Proposed legislation regarding a controversial issue languishes in front of the Government, seemingly stuck on the eternal long finger. It is an issue related to parity and social justice. We are already in breach of the European Commission of Human Rights with regards to this issue. Meanwhile, as politicians dither, a vulnerable group is forced to navigate a legal twilight zone of obfuscation and confusion, that endangers their quality of life and perhaps mental health. Sound familiar? No, I'm not talking about abortion. I'm talking about the Gender Recognition Bill, a motion to legitimise the new identity of transgender men and women.
The Gender Recognition Bill has been perennially pushed down the legislative agenda and delayed. It has now been put back until 2014. This, despite the fact that it's five years since the law, as it currently stands, was judged as being in breach of human rights by the European Court following a long-standing petition by Dr Lydia Foy, who since 1993 has campaigned for the right to have her birth certificate changed to recognise her self-defined identity as female.
Sure, there's a lot of stuff in front of the Heads of Bill right now, and no doubt they're pretty busy up there. But given the sensitivity of this piece of law, it's hard not to suspect that once again, our Government has come up against a reality of contemporary life and chosen to bury its head in the sand. In the hope, presumably, that by ignoring a contentious, divisive issue – one that will undoubtedly bring rifts and vehement opposition from leaders of the church – it might just eventually be forgotten or go away. It certainly seems that, once again, faced with changing values, the life-changing scope of modern medical intervention and progressive psychological discourse, our Government, rather than have the nerve to face the issue head on, chooses to bury its head in the sand.
We've had five years to sort this out. For some people, five years can seem like a lifetime. It's a long time in the life of, say, a child or teen for whom puberty brings a profound horror because the gender he or she appears to be to the outside world jars painfully with how he or she feels. For young people in this state of extreme confusion, knowing that in due time, the right to make a real, meaningful choice on this issue – a choice to be in control of one's identity in the eyes of the law – might offer a life raft; hope for a way out of the turmoil.
There is achingly slowly – but increasing – recognition of and empathy for the challenges faced by transgender people in today's society. Still, however, they remain possibly the most marginalised social group. In the main, trans people are still considered to occupy some strange sexual hinterland, curios to be stared and sniggered at in the street. Lady boys, chicks with dicks; the nomenclature attached to them confines them to being exotic aberrations.
Visibility is important and this, encouragingly, is slowly starting to change. In fashion, Andrej Pejic is the first male-to-female transsexual model ever to have graced the cover of Elle. In music, Antony Hegarty turned his early gender dysphoria into an album that became a smash hit, showing others that follow behind him that acceptance is possible. In popular culture, even the high profile of Cher's son Chas Bono goes some way to demonstrating that it's possible to be trans and in the public eye. In Ireland, we have one lone torch bearer leading the fight. Dr Lydia Foy has tirelessly campaigned on this issue, refusing to hide, or give in to stigma and shame, and helping the wider public to understand that she is not some strange outlier, but a regular, ordinary woman who loves gardening.
Sure, as a country, we've got a lot of problems right now, and prioritising this issue might not be uppermost in many people's minds. Yet we are one of the last countries in Europe to legislate to protect transgender people's rights to define their own identity. While the world moves on, we drag our feet. This legal change does not represent an exercise in formalising stifling political correctness, but rather is a simple declaration that we are prepared to promote inclusion for all Irish people, whatever shape or form they come in.