December 12, 2023
Ainsley King (she/they)
Historic Win with Trans Irish Dance Champion: the Background, the Blowback and the Rebuttal
Credit: @wmh_x_0 on Instagram: A man holding up a cardboard sign that says “Anonymously harassing Irish dancing children online is disgusting”. Posted 6 Dec 2023.
Trigger warning: this article deals with misgendering and transphobia
Every year, starting in November, the five American regions in An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha (CLRG) host their major competitions called Oireachtai (singular Oireachtas). Dancers travel from across the regions- New England, Mid-Atlantic, Southern, Mid-America, and Western- to compete in traditional competitions, teams, or, if you are at champion level, the solo competitions.
Solo Competitions are divided by gender and age group. For example, if you are a boy born in 2007 at the highest competition level, you would be in the Boys’ U16 competition. Getting to the championship level is a big deal and an even bigger deal to place at. Most major girls’ competitions have upwards of 80 dancers for the regionals once they’re U13, and it’s not uncommon to have over 100 girls to compete with. Boys' competitions cap out at around 20 maximum for Oireachtai, and though it’s still a competition, the places are relatively static because there aren’t as many competitors. In mixed competition, it’s a widely-held belief that boys receive more attention and special treatment from the judges because of their gender, enabling them to receive higher placements and quickly move up through the competitive levels.
To place, a dancer competes in two rounds, and if they’re in the top 50%, they’re “recalled” back to dance a third time by themselves on the stage. It’s then that tabulation calculates all three scores from the three dances, averages them out, and the dancer with the most points takes the trophy sometime later during the night’s award ceremony, recent judging and bribery scandals notwithstanding. A certain number of placing dancers can qualify for the North American Irish Dancing Championships, and an even more select number qualify for the World Irish Dancing Championships.
The Southern Regional Oireachtas (SRO) was recently held in Grapevine, Texas, on 1-3 December, 2023. Over 500 dancers competed in the competition, travelling across 14 states. In the girls’ U14 comp, the winner was a transgender girl who uses she/her pronouns. She had previously competed in the boys' competition at the most recent North American National Championship, held in Nashville, TN, in July, where she secured a World Qualifying spot.
A precedent had already been established regarding dancers competing in the gender category they identify with, according to PJ McCafferty, the Director of the Southern Region, a division of the Irish Dance Teachers Association of North America (IDTANA), which collaborates with CLRG, in a public statement before the start of the SRO.
In the message posted on November 21 on the Facebook page of IDTANA-Southern Region, McCafferty wrote, “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.
“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."
McCafferty continued, “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.”
Starting on Monday, December 4, only a day after the dancer’s win on Sunday, posts from angry parents began filling the Irish Dance forum page called “Voy”. Most of these posts have since been taken down because of the abuse expressed against the dancer. Those taken down shared transphobic views that repeated alleged biological advantages, misgendering the dancer, and started a petition to have her win taken away. The consensus was that the dancers' wins and ability to compete were unfair to the other dancers in the competition.
These parents believe that because the dancer was AMAB (Assigned Male at Birth), she holds a biological advantage over the girls she competed against, and that is why she won. They blame her competing on “taking another world qualifying spot”, as one post read. To clarify, the qualification spot the dancer held for the boy’s u14-15 competition for the next World Championship will be passed down the line.
There was also an agreement that she won because she “is a boy”. When a comment that specifically commented on the dancer and her win, another commenter fired back, “You should be ashamed of yourself. It’s not her fault your daughter can’t dance well.”
While a petition has been started supporting Trans Irish dancers, the one created on Voy has garnered over 2,000 signatures. Called “Protect Female Irish Dancers in Gender-Specific World Qualifying Championships Worldwide,” the petition outlines the following in its reason for support:
“Biological Differences: Acknowledging the inherent biological differences between males and females, we believe separate competitions help ensure a level playing field where athletes can compete against others with similar biological characteristics. Recognizing the unique biological attributes associated with each gender helps maintain this equilibrium. Introducing transgender individuals into female competitions without thoughtful consideration of these differences may inadvertently create an uneven playing field, potentially discouraging female dancers from participating or achieving their full potential.
“Protecting Opportunities: Preserving separate categories safeguards opportunities for female dancers to excel in their respective fields and promotes the growth of Irish dance. It is essential to afford each dancer the opportunity to succeed and find a balance that respects the rights of transgender individuals while safeguarding the integrity and fairness of competitive Irish Dance.
“While recognizing the importance of inclusivity, our aim is to foster an environment that upholds the principles of fairness and equal rights and opportunity for all dancers.
“By signing this petition, you express your support for the protection of female rights in Irish Dance world qualifying championships and advocate for the implementation of policies that maintain a fair and inclusive environment for all participants.”
Boys and girls do not use the same choreography in Irish Dance. There are distinct stylistic differences between the genders, which you can see displayed here in a video of senior World Champions Claire Greaney and Tyler Schwartz from 2013 dancing a step down the line to a reel. In the video, they wear what is colloquially called “soft shoes”. The boys have a heel on theirs, and the girls' are closer to ballet slippers. You can look here to find further descriptions of the differences between the shoes..
Boys' choreography is much more aggressive, with different tips and tricks than the girls. While the technique is relatively the same, it’s not measured on the same metric because of the differences in dancing. It’s the same sport and type of dance, but learning to “dance like a boy” or “dance like a girl” takes training if you’re only used to one style. Do I think the boys I danced with growing up are amazing dancers? Yes. Do I think if I put them in a wig and dress, they would win? No. Simply put, the dancer who won competed with girls choreography wearing a girls’ dancing costume. She passed well, and unless anyone told the judges they should give her the win, she won fairly.
As for “protecting opportunities,” dancers have several chances to qualify for the National or World Championships, and if there is a world medal holder in a competition, the qualifying spot they might have received moves down the line because they already qualify. The highest level of Championship dancers, Open Champion or OC, automatically qualify for the Nationals, which gives them a better chance at World Qualifying. Despite dancing for almost 17 years, I never qualified for the World Championship, and only a select number of the dancers win medals at Worlds.
The idea that this dancer would have transitioned, knowing the hate she might receive, only to “steal” a trophy like these parents are claiming, is not only incorrect but utterly bizarre. If anything, it would have been more of a competitive benefit to stay in the boy’s comp, considering the low numbers, so their “advantage” argument has no bearing. If she had world-qualified at the Nationals, she had no purpose to join a girl's competition only to qualify. She’s only competing in the Girls’ competition at Worlds, provided she doesn’t quit, considering adults on the internet have harassed her.
Framing the petition as “protecting female dancers” does nothing to address the favouritism of boys in mixed competitions. What is the solution here? Do they want us to create a separate competition for transgender dancers? Looking at the beginning of the “reasons”, it is clear that’s not true. These parents don’t want trans dancers dancing with their children. They claim that transgender girls in girls' competitions put girls at a disadvantage. We’ve discussed above why that is incorrect. Any biological advantage she may have- like more muscle mass or better stamina- can also apply to other AFAB dancers.
“Acknowledging the inherent biological differences between males and females, we believe separate competitions help ensure a level playing field where athletes can compete against others with similar biological characteristics” doesn’t make sense when the competitions are already separate. We would have this conversation if this girl had placed 2nd, 5th or 17th. It doesn’t matter if these parents claim that they have nothing against trans dancers and they only want a “safe safe for everyone.” Their actions and their words, placed under a thin veil of concern for the "integrity of girls' competitions", clearly show otherwise.
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