Both praise and scorn voiced as DUP minister Michelle McIlveen caught in ‘gender neutral tampons for schools’ quandary

Both criticism and praise have been heaped upon Northern Ireland’s Department of Education over its decision to expunge any reference to females from a new tampon campaign.

Thursday, 23rd September 2021, 11:03 am
Updated Thursday, 23rd September 2021, 5:47 pm
A sign on a changing room door in Canada; in recent years, such signs have become increasingly common on both sides of the Atlantic

The decision was in response to pressure from transgender campaigners, who believe that males and “non-binary people” can also have periods, so it is not “inclusive” to talk about it as a female issue.

The department is in DUP hands and has been since 2016; its current minister, Michelle McIlveen, took up the post in June.

The department announced on Tuesday that it will spend £2.6m on giving free period products to “pupils who menstruate” (as opposed to “girls” or “young women”).

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It explained that “gender neutral language” had been chosen because “not everyone who menstruates identifies as female”.

There are signs, however, that Mrs McIlveen is distancing herself from this decision to remove reference to females.

At about 9pm on Tuesday (after the news had been circulating online throughout the day) Mrs McIlveen wrote on Twitter: “Free period products will now be available for girls in Primaries, Secondaries, Special Schools & Education-Other-Than-At-School settings.”

The DUP – which still largely opposes gay marriage – was asked if it now takes the view that males can menstruate.

It did not answer directly, but issued a short statement saying: “As the minister pointed out in her comments about this initiative both in interviews and on social media, this relates to girls and young women.”

Kathleen Stock OBE is a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex, specialising in gender, and has been a vocal commentator on such matters in recent years.

She said: “Women and girls are the only people who will ever need period products, and there is nothing wrong with saying that.

“In the past, feminists fought hard to be able to talk to women and girls in clear, unambiguous language about their bodies, and now those gains are being undermined by the fashionable but misguided notion that avoiding offence is more important than naming facts about biology.

“It is surprising to see the DUP embracing this regressive, intellectually incoherent nonsense, and I wonder if they’ve thought it through.”

The Rainbow Project meanwhile (which describes itself as “the foremost LGB&T organisation in Northern Ireland”) said: “[We] welcome the use of more gender neutral language to state ‘pupils who menstruate’.

“The department are correct in their response that not all those who menstruate identify as females, and the only way to address this is to recognise the impact of period poverty on all people who menstruate.”

Meanwhile, Frances Olive Shiels, a transgender campaigner from Northern Ireland, said that, speaking personally: “I believe it to be a huge step forward in addressing ‘period poverty’, and particularly welcome the inclusive language used.

“It represents an acceptance of the language that young people currently use to describe themselves, and leaves no-one feeling isolated nor rejected.”


At the behest of transgender campaigners, it has become increasingly common for organisations not to refer to women or girls, but rather to “people who menstruate”, “pregnant people”, or “people with cervixes”.

This is because transgender campaigners say men also have cervixes, give birth, and menstruate.

For example, they hold that if somebody who is genetically female and has a female anatomy decides that they are male, then that person must be considered fully male, whilst continuing to have a female physical make-up – including experiencing menstruation.

They also believe that there are many genders, not just male and female, and so someone could belong to the gender “two-spirit neutrois” and still menstruate.

In addition, many transgender activists also hold that school children are capable of making decisions on whether to live as a different gender to the one they were raised, and have succeeded in some areas in getting advice on this matter written into school guidelines.

An insight into this school of thought can be found in the journal Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies, when a contributor penned a piece called ‘Degendering Menstruation: Making Trans Menstruators Matter’.

The journal paper explores “the nature of menstruation, which many perceive to be a strictly female bodily function despite many scholars’ recognition that menstruators are of various gender identities”.

Last year best-selling children’s author J K Rowling sparked an angry reaction from transgender campaigners when she mocked this phenomenon, saying: “‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”

The News Letter is the only media outlet in Northern Ireland providing serious, regular news coverage of these issues.

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