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Dispatches: Ireland Steps Out as Global Transgender Leader

Lydia Foy, a now-retired dentist, witnessed the end of her 22-year struggle this week as Ireland’s senate passed the Gender Recognition Bill, ground-breaking legislation that will make Ireland the fifth country in the world to allow identity-based legal gender recognition.

Foy, a transgender woman, has braved a gauntlet of legal procedures since 1993 to have her gender legally recognized, making her case twice before the High Court judge in 1997 and 2007.

Dr Lydia Foy, a dentist from Athy Co Kildare, who began her fight for legal gender recognition in 1993, leaves Dublin High Court, Friday October 19, 2007. © 2007 Niall Carson/PA Wire

For years, domestic organizations and international human rights bodies have called on Ireland to institute a rights-based gender recognition procedure.

In 2008, the UN Human Rights Committee urged Ireland to allow transgender people to change birth certificates. Referring specifically to Foy’s case a year later, then Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg reiterated: “There is no excuse for not immediately granting this community their full and unconditional human rights.” His successor, Nils Muižnieks, wrote Irish authorities again in 2012 noting the lack of progress.

Ireland’s legislation, which eliminates the requirement of a medical consultation for legal recognition, is expected to be formally signed by the President before the end of July and enter into force later this summer. When, as expected, Ireland’s momentous marriage equality law survives a current legal challenge and comes into force, the requirement that transgender people be single to be recognized will also disappear.

Once in place, these changes will mean Ireland joins the likes of Argentina, Denmark, Malta, and most recently Colombia, in making legal gender recognition a matter of an individual’s self-identification.

Only 37 of the 47 Council of Europe countries have legal gender recognition provisions in place at all. Thirty-five require a mental disorder diagnosis to obtain recognition; 23 require sterilisation before recognizing a transgender person’s gender identity. Unfortunately, Ireland’s new law retains age restrictions that limit transgender children’s access to legal recognition – something the government should work with transgender groups to fix in the coming years.

Progress on legal gender recognition is gaining momentum globally, and countries like Ireland are charting a path others should immediately follow. While welcome, these reforms have taken a long time for a minority that shoulders a disproportionate burden of violence, discrimination, and negative health consequences as a result of a lack of basic recognition before the law.

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