Today, I am a woman -- plainly and simply female. My passport says so; my driver's license says so; my bank details say so. My children, my parents, work colleagues, neighbours and friends, all leave me in no doubt that I am a woman. Because now that's how they see me. That's how they treat me. But this has not always been the case.
I grew up as a transgender woman in County Wicklow, Ireland. A small town, 30 miles south of Dublin, population circa 3000, not unlike most other towns in Ireland in the '60s and '70s, it was conservative and parochial. Society was heavily influenced by the Catholic Church and the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association). Our Schools were run by religious organizations. My family was deeply rooted in that community.
So to be something different in the '70s in Ireland was just not acceptable. In 1977, my father told me that being trans was just a "phase you're going through." I was (he was?) sure that being trans would never be understood. But by the late 1970s Irish society was changing. There was a deep questioning of old ideas and values, and an active commitment to social causes.
The past has been a mixed bag for Ireland: we survived a harsh colonialist rule and sought to redefine ourselves, only to end up entrenched in conservative ideology. These days, oppression and prejudice resonate with the Irish in a very particular way. We're seen as fair, as welcoming and often altruistic. Our record on human rights work -- in Ireland and abroad -- is strong.
I have always been drawn to the ideals of those who wrote Ireland's 1916 Easter Rising Proclamation: "The republic... declare[s] its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all its parts, cherishing all children of the nation equally..." Yet this equality has been elusive. Trans people in Ireland face many challenges, including the basic right to be recognised for who we fundamentally are.
Changing my documentation from male to female has taken explanation and argument. It required evidence, and then more evidence, more letters and even more undignified, humiliating questions about some of the very basic facts about my personal life and more importantly about my body.
Sometimes my 'proof' was refused. Sometimes, certain organisations agreed to change my name but not my gender. When I contacted Revenue to update my details, they were happy to do it with a phone call and supporting deed poll (name change) information. However, with another government organization, I handed in a dossier of evidence regarding my private medical history, and was issued with a card that reads: Sara R. Phillips / Male. This is because under current legislation, my Personal Public Service (PPS) number automatically draws my gender information from my birth certificate.
And apart from the challenges I face, there's also the abuse. One particular government agent, upon hearing the purpose of my phone call, laughed and told me, "You'll never be a woman!" And then she hung up the phone on me.
Despite this demeaning treatment, I know that I am one of the lucky ones. I have fought the hard battles, had all the arguments, engaged in six years of humiliating questions and have come out the other end. I have changed all my documents with the exception of one, a fundamental one: my birth certificate. A document that could solve the problems related to acquiring all other documentation. A document that would prevent the embarrassing questions, prevent the refusals and protect my privacy and dignity.
But the Irish government refuses me that right. Ireland is the only country in the European Union (EU) without a process for legally recognising the true gender of transgender people. This is despite a High Court ruling in 2007 that found this to be incompatible with Ireland's obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. Five and half years later, the State still refuses me that right.
As the Chair of Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) and facilitator of the Trans Peer Support Group in Dublin, I know the devastating effects that the lack of legal recognition can have. The treatment of trans people is inconsistent and arbitrary: while it may be acceptable for one trans person to change their documentation, it may not for another. The ground shifts constantly. This causes confusion, frustration and puts people in real danger of being 'outed' against their will.
The State's lack of recognition automatically discriminates against trans people. Further delay of the Gender Recognition Act only serves to copper fasten these prejudices, only continues the everyday pre-judgement of trans people by governmental organizations, banks, and educational institutions, to name but a few.
According to Ireland's latest Government Legislation programme, the expected publication date for Ireland's Bill for Gender Recognition has been moved back, once again, to 2014. And in the meantime trans people in Ireland are still waiting.
In response to the ongoing delay TENI has launched the ACT NOW campaign. We are calling on trans people and allies to speak out for human rights. We cannot afford to wait any longer.
We've asked trans people to request their birth certificates and tell us how long they've been waiting to be recognized. We are tallying up the numbers. As of printing we are at 619 years, representing 41 individuals. We are also asking allies and the Irish diaspora to contact the Irish government and express their dismay in the treatment of trans people in Ireland. The ACT Now campaign includes letters which can be downloaded from the TENI website and posted to our government ministers.
Ireland does not need to discriminate against trans people. It has within its means the ability to provide privacy and dignity as upheld by the European Convention on Human Rights and by the Irish High Court. This nation can "cherish all its children equally".
Sara R Phillips