Gender identity debate needs middle ground, not ideologically puerile positions

Stephen Fernane feels the recent row between parents and management at Gaelcholáiste Chiarraí over gender neutral bathrooms is a sign of things to come in Irish society.

People take part in a demonstration for trans rights in the UK.

Stephen FernaneKerryman

Altering energy back and forth in a balanced, coordinated way is what makes a pendulum work. Its kinetic energy ensures an even sway that returns in tandem in the opposite direction again. It’s physics based on equivalence.

The pendulum is a reliable metaphor for logical debate whenever a debate is even and balanced. Sadly, unlike debates on gender identity, there is little sign of any equilibrium.

I know this because I recently found myself at the centre of a rift over gender identity - gender-neutral toilets to be precise.

To summarise, my story focused on a Tralee school that installed gender-neutral toilets that were vehemently opposed by a group of parents for whom changes within the school environment should be subject to greater scrutiny, especially when those changes stem from gender identity policies.

A settlement framework, as far as I’m aware, is being worked out between the school and parents. The school has since rowed back on its decision by providing separate toilets for boys, girls, and a unisex toilet. Whether this is enough to reduce tensions is unclear.

The thing is, it’s unlikely that tensions will ever fully ease on this subject. The length and breadth of the public’s response to my story, particularly on social media, was seismic. The Transphobic vitriol of some was matched by the unyielding stance of the pro-Trans contingent.

The problem is, essentially, a two-pronged one: firstly, discussions on gender identity produce hardcore ideological responses from opposing sides; secondly: what can start as a relatively minor disagreement at a local level quickly becomes part of the divisiveness that fuels the global gender identity war.

The Twitter reaction to the story swayed from moderately sane to radically insane. Like a ticking clock, this pendulum of ‘them’ versus ‘us’ swayed back and forth, but was hostile.

Within just a few hours of the story being published on Twitter, it amassed close to 35k views (and continues to climb). It’s indicative of the appetite there is for any hint of correlation with the wider gender war.

That a dispute about toilets in County Kerry was enough to spark hostile debate from opposing sides – whose armies always seem ready to react in whichever way their trenchant beliefs command – is revealing. Whether local or global, Twitter inevitably creates two distinct perspectives: pro-Trans or Transphobic. There is no middle ground.

This isn’t a breaking revelation. It’s well known that any sane person with a hint of logic chooses not to reveal the best of their mind’s work on Twitter, or at least does so sparingly. Yet it’s interesting how Twitter remains the battleground on which the gender identity fight is being waged.

The same is true, to a lesser extent, within schools. It’s unfortunate for the school at the centre of my story to suddenly find itself in a dispute over gender, especially when it felt its actions were well intentioned and inclusive.

It’s unfortunate because it could have been any school, sporting or workplace organisation where an issue arose over gender-neutral toilets. Something to note.

This is exactly the crux of my point. Multi-layered contexts on gender identity are no longer just played out in the US or anywhere else for that matter. It’s already happening in our communities.

Fractious debate about personal pronouns, non-binary, gender dysphoria, transitioning, etc., are coming down the tracks at breakneck speed. This is why society needs to steer the debate on gender clear of the ideological empires who claim to represent them. There needs to be a middle ground as one doesn’t exist at this point and time.

Unless you have been living under a stone for the past few weeks you will be familiar with the ongoing Enoch Burke saga.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that while the drama has switched to the courts, it all emanated from the school setting. Burke, who while teaching at Wilson's Hospital School, refused to refer to a pupil as ‘They’ as it compromised his religious views.

While the Burke family drama is now more like a Netflix series, people should understand that, sooner or later, you will be faced – if you haven’t already- with an Enoch Burke predicament.

What I mean by this is that we will all find ourselves in situations where we must refer to someone as ‘They’ or ‘Them’ in our daily environment, be that in the workplace or in social settings. This is a fact.

Hopefully, in a majority of cases, it will be a seamless transition of acceptance and understanding. The fact remains though that it won’t be in many scenarios. Those who are either resistant to change – or those who find it unconscionable that more than two genders exist – will push back. This is also a fact.

There is far too much candyfloss terminology used by people in positions of influence on how we deal with Transgender issues. There is a limit on how many times words like ‘inclusivity’ and ‘acceptance’ can be used to safeguard against what are deeply felt concerns on both sides of the gender divide.

There remains a sizable cohort of people for whom the scope of Transgender issues will never be fully grasped for a myriad of reasons. While many more are anxious that if they mispronounce or say the wrong thing to a Transgender or non-binary person, it will end in personal ridicule. This is the reality.

When Fine Gael TD Paul Kehoe recently said he received more emails from constituents about Transgender issues than the eviction ban, it’s time to sit up and take notice. Deputy Kehoe has also called for a wider debate on gender identity policies.

Like it or not, many parents have concerns at the rate at which gender identity is influencing changes in the school setting, nationally. The same is true of biologically born females who feel private spaces like changing rooms, etc., are being eroded by biologically born males who identify as female.

All this can be reduced to a basic unit of understanding: rights apply to all – Transgender and not. This is the starting point if we hope to reach an end that is amicable and less ideologically puerile in tone.

No bullying, no hostility, no ridicule, no attempts to cover up what are clear and obvious issues around gender identity. That is the ask of both sides.

Think of the pendulum swaying evenly and in harmony in opposing directions. Debates on gender identity should try and do likewise.