The trans debate: the trouble with pronouns



How can someone get suspended from their job just because of a four- letter word? No, it wasn’t one of those words but the apparently inoffensive third person plural pronoun ‘they’.

The matter didn’t end there but continued in a row which led to contempt of court proceedings and imprisonment for the individual involved. How can a single word cause such conflict?

For background rewind to 2006 when the Transgender Equality Network Ireland was founded and to 2015.  That year Ireland became the fourth country in the world to allow people over 18 to change the designation of their gender on government documents through self-determination. So, he can become a she and vice a versa simply by self- identifying. This is where the word ‘they’ come in, a bit of a tautology maybe when a plural word is used for a singular person but come to think of it the late Queen of England sometimes uses the royal ‘we’.

Teacher:  ”Can I ask them if they have done their assignment? Pupil: “No, we haven’t, our dog ate it.”

Maybe we do need a new pronoun and there are now 76 pronouns in use in different countries to apply in transgender situations. The French have rather chic ones : ve for hom ver for her and eirself so they don’t use the awkward ‘they’ .

There are nearly as many new gender descriptions as there are pronouns within the LGBTQ grouping starting with agender (someone who does not identify with any particular gender) and continuing to androgyne, and the alphabet to, aealgender, mirrorgender and omnigender, so plenty of choice there.

Gender is both what individuals feel themselves to be and a social construct whereas sex is genetically determined. The presence of the sex chromosomes is in the genetic code: two X chromosomes (XX) make a girl, whereas an XY make a boy. Only the female sex is capable of producing eggs and only the male sex produces sperm. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines sex as “the different biological and physiological characteristics of males and females, such as reproductive organs, chromosomes, hormones, etc”.

This where different ideologies can come into conflict.

But back to the situation at the start of this column: where a teacher was jailed for contempt of court for disobeying an order not to attend the Westmeath secondary school where he taught.  The situation escalated from Enoch Burke’s refusal on foot of an instruction to school staff to call a boy a girl and refer to the pupil as ‘they’. He was put on temporary administrative leave pending a disciplinary process but he continued to turn up at the school and a court order was then made against his attendance there.

At the court hearing Mr Burke said that what he was being asked to do was contrary to his conscience and his Christian beliefs. So here there is a conflict of two different belief systems, one claiming to reflect Christian views and the other reflecting trans ideology. In this particular situation the trans ideology appears to be prevailing. A pupil’s feelings need to be protected  but what about respect for the teacher’s beliefs? I wonder how many schools there are now where teachers are required to use ’they ‘ for transgender pupils, a phenomenon which seems to be spreading rapidly.

Wilson’s Hospital School is not an isolated incident but one of a number of cases in other countries,  where individuals who do not agree with trans ideology are accused of being  transphobic and have lost their jobs. There have also been clashes over the right of trans women to compete in female sport and the right to have single sex spaces in women’s refuges, toilets and prisons.

Thankfully, the climate in Ireland has changed from one which was often homophobic to tolerance and inclusivity:  the 2015 Referendum on same sex marriage was passed by a two-thirds majority.  I think it would be a shame if a new intolerance emerged and the prevailing ethos in education, employment and sport were to discriminate against those who believe that sex in men and women is genetically determined.

Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) claim their vision is for “a world where all people, regardless of gender identity or expression, enjoy full acceptance, equality and human rights”. What happened at the Westmeath school seems at variance with this claim.

Surely, we should hope for acceptance of different points of view, something especially important to learn in our classrooms.

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