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Culture wars in Irish society

Ireland legally recognised transgender people for the first time in 2015, but a culture war around them has grown in recent years as trans people have become more visible in society and as society has become more accepting of them.

Although trans and gender-diverse people had long been stigmatised for defying what are considered to be accepted gender norms, and faced discrimination and violence throughout the world as societies rejected their existence, the passing of the Gender Recognition Act 2015 did not lead to national debates or an increase in hate. 

However, more recent online debates, newspaper columns and media discussions have led to questions being asked about trans people that weren’t a consideration a few years ago; false claims becoming more mainstream; and doubt being cast on the identities of trans people.

These conversations tend to be based on two broad talking points: the medical aspect of transitioning; or a wider culture war around the concept of gender.

News coverage and social media chat about trans healthcare often centres on the appropriateness of allowing children to affirm their gender or where cases of those who regret transitioning are highlighted as a ‘warning’. This has happened mostly on the back of genuine and real concerns over treatment provided at a UK clinic; and also because it is a hugely under-resourced part of the Irish healthcare system. 

Unlike other culture war topics, views on trans people and gender issues do not fall neatly into other social categories like political outlook, gender, sexual orientation or socio-economic class.

Discussions on gender have consequently become a “wedge issue”, a social topic on which citizens have strong, diverging viewpoints that can lure voters from one opposing side to another, often through entrenched (and sometimes toxic) debates.

Common misinformation narratives about trans people are often repeated in debates about them, which although not as obvious as other forms of misinformation, are just as harmful to both trans people and society’s acceptance of LGBT communities.

What we hear and read

Many claims tend to focus on similar themes, including suggestions that transgender people are dangerous, that gender ideology is being forced upon society by shadowy elites or as a result of progressive values going too far.

Anti-trans groups online have driven conversations which question trans rights, while newspaper columnists have begun to write more frequently about the meaning of gender identity and the apparent threat of trans people.

The media has also highlighted cases where people have ‘taken a stand’ against having to use a person’s preferred pronouns, either as a result of a workplace mandate or because someone they interact with has transitioned and prefers to use new pronouns.

Although the LGBTQ community has faced discrimination throughout history, the growth of social media has given hateful rhetoric a new outlet on platforms like X, on Facebook pages and in channels on the messaging app Telegram, including those which originally formed to protest against Covid measures.

The messaging is influenced and often amplified by a growing international movement against gender nonconformity, which has emerged alongside legislation in several countries which legally recognises transgender people, as well as more widespread acceptance of different gender identities.

In Ireland, anti-trans talking points have moved from online spaces to the national stage, where some TDs and Senators have adopted the talking points of anti-trans groups and raised them in the Oireachtas.

Many of those talking points have created debates around trans issues and gender identity which have already played out abroad.

This focus on transgender people has created a wedge issue that mainly conservative - but also some liberal - groups have latched on to.

Trans people remain one of the most misunderstood groups of people in society and the world is still catching up on accepting them and the terminology around gender issues. In a period where new understanding of issues, as well as new language is introduced, unfounded claims and outright disinformation have been common too.

Narratives and phrases

Bad actors have already taken advantage of a lack of knowledge among the wider public about trans issues and queer culture more generally, and sought to fill it with narratives which uphold heteronormative conventions and present LGBTQ issues as a societal threat.

Many anti-trans narratives are different versions of the same untrue story or unfounded claim, repackaged over and over again. They often skip from country to country, and then town to town in Ireland.

One oft-debunked story claims there is a ‘pupil in the school in X town identifying as a cat’.

The story makes fun of how people describe or express their gender identity, and aims to undermine the greater awareness of gender identity and the willingness of institutions like schools to support those who do not conform to traditional male/female identities.

The hoax emerged in North America in 2021, when a false claim spread that some schools - first in Canada and then the United States - were helping pupils who ‘identified as cats’ by placing litter boxes in bathrooms in which they could go to the toilet.

Different versions of the story later circulated in Ireland, where a false claim that a pupil identified as a cat in a Cork school was widely shared via a WhatsApp voice note in early 2023, and in the United Kingdom, where it was claimed that a teacher had been recorded giving out to pupils remarking on another pupil’s decision to identify as a cat.

Another pervasive narrative claims that transgender people, especially trans women, are sexual predators who are either seeking easier access to women’s spaces or that they are grooming children.

The conspiracy often repeats old falsehoods about gay people - that they are sexual deviants, that they are 'grooming' children, or that a shadowy liberal movement is forcing an acceptance of LGBT values on to society.

One outlet for this narrative in Ireland has been criticism of the Gender Recognition Act, legislation which was introduced in Ireland in 2015 which gave individuals the legal right to change their gender.

The law passed with little fanfare at the time, but has since been held up by conspiracy theorists and anti-trans groups as an example of a law that was snuck in without proper scrutiny.

However, the legislation passed through both Houses of the Oireachtas and was debated by TDs and Senators like any other bill; in fact, some TDs did express their opposition towards it at the time, but only because it didn’t go far enough in extending the right to change gender to people under the age of 18.

A related narrative suggests that trans and progressive people have been indoctrinating people into LGBTQ ideology, either as the result of the shadowy influence of NGOs and unnamed elites, or because of liberal values about individualism and sexuality going too far.

Anti-trans language

Anti-trans campaigners have pushed this narrative by questioning whether it is appropriate for school pupils to be taught about gender and sexuality, or whether libraries should stock books about gender identity and LGBT issues that children can read.

Their arguments often obscure the reality by misrepresenting the content contained on school curriculums or in books - including by omitting crucial context such as what children will actually be taught, or the age-appropriateness of the books that are targeted.

Questions of this nature are also raised about what children are taught about gender in school, particularly as curriculums are updated to take a more modern approach to LGBT issues.

An especially common reference claims that schools will teach children sexual acts per recommendations published by the United Nations and the World Health Organisation, which it’s falsely claimed are efforts to normalise paedophilia or to get children to ‘start experimenting with sex as young as possible’.

Trans rights are also subjected to discussions around women’s spaces, particularly in the form of whether it is appropriate for trans women to access women’s dressing rooms.

The underlying suggestion is that trans women are still men and that it is therefore inappropriate for them to be allowed into dressing rooms, or that they would do so for sexual purposes or to attack women - a narrative that complements the false narrative about the sexualisation of children, in that it presents trans people as sexual deviants who are attempting to game the system for their own gratification.

The debate around women’s spaces also focuses on the placement of trans women in women’s prisons, and questions whether the existence of trans women places cis women at unnecessary risk of violence if violent trans prisoners are allowed in spaces where they can attack women.

The issue has been debated at a political level in the United Kingdom, most notably in Scotland after the conviction of Isla Bryson, a transgender woman who was convicted of the rapes of two women and jailed in 2023. She transitioned after the rapes, while awaiting trial.

A similar debate in Ireland led to the tabling of a bill by opposition party Aontú that would see prisoners serve their terms in facilities based on their birth gender.

In Ireland, the debate around trans people has also manifested in fears around hate speech legislation, with claims that laws on hate speech are overly protective of trans people and neutering criticism of gender issues.

Gender identity being discussed in schools is a wedge issue that sees people - genuinely but also disingenuously - argue that their focus on the issue is because of fear and worry for their children. Disinformation spreaders target that vulnerability with stories like the ‘child identifying as a cat’ story. 

This in turn feeds into a wider misinformation trope about trans people: that they are mentally ill individuals who have become self-deluded about their ‘real’ gender, and have changed genders as a result of their condition.

That is related to another common misinformation trope that suggests trans people are violent and dangerous members of society.

The implication in this case is often that their mental instability as a result of their gender is a threat to those around them, though it also feeds into previously mentioned falsehoods that the trans community is trying to hoodwink people in order to gain access to women’s spaces or children.

In online spaces, anti-trans groups and individuals often seek to distinguish themselves using specific language.

This can include cis women referring to themselves as “adult human females”, members of the queer community calling themselves “LGB” (dropping the ‘T’ that refers to trans people).

Phrases that are used can be similar indicators of a person’s anti-trans status, including slogans like “There are only two genders”, calls to “let women speak”, referring to trans people or drag queens as “groomers” and adding nonsensical strings of letters that don’t stand for anything to the LGBTQ+ initialism (such as LGBTQZXRVM).

They also talk about their refusal to use pronouns, rather than a refusal to use a person’s preferred pronouns - the difference being an unstated acceptance of using the terms such as I, you, he, she, we, and they in their regular speech, rather than, for example, being unwilling to address a non-binary person as ‘them’ when asked.

Trans healthcare

A distinct medical debate on the provision of healthcare to trans people has become a focus point of the culture war, particularly around children and the use of puberty blockers and hormone treatments.

In an interview in 2024, National Gender Service (NGS) psychiatrist Dr Paul Moran said the “issue of gender health care has been sucked into a wider cultural war to the cost of patients in our service”.

Puberty blockers can be prescribed to children with gender dysphoria who wish to delay or stop the onset of puberty in the sex they were assigned at birth in order to prevent the development of typical masculine (e.g. facial hair) or feminine (e.g. breasts) features.

Although they can ease the distress of children who feel their gender does not correlate to the gender they were assigned at birth, puberty blockers are also seen as controversial because they alter the course of a child’s gender identity development, and some question whether it is ethical to allow people to avail of them at such a young age.

This can also be taken to an extreme when people suggest that gender questioning children, who may be genuinely experiencing mental health difficulties as a result of their gender dysphoria, are all mentally ill and that they are being indoctrinated into transitioning instead of being given ‘appropriate’ treatment.

The UK’s Tavistock gender identity clinic gave psychological assessment and support to children and teenagers - including some from Ireland who were referred there by the HSE - who were struggling with their gender identity.

Children received hormone treatment over a 30-year period at the NHS-run clinic, with puberty blockers administered since 2011. The closure of the clinic was announced after a sharp increase in referrals in the decade up to 2022.

The decision to close the clinic came on foot of an interim review by Dr Hilary Cass into the prescription of puberty blockers, following allegations by whistleblowers that Tavistock was not paying sufficient attention to patients' mental health before recommending treatment.

Dr Cass’ final report, published in April 2024, said that any young person seeking help with gender-related distress should be screened to see if they have any neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism spectrum disorder. She said the community of people had been let down by the NHS, and that the pillars of gender medicine are 'built on shaky foundations' as there is a lack of evidence on the impacts of puberty blockers and hormone treatments.

She also recommended that a “follow-through service” should be put in place for 17 to 25-year-olds, with regional centres either extending the age range of their patients or through “linked services”.

Overall, the review found that healthcare for people questioning their gender “needs to be improved across the board”.

NHS England said it would no longer routinely prescribe puberty blockers to young people as there was “not enough evidence of safety and clinical effectiveness”.

Although there is still a pathway to prescription through a research protocol, trans advocacy groups were critical of the move, saying puberty blockers are an important part of some people’s treatment.

In Ireland, doctors in the NGS want overseas referrals to 'gender affirming' models of care to cease with Dr Donal O'Shea saying puberty blockers should only be used where there is no other option.

Another element that Dr Cass examined was a quite recent shift in trends with an increase in the numbers of birth-registered females presenting with dysphoria in adolescence making them by far the biggest group. That is something that has changed considerably in the space of just a few years.

Although Dr Cass warned against the “toxicity” of the public conversation around gender identity and transitioning and said children had been let down by a lack of research, anti-trans groups have incorrectly pointed to Tavistock and Cass’ findings as affirmation that all children who wish to transition are mentally ill.

Fears about the ‘erasure’ of women or the sanctity of women’s spaces (where it’s claimed that trans women will be free to sexually assault cis women) are also common themes, especially in a sporting context.

Concerns are frequently raised about the fairness of trans women competing in sports with cis women - something that sporting organisations legitimately have to consider out of concern for the welfare of competitors and the integrity of their competitions.

Some sporting organisations have adopted policies banning trans women from competing as women, as the Irish Rugby Football Union did in 2022, while others have introduced trans-inclusive models such as the Ladies Gaelic Football Association. Both decisions sparked derision, support and controversy.

Why is this happening?

Over time there has been a pushback from conservatives, as well as a subsection of feminists, who believe that the existence of trans people poses a threat to women and the concept of womanhood.

The issue feeds into a greater campaign to reverse rights given to the wider LGBT community over recent decades in countries across the world.

Countries around the world have gradually begun to pass gender identity laws since the early 2000s, though only a handful of nations (including Ireland) actually have gender recognition laws.

As the world becomes more accepting of trans and gender non-conforming people, however, other countries have pushed back and made legislative efforts to de-recognise gender identity.

Talking points in the debates on derecognition have grown into anti-trans movements, and those movements in both the US and UK - which are big influences on Ireland because both are English-speaking countries - have been imported here, years after the Gender Recognition Act passed without any opposition.

Groups have created a ‘two sides’ optic out of trans rights by raising questions around terminology surrounding gender issues, the access that trans women have to female spaces, their participation in female sports events, and their supposed influence on children.

Fears about the ‘erasure’ of women are frequently raised about the fairness of trans women competing in sports with cis women - something that sporting organisations legitimately have to consider out of concern for the welfare of competitors and the integrity of their competitions.

Some sporting organisations have adopted policies banning trans women from competing as women, as the Irish Rugby Football Union did in 2022, while others have introduced trans-inclusive models such as the Ladies Gaelic Football Association. Both decisions sparked derision, support and controversy.

Many narratives rely on innate fears like the protection of children, or lean on sources of moral repugnance like dishonesty or cheating, to unfairly depict trans people as a community who threaten to destroy society.

The ‘gender critical’ movement is a small subset of feminist ideologues known as ‘trans exclusionary radical feminists’ (often termed TERFs), who are heavily active online and who have received mainstream support from Harry Potter author JK Rowling and Irish Father Ted co-writer Graham Linehan.

They have also gained traction by pushing back against the UK’s Gender Recognition Act, which allows people in the UK to legally change their gender.

The Conservative government, elected in 2020, has also bolstered the anti-trans movement by creating policies which align with TERF talking points, including classification of prisoners based on their genitalia, telling sporting bodies that women’s sport must be reserved for those who are “born of the female sex” and dropping plans to ban conversion therapy for trans people.

The TERF movement has also helped to create a moral panic around these issues in the UK media, which has promoted stories questioning the mental health of trans mothers, repeated the hoax cat story that emerged in North America in late 2022 and run stories about women who regret transitioning (thereby over-representing the number of trans people who do so).

Linehan and Rowling have been criticised by LGBT groups for their views but have also been praised by certain feminists who describe themselves as ‘gender critical’ - that is, as rejecting gender identity.

Linehan began making anti-trans statements after a 2008 episode of a sitcom he wrote, The IT Crowd, was criticised for parodying transgender people. He began to express increasingly negative views about transgender people and trans healthcare, likening puberty blockers to Nazi eugenics, as well as trans advocacy groups and public figures who supported trans people.

Rowling’s views about trans people have gained increasing prominence after she expressed support in December 2019 for a woman who lost her job for expressing gender-critical views. Since then, she has questioned non heteronormative terms like “cisgender” and “people who menstruate”, and criticised politicians who have supported trans rights - though she has also said in the past that she respects the rights of trans people to live in “any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them”.

  • Definition of cisgender: a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person was identified as having at birth

In the US, the Republican Party also found early success by creating a divisive issue on the fairness of trans people competing in women’s sports – something which bore fruit in 2023 when Republicans passed a bill blocking trans girls from participating in schools’ female athletic programmes.

This has played out in a similar way in Ireland, where sporting bodies have banned trans women from partaking in female competitions, despite a comparatively miniscule number of registered trans athletes.

America has also seen calls for boycotts of brands which use trans people as ambassadors, while Republican legislatures have sought to pass laws restricting trans rights.

These actions all increase the news media coverage of trans issues, giving debate shows and social media users more opportunity to share bad information. It also reduces the amount of time and space that can be given to issues that directly impact trans people, such as healthcare. 

The relative success of this tactic has been partly enabled by the far-right QAnon movement, which has helped create a super conspiracy that the widespread sexual exploitation of children has been led by celebrities and liberal political elites.

The anti-trans movement in the US has also been bolstered by Evangelical Christians, who have been a long-time campaigners against LGBT rights.

Anti-trans talking points which have featured in debates in the US and the UK have eventually found their way to Ireland, where they have been taken up by politicians, anti-trans campaigners and members of the far-right movement.

The British TERF movement, which promoted a narrative that trans women are deviants who seek to access women’s spaces or harm children, or that gender ideology aims to “erase” women, now has similar offshoots here, where a so-called ‘Gender Critical’ movement has sprung up.

Criticisms of the Gender Recognition Act in Ireland have followed similar criticisms of the same legislation in the UK; Irish media have platformed anti-trans voices like Graham Linehan; political groups have questioned the “erasure” of women, including on the No side during 2024’s ‘women in the home’ referendum.

TERF discussions around women’s spaces have also been imported to Ireland, where the media has asked sporting organisations about their policies on transgender women competing in sports and politicians were asked about the appropriateness of  placing a transgender prisoner, Barbie Kardashian, in a women’s facility in Limerick.

Talking points have similarly been brought to Ireland from North America, like debates around the use of people’s preferred pronouns and the use of the slur ‘groomer’ to paint trans people as a sexual danger to children, a phrase which has been used about gay people in the US for decades but which is now being used about the trans community.

The pronouns debate propelled Canadian commentator Jordan Peterson to fame, after he took a stand over his refusal to use preferred pronouns for trans students at his university in 2016.

Irish teacher Enoch Burke became a similarly lauded figure among anti-trans campaigners, both domestically and internationally, after he refused to recognise a transgender student by their preferred pronouns at the school where he worked because of his religious beliefs.

Although the anti-trans movement claims that Burke was subsequently jailed for his stance, he was actually imprisoned for refusing a court order to stay away from the school, after he continued to stand outside it having been suspended and then dismissed following a disciplinary process.

What are the facts?

Irish society is largely welcoming of and unconcerned by trans people.

An Irish Government-led representative survey on attitudes to diversity shows that the average Irish person has overwhelmingly positive attitudes to both gay and trans people.

It found that almost nine in ten people would be comfortable living near gay men or women, with eight in ten saying they'd be comfortable living near a trans man or woman.

The Gender Recognition Act, which enshrined a person’s ability to change their gender into law, was almost universally celebrated when it was passed in 2015.

No politicians who spoke during Dáil and Seanad debates on the legislation raised issues around women’s spaces, concerns for children, the possible effect on women’s sporting competitions, the use of pronouns, gender ideology or any of the other talking points heard today.

There was cross-party support for the bill that brought the Act into law. Opponents of the bill argued that the new legislation didn’t go far enough because it did not allow 16 and 17-year-olds to self-identify as trans as well.

Dr Eileen Culloty, assistant professor in the School of Communications at DCU and a specialist in misinformation, explains that such groups target trans people as part of a bigger conspiracy focusing on children.

"Trans rights are now caught up in an international conspiracy theory narrative that characterises non-conservatives - whether media, political elites, trans people, or public administrators – as complicit in exposing children to sexual predators," she has said.

“There are politicians who see advantages for themselves in exploiting trans people.

“It isn’t as strong in Ireland [as in the UK and US], but we can generally assume that what’s happening abroad will manifest here somehow.”

When it comes to sport, a much-cited study by Joanna Harper of Loughborough University, published in 2021, also suggested that women who have transitioned do not receive significant competitive advantages against those who have not in sporting competitions.

Of course, Harper’s research is just one study and there is still no consensus around the issue of trans competitors the sports science field, where more research is required if there is to be agreement on her findings.

Narratives around trans women in women’s spaces ignore the fact that official data shows how the vast majority of women in Ireland who have experienced sexual violence know the perpetrator.


April 19, 2024



Stephen McDermott

Assistant News Editor and FactChecker with The Journal

The Journal
Knowledge Bank

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