Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ireland’s gender Jesuits

Give me the child, and I will show you the non-binary adult

Artillery Row

“Being screamed at was my introduction to the Belong To crowd.” At seventeen Annaig stepped into a community hall to join what she had been told was a club for gay youngsters. A lesbian in Dublin, none of her school friends were “out” and so she was hoping to find her tribe at a meeting run by Belong To, Ireland’s largest LGBTQ+ lobby group. Before she could even find a seat, the teenager says she was “shouted at and then shunned for misgendering a trans-identified male by accident”.

“I was embarrassed and confused, but I wasn’t being deliberately rude. I was fully in support of trans rights. My mistake was not catching someone’s name, so I said, “Oh, what’s ‘his’ name?” I just didn’t realise ‘he’ identified as ‘she’.”

Now 25, Annaig is one of the founders of Not All Gays, a grassroots group of young same-sex attracted people in Ireland who reject both gender identity ideology and the Critical Social Education Model of youth work practised by Belong To.

Annaig believes that the approach of Belong To is harmful to young same-sex attracted people. The organisation’s “divisive message” risks “rolling back the social gains made by an earlier generation”.

Belong To enjoys the support of the establishment and an income of nearly €2m

Her group Not all Gays has the support of a number of politicians, including Irish Senators Gerard Craughwell and Sharon Keoghan. They are on the margins in Ireland, though, pushed aside as public figures rush to embrace trans ideology as a way of breaking from a shameful past. Uncomfortable though it may be to acknowledge, government representatives and institutions are still haunted by the child sexual abuse perpetrated and hidden by paedophiles in the Catholic Church. What better way to say “we’re not like them” than to champion an ideology which claims to be progressive and which presents itself as an alternative to conservative Catholic values? Ironically, at their fringes these two belief systems may have more in common than is immediately apparent.

Today, Belong To enjoys the support of the establishment and an income of nearly €2m. Through 2022 the organisation ran 72 LGBTQIA+ youth groups across Ireland, and 57 schools have signed-up to their new LGBTQ+ Quality Mark programme (accounting for over 3,300 staff and almost 35,000 students). Like the Jesuits, Belong To wants to train the next generation in its own image, to “empower the LGBTQ+ youth that we support to become agents of social change”.

After her first pronoun slip-up, Annaig quickly learned that far from being open and inclusive, there were strict rules about what attendees were allowed to say and what was forbidden. She recalls in the large group of Dublin-based youngsters “none identified with their sex”, all had “obvious self-harm scars” and some were “struggling with eating disorders”.

“All of the people I met on that first day were transgender, non-binary or agender. No lesbians. Straight away, I thought this was strange, but I wondered if perhaps I just hadn’t met enough of the group yet. At a later meeting, I also witnessed at least one trans-identified teen with diagnosed autism who identified as a ‘furry’ with a rat persona.”

At the start of the meeting, attendees were asked to sit in a circle and “forced to give our name, pronouns, our sexuality and a fact about ourselves”.

“The first time there were maybe 15 to 20 people ahead of me going along with it. I was embarrassed that I didn’t have more labels: asexual, panromantic, genderfluid, demi-girl. So, I started feeling really uncomfortable because I was like, shit, I’m just a plain she/her lesbian.”

Annaig still considered herself a trans ally, though. She jokes, “Half of the Dublin transgender community have been in and out of my house. I was always really accepting.

“The final straw was when a male who had made no effort to transition, and had stubble, declared he was a lesbian. The adults looked around the room to encourage us all to clap. And they were like cheering and saying ‘congratulations for coming out’. But really we could all see he was a man.”

Despite her growing reservations, Annaig continued to attend Belong To for around 18 months, as she had many trans-identified friends at the group. She estimates around 80 per cent have since desisted or detransitioned, once more identifying with their sex.

At the meetings she attended, Annaig said she heard Belong To youth leaders and older members giving dangerous advice, including “how to hide breast binders from parents”. She also was disturbed to note that vulnerable 14-year-old girls were in the same group as young men up to the age of 23. No attempt was made to separate them.

Binders are used by women and girls who identify as trans to flatten the appearance of breasts. According to a 2015 study in the International Journal for Research, Intervention and Care the devices led to compressed or broken ribs, punctured or collapsed lungs, back pain, compression of the spine, damaged breast tissue, damaged blood vessels, blood clots, inflamed ribs and even heart attacks. In the UK, specialists are moving away from simply affirming children and teens in cross-sex identities, and there is an increasing acknowledgement amongst leading clinicians that such social steps can lead to irreversible medical treatments.

Annaig recalls Belong To were totally accepting of young people’s desire to alter their bodies.

When public opinion bubbles over, it will be gay people who will bear the brunt

“The youth leaders during that session told the girls to order binders to a friend’s house and to wash them in the sink to avoid putting them in the laundry.”

The ramifications of driving a wedge between children and parents extend beyond dubious advice about binding breasts. Rather than recognising loved ones as a source of support, Annaig says Belong To encourages attendees to believe “family and friends might be hostile and that the outside world is against you and hates you because of your sexuality or your gender identity”. She adds, the idea that “the only safe space was with Belong To” was normalised within the group. “It was like a cult.”

Belong To certainly has a pessimistic view of life in Ireland. Its 2022 annual report, titled LGBTQ+ Youth Seek Support Amidst a Climate of Fear, asserts that there has been a “rise in anti-LGBTQ+ hate and violence towards members of the community” and that their young service users have been left “fearing for their safety and feeling scared to be visible”.

These sentiments are echoed by chief executive Moninne Griffith, who claims, “2022 was the year that negative and false messages about LGBTQ+ identities and, in particular, trans and non-binary individuals, dominated headlines in Ireland.” In response, Belong To boasted it had run workshops on how to report hate crime and built relationships with local Garda Diversity Officers.

Members of Not All Gays argue this misses the point. A rise in homophobia may be a consequence of the wider public objecting to the ideological demands of organisations pushing gender identity ideology. Annaig is concerned that when public opinion bubbles over, it will be lesbian, gay and bisexual people who will bear the brunt, whilst those identifying as trans “can just switch their pronouns back”. The name of the group reflects this fear. Not All Gays is in part an attempt to show the public that some same-sex attracted people object to the overreach of the trans lobby.

For the moment, public figures and politicians who are keen to prove themselves as forward-thinking have latched onto Belong To. Annaig has repeatedly tried to raise her concerns at the highest level, writing to the Office of Taoiseach six times over the past year, then following up with phone calls to which she never received a clear response.

Belong To is growing its service. One key area the group is planning to expand into will “create and deliver a service for 10–14 year old LGBTQ+ children” and “explore how we can work with primary schools to ensure that they are safe and supportive spaces for LGBTQ+ pupils”. The question as to whether such young children have the maturity to understand adult concepts of sexual orientation and identity is left unanswered. This is largely because those asking are ignored and dismissed as bigots.

It may take years before the concerns about Belong To are heard by Ireland’s government. Within the UK, it has taken multiple court cases and mass media coverage to loosen the grip of LGBTQ lobby group Stonewall on British institutions. The young people behind Not All Gays are determined and tenacious, however.

Annaig reflects, “More than anything, I want same-sex attracted youth to be proud of who they are. I don’t want them to feel the need to apologise for their sexuality to anyone — be that the religious homophobes or the dangerous ideologues running Belong To.”

Belong To did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

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