There is an Irish Times advertisement outside the business building of Trinity College that shows a picture of a bomb going off, with the bolded, capitalised text “expect opinions that will challenge you.” Walking past this sign, shortly after reading the paper’s recent column explicitly against banning conversion therapy specifically for trans people, “challenged” was not the word that came to mind. Hurt, maybe. Upset, definitely. A whole host of adjectives so emotional, I knew even then they were such easy prey for the stiff-collared, cufflinked mascots of “rational debate”.
This was neither the first nor the last vehemently transphobic article the Irish Times had published in 2021. The repeated selection of these articles and reader’s letters, with opposing opinions scarcely seen, was the antithesis of rational debate. In fact, it was an ideological decision to slant the debate in favour of one side. Even if you did believe that trans lives were something that merit debate (I do not), that’s not what is happening here.
Let me be clear: this editorial decision by the Irish Times is not one that takes place against the backdrop of a trans-friendly Ireland. Freedom of Information documents recently showed that waiting times for the National Gender Service could be up to a decade. In assessments, patients are often asked overtly sexual questions, from their porn preferences, to thoughts during oral sex. These assessments can be hours long, and there are many of them— all for access to hormone replacement therapy, the vast majority of the effects of which are completely reversible and no more harmful than most prescribed medication. All of this is to say that it is very difficult to be trans in Ireland, both structurally and socially. The editorial line from the Irish Times was one which sought to make this significantly worse— espousing the benefits of cruel therapies specifically for trans people.
“Not only would the funds affect the Irish Times’ bottom line, but a co-ordinated College effort to stand against medical misinformation from one of the country’s most well respected papers may attract media attention.”
A motion was brought to Students’ Union Council on October 19 to boycott the Irish Times in support of the Trans Writer’s Union. This particular motion, proposed by LGBT Rights Officer Jenny Maguire, would prohibit TCDSU shops, trade, and business from engaging with the Irish Times. If the boycott passes, it will represent a colossal political action on behalf of the Union. Often, the organisation is criticised (by myself, among others) for being politically flaccid, or without legs. However, the active step to cut off a financial stream for IT would be both materially and symbolically promising. It’s heartening to see the Union finally use the huge amount of political capital it is afforded. Not only would the funds affect the Irish Times’ bottom line, but a co-ordinated College effort to stand against medical misinformation from one of the country’s most well respected papers may attract media attention.
Trinity is a small piece of the larger boycott. The Trans Writers Union announced their plans to boycott the paper on August 21. Since then, it has become a coordinated effort, with 1,520 signatures and a number of major figures from the Irish arts scene joining the boycott. TCDSU’s referendum will be following in the footsteps of DCU, UCD, NUIG and IADT, whose student’s unions have joined the boycott. The future readership of the Irish Times is heavily dependent on the student population; any steps toward an island-wide university stance against their current editorial line will put significant pressure on the paper.
It won’t solve transphobia, but it will do good work to enshrine trans people as a class deserving of rights. As well as this, it will signal explicitly that this is not simply a debate.
Personally, I am worried about the referendum. There have not been many public objections to the boycott — we saw reported comments from the editor of University Times that the Irish Times is “part of UT’s identity”, and rhetorical flourishes from an ex-TCDSU council chair and current Undergraduate Studies Committee representative asserting that major LGBT organisations are “not in support” of the boycott (the implication being here, that they have an objection to the movement, as opposed to an incredibly understandable show of neutrality from organisations under heavy political pressure). My pessimistic brain reads these quotes, and wonders if those in positions of power within our (albeit small) college infrastructure care more about the preservation of that power than the lives of trans people.
What I am worried about, really, is that they are not alone. I am, admittedly, living in a specially-constructed, left-wing echo chamber. I am not generally exposed to a lot of transphobia in my day-to-day life, and I like it that way. That being said, I’m scared of the opinions I don’t have access to, of what lies under ostensibly pragmatic arguments against the boycott. How many people, really, care enough about trans rights to make a decision they may find uncomfortable, or that they fear will one day cost them a job?
However, prior to any anxieties about the result of the vote, there will be the week of campaigning. Trans people will have to do what has always been expected of marginalised peoples with politicised identities— we will justify our existence. As if it is something others must be convinced of; because, in this specific scenario, it is something that the union is asking us to do. It’s probably good that we must vote on issues that are deemed “political” (I do have questions, however, about where that line is drawn; feelings about the protection of trans lives as a political stance), but that’s not going to make it enjoyable for any trans person involved.
“Making the statement that transphobia is not a belief we are interested in engaging with does not legislate the Times’ argumentation out of existence — it simply asks them to consider the consequences of such argumentation.”
Allow me to engage in some pure conjecture here, but I think we’re going to get a lot of arguments around free speech during this referendum. Namely, the idea that we, the students of Trinity College Dublin, should not be limiting the speech of the Irish Times, a paper with a print circulation of over 54,000. To pre-empt this line, I think the fundamental problem with any of this argumentation is that there is a difference between refusing to stock a paper and censoring the Irish Times. There are plenty of publications that the Student’s Union do not stock in their shops, for a multitude of reasons. Making the statement that transphobia is not a belief we are interested in engaging with does not legislate the Times’ argumentation out of existence — it simply asks them to consider the consequences of such argumentation.
“However, there is more to be done. The boycott will not end if the referendum fails, and there are many ways to participate in the meantime.”
There’s plenty that individual students can do to make an impact on this issue. First and foremost, it’s important to vote in the Union referendum, whenever that happens. However, there is more to be done. The boycott will not end if the referendum fails, and there are many ways to participate in the meantime. Individual students can cancel their free student subscriptions, encourage those in their household to buy elsewhere, and avoid clicking on links from the paper’s website.
Student organisations also have an opportunity to wield their power for the better. Debating societies, in particular, can publicly boycott the Irish Times Debating competition— a tournament traditionally reported on by the paper itself, with half of the 2021 final populated by Trinity students. Student publications, intimately connected to the paper by their nature, can refrain from linking back to IT’s reporting in their online content, and distance any existing ties they have to the paper as Trinity News has done, and as University Times are in the process of doing. All of us have an opportunity to look at the media we engage in and the systems we participate in, and to ask ourselves how we can do better.
In the end, we only have each other. This isn’t a bid to shut down ostensibly rational debate. I’m not against a bit of a scrap, I’ve always enjoyed a philosophical or practical argument. That being said, “should we respect this group of people’s rights” has never been a particularly interesting question to me.