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Wednesday 4 October 2023 Dublin: 12°C
Shutterstock/Alexandros Michailidis
Debunked: Leo Varadkar did not say that 'biological males' shouldn't be put in female prisons
In Scotland, non-violent prisoners may still be housed according to their gender expression.

RECENT HEADLINES AND social media posts have quoted Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as saying that so-called “biological males” should not be put into prisons designated for women.

Varadkar faced questions this week after the conviction of Barbie Kardashian, a transgender woman who was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison (with another year suspended) for threatening to murder her mother.

Concerns had been raised in court that Kardashian – who transitioned a number of years ago and who is being held in the women’s section of Limerick Prison – had previously been convicted for sexual assault and deemed at high risk of committing further crimes.

Various reports and posts on social media have suggested that Varadkar, after being asked about the case, said that “biological males” should not be in women’s prisons in Ireland.

However, the Taoiseach did not say these words or utter quotes ascribed to him on the subject.

His negative answer was to the question about whether he believed “violent biological males should be put into female prisons”, not trans women who had been identified as male at birth in general.

What was said

Following Kardashian’s conviction, the Taoiseach was asked about the case at a briefing this week.

He was first asked: “Yes or no, do you believe that Barbie Kardashian is a woman?”, but said that he didn’t know enough about the case.

Varadkar was then asked:

“Taoiseach, in principle do you believe that violent biological males should be put into women’s prisons?”

He responded:

“No, I don’t, quite frankly. 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.
But, quite frankly I only heard of this case for the first time in the Sunday papers, and it’s an individual case and I don’t want to comment on it in detail until I’ve had a chance to be briefed on it properly and understand it properly.”

Misleading coverage

A similar situation involving a transgender woman with a history of violence in a female prison in Scotland received media coverage in the UK in recent weeks. Pressure was put on the Scottish government over the issue, with a case review into the management of transgender prisoners subsequently taking place.

The resignation of First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon is attributed to controversy over the issue.

Transgender issues have recently received increased attention and have become a particular focus of right-wing political groups in the UK and US, a tactic the AP described as a “classic strategy of finding a ‘wedge issue’ that motivates a political base.”

And misleading coverage of Varadkar’s response may help to stoke culture wars in Ireland too.

One Facebook post incorrectly attributed a direct quote to Varadkar as saying: “Biological men don’t belong in women’s prisons.”

Gript’s headline for the story read: “Varadkar says males shouldn’t be in women’s prisons.”

Other media reports on the exchange also ran misleading headlines.

The Mirror wrote: “Norma Foley agrees with Taoiseach that transgender prisoners should not be housed in female prisons”; reported: “Transgender prisoners ‘should not be in women’s jails’ says Leo Varadkar”; and said: “Taoiseach says transgender prisoners should not be in women’s jails”.

However, Varadkar’s response was to a question specifically about “violent biological males”, not all transgender prisoners and at no point in the exchange did he utter “Biological men don’t belong in women’s prisons,” as was ascribed to him.

This distinction between violent and non-violent transgender prisoners is important given the reference to the Scottish situation.

In Scotland, policy is changing so that transgender prisoners with a history of violence against women would no longer be housed in female prison facilities, according to the BBC.

The change came in response to concerns about a prisoner who had begun transitioning after being charged for raping two women while still identifying as a man. 

While all prisoners in Scotland will now be initially sent to a prison catering to their sex assigned at birth, only violent transgender prisoners will remain there.

Following an assessment, non-violent prisoners may be transferred to a prison corresponding to their gender identity, according to statements cited by the BBC.

Similar questions have been raised about where transgender prisoners, including those with a history of violence, should be imprisoned in Ireland.

But Justice Minister Simon Harris recently said in the Dáil that there is no official distinction between ‘male’ and ‘female’ prisons in Ireland.

“While all prisoners committed are accommodated in accordance with their legal gender, it should be noted that Irish prisons are not legally defined as ‘male’ or ‘female’ prisons,” he said. 

“On arrival in prison, the Prison Governor will consider all aspects of the health and well-being of the person arriving, and of the whole prison population.”

He also clarified on RTE’s Today with Claire Byrne “There is no scenario in an Irish prison, where a violent sex offender is mixing with other prisoners”.

The Irish Prison Service has also said it is currently reviewing procedures around violent transgender prisoners.

In a statement to the PA news agency this week, the Irish Prison Service explained that it is currently drafting a policy on the management of transgender prisoners, which is expected to be completed in the coming months.

It said that where a court makes an order committing a person to a prison, the Irish Prison Service “must accept that person into custody in whichever prison is specified by the court”.

“All prisoners committed are accommodated in accordance with their legal gender,” it said.

“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.

“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.”

Kardashian is in solitary confinement and there are no plans to allow her to mix to rest of female prison population, The Mirror reported this week. 


It is clear from Leo Varadkar’s exact quotes that he did not say that “biological males” should not be in female prisons, or suggest that all transgender women should be not be placed in female prisons. 

Several reports that state or imply that he did so are false or missing context. They do not accurately reflect his response to a question on the subject.

The Taoiseach’s response was to a question specifically about “violent biological males”, not all transgender prisoners. Varadkar did not utter the words “biological males” himself.

Though the matter is currently subject to a review by the Irish Prison Service, Varadkar suggested that Ireland could take a similar approach to Scotland.

In Scotland, violent transgender prisoners are expected to be housed in prisons whose general population matches their assigned sex at birth – but non-violent transgender prisoners will be imprisoned based on the gender they have transitioned to. 

It should also be noted that Ireland has no specific ‘male’ or ‘female’ prisons, so prisoners here are not currently sent to specific jails based on their gender.

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