Sunday 22 April 2018

Transgender tipping point: How Ireland is opening up to gender-fluidity

Public figures like Jonathan Rachel Clynch and Caitlyn Jenner have paved the way for the trans community to be more open about their true identities

You can go your own way: Kay Cairns (23) identifies as gender non-binary. Photo: Fergal Philips.
You can go your own way: Kay Cairns (23) identifies as gender non-binary. Photo: Fergal Philips.
Gender fluid: Jonathan Rachel Clynch has the full support of his RTE colleagues

Tanya Sweeney

Thanks to celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, we've witnessed what Time magazine called the 'transgender tipping point'; where trans people feel they've crossed over a threshold towards visibility, equality and acceptance.

Closer to home, with the passing of the Gender Recognition Bill this summer, Ireland's transgender community is also growing in confidence. For many, the idea of a man or woman identifying as a gender they weren't born as is a relatively new concept, but most Irish people are slowly becoming familiar with transgenderism.

Yet even within the community, there is a growing faction of people for whom the usual narrative - a man born in a woman's body, or vice versa - doesn't apply. A number of people identify as 'gender fluid' or 'gender non-binary'. The former means that the person may identify as a man or a woman interchangeably (often feeling like one or the other on the same day). The latter means that the person's gender isn't just simply male or female. They feel like neither a man nor a woman, or both man and woman. Once denounced as a mental health issue, this is now being acknowledged as a legitimate form of gender identity.

RTE news anchor Jonathan Rachel Clynch is one of these people, for last week Clynch came out as 'gender fluid', identifying as sometimes male and sometimes female. Planning to identify as both male and female at his workplace, Clynch was supported not just by RTE, but by a large swathe of the public. Some newspaper headlines describing Clynch as a 'man who will dress as a woman' are slightly misleading, not to mention offensive to the trans community. In fact, it is more politically correct to do away with pronouns like 'he/she' or 'his/her' and use the neutral 'they' instead, to acknowledge both gender identities.

Kay Cairns, a 23-year-old multimedia journalist, identifies as gender non-binary: "I would see 'gender fluid' and 'non-binary' as two different things," Kay explain.

"I'm slightly more rigid (about my identity) and describe myself as a 'demi-guy', which means I'm on the more masculine end of the spectrum. While a lot of transgender guys like to get testosterone and surgery to their chest, I'd prefer to go on a lower dose of hormones and not have chest surgery."

Growing up partly in Ireland, Scotland, the UK and South Africa, Kay admits to always feeling a little 'different'.

"I guess it was something that was always there," Kay recalls. "I didn't necessarily know what to call it or if it was legit, or if I was just a tomboy. My mum recounted how I would say, 'I want to be a boy'.

"I never liked wearing dresses and wanted to play with action figures. I think when my little sister came along and she was so much girlier and different to me, we all realised that I was a little different."

Predictably, puberty was a confusing time: "It was really frustrating that my body was changing and I didn't want it to."

In the quest for answers, Kay read up extensively on gender issues as a teenager.

"I realised what 'trans' was, and then I had a partner who was a trans guy and learned from his experiences," Kay explains. "I found out what non-binary was, and recently discovered 'demi-guy'."

While gender identity and sexual orientation are two very different things, Kay found that on the journey of self-exploration, it was necessary to try on a few different 'labels', in a bid to see what fit.

"I guess for me it was all pretty simple in my head, but for everyone else it was a headf***," Kay smiles. "I was also coming to terms with my sexuality at the same time. I discovered I was bi-sexual, then pan-sexual (not limited in sexual choice). Pan made more sense to be. How could I identify as a lesbian when I wasn't a girl?"

In an Ireland that's becoming increasingly aware and supportive of different sexual identities and gender identities, Kay is largely met with support when 'coming out'. Still, the process isn't without its complications.

"I started work in a new place and sent an email to everyone saying that I identify as 'non-binary' and I'd like people to use gender neutral pronouns while addressing me," Kay explains. "I gave everyone an example of how to use it."

Still, most Irish people have grown up with a strong attachment to the traditional gender constructs, so using 'they' takes getting used to.

"The odd slip-up happens, but most people catch themselves doing it," asserts Kay. "Some people email 'oh, I'm sorry, I've been getting it so wrong', but they're not used to this dialogue. It's really not a problem. In fact, it's best not to make a big deal of it, to just brush it off."

Still, the process of 'coming out' as gender non-binary can be wearying for Kay.

"It's something I have to tackle in every workplace," Kay reveals. "It can be easier to get jobs if you present yourself in a more stereotypical way. I'm fortunate that I work in a human rights organisation, and I came right off the bat in my job interview."

While the Gender Recognition Bill allows transgender people to now self-declare their own identity - a real boon when it comes to banking, or even applying for a passport - gender fluid and non-binary people won't feel the same benefits.

"It's frustrating that you won't be able to get a passport in the right gender, only 'male' or 'female'," explains Kay. "It will be a few decades before we are given the same kind of rights as everyone else.

"Also, as a non-binary person it's near impossible to get access to hormone treatment because the medical profession, much like everywhere else, works in a very binary, rigid way."

Yet things are moving in the right direction. The gender neutral prefix 'Mx', used in lieu of 'Mr' or 'Mrs', has been added to the Oxford English dictionary.

Elsewhere, a growing number of celebrities are pushing the concept of gender-fluid and non-binary towards the public eye.

Clynch aside, Orange Is The New Black star Ruby Rose likes to be described as as gender fluid, explaining: "Gender fluidity is not really feeling like you're at one end of the spectrum or the other. For the most part, I definitely don't identify as any gender. I'm not a guy; I don't really feel like a woman, but obviously I was born one.

"So, I'm somewhere in the middle, which - in my perfect imagination - is like having the best of both sexes."

Ezra Furman, soon to play live in Dublin, also identifies as gender fluid, while the charismatic Justin Vivian Bond, who stormed the Dublin Fringe Festival a few nights ago in a rousing show, identifies as non-binary.

"I don't have a woman's soul trapped in a man's body but I don't believe the soul is gendered. That's where I'm at," Bond told GCN Magazine.

These positive media messages are having a knock-on effect in the real world. TENI (the Transgender Equality Network of Ireland) have had thousands of enquiries since the beginning of the year; a sharp increase on last year.

It is difficult to pinpoint how many transgender people live in Ireland at present, but the Gender Identity Research & Education Society estimates prevalence of gender variation at 1pc of a general population.

At a Trans Youth Forum in July, TENI noted that a significant proportion of the attendees aged 14-25 were non-binary; in a recent survey of 161 respondents of the same age group, 35pc of them described themselves as 'non-binary'.

It stands to reason that, in an age where several youngsters describe their sexual preferences as fluid (a YouGov poll revealed that 23pc of British people, and 49pc of 18-24 year-olds, would not describe themselves as heterosexual), that the age-old construct of gender would also need to be readdressed.

Still, it's not just a 'youth' thing: "I've talked to older people in their 40s and 50s, who note that they feel neither 100pc male or female," explains Broden Giambrone, Chief Executive of TENI.

"As those words get out there, you hear people say, 'I lived my whole life as a masculine woman, though 'I don't feel like a woman', or 'I don't feel like a man'".

As to anyone who might feel that the age-old labels of 'male' or 'female' don't apply to them, Kay advises: "Find out as much as you can and give yourself a chance to breathe and explore. Don't feel as though you need to comply by someone else's rulebook."

For more information, contact the Transgender Equality Network of Ireland at

TENI's glossary of terms

Cisgender: A non-trans person (ie a person whose gender identity and gender expression is aligned with the sex assigned at birth)

Genderqueer: A person whose gender varies from the traditional 'norm'; or who feels their gender identity is neither female nor male, both female and male, or a different gender identity altogether

Intersex: Refers to a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn't fit the typical definitions of female or male

Transgender: Refers to a person whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex assigned to them at birth. This term can include diverse gender identities

Transvestite: A person who wears clothing, accessories, jewellery or make up not traditionally or stereotypically associated with their assigned sex. This generally refers to a male to female transgender person who does not wish to transition or change their assigned sex but prefers to live "dual role"

Transsexual: A person whose gender identity is 'opposite' to the sex assigned to them at birth. Transsexual people may or may not take hormones or have surgery

Pansexual: Not limited in sexual choice with regard to biological sex, gender, or gender identity

Irish Independent

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