Some people may have listened to those four fateful days of Liveline, the ones which led to Dublin Pride ending its partnership with the state broadcaster, and wondered what all the fuss was about.
A lot of people who are mercifully ignorant of coarse online debates about people’s gender identities, who have no idea what a “terf” is, might think the response to a talk-radio discussion is over the top. But context is important.
This is Pride month. The Irish LGBTQ+ movement has had plenty of bitter experience with the media over the course of its many fights for its rights. Activists are well aware that their work is not over.
There is significant nervousness about the precarious nature of the rights of trans people, in particular. This is in no small part due to a very vicious, seemingly intractable debate over trans rights playing out in Britain right now which has so far derailed attempts to pass a gender recognition law and has led to the exclusion of trans people from the protection of a proposed ban on conversion therapy.
The British debate was led by and charged by the media, which initially asked what some might have felt were fair and curious questions about what gender recognition laws would mean for cisgender women’s spaces.
Those paying attention to Liveline will have recognised many of the talking points made by contributors as being the same as those that are popular with British “gender critical” activists. This is why trans people are worried. It is a little unfair to say that those who criticised Liveline are just afraid of debate, when it’s much more likely that they are afraid of losing hard-won rights.
The Liveline debate comes amid anxiety that the Irish media is trying to emulate the British debate about transgender issues. (This is despite the fact that the gender identity law which caused so much controversy in the UK is very similar to the one that Ireland has had in place for seven years now, with no clear or significant evidence that it has erased or rolled back the rights of cisgender women in Ireland.)
LGBTQ+ people do not trust the Irish media, some could argue that’s for good reason. The partnership between RTÉ and Dublin Pride alone has a chequered past.
In 2014, the country’s biggest Pride festival also scrapped its partnership with RTÉ following the incident known as ‘Pantigate’. The year before, Ireland would vote for marriage equality, Rory O’Neill, who performs as the drag artist Panti Bliss, appeared on Brendan O’Connor’s chat show and said that a number of people in Irish media who persistently argued against LGBTQ+ rights were homophobic.
David Quinn, Breda O’Brien, John Waters, Maria Steen, Patricia Casey and John Murray all threatened RTÉ with legal action. The broadcaster paid €85,000 to the six. It is understood that €30,000 of this went to Mr Waters, the former journalist now best known as a Covid-19 conspiracy theorist.
In her now-iconic Noble Call speech at the Abbey Theatre in the weeks after, Panti articulated what many believed to be the problem with allowing those opposed to gay rights, rather than gay people, to define what is and isn’t homophobia. Panti said this was a “neat Orwellian trick” which suggested that it was not gay people who were the victims of homophobia, but homophobes themselves.
In the five years after Pantigate, Dublin Pride and RTÉ worked to repair their relationship. Announcing the ill-fated resumption of the partnership in 2019, festival director Jed Dowling said that in meetings with RTÉ, Dublin Pride had made it clear “we had not forgotten and we demanded better from our national broadcaster”.
The announcement came the same year that RTÉ had been accused of facilitating harmful debates about transgender people after including Graham Linehan, whose well-known views on trans issues have repeatedly created controversy, on an episode of Prime Time. Linehan has since been permanently suspended from Twitter for breaching rules against “hateful conduct”. Last year he said his involvement in trans debates had cost him his marriage.
Speaking in 2019, Dowling said: “The majority of the work we’re doing with RTÉ will actually be seen after Pride. We’re not asking anyone to forgive them, and definitely not to forget.
“We asked them to do the right thing and they said yes, and we want you to be the judge if they do.”
It seems that after this week’s announcement, the verdict is in.
This article was updated on June 17, 2022.