The Irish Times yesterday reported “sharp divisions” in responses to the submissions to the state’s national curriculum authority over the question of pronouns and how gender identity is taught in Irish Schools.
This is an issue that goes over many people’s heads, and the details of the disagreement can often seem obscure and unimportant. “Just mad people fighting about nonsense” was how one relatively well informed person described it to me recently, shaking his head in apparent exasperation. But the fight does, and should, matter to parents, and indeed to the rest of us.
At the core of it is a simple question: Is “gender theory” just that – a theory – or is it fact? To answer that it is necessary to explain what gender theory is.
The theory postulates, at the most simple level, that one’s gender is ultimately a matter of personal choice. Your author, for example, is a man. Traditionally, this would have been accepted as fact based on the fact that when I was born, doctors had a look, noticed the configuration of body parts present, and recognised that they were looking at a male child.
But this, says gender theory, was wrong: What actually happened, according to those who want gender theory taught as fact, is that doctors looked, and “assigned male at birth”. In other words, they may well have been mistaken.
What’s more, I am free to decide at a later date that they were in fact mistaken, and that I was actually born a woman. Under Irish law, I and everyone else can in fact retroactively declare their birth certs mistaken: Were I to wish it so, then under the 2015 gender recognition act I could fill out a form tomorrow, and the state would recognise me legally and in every other way as a woman. It would send me to a women’s prison. It would defend my right to change in the ladies’ changing rooms at a gym or swimming pool. It would deny the relevance of my physical make up, and agree that I am a woman because I say that I am a woman.
In fact, it would issue a new birth certificate, declaring that I was born a woman. The state is willing, in other words, to go back and change the past and say that the doctors who identified me as male made a fundamental error by not asking me first.
The simplest way of saying this is then as follows: Gender Theory states that whether one is a man or a woman has nothing at all to do with biology. That “man” and “woman” are simply labels we can apply to ourselves as we see fit. There are no limits in law for how often a person can switch back and forward, legally, in a lifetime.
Most parents, I suspect, would agree that this is a radical departure from tens of thousands of years of human history. The question before us, in terms of schools, is whether this new theory be taught as simply one new theory, or whether it be taught as absolute fact, on the same level as the theory of evolution, or Pythagoras’ theorem. Teaching that it is utter nonsense, unfortunately, does not seem to be an option on the table.
Reading the Irish Times, the dispute breaks down on the lines you might expect: The organisations lobbying for this to be taught as fact are almost all in receipt of taxpayer funding. The organisations and individuals arguing that it should not be taught as fact are mostly not.
Why does this matter?
Well, consider the case of a child in a class where one of the other children is “socially transitioning” – that is to say, that either the child or their parents have decided that the doctors did get it wrong, and their daughter is really a son, or that their son is really a daughter. How might a parent explain this to a child, and how might the state explain it?
If those pushing gender theory get their way, that child’s classmates will be taught – as indisputable fact – that the girl in question was never a girl at all, but was a boy all along, same as all the other boys. If those opposed get their way, the classmates may be taught something along the lines of “your friend is the same person as yesterday, but they want to be known by a new name for now, and treated as a boy”.
There is a huge difference in those two positions. One allows for some freedom of thought, and some ability to recognise that biological sex and gender are related. The other suppresses all questioning, and takes a position that is immensely controversial, presenting it as fact.
In recent months, of course, this very issue has been at the heart of the dispute between Enoch Burke and the school that has – subject to appeal – sacked him. Burke says that he should not be forced – nor should anyone else – to publicly acknowledge that a biological male or female is now the opposite gender, because he does not believe, as a teacher or as a human being, that such a thing is possible. To his eyes, it would simply be lying to himself, to the student in question, and to all the other students in the school. As far as he is concerned, he might as well teach them that the world is flat.
Regardless of how one feels about Mr. Burke’s handling of that dispute, there remains I think widespread sympathy for him on the issue at the heart of the dispute: Should teachers have to teach as fact things that they know to be, at best, theories, and at worst, outright lies?
The state makes the parents the primary educator of children. This is an issue of great importance. Parents, I think, have a duty to make their views known to their politicians, their educators, and most importantly of all, their children.
The latest episode of “The Week that Really Was”, featuring John McGuirk and David Quinn discussing the topics of the week, can be found here, as well as on all the normal podcast platforms.