Pride Month: Interview with Stephen O’Hare CEO of Transgender Equality Network Ireland

Ireland has been in the spotlight for its historic ‘Yes’ vote to repeal the 8th Amendment. It is yet another sign of enormous change in social attitudes in the Republic, which in the last decade has passed progressive pieces of legislation such as Civil Partnerships, Marriage Equality and the Gender Recognition Act, to name but three. With Pride Month upon us, we talk to Stephen O’Hare, a barrister and long-time human rights and LGBTQ activist, who has worked tirelessly to advocate for equal rights and enable legislative change.

While it’s still fresh in our minds, what was your response to the recent referendum result?

It was astounding, and it was clear it came from a real desire from the Irish people to vote for change, a desire that actually stretches back for some time, even before the marriage equality referendum [2015] and the long-overdue Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act [2013]. In the lead up the consensus was that it would be very difficult to elicit further change in this area without a change of attitude in the general population, but there obviously was a will to see much broader reform of the Constitution.

It was really interesting from my own personal view as I myself thought it would be close, If the exit poll had indicated it would be 51% for ‘No’, I wouldn’t have been surprised. The organisation and sheer amount of coverage from the ‘No’ side made it feel that they had it much more tied up in terms of campaigning. Luckily, there was a more private desire for change. The numbers who voted to repeal – 66.4% nationally, with every Dublin constituency coming in over 70% – it’s incredible to see that come from where we were back in 1983 [when the 8th Amendment was passed], 1992, and even 2002. It was such a divisive issue then so to get to those numbers from there, it’s stunning.

What do you think this tell us about Ireland in the broader context of gender and sexual equality for its citizens?

I think there are a couple of things at play.

One is in the demographics. We have a mobilised generation of young people who grew up in the 80s and 90s – in the 70s and 80s there was a very dominant conservative element still present (the referendum for the insertion of the 8th amendment carried 2 to 1) – now, those young people are in their 30s/40s and are very politically engaged. We then also have another generation coming up behind them who are driving social change so rapidly; they demand rights for themselves and on the behalf of their peers and don’t wait for it to be handed to them. Another aspect driving the progression of liberalisation of the social landscape was the Celtic Tiger of the 90s and 00s– Ireland went from being a poor country blighted by unemployment and high levels of poverty-driven crime, to a nation of home owners with disposable income; a country home to some of the world’s biggest tech companies and the high earning jobs that come with them. Then, in 2008 the global financial crash hit Ireland hard but by then the country was permanently changed; we had become more open, more reliant on foreign investment and had to align ourselves with the values of our neighbours. So with that comes change, first in the form of civil partnership – homosexuality was only decriminalised 18 years beforehand – and very quickly again after that the drive towards marriage equality began.

The other fact was the change of government. After a long period of the same party [Fianna Fáil] in charge we found ourselves with a coalition of centre-right Fine Gael, and the centre-left Labour Party who, as a progressive agenda minority party with a limited fiscal portfolio began pressing hard on social issues such as children’s rights and marriage equality. I was working with the Irish Council of Civil Liberties at the time – and I remember there being doubts that Ireland would support same-sex marriage, but as we later saw it passed overwhelmingly and the sky didn’t fall in! We’ve had the Gender Recognition Act (2015), which allows people to legally change their gender – and again, the sky didn’t fall in. And now our current Taoiseach is a gay man of immigrant parentage. When you look back it is progress of a startling nature, but it also but feels inevitable given the way that Irish people now view themselves.

The next step after repeal is legislating for access to abortion – Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) are advocating for inclusive language to be used throughout legislation e.g. referring to people rather than women. What has been the response on this so far?

To be honest I think we are very much pushing an open door on that – the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, has given positive signals on this issue. Of course we aim to ensure that language in any legislation post the 2015 Gender Recognition Act is inclusive of trans people, and in this case to avoid any language that would in some way bar trans people from accessing abortion services. But I think it is very much the intention of government to ensure that this will be considered in the final wording – with a little help.

You’ve been a strong advocate for LGBTQ rights and equality across the social spectrum in Ireland for many years…

Yes – I’ve worked in the NGO sector for about 13 years, and that evolved from my educational background.  Having studied political science and social research I was aware of a whole range of social issues and equality matters that I felt passionately about. Since then I’ve been lucky to work in some very cutting edge organisations – I started out with ageing and issues affecting older people, and I’ve also worked with Pavee Point who advocate for the rights of Irish travellers, an ethnic minority who remain extremely marginalised both here and in Europe. These kinds of issues are important but can be unpopular so, for NGOs there’s often lots of behind the scenes awareness raising and educational work going on. In 2010, I joined the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. There, we were covering such a range of areas and campaigns relating to Ireland’s international human rights obligations, including the rights of minority groups, hate crime and reproductive rights.  I was doing a lot of work in advocacy and policy so I felt I needed to bolster my knowledge and experience. With the support of ICCL I began my legal training and I qualified as a barrister. I had to work it around my job so it meant studying in the evenings, and at that time we had just started a family, just bought and moved into a house so there was a lot going on! Through the ICCL I got involved in advocacy for LGBTQ rights and worked with many different organisations. By far one of the most impressive organisation working quietly under the radar for the recognition of trans people, which culminated in the landmark Gender Recognition Act 2015, was Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI), and that’s where I very fortunately find myself today.

Explain the role of TENI in supporting people who identify as trans – what are the main issues they are facing?

TENI does a lot of advocacy and policy work, but we also focus on other areas, including individual support, employment practices, education and access to health services.  We work with schools and education centres directly to help them to understand how to facilitate a person in transition and those identifying as trans. So for example, if an individual is transitioning but is in a single sex school and wishes to remain there we work with the school to find supportive solutions. It is an active struggle – the Catholic Church owns and manages about 90% of schools in Ireland, which frames a certain ethos regarding LGBTQ people. While management in many schools is often very supportive and open to the issues, there can be an underlying religious conservative ethos to contend with. By and large, however, the work we do is very effective.

We also provide direct support to the families involved, as part of a wrap-around approach to ensure that the trans person is getting support everywhere they need it – at home, at school, among peers, at work . We work with employers to create trans inclusive policies in work, so that trans people can continue to live their lives confidently and with minimal explanation.

Health and wellbeing is one of the most significant issues that people who identify as trans face in this country – getting access to appropriate healthcare, be that access to mental health services, hormone therapy, or surgery is challenging. TENI aims to improve health services by working proactively with the Department of Health and the Health Service Executive (HSE) where we can. We want to help them move to place where they see the benefit of funding dedicated trans services, not just in one location but regionally. There is a long way to go to see that model in place but change is slowly happening– we’ve just had the announcement of 9 new positions for dedicated trans care. There is, however, still a very long waiting list for healthcare and this is extremely frustrating for trans people awaiting appointments.

Pride Month is upon us – what do you have planned? Why is it so important for people across the LGBTQ community to be involved?

Would you believe, this year is my first ‘official’ Pride. I’ve long worked on LGBTQ issues and have a great number of colleagues and friends in the community. I’ve attended the GALA Awards for LGBTQ activists a few times, which is a great introduction to community, but this is the first time I’ll be properly involved in Pride. We’re very excited for our chair Sara R Phillips, a brilliant trans activist who helped to secure the Gender Recognition Act, as she is going to be the Grand Marshal for Dublin Pride this year. It’s one of the very few times that a trans person has led the parade, and TENI being front and centre is great. That’s visibility personified – trans people not just being seen as part of the LGBTQ community but also the wider Dublin community.

Pride is important for celebration and visibility but also in terms of reminding ourselves of the work on going.   My experience over the last 10 years has seen civil society coming together very ably to push forward on issues of equality, including trans rights. There is solidarity here. Ireland is regularly examined by the UN and other international treaty bodies, so it has become very common, almost on a yearly basis, for NGOs to travel and lobby human rights committees and government officials with the civil society voice, and then message back to media. Our civil society seems to be very good at doing that. By comparison, the trans community appears to be a little bit under attack in the UK, particularly in its media narrative of late. Even though their rights are legislatively settled, this is being questioned in civil society, and there is a level of resistance to further improve the circumstances for trans people that we don’t see as much of here.

Are you surprised at the difference in debate on trans rights between Ireland and the UK?

Yes, it is worrying from our point of view – in Ireland we consume a lot of British media, and ideas carry further on social media, so we want to see progressive change across water and we have to resist that narrative coming here. We are so connected to the UK in so many ways, and let’s not forget we are by no means as diverse as the UK. But at the same time, Ireland has found its voice and wants to be seen as progressive, attracting investment and tourism as a result. In my view, Irish people actively want to break away from the old oppressive conservative identity and there is much less of a desire to roll back on social progress and openness to change. I think that’s very different to what we are seeing in the UK with questions around European human rights law.

But as I’ve said, young people are the driving force for progress. While social media does have its problems, what with disinformation and giving legitimacy to regressive narratives, it has also given people more of a voice for social change and to challenge injustices. Based on what we’ve seen recently, one is hopeful that the voice for change is winning out. Ireland has come a long way but we still have a way to go, so our work goes on. I’m grateful to be part of it.

Stephen holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Political Science (2004) and Master’s degree in Applied Social Research (2005) from Trinity College Dublin. In 2015, he completed the Barrister-at-Law degree at the Honorable Society of King’s Inns. Prior to his current role, Stephen worked as Senior Research and Policy Programme Manager with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), as Policy and Research Officer with Pavee Point, the national Traveller and Roma organisation; Research Officer with the National Council on Ageing and Older People and Consultant Researcher for the Health Services Executive (HSE).