Backlash over Graham Linehan's Prime Time appearance all part of how RTÉ does business
This week, a petition to remove Graham Linehan from RTÉ's Prime Time discussion on transgender issues accumulated over 5,000 signatures.
The television writer — famous for co-creating Father Ted and Black Books — will form part of a broader discussion on proposed changes to Ireland's Gender Recognition Act (2015).
A few points of fact must be acknowledged.
The first is this: the world occupied by trans people is not the same world enjoyed by those who are not trans. For people who are not trans (the word is "cis" but folks can be a bit sensitive about that), there are presumptions of safety in open and public spaces that trans people cannot bank on.
Trans people cannot bank on the comfort of walking down the street knowing you're unlikely to be harassed. You can't go to college or work safe in the knowledge that nobody will talk about you behind your back, giggle about you, and make you feel unwelcome. By virtue of being trans, you are subject of discussion, and often, judgment.
It is well-established that trans people are far more likely to engage in self-harming behaviours or suffer from suicidal ideation.
These are points of facts that can be agreed upon before a debate even begins. It is therefore incumbent upon RTÉ to conduct any discussion on trans issues with the utmost sensitivity and care. If they fail to do so, then they are failing the entire public who pays for them to remain afloat.
If we cannot trust the state broadcaster to treat Irish citizens with dignity, we cannot trust them. Period.
Much of the backlash around tonight's discussion has been aimed at the involvement of Linehan, a TV writer famous for co-creating Father Ted, Black Books and the IT Crowd. Linehan is known in social media circles for being outspoken on trans issues.
In his own words, Linehan opposes the "seriously held belief that trans women are literally women." He argued in an Irish Times interview today that: "There are lots of gender non-conforming children who may not be trans and may grow up to be gay adults, but who are being told by an extreme, misogynist ideology, that they were born in the wrong body."
Late last year, West Yorkshire Police issued him a "verbal harassment warning" following complaints from a trans activist on Twitter. As the petition points out, Linehan is neither a medical expert, nor a trans person. Consequently, questions have been raised over his inclusion on tonight's show.
Certainly, there are many activists and trans people who are deeply perturbed by Linehan's opinions. Conversely, it can't be overlooked that there are members of the trans community who do vociferously agree with Linehan. Indeed, in all debates, Linehan can and does point to several cis women and trans women who will back up his point of view.
In a free society, Linehan is entitled to his opinion. The choices that the public broadcaster makes around how it will engage with that opinion are a more fundamental cause of concern for that free society.
The Father Ted co-creator will be one of 10 voices heard from on tonight's episode of Prime Time. A broad range to be sure, and when your goal is to have a broad range of views, the chances are that you've got one or two fringe voices in the mix.
But in recent years, Ireland has leaned in to its ugly habit of making public debates out of human rights. In 2015, gay people across the country were forced to knock on doors and parade themselves about in an attempt to secure the right to marry. In the end, it turned out that the public was massively supportive of the idea.
Last year, it was the women of Ireland's turn to endure a protracted, needless, vicious debate over whether or not access to the most basic and uncontroversial reproductive rights makes us a nation of baby-killers. A debate special of Claire Byrne Live, which brought public debate to an absolute nadir, drew a raft of complaints. Once again, it turned out that the public was way to the left of the falsely manufactured debate — and abortion was decriminalised in a landslide referendum.
Both of these debates have been marred, and indeed defined, by RTÉ's impulse to amplify fringe voices to make sure that people at home watch and tweet and engage with their programming.
RTÉ have said the discussion has been prompted by "the exponential growth in the number of young people seeking to change gender" in recent times.
Responding to request for comment from JOE regarding government reports which seem to imply numbers in people seeking to change gender have remained static since 2015, an RTÉ statement reads: "It appears that it is not a subject of contention between any of the sides in this debate that there has been a massive increase in the number of people presenting with gender dysphoria, both young people and adults." A spokesperson for the station noted that referrals were lower 12 years ago, with only 10 people referred in 2007.
It was, however, not possible for Irish people to legally change their gender without surgery until eight years later.
Official statistics provide some context. Since the Gender Recognition Act was introduced in 2015, on the back of demand that had been there for many years, numbers have remained flat. Indeed, fewer people sought to change gender in 2017 than they did in 2016.
Of those aged 16 or 17, the number has remained in the single digits every year. Last year it was just three. As for people over the age of 18, it was 96. All told, it is 0.002% of the population. The reason we don't hear about it often is because it isn't a problem. Maybe it's just that it's easy for things to "grow exponentially" when the numbers involved are so small.
RTÉ is opening a debate in an arena where society has operated functionally and peacefully for four whole years. Public debate is the mark of a healthy society. A sensitive and caring debate is the mark of decent one.
As a society which values the wellbeing of all its constituents, we must demand that the state broadcaster does the same. Whomever their guests, whatever the topic, a fundamental principle of doing no harm to the vulnerable among us must govern RTÉ's philosophy.