The leadership within An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha (CLRG, the oldest and largest competitive Irish dance organization in the world) should be proud to have permitted a trans dancer, a minor who uses she / her pronouns, to compete in a girls' category at the Southern Region Oireachtas earlier this month.
The dancer, who previously competed in the boys category, including at this year's World Irish Dancing Championships, won her age group at the Oireachtas, a regional event where dancers can qualify for the more elite North American Irish Dancing Championships and World Irish Dancing Championships.
Before the Southern Region Oireachtas began, PJ McCafferty, the Director of the Southern Region, a subset of the Irish Dance Teachers Association of North America (IDTANA), which works in tandem with CLRG, publicly clarified that precedent had already been set regarding dancers competing in the gender category they identify with.
“I am aware that there is a great deal of upset in the Southern Region about the CLRG and IDTANA policies that transgender Irish Dancers enter competitions that align with the gender identity of their everyday public life; their academic, workplace, social, and home life," McCafferty wrote in the statement that was shared on the IDTANA-Southern Region's Facebook page on November 21.
“I have had conversations and exchanged emails with teachers and parents about the CLRG and IDTANA policies.
“Entering and competing in the CLRG World Championship competition that corresponds to the gender identity of the dancer is an established CLRG precedent, it has been done before.
“A dancer must qualify for the specific World Championship competition in which they will dance. CLRG controls Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne [World Irish Dancing Championships] and the process of qualifying to compete for the CLRG World Championship. The Southern Region is obligated to follow CLRG policy.
“Similarly, entering in the Regional Qualifier competition that corresponds to the gender identity of a dancer is an established precedent for IDTANA competitions, it has been done before including in the IDTANA-Southern Region Oireachtas."
(Notably, IDTANA says it has a policy "not to allow or engage in discrimination against, or harassment of, any person" on a number of bases, including sex and gender identity.)
McCafferty added: “I am writing this post to remind everyone that we teach all the dancers. We advocate for every one of our dancers. We do our very best to be fair to everyone. This situation is not easy for anyone. Not everyone’s point of view or personal interests align. I am asking for your tolerance. You are expected to respect all the dancers."
The Facebook post, shared before the Southern Region Oireachtas began on December 1, has garnered roughly 270 likes, though comments on it have been turned off. The people who publicly shared the post to their own feeds commended the Southern Region for its course of action.
As a former Irish dancer who, in my role here at IrishCentral, has been covering the CLRG scandals in recent years, I was pleasantly surprised by how proactive the Southern Region was in publicly sharing McCafferty's statement.
Further, I'm also pleasantly surprised that the organization is urging tolerance and respect for its dancers - it's a much-needed win for CLRG, which has rightly been under scrutiny in recent years.
Of course, not all share my sentiments.
Some critics claim the new Oireachtas champion "robbed" a placement and World-qualifying spot from other dancers in her competition.
To me, this is nonsense. No dancer is guaranteed a placement. As the old saying goes, "it's the best on the day."
Other critics claim that the trans dancer has a "biological advantage" over her competitors.
Again, nonsense. Irish dance encapsulates a wide range of body types as well as a range of styles. Irrespective of gender identity, some dancers are aggressive and athletic, others are laid back and graceful. Some dancers have great stamina, others have great timing.
The critics were amplified on Thursday when The Daily Signal, which says it "focuses on underreported news related to conservative policies and interests," ran an article entitled “Parents Outraged After Trans-Identifying Boy Wins Girls’ Irish Dancing Competition, Heads to Worlds.”
In the article, one mother who says her daughter was in the same competition as the trans dancer said: "I never thought I was going to have to deal with this. And my heart breaks for my daughter and the other girls that are having to deal with this. They are too young to have to deal with topics that are going on in society, that are adult topics, that they don’t quite comprehend yet.”
The author of The Daily Signal article sought comments on the matter on an Irish dance Voy board in recent days. The Voy boards, where people can post anonymously, have been a problematic part of Irish dance since I was a child and should always be approached with a critical eye.
The article claims that posters on Voy were "up-in-arms" about the trans Irish dancer's win. While there were (and are) people angry about the trans competitor and her Oireachtas win, there were also posters that were in support of the dancer being permitted to compete in the category she identifies with. (Worth noting is that the moderator of the Voy board has deleted some posts related to the discussion.)
Also on Thursday, an online petition was launched titled "Protect Female Irish Dancers in Gender-Specific World Qualifying Championships Worldwide." It says in part: "While recognizing and celebrating diversity and inclusivity, we believe that maintaining separate categories for transgender individuals and female participants is essential to ensuring fair and equitable competition."
At the time of publication on Friday evening, the petition had garnered more than 1,500 signatures. Among those who publicly signed their names were several Irish dance teachers and adjudicators, an indicator that this debate may only just be getting started, despite, as McCafferty previously indicated, there being established precedence.
On Thursday evening, after reading The Daily Signal article, I reached out to CLRG and McCafferty for comment.
CLRG was quick to respond with a brief comment, the same they supplied to The Daily Signal: “CLRG is committed to creating a safe and inclusive environment for every child in our Irish dance community.” A spokesperson said people within CLRG may have additional comments next week.
McCafferty has yet to respond.
I also reached out to my friend Mollie, who, like me, is a former Irish dance competitor. Mollie transitioned at 30 years old, a few years after her successful competitive Irish dance career, which included Oireachtas titles, came to an end. She now has her TCRG (teaching accreditation).
“As an openly trans woman that competed my whole life, I will say I think they made the right call to let the dancer compete based on their gender identity,” Mollie said.
“I know some can argue that men have more power or stamina, but from my experience, cis women have superior flexibility and better technique overall based on their genetics.”
Mollie added: “It’s not the Olympics, it’s just dancing. We need to prioritize the children and their mental health, not parents and their opinions and political beliefs.”
On Friday, I was able to connect with the trans competitor's Irish dance teacher. The teacher told me it's been a "challenging week" and that "given the present atmosphere in the sport, I’d prefer not to engage."
The teacher, however, added: "We’re focusing on supporting her as we always have within our school, and sharing the messages of support with receive with her."
Meanwhile, the trans dancer was subject to disgusting abuse on social media on Friday when one person commented on her social media: "Cheating scrote" and "You and your parents are cheaters."
Thankfully, the foul comments were in the minority of a sea of comments supporting this dancer.
For now, all I can say is well done to this Irish dancer. Winning an Oireachtas is no easy feat, and doing so with the added pressure of navigating life as a trans person as well as nonsensical pushback from the parents of your competitors makes it all the more impressive.
Another well done to this dancer's family, friends, and Irish dance school for supporting her.
And, of course, well done to the Irish dance leadership in exemplifying what good leadership looks like.
At a time when Irish dance has been in the limelight for less than savory reasons, let this instance of inclusivity, tolerance, and respect be a winning moment for CLRG.