Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Friday 8 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Alamy Stock Photo Trans pride flag at a march in Porto, Portugal this year.

Inside Ireland's culture war on gender: Why there's more debate on trans issues than ever before

The Journal looks at why anti-trans narratives have landed in Ireland despite overwhelming acceptance of trans men and women by Irish people.

IN JUNE, WEEKS before the UK media’s annual silly season was due to kick off, news outlets reported a bizarre tale that seemed like the type of scoop normally seen during the long, arid weeks of August.

A classroom controversy had apparently erupted in Rye college in East Sussex, recorded in a secret video that was posted to TikTok.

The surreptitious recording purported to contain footage of two teenage pupils telling another girl that she could not identify as a cat, before the pair were called “despicable” by their teacher for not respecting the girl’s preference. 

“If you don’t like it, you need to go to a different school,” the teacher supposedly said. 

The story was seized upon by outlets including The Sun, the Daily Telegraph, and the Daily Mail, and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer were soon being asked about the incident.

Women and equalities minister Kemi Badenoch even demanded that the school be investigated over the teacher’s alleged remarks – despite the Rye College issuing a statement saying that none of its pupils identified “as a cat or any other animal”. 

The frenzy eventually died down after it became clear that the whole incident was a hoax, but campaigners warned that the damage had already been done.

“This is very much about trying to de-legitimise those young people who are trans,” Natasha Devon, an advocate for young people, told The Guardian.

For anyone paying attention in Ireland, the controversy may have sounded familiar.

In January of this year, a school in west Cork was similarly forced to issue a statement debunking a viral WhatsApp voicenote in which it was claimed that a Junior Cert pupil was “identifying as a cat” and that she had meowed at a teacher, who barked at her in response.

The origin of the story appeared to come from similar reports in the US in January 2022, when conservative outlets began reporting on the case of a substitute teacher in California called Bridget Maas who they said had been fired because she wouldn’t “meow” at a student who, it was claimed, identified as a cat.

Maas made the claim about the student herself in a TikTok video - in which she did not say she was fired – but no evidence could be found to support her claims that this happened.

The same week, a school superintendent in the state of Michigan coincidentally debunked a similar claim that the school was set to put litter boxes in toilets for students who identified as cats.

Various versions of that claim began to emerge in the US in the following months and were repeated by multiple politicians there.

The story is one of the most prominent examples of misinformation designed to undermine trans people and gender identity - the personal sense of one’s own gender which can differ from the sex you are assigned at birth.

Such stories are appearing online and in the media alongside concerns about transgender people, both in Ireland and abroad, more frequently.

Over the past 18 months, the focus on transgender people has motivated certain bases by creating a wedge issue around them, which mainly conservative – but also some liberal – groups have latched on to.

Like other forms of misinformation, bad actors have taken advantage of a lack of knowledge among the wider public – this time about trans issues and queer culture more generally – and sought to fill it with narratives that uphold heteronormative norms.

Trans people are still not very well understood as a group and their presence in society is only slowly being acknowledged; many people are still catching up with the terminology around gender and the issues affecting transgender people.

While it will take time for everyone to get on board and for discussions to be normalised, there is a risk that pervasive misinformation narratives can step in to fill gaps before this happens.

Those narratives have already been proven to rely on innate fears like the protection of children, and heave leaned on sources of moral repugnance like dishonesty or cheating, to unfairly depict trans people as a community whose deviancy threatens to destroy the fabric of society.

But unlike most other forms of misinformation, many of the untrue narratives about trans people are not immediately obvious, or blatantly stated falsehoods that can be debunked.

Instead, they tend to be presented in the guise of episodes that create a sense of moral panic, often arising from questions about specific, high-profile trans individuals who are used as examples of what might happen if gender identity becomes more widely accepted in society.

Behind the hand-wringing, this misinformation is spilling over into a wider movement against the trans community, with new falsehoods beginning to pile on top of the foundation laid by bad faith narratives about other members of the LGBTQ+ community.

‘Undercurrent’ of discrimination

Although it may feel like a relatively new phenomenon, the vilification of transgender people is, unfortunately, only the latest in a long line of attacks against a section of Ireland’s LGBTQ+ community.

Social attitudes have evolved significantly since the killing of Declan Flynn in Dublin’s Fairview Park in 1982, which was seen as a watershed moment that catalysed both the Gay Pride movement and support for gay rights in Ireland.

A Government-led representative survey on attitudes to diversity, published in June of this year, revealed 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.

And yet, verbal and physical assaults against LGBTQ people remain an ugly presence in Irish life despite the survey and progressive steps like the marriage equality referendum and the passing of the Gender Recognition Act in 2015.

A 2020 survey by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency found that 11% of LGBTQ people in Ireland had reported some form discrimination to an equality body or another organisation.

More starkly, last year saw the separate, brutal killings of another two gay men in Sligo, four decades after Declan Flynn was beaten to death in Fairview. 

In the wake of those killings, James O’Hagan of LGBT Ireland suggested that there has been a notable rise in homophobia in recent years.

“Within the LGBTQ community, we’ve been aware of this trend, this increase in homophobic activity in the last number of years and it’s been just an undercurrent that we have been experiencing,” he said.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who is gay himself, also expressed concerns over the killings at the time, and this week highlighted a rise in discrimination against gay people, which he suggested could be linked to attacks on trans people and gender identity. 

“Homophobia has become a little bit more acceptable again, I’m not sure why,” he told the Irish Examiner’s Ciara Phelan podcast.

“I think the debate around trans issues might be part of that, it’s become a gateway for some people to become homophobic again.”

Official statistics do appear to bear out Varadkar’s claim about a rise in homophobia.

Data from Gardaí published this year shows that there were 135 recorded instances of hate crimes against people based on their sexual orientation last year, almost double the figure for 2021.

And yet, it might be incorrect for the Taoiseach to suggest that transphobia has been a “gateway” to homophobia; in fact, the opposite may be true.

There is no way of quantifying discrimination against trans people in the same way as there is with gay people in Ireland, because Garda stats don’t give a breakdown on whether hate crimes have specifically targeted transgender people in a given year.

The statistics do show an increase in hate crimes which are categorised as being motivated by gender, with 25 such incidents recorded last year compared to 17 in 2021.

But a Garda spokesperson clarified that while the label does include crimes against trans and intersex people, it also includes those motivated by hatred towards cis men and women, so it is hard to know which group if any was responsible for the increase.

irish-prime-minsister-leo-varadkar-attends-dublin-pride-paradefeaturing-leo-varadkar-paschal-donohoewhere-dublin-irelandwhen-24-jun-2023credit-brightspark-photoswenn-com Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

In a different measurement, there has been a marked increase in discussions about trans people in Irish media and online over the past year.

This is partly down to specific news events, such as Enoch Burke’s legal case against Wilson’s Hospital School, as well as a greater awareness of trans people in society as a whole.

While not all of these discussions have been negative, many have given rise to or parroted transphobic themes and misinformation narratives about trans individuals.

Over the past number of weeks, The Journal has analysed posts from Irish-based social media accounts and chat groups, where hateful posts about both gay and trans communities are rife.

Hateful rhetoric about the LGBTQ community is a regular feature on Irish-based Facebook pages and in channels on the messaging app Telegram, which originally formed to protest against Covid measures.

As Covid restrictions have lifted and society has returned to normal, those groups have turned their focus to other issues, such as asylum seekers, climate change – and LGBTQ people.

An examination of Irish-based conspiracy and far-right groups on Telegram found that discussions about trans people in particular have ramped up in since the middle of last year.

Messages about trans people and gender identity are now a daily occurrence in many of these groups, where they were mentioned only a couple of times a week in April 2022. 

Before that, the groups tended to focus more on gay people (which they still do to a less frequent degree), before they were gradually replaced by discussions about trans people and gender identity.

Likewise, an analysis of 150 Irish far-right, conspiracy-oriented and conservative pages on Facebook using CrowdTangle found that those groups have shared more posts about trans people since October 2022 than they did between March 2020 and September 2022.

The number of interactions on those posts, indicating levels of engagement from followers of those pages, has also increased significantly in that time.

And there have been more posts about gender identity on those 150 pages – and a quadrupling of interactions on those posts – in the past 12 months compared with the two-year period between August 2020 and August 2022. 

In contrast, posts about gay people and the LGBTQ community generally on the same 150 pages were shared more often and received significantly more interactions from users between March 2020 and September 2022.

Although there have been hundreds of posts with tens of thousands of interactions about gay people and the LGBTQ community in the past 12 months, there has been no increase in posts or interactions like there has with those about trans people.

International conspiracy movement

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 tells The Journal.

The conspiracy often repeats old falsehoods about gay people – that they are sexual predators, that they are indoctrinating or ‘grooming’ children, or that a shadowy liberal movement is forcing an acceptance of LGBT values on society – by making the same claims about trans people.

Ireland is not alone in this.

The European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO), a monitoring group of which The Journal is a member, recently identified the five most common anti-LGBTQ+ disinformation narratives across the continent.

In a report on anti-LGBTQ disinformation published in May, the group said these narratives were:

  • Claims or suggestions that trans people are mentally ill;
  • Claims or suggestions that trans people are paedophiles or sexually violent;
  • Claims or suggestions that trans people are violent and dangerous members of society;
  • Claims or suggestions that trans people are seeking to get preferential treatment in sports;
  • An umbrella conspiracy that people are being indoctrinated into LGBTQ+ ‘philosophy’ as part of a forced imposition of inclusive values by democratic governments and civil groups.

EDMO said that these narratives are part of a campaign which has become “more and more insidious” over time, and that it has been inspired by political developments across the continent, like new laws and a growth in anti-government conspiracy movements which gained momentum during the pandemic.

“Many appear to stem from current issues (such as the passing of legislation in specific countries, as happened with the recent approval of the so-called ‘Trans Law’ in Spain), others are based on conspiracy theories,” the May report stated.

However, Aoife Gallagher, a researcher with the research analyst with counter-extremism think-tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), explains how anti-trans groups in Ireland have been influenced by the UK and the US in particular.

“The UK was Ground Zero for a lot of anti-trans discourse, as it was very central to the gender critical movement,” she points out.

The ‘gender critical’ movement is a small subset of feminist ideologues known as ‘trans exclusionary radical feminists’ (known as 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.

These have successfully created a wedge issue out of trans rights by raising questions around terminology (playing into the ‘trans philosophy’ misinformation narrative identified by EDMO), and trans women being able to access female spaces (which plays into the ‘sexual deviancy’ narrative) and compete in female sports events (an entire misinformation narrative of its own).

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, a tactic replicated by similar groups in Ireland.

edinburgh-scotland-uk-17th-august-2023-graham-linehan-performs-as-part-of-a-comedy-unleashed-stand-up-show-outside-the-scottish-parliament-in-the-open-air-tonight-after-previous-two-venues-cancell Alamy Stock Photo Writer Graham Linehan performing a comedy show outside Scottish Parliament earlier this week after two venues cancelled performances by him Alamy Stock Photo

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.

When it comes to the US, Gallagher outlines that much of the anti-trans movement is based on a culture war created by conservative groups, with which the Republican Party has increasingly aligned itself over the past number of decades.

“A lot of it has come from the fundamentalist Christian right, which focused on targeting trans people after same-sex marriage was legalised,” she says.

“They were central in promoting the claim that trans people accessing bathrooms in line with their gender identity would increase sexual assaults – a claim that there is no evidence to support.”

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

The issue is knotty, because it is something that sporting organisations have to overcome out of concern for the welfare of competitors and the integrity of their competitions.

But it is often packaged in such a way that taps into other anti-trans talking points, like 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).

Discussions around the issue can also misrepresent the problem by claiming that trans athletes are more competitive than they are, solely because one person has won an event – ignoring all of the other trans athletes who aren’t as competitive.

(This has also played out in a different way in Ireland, where the IRFU last year banned trans women from partaking in female rugby competitions, despite there being just two such players registered here.)

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.

Despite this lack of consensus either way and the small numbers of trans athletes impacting the integrity of any competition, members of the Republican Party are continuing to use the sports issue and are pivoting towards other trans issues ahead of next year’s primary and presidential elections, with some raising questions about the meaning of gender identity, or calling for boycotts of brands which use trans people as ambassadors.

Republican legislatures have also sought to pass laws restricting trans rights at an alarming rate this year.

The relative success 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. 

Although EDMO has identified similar trends in anti-trans misinformation talking points across Europe, Gallagher suggests that the movement in Ireland is particularly under the influence of other Anglophone countries.

“The issues and rhetoric from movements in both the US and UK have kind of coalesced and come together and over the last year it’s started to become evident here in Ireland.”

Politicians ‘exploiting trans people’

And like politicians in those countries, some TDs and Senators in Ireland have enthusiastically adopted the talking points and narratives of anti-trans groups for their own gain.

“There are politicians who see advantages for themselves in exploiting trans people,” DCU’s Eileen Culloty says.

“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.”

Anti-trans rhetoric and viewpoints are already being adopted in speeches by politicians and in stories featured in the media.

The political and media aspects are often symbiotic and cyclical: Irish politicians have adopted anti-trans stances that get media coverage, which may in turn have influenced other politicians to adopt anti-trans stances, which in turn get media coverage, and so on.

This has had the effect of making anti-trans concerns appear like a legitimate moral issue for society to confront, rather than a discriminatory fringe outlook; it has also ignored the fact that Irish society is largely welcoming of and unconcerned by trans people.

In this sense, trans rights contrast with other social issues in Irish politics, in which the trend has been for politicians to adopt more liberal viewpoints on human rights and the provision of healthcare as time goes on, rather than the other way around. 

Eight years ago, the passage of the Gender Recognition Act, which enshrined a person’s ability to change their gender into law, was almost universally celebrated.

In Dáil and Seanad debates, there was cross-party support for the bill that brought the Act into law in 2015, while virtually no columns in Irish media that year criticised its passage through the Oireachtas or warned that trans people could harm children.

In fact, opponents of the bill argued the opposite: that the new legislation didn’t go far enough and allow 16 and 17-year-olds to self-identify as trans as well.

Now, however, numerous TDs have begun to parrot anti-trans misinformation in the Oireachtas, or sought to position themselves within conservative spaces which would likely appeal to those who believe trans people should not have equal rights as other members of society. 

Towards the end of the last political term alone, TDs raised the placement of trans women in female prisons, whether sporting bodies should have policies on which categories transgender people can compete in, the number of genders there are under Irish law, and the teaching of gender issues to children in the Dáil.

In a parliamentary speech in June, Kerry TD Danny Healy-Rae also claimed that calls to allow children to transition and a “shift in focus” at Pride events towards trans pride showed “the influence of the transgender movement on minors and potential connections to paedophilia advocacy”.

Healy-Rae subsequently apologised for his remarks on Radio Kerry after being called on Integration Minister Roderic O’Gorman to do so, though his comments remain on the Dáil record at present.

All of these Oireachtas contributions feature aspects of the five narratives identified by EDMO and have had the effect of bringing them into the mainstream.

Trucker protest 025 Sam Boal / Danny Healy Rae: apologised after comments in the Dáil Sam Boal / /

Media amplifying misinformation

Irish media has similarly amplified anti-trans misinformation and messaging about gender identity which appears in far-right social media groups before cropping up in national newspapers or on national radio.

Over the past year, there has been an increasing focus in the media on trans people and attempts to create a debate around gender issues.

Daire Dempsey of the advocacy group Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) warns about coverage of gender issues in Ireland imitating a trend seen in the UK, where the press helped manufacture a debate about trans people despite there being no appetite for one previously.

“I do think we’re vulnerable to that here, because the vast majority of Irish people have no issues with trans people, but the media here is very similar to the media in the UK,” Dempsey says.

“Ireland has come a long way in terms of becoming a more tolerant society, but I think that’s not necessarily being reflected in what we’re seeing within the media at the moment.

“And I would be worried about importing the kind of discourse [seen in the UK] and that kind of culture war into the space here.

“I think we have seen a really concerning shift in how Irish media reports on trans issues and definitely think we are seeing media outlets platforming views that are anti-trans or intolerant, or that are looking to incite that kind of intolerance in others.”

Some talking points have been home-grown, like the Enoch Burke case, or put an Irish spin on debates seen elsewhere, such as concerns about what children are being taught about gender on a proposed Leaving Cert curriculum, or fears about proposed legislation, such as new hate speech laws which aim to protect trans people in Ireland.

enoch-burke-arrives-at-wilsons-hospital-school-in-co-westmeath-mr-burke-who-was-previously-jailed-after-failing-to-observe-a-court-injunction-banning-him-from-attending-wilsons-hospital-school-in Alamy Stock Photo Enoch Burke, whose case has been held up by anti-trans campaigners internationally Alamy Stock Photo

The creation of moral panic is aided by media outlets which publish headline-grabbing stances by politicians.

A tactic seen abundantly during the Trump presidency in the US, it has also been adopted by Irish politicians who have sought to make a name for themselves through the trans ‘debate’.

In March, the Irish Independent reported that backbench TD Paul Kehoe told a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting that he had received more correspondence from constituents about trans issues than the eviction ban – which was set to lapse days later – and that a wider debate on the subject was needed.

As a way to put context on that claim, The Journal later found that Kehoe’s ministerial colleagues received only a handful of emails about trans and gender issues compared to hundreds about evictions.

In stories like this, un-named or unverified information relating to trans issues is often allowed to stand without any verification – such as an article that featured in the UK’s Daily Telegraph last week which repeated an unfounded claim by Kemi Badenoch (who called for Rye College to be investigated over the ‘cat’ hoax) that doctors had reported a rise in infections among schoolgirls who refused to urinate in gender-neutral bathrooms.

Outlets have likewise given credence to anti-trans individuals and groups during debates about trans issues in Ireland, allowing the impression that there is controversy or public appetite for discussing trans people when most of the public don’t believe this. 

Last year, RTÉ’s Liveline was widely criticised for dedicating a series of episodes to the topic of trans issues, in which callers raised concerns about women’s spaces, the existence of gender identity, and trans-inclusive terms in legislation (though the episode also featured trans callers, parents of trans children and supporters of trans people).

Among the contributors to the debate was The Countess, an Irish TERF group which has campaigned extensively on anti-trans issues and leaned on misinformation narratives about trans people, including that they are dangerous to women and children, that they are trying to gain unfair advantages in women’s sports, and that children are being indoctrinated into ‘trans ideology’.

The debates prompted Dublin Pride to end its partnership with RTÉ over what it said was “unacceptable and extremely harmful” coverage of trans people on the show. 

Other items that have begun to feature in the Irish media have been directly imported from abroad, such as concerns about a wider “trans agenda” or debates on trans athletes competing in women’s sports.  

Sometimes these stories are given an Irish spin, such as media outlets asking Irish sporting bodies about their policies on trans people or commissioning polls on trans people and gender issues.

One of the more prominent instances of this phenomenon in Ireland played out in the debate around the placing of Barbie Kardashian, a trans criminal, in Limerick Prison.

In March, Kardashian was given a five-and-a-half year sentence for threatening to torture, rape and murder her mother – weeks after a similar case emerged in Scotland involving a trans woman called Isla Bryson, who had begun transitioning after being charged for raping two women while still identifying as a man. 

Bryson’s case attracted significant backlash in the UK after it emerged she was sent to an all-female prison after her incarceration a month before Kardashian was sentenced.

The controversy partly prompted the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister of Scotland, and led to a change in the country’s policy so that transgender prisoners with a history of violence against women are no longer housed in female prisons.

In the wake of the Bryson case, commentators here began using the Kardashian case to put pressure on the Irish government, with reports and columns criticising the decision to house Kardashian among women in Limerick.

They included columns using the term “biological male”, a phrase often used by far-right and anti-trans groups to refer to the gender assigned to trans people at birth. 

Conservative Irish website Gript – which published articles about Kardashian in 2020 with her image and personal details, despite various court orders stating that she could not be identified at the time – posted a string of articles with headlines including “Is Barbie Kardashian a woman?”.

The case also showcased the symbiosis between politics and the media, including on trans issues, with coverage of Varadkar and then-Justice Minister Simon Harris’ responses to questions on whether trans women should be placed in women’s prisons.

“If the situation that arose in Scotland has now arisen in Ireland, then we’re going to have to deal with it in a similar way,” Varadkar said at the time, which prompted several misleading headlines which incorrectly claimed that he said that “biological males shouldn’t be in women’s prisons”.

edinburgh-scotland-uk-9th-feb-2023-women-protest-against-the-snps-gender-recognition-reform-bill-credit-mark-lear-alamy-live-news Alamy Stock Photo Protesters in Edinburgh demonstrate against Scotland's Gender Recognition Reform Bill earlier this year Alamy Stock Photo

‘Women’s spaces’

The narrative about Kardashian has heavily relied upon the trope identified by EDMO that trans people are violent members of society, which is often the subtext of claims by anti-trans groups when they express concerns about “women’s spaces”.

Although Kardashian is clearly a violent individual, the implication from anti-trans groups is that she is representative of transgender people as a whole, rather than being an outlier as other, non-trans violent criminals are outliers in wider society. 

The broader narrative about women’s spaces plays into the suggestion of violence and sexual deviance, which feeds into an unfounded perception that transgender people are trying to game social systems by changing their gender.

The over-reaching idea that trans women cannot be trusted, because any trans woman might randomly attack cis women when they are alone – with an additional, unsaid implication that trans women are not real women.

But conveniently, the narrative ignores the fact that official data shows how the vast majority of women in Ireland who have experienced sexual violence know the perpetrator.

However, Irish politicians and sections of Irish media willingly amplified the disinformation narrative that trans people were violent when discussing Kardashian’s case, some of which focused on claims that her placement in a female prisons was a significant danger to ‘actual’ women.

Aontú, an opposition party which has also adopted conservative stances on issues such as abortion and immigration, also sought to capitalise by launching a bill which aimed to prevent “male-born” individuals from being placed into women’s prisons.

“This bill seeks to remove the threat of sexual assault or abuse by male-born prisoners in female prisons, by making provision for single sex accommodation and prisons,” the party’s sole TD Peadar Tóibín said at an event launching the bill in June in conjunction with anti-trans group The Countess.

At the launch event, The Journal asked both The Countess and Tóibín multiple times for proof that women were at greater risk when placed with transgender individuals in prison. No evidence was put forward to support the claim.

Kardashian is not the only woman to have been convicted of a dangerous crime in Ireland this year; nor is she the only person considered likely to re-offend when her jail-term concludes.

And yet the broader suggestion was that she – as a transgender woman – was hardwired to violently attack ‘real’ women, and that she had exploited the criminal justice system by pretending to be a woman herself.

She was presented as a test case for all transgender women and, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing with nothing to contain her eagerness to strike again, a potential threat to all women who were unfortunate enough to be near her when she might attack.

But however legitimate those fears are, they are unfounded in Kardashian’s case: it was reported earlier this year that she was placed in solitary confinement upon her admission to prison and is isolated from the general population.

As it stands, Irish prisons are not defined by law as ‘male’ or ‘female’ prisons, though this is not to say that female-specific sections of prisons don’t exist.

“On arrival in prison, all prisoners are brought to the reception/committal unit of the prison, where there is an opportunity to provide details as part of the committal interview process,” an Irish Prison Service spokesperson told The Journal.

“The assessment of the prisoner’s needs may require a prison governor to consider the biological gender, legal gender, gender identity, transgender, gender expression, sexual orientation or gender recognition legislation.

“The governor will also consider the risks posed including any risk to the prisoner themselves and any level of risk to other prisoners.”

The Dóchas Centre accommodates women in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin, separate to the male section of the prison; Limerick, where Barbie Kardashian is housed, similarly accommodates both male and female inmates, though both are kept apart.

The current policy is that all prisoners committed are accommodated according to their legal gender.

Where a prisoner is deemed to be violent to others, regardless of their gender, it is unlikely that they will mix with the general prison population – especially if there is a risk of sexual violence.

The Irish government is considering how to deal with the issue going forward, with the Irish Prison Service currently drafting a policy for the management of transgender prisoners in the State.

90208823 (1) Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland Mountjoy Prison in Dublin Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Cutting in both directions 

Kardashian’s case is also a good example of how the international dimension to anti-trans narratives in Ireland cuts in both directions and give ballast to movements in different countries.

When anti-trans talking points are given a specific Irish dimension on social media, they’re often amplified by foreign media, or social media accounts and messaging groups based outside Ireland.

Around the time of Isla Bryson’s sentencing in Scotland, her case attracted remarkably similar headlines to the commentary around Kardashian – both here and abroad.

The case of Enoch Burke, a teacher who was dismissed from his position at a school in Westmeath for alleged gross misconduct following a row over his refusal to address a trans pupil by their preferred pronouns, was likewise seized upon by international groups and anti-trans campaigners over the past year.

Versions of the story were posted to Reddit with misleading headlines, while a popular Facebook post featured a photo of Burke with the caption: “Teacher jailed for refusing to use student’s gender-neutral pronouns”.

He was not jailed for his non-use of preferred pronouns, he was jailed for being in contempt of court. His suspension from the school was also not over the pronoun issue, but the fact that he had allegedly shouted at the school principal in public.

When it comes to social media, groups re-share anti-trans narratives or stories from abroad to Irish audiences, while their posts in turn are shared by accounts from the UK or the US.

As well as helping to reinforce a misinformation narrative that trans issues are part of a wider international conspiracy, it also helps to attract new followers from outside Ireland to create the perception that the group has an even bigger influence.

It also adds a layer of seeming legitimacy by making certain anti-trans narratives about or relevant to Ireland appear more popular here than they may actually be.

Both tactics are visible on the social media pages of TERF groups in Ireland such as The Countess, Women’s Space Ireland, the Irish Women’s Lobby, the All-Island Women’s and Children’s Coalition, ReSisters United and the Natural Women’s Council.

Such groups can be identified through their use of the same language around gender issues and trans people, like “biological male” in relation to Barbie Kardashian or “adult female” to describe non-transgender women. 

The Countess, which appeared on Liveline last year and contributed to the launch of Aontú’s bill on trans prisoners, is perhaps the biggest such group here.

Founded in 2020 as a self-styled group of “concerned citizens”, the group purports to campaign on trans issues and it has also taken issue with other conservative fears such as Ireland’s incoming hate speech legislation.

The Countess has thousands of followers on social media and its posts are regularly shared by hundreds or thousands of people – many of whom are other Irish-based TERF accounts or from those based in the UK.

The group also returns the favour by posting about transgender people or issues in other countries, like policies of the UK’s National Health Service and those of British Rowing, or incidents involving trans people reported by foreign media.

“It would be unfair to suggest all critics of trans rights share the same views and agenda, but there is an overall pattern internationally that is replicated here,” DCU’s Eileen Culloty tells The Journal.

She highlights two examples of recent campaigns which mobilised anti-trans activists in other countries before being picked up in Ireland.

One came in the form of recent protests which have taken place inside and outside libraries across Ireland over LGBTQ+ information books which have been made available for children, such as the one that closed Cork city library at the end of July.

At the same time, far-right and other conservative voices mounted a similar campaign - also including protests - against a draft SPHE syllabus for Leaving Cert students because its suggests the inclusion of references to gender identity.

“In terms of rhetoric and targeting school curricula and libraries, the scaremongering and disinformation surrounding trans people replicates the movement against gay rights,” Culloty explains.

“In the US, religious and political conservatives cast trans people as predators and threats to children. As a strategy it’s always beneficial to wrap an agenda in a cloak of concern for child safety.

“It’s a good way to gain support and make it harder for opponents to defend themselves. It also helps certain conservatives advance their bigger agenda to control what is taught in schools.”

‘Groomer’ slur

The ISD’s Aoife Gallagher suggests the apparent concern among anti-trans groups for women and children is merely a hollow attempt to simply attack trans people.  

“The groups that are at the centre of anti-trans discourse in Ireland often have an air of legitimacy and present themselves as simply standing up for women’s rights or caring about children,” she says.

“But dig a little deeper and you’ll often find that they just don’t believe that trans people should exist at all.”

Dressing up anti-trans rhetoric as being concerned for children plays on the unfounded misinformation narrative that children are being ‘indoctrinated’ into becoming members of the LGBTQ+ community, or that members of that community are paedophiles who are ‘groomers’ – or a combination of both.

Gallagher has previously written about how the ‘groomer’ slur has been espoused by some media, politicians and influential figures to attack trans people, after being used for years against the gay community.

According to her, the slur has been used to justify physical attacks on trans people, as well as to target trans healthcare and education about gender issues.

“The people involved in these conversations are people that don’t believe that trans people deserve to exist,” she says.

“They’re not really in a position to have a legitimate conversation about what kind of treatment should be available for children, because they tend to think that trans people are mentally ill.”

A narrative around mental illness likewise evolves similar claims that have been made about homosexuality for decades, which suggest that being gay is the result of a mental disorder or that people can be ‘cured’ of being gay through conversion therapy.

Both of those claims have been used by anti-trans groups, alongside others which misleadingly overemphasise instances of people whose mental health has suffered as a result of being trans.

This is despite the fact that multiple studies have demonstrated a clear link between gender-affirming care and improved mental health and lower rates of depression and suicide. 

One common misinformation trend is to link trans affirmation with suicides or attempted suicides through false or misinterpreted studies.

Such claims suggest that suicide rates among young people have increased alongside rates of trans affirmation, or that trans people have higher rates of suicide than the general population.

The tactic of linking trans suicides to affirmation is similar to those who say Covid vaccines are dangerous because people have died after receiving them.

Although there is no evidence that the health intervention in each case directly led to a person’s death, the fact that a person died after receiving a vaccine/undergoing affirmation surgery is held up as ‘proof’ that this is what caused the person’s death.

It is ultimately impossible to speculate on any person’s reasons for taking their own life, and yet for the same reason, it’s also incredibly difficult to disprove claims that a person – who may only be known as a number in a study – did so for a specific reason. 

Another tactic is to put forward cases of individuals who have publicly said they regret transitioning, a legitimate if infrequent phenomenon which affects about 1% of people who do so.

A common theme among anti-trans groups is the idea of “gender confusion”, in which children who think they may be trans are just struggling to accept reality, possibly because they are taught about or under the influence of transgender people. 

This repeats the apparent concern for children, through a suggestion that transgender people pose a threat to mentally ill young people who could be harmed by being influenced to transition.

That, of course, ignores the fact that children may be experiencing worsening mental health because they feel trapped in the wrong body. 

Like Kardashian, such cases are held up as misleading representations of all trans people as a kind of warning about the supposed dangers of being transgender.

Conservative groups in Ireland and abroad have regularly cited the case of Ritchie Herron, a British man who is taking legal action against the UK’s National Health Service after he undertook gender reassignment surgery a number of years ago.

Herron frequently posts anti-trans views on social media and has campaigned for an independent inquiry into the safety of NHS gender reassignment treatments to people under the age of 25, claiming it is “profoundly unsafe”.

Anti-trans groups in Ireland have also promoted documentaries such as Affirmation Generation, which contains testimonies of people who have de-transitioned to show “the reality” of what it is like to transition (in a way that the media is ‘lying’ about).  

There has also been misinformation around the UK-based Tavistock Clinic, an NHS facility that was England’s only clinic providing gender services for children and young people.

The facility, which Irish children have relied on because of a lack of services here, is set to close next year after the UK’s health watchdog rated it as “inadequate” and raised “significant concerns” around its Gender Identity Development Service.

Investigations found that many young people referred to the clinic had complex mental health issues alongside their gender dysphoria – that is, a self-perceived mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity. 

(This Guardian long-read explores the specific and complex issues that led to the closing of Tavistock, including a recruitment crisis, contentious decisions around treatment options and, in the words of the independent reviewer of the service – leading paediatrician Dr Hilary Cass – the fact that “a single specialist provider model is not a safe or viable long-term option in view of concerns about lack of peer review and the ability to respond to the increasing demand”.)

Since concerns around Tavistock first began to be reported, both the clinic and the practice of allowing children to begin transitioning have been used as examples to play up the narrative that trans people are all mentally ill.   

The wider implication of such stories is that the very possibility of becoming transgender is a societal danger, because mentally ill people – especially young people – could be caught or tricked into transitioning when they don’t want to.

The testimonies of those who experience regret are promoted over the 99% of trans people who don’t, and are presented as more trustworthy than people who have transitioned despite both groups undergoing the same experience.

The same narrative also conveniently ignores the fact that many people who do wish to transition – especially in Ireland – have to wait a long time to get surgery or have no ability to do so.

“We have a 10-year waitlist for gender-affirming healthcare in Ireland for adults, and there is no service at all for young people,” TENI’s Daire Dempsey says.

In stark contrast to those who claim that transitioning endangers people’s mental health, Dempsey suggests that it’s not being able to avail of healthcare that puts trans people at risk.

“When you have a country that is not affording trans people the right to healthcare, that is going to have a huge impact in terms of the wellbeing and safety of trans people in Ireland,” they say.

“You are much more likely to be harassed in the street or experience violence, a lot of the time, if you are more ‘visibly’ trans – by which I mean in how you maybe express yourself.

“Those are real-life safety concerns for people who want to live genuine and authentic lives, before we even get into the mental health concerns [for those people].”


In a wider sense, all anti-trans misinformation narratives feed into what EDMO’s says is the most common of the five anti-LGBTQ narratives, which suggests that the wider public is being ‘indoctrinated’ or ‘coerced’ into an LGBTQ+ ‘philosophy’.

Under this strain of thinking, attempts to raise awareness of LGBTQ people and educate people about sexuality is part of a push by liberal governments and institutions that forms a wider conspiracy to force inclusive values on society, particularly on children. 

In Ireland, anti-trans groups view the passage of the Gender Recognition Act in 2015 as the moment that this began and have called for the legislation to be repealed – in no doubt influenced by similar calls being made in the UK against its equivalent laws.

And while claims of a trans ‘philosophy’ have been used as the basis for the spread of much misinformation online and in the media, the effects of those false narratives are beginning to play out in real life more and more. 

Perhaps the most prominent form of this has come in recent demonstrations by far-right figures who have targeted libraries across Ireland, especially those which have held storytelling events hosted by drag queens or which stock books containing references to queerness and gender identity.

The closure of Cork City library last month came after far-right figures mounted a banner reading “There are only two genders: male and female” across the entrance of the library without permission.

Among those in attendance were the prominent far-right figures Andy Heasman and Ross Lahive, who have launched a two-man protest campaign targeting libraries and bookshops in places including Dublin, Louth, Leitrim, Cork, Kerry, Mayo and others in recent weeks.

The pair claim that books which educate young people about LGBTQ+ identity are ‘indoctrinating’ children, and they have started appear together at libraries and shops wearing identical emerald green hoodies emblazoned with the hashtag #ProtectChildhood.

They claim to be “safeguarding the welfare of children” by calling for the removal of the books and serve staff with bogus “child protection notices” for exposing children to “pornography” under the Children First Act which outlines requirements under law for State services to protect children.

Protests attended by Heasman and Lahive show how people critical of gender identity are linking up with far-right groups, like those whose social media pages have lit up with anti-trans discussions in the past year. 

At the protest in Cork, speakers talked about the “communist infiltration” of Ireland, referenced the “15-minute city” conspiracy theory, and called refugees “scammers” – none of which are topics which relate to the books being protested, but which were given a platform at what was an ostensibly anti-trans protest. 

While numerous libraries, including Cork, have refused calls to remove books which are targeted by protesters, previous complaints led to one book in particular – Juno Dawson’s This Book is Gay – being removed from a Children’s Books Ireland reading list in January.

“The book was first published in 2014 and revised in 2020,” they explained. “Much of the book’s content remains valuable for LGBTQ+ teenagers, however some aspects do not reflect the more inclusive current language used by the LGBTQ+ community.

“Although it was initially recommended for readers aged 15 and older, we have found that the language and tone is better suited to older teenagers and young people outside of Children’s Books Ireland’s 0–18 age remit.”

Far-right parties in Ireland are also taking note and becoming more vocal about trans issues, holding anti-trans rallies which call for the protection of “children’s innocence” such as the small event which was held in Dublin last weekend.

In the run-up to next year’s local and European elections, in which these parties are expected to run, that may end up making trans issues a talking point among their candidates.

And as news coverage in Ireland and trends in the US have demonstrated in recent months, that may in turn mean even more anti-trans viewpoints are picked up by mainstream politicians and platformed in the national media.

TENI’s Daire Dempsey says that ultimately, this will put trans people – and other members of the LGBTQ+ community – at risk in different ways.

“On the one hand, there is a very direct danger from the growing anti-trans rhetoric which is manifesting in an increase in harassment and violence against trans people and all kinds of gender diverse people,” they say.

“We might also see this kind of rhetoric also become a threat to trans people, specifically to young trans people, in terms of their safety, equality and wellbeing.”

They also say that, less directly, it will affect how trans people simply exist in the world.

“It could manifest in restrictions or limitations on the general freedoms and ways that trans people are able to live our lives,” Dempsey adds.

“I think in Ireland, in many ways, it’s an okay place to be trans. I just worried about the trajectory that we’re seeing in other places, and how that might come across here.”