some years now due to lies and misinformation.” In an increasingly-tolerant society, and with greater exposure, the trans community will receive their slack, and, hopefully, so much more.
• Trans Voices available on Amazon. The book is being republished by Jessica Kingsley Publishers in January 2017 for worldwide distribution.
Meanwhile in Ireland…nearly 150 people changed gender
Almost 150 transgender people have had their gender legally recognised since new legislation surrounding self-declaration was passed last year, according to the latest figures.
Statistics from the Department of Social Protection show that gender recognition certificates were issued to 149 people by the end of June. The change in legislation, which allows people to self-determine their gender without reassignment treatment or state assessment, was pushed through by Dr Lydia Foy.
Dr Foy began work in 1997 and won her case against the state, where the High Court ruled that failing to issue her a new birth certificate breached the European Convention on Human Rights.
She was awarded the European Citizen’s Prize in 2015 for her efforts after being nominated by a group of Sinn Fein MEPs and the Gender Recognition Act came into effect on September 4 that year.
Another party which campaigned for the new laws was Transgender Equality Network Ireland (Teni). Its chief executive, Broden Giambrone, welcomed the news that so many people had made use of the legislation and praised the application process as “very easy, accessible and quick”.
“It’s a very positive development to see so many avail of the new certificates,” he said. “”It’s an incredible moment of validation to have the state recognise their preffered gender.”
Mr Giambrone added that he expects more people to apply, although he explained that it is difficult to estimate the number of transgender people in Ireland. Irish law permits people over 18 to decide their gender identity without validation from a medical professional. If applicants wish to use a different name than the one on their birth certificate, they must provide evidence of “use and repute” of the alternative name over a two-year period, or change their name by deed poll.
Those aged 16 and 17 can apply to have their gender recognised but must obtain parental permission as well as submitting to medical observation and a court order.
A review of the legislation, which must be completed before 2017, includes a call from Teni to assess this different application process for people of these ages.