Sara R. Phillips
Today, I am a woman — plainly and simply female. My passport says so; my driver’s license says so; my bank details say so. My children, my parents, work colleagues, neighbours and friends, all leave me in no doubt that I am a woman. Because now that’s how they see me. That’s how they treat me. But this has not always been the case.
I grew up as a transgender woman in County Wicklow, Ireland. A small town, 30 miles south of Dublin, population circa 3000, not unlike most other towns in Ireland in the ’60s and ’70s, it was conservative and parochial. Society was heavily influenced by the Catholic Church and the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association). Our Schools were run by religious organizations. My family was deeply rooted in that community.
So to be something different in the ’70s in Ireland was just not acceptable. In 1977, my father told me that being trans was just a “phase you’re going through.” I was (he was?) sure that being trans would never be understood. But by the late 1970s Irish society was changing. There was a deep questioning of old ideas and values, and an active commitment to social causes.
The past has been a mixed bag for Ireland: we survived a harsh colonialist rule and sought to redefine ourselves, only to end up entrenched in conservative ideology. These days, oppression and prejudice resonate with the Irish in a very particular way. We’re seen as fair, as welcoming and often altruistic. Our record on human rights work — in Ireland and abroad — is strong.
I have always been drawn to the ideals of those who wrote Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising Proclamation: “The republic… declare[s] its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all its parts, cherishing all children of the nation equally…” Yet this equality has been elusive. Trans people in Ireland face many challenges, including the basic right to be recognised for who we fundamentally are.
Changing my documentation from male to female has taken explanation and argument. It required evidence, and then more evidence, more letters and even more undignified, humiliating questions about some of the very basic facts about my personal life and more importantly about my body.