The media-hyped case of bigot Enoch Burke

By Ollie Bell

On 5 September, Enoch Burke was jailed for contempt of court. This was following an order by Judge Miriam O’Regan for his arrest last Friday, 2 Sept, after he had failed to show up to court for breaching an injunction made by the Board of Management at Wilson’s Hospital School in Westmeath. If your knowledge of this case was based solely on a few clickbait headlines by media outlets like The Independent, RTE and The Irish Times, you could be led to believe that Burke was jailed for refusing to use a trans student’s pronouns. To many so-called free speech advocates, Burke is seen as a martyr against ‘transgenderism’ and was wrongfully jailed for standing up for what he believes in. This couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Why Burke was jailed 

The school had requested that teachers respect the gender identity and pronouns of a transgender student, citing their policy of not discriminating against any student in accordance with the 2000 Equal Status Act. Enoch Burke had allegedly been placed on paid administrative leave due to his conduct. It’s been reported that he interrupted the school’s 260th anniversary service and dinner to demand the principal withdraw her request for him to respect the gender and pronouns of the student. His behaviour prompted attendees, including students, to walk out. 

He had then tried to engage with the school principal following the interruption, causing other people to stand between them to bring the loud questioning to an end. A High Court injunction was sought after Burke had repeatedly shown up to school despite being suspended. He was jailed on 5 September indefinitely, not for his beliefs or the schools, but for breaching the order. 

Burke claims that being asked to respect a trans student’s pronouns and gender is against his constitutional rights, that a belief system is being forced onto the students and that ‘Transgenderism’ goes against the Church of Ireland and the school’s ethos. 

Cynical media storm 

The facts of the case by themselves wouldn’t have generated many clicks for news outlets; hence the overfocus on Burke’s refusal to use a student’s pronoun. There has been a worrying trend in transphobic articles in the Irish media. These are often framed as debates about trans people’s participation in sports, bathrooms and pronouns, yet the real issues facing the trans community in Ireland are barely listened to. The Irish Independent, for example, had already been criticised for pumping out anti-trans articles recently which prompted Trans & Intersex Pride Dublin to organise a protest outside the Independent’s offices.

While much of the online discourse is around arguing about this teacher’s right to misgender a student, at the heart of this case is a trans child wanting to be respected. Nowhere in those news articles is there mention of the right of trans students to be respected and included in their school environment. No concern has been shown by journalists about how Enoch Burke has pushed this school and this innocent student into the middle of a storm of vicious online attacks. 

End all discrimination in schools 

When we look at the experiences of LGBTQI+ students in secondary schools, the results are concerning. BelongTo’s ‘School Climate survey 2019’ found that 73% of LGBTI+ students feel unsafe at school and 77% had been verbally harassed based on their sexual orientation, gender, gender expression or ethnic origin. There was found to be a rise in LGBTI+ students skipping school to avoid being mistreated due to being LGBTI+. With many schools still ruled by a Catholic ethos, the safety and wellbeing of LGBTI+ students need to come first. 

The full separation of Church and State, increased LGBTI+ inclusive training for all staff and the full implementation of secular, LGBTI+ inclusive and consent-based sex education can begin to tackle transphobia and homophobia in schools.  

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