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Transgendered Christians

Revd. David Horton

 

Issue 9
February 2000

 
David Horton's book Changing Channels is now out of print but may be bought on line as a pdf at http://www.grovebooks.co.uk

 
"Never talk about religion, cricket, or the Royal Family!" I seem to remember advice something like that when I was much younger. But since, due to the rather quirky sense of humour of the Almighty, I have ended up as a father, skypilot, padre, vicar or whatever, I have had to disregard the first part of that advice. I'm paid to talk, think, listen and promote the subject of the Christian God and his Church. And some of my most interesting and fruitful conversations and understandings have come from the transgendered.

I tend to assume that all rational beings think about the basic questions of existence from time to time. And since the transgendered are faced with immediate questions about their own lives and existence I would expect that the level of questioning would be greater than in the population at large. An off the cuff survey at a previous Gendys Conference tended to confirm that, with roughly three times the national average level of church attendance and roughly twice the national proclaimed level of atheists. And the atheists were militant, while an awful lot of the churchgoers were on Parochial Church Councils, deanery synods, or were church elders and deacons, or even (gasp) ministers! (I'll come back to them in a minute.)

On the face of it that's pretty brave. I come across lots of cases where tg people are supported by their minister and/or other Christians, and that's wonderful. It's also a distinct minority. At a time when society is becoming more accepting the church is lagging ever further behind. So it takes a lot of courage and energy to keep on trying, and if necessary to hang on in faith without church support. Which is why I think Sybils is so valuable. The first time I went to a Sybils meeting and its integral communion service I was in tears because it was so moving. Half of those present had never before been able to take communion freely as themselves. It was wonderful, and outrageous, and heartbreaking. But why do Christians make it so hard?

The good reason is a thirst for truth. Jesus claimed to be the truth, and the best of his followers have always tried to find out the truth which is the foundation for much of our science, much of our education, and much of our social and medical care. It forced people to look at slavery, both two hundred years ago in this country, and twenty years ago in South Africa. Most of the 20,000 or so charities in this country were started by believers. So they want to be sure what this is all about, and it takes time to work through what is true, and what isn't. Some Ts's in the early stage of treatment can be hard for the Ts community to handle. let alone well-meaning outsiders! Know what I mean?

So last month I was talking to some senior Christian leaders who wanted to find out more truth about being transgendered. Next month with Jay of the Sybils I am leading a training morning for clergy in my Diocese. I have had queries from around the country from people who want to understand. It's easier for me than for you since I am an 'expert'. I'm in the club, so some of the barriers come down a bit easier. Not always, but that's another story.

The bad reasons, of course, are fear, culture and self-righteousness. They're all outside in the world as well, but the church gives them legitimacy. Thus, for example, clergy were among those egging on the crowd that kicked a young woman of the Salvation Army to death in a South Coast town in 1883, and some personality types haven't changed. (I come from a Sally Army family - at about the same time as that happened my great grandmother was apparently deported from Barbados by the governor for bringing Christian teaching into disrepute - her fiery preaching caused riots!) Some people need to be sure, and some people need to be right, and lots of people need to be 'normal'. I've said before that some go to church to find strength to be open and to grow. Many, however, have the opposite motive: to protect themselves from an unfriendly world. It's not a bad reason either, but some times the good is the enemy of the best.

Many transgendered Christians feel double guilt. The cultural garbage that all have to wade through, and also the direct fear that they may be offending God by their being and actions. That may not make sense, or be important to you, but it is of major importance to many Christians who are gender dysphoric. And so the support of a church is important to them.

And of course they want it to be 'their' church - the denomination whose patterns they have grown into is the particular church they want to help them. If you are a Quaker, or a member of one of the Metropolitan Community Churches then you probably won't have problems, but in other churches you may be up against the culture shock syndrome - "Not something else new to try and face up to!" - or worse bigotry. The newspapers remind us how prevalent that is in all societies. How much easier if God is on your side (and you are secretly afraid that he or she may not be).

The double guilt does not go away easily. I wrote my Changing Channels booklet to try and explain tg people to other churchgoers and Christians, and I have heard from a lot of people who have found it helpful. (I do wonder about the 17 pages of very inventive vitriol I received from one clergyman in the Midlands, though). I just had a letter from Grove Books saying that they sold 94 copies last year, so hopefully that number of people will know a little more and understand a little more. But the main group I wanted to help was transgendered Christian believers. So I looked at Deuteronomy 22 verse 5 and other scriptures, and at 'Brain Sex', because I don't believe God makes mistakes, and hard though it is, I believe firmly that transgendered people are a blessing to the church and the world. So please pray for them, and if you are one yourself please remember that if Jesus commands you to love your neighbour as yourself, then that also means you must love yourself! You are special to God, if not always to his people!

Which brings me to a very special group of transgendered people who need care and support: ministers of religion. I have recently been providing information about transgendered people and their concerns to the Church of England's Council for Social Responsibility up at Church House, Westminster, and have received a very warm response. At least one of their people has been researching in this area for ten years! I have been able to raise three issues in particular. The first is acceptance and help. The second is marriage. And the third is the situation of transgendered ministers, of whom I have been in contact with 48 over the past eight years or so. My guess is that overall there are at least 250 such human beings (as I said I do wonder about that vitriolic clergyman - or is that like wondering how many of the SAS are tg or gay and in the closet?) The Anglican clergy get their home as part of their income, as do many others, and when they leave a church they have no choice but to move, since the house is needed for their successor. So if their need gets in the way, then their job and home are both threatened. There isn't much privacy if you are a minister -lots of people feel they 'own' you, especially at the ends of the day and at mealtimes - so if you need to express 'the need' then it is done away from home, or in utter privacy with you locked away in your own home, avoiding windows, and ignoring the omnipresent bell or telephone. And that is an ideal breeding ground for guilt. Most such ministers, in my experience, are especially gentle and caring, and so feel all the worse for ignoring what may be a call for help. My own background is evangelical - paying lots of attention to the Bible. If you are an evangelical, believing and seeing God at work, then like St. Paul you pray to be delivered from your 'thorn in the flesh' and feel that if you were a bit holier or a bit closer to God then this problem could be handled. Strangely enough my contacts don't seem to wonder whether deliverance from their problem/difficulty/weakness would turn them into self-righteous prigs!

Ministers of religion are exempted from such legal protection as already exists. Validly so, in my view, since public trust is at the heart of what ministers do, and the public is not about to embrace clergy in skirts. There's been enough trouble about clergy who've been wearing the skirts since they were babies! But clergy are also expected to respect, trust, and confide in their Bishop, or superintendent, or area superior, who has an enormous say in their employment and home. Ministers are supposed to be honest, but how honest can you be under these circumstances? Which is presumably why I have heard from so many over the years. As a good evangelical, it was disturbing to be labelled 'liberal' by a minister doing research into transsexuals as part of a thesis! And yet I suppose I am very liberal in those I believe God loves: blacks, gays, the 'undeserving poor', single parents and even politicians and journalists. Surely there is room in there somewhere for clergy, even transvestite or transsexual ones?

I had a real serendipity the other day. Many of my contact clergy are very paranoid, and just share and disappear, but some have become good friends. One of these has been having trouble coping, and went to his Bishop and told him everything. Not only was he welcomed supported, but he is soon to start receiving treatment at Charing Cross, with the Bishop's full support. There is sometimes hope, even for vicars!

God be with you all, and I hope to see you at Gendys 2000. I intend with my Diocese's knowledge and support, to be there once again. You have been warned!

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