It was with huge delight - among an amazing number of fabulous friends - that I renewed my baptismal vows in my authentic name (Josephine McDonnell) last Sunday, and then shared in a wonderful party to mark the anniversary of my Re-Birth Day. It has taken me a few days to recover - not just because I have been struggling with a bit of ill-health - but because it was such an affirmation, both of my self in all that I am and also of the gorgeous relationships in which I share. It has taken a little adjusting to: for my old 'male assigned' self would have hated the attention and probably beaten myself up a bit in the process, but happiness is so precious and not to spurned, and we need to celebrate what is good when these blessed moments appear. Not to do so is to fail to love ourselves and give thanks for the greater ever (re-)creating love in which we live, breathe, move and have our being/becoming. That is a vital reason why renaming and other affirmation rituals are so important and why it is so disappointing that they are not more actively welcomed and developed with us by religious leaders. How good it is that the Episcopal Church now has such official liturgy (see reflection here from TransEpiscopal) and that others of are at least working on them (see some other examples on my prayer resources pages). For my part, I drew together some of what I feel are beautiful elements of liturgies from across the world - for the full liturgy see here. This included some words of my friend Cathy Laufer which included prayers for my parents and godparents, recognising the integrity in which they gave me a baptismal name from which I have now rightly parted. Best of all however were the readings and actions which brought so many happy tears from across the gathering. Friends' readings of the astonishing promise to the eunuchs in Isaiah 56, of Kathy Galloway's marvelous poem Cross-Border Talks, and, above all, J Mase III's poem Josephine were particularly moving, speaking both of my own journey and of the renewing love we were releasing for all.
Mary Magdalene and I go back a long way. She was my sister, my model, my soul-partner through the anguish of puberty and adolescence - see further my reflection on our Jesus Christ Superstar dance of delight, shame and longing here. She was my friend, my comforter, my support through the vital stages and all the key changes of my life - helping me cast off 'the Norman yoke' (see here). She remains my strong inspiration in following Jesus, in allowing my demons and fear to be transformed, and in speaking the truth. Mary travels with me to wherever and whatever it is I am now called. For she is the first and supreme witness to Resurrection. Silenced, suppressed, and staggeringly (sexually) stigmatised, over centuries, she survives to speak of the power of female strength, spirituality and compassion. And, though I had not planned it ahead, her feast day (22 July) became the day of my public coming out as transgender. Like Mary, despite my fear, when I heard my name truly spoken, I could not but take faith and believe, receiving and sharing the hope of new life for myself and others. On her feast day this year, with the assistance of some my wonderful friends and colleagues, I am thankful to preach, preside, and be blessed by the Revd Dr Steven Ogden and the loving, affirming community, at Holy Trinity, Fortitude Valley, and then to be able, in the Milton Anglican parish, to renew my baptism vows in my now legal authentic name and to share in a joyful 'Re-Birth Day' party. This is both a celebration of what has been and also a re-commitment to the journey we have shared. As a child, I was given the role of the third 'king' among the Magi in the nativity play. Literally and metaphorically, like Mary of Magdala, I may therefore have once felt that myrrh bearing was my best and only duty. Proclaiming and living new life is so much better.
When I was nine or ten, I wore a terrific fancy dress costume in the form of a Norman soldier. My wonderful creative father created it, using a range of ordinary materials, including papier mache. I wore it for a fancy dress contest in which I entered with my sister. I was proud of it, particularly of how striking it was, and, above all, because of my father's outstanding skills. Yet, for all that, I felt lost, betraying myself, and even entombed in it, As I looked at my sister's costume, another amazing creation of my father, I knew I so much wanted to be wearing that. For hers was a fabulous Elizabeth 1 dress, with impressive mock velvet, a sumptuous skirt and puffed sleeves, and a charming collar, colours, and pleats. I was so captivated, yet strangely not envious of my sister herself, and was hugely delighted when she won the contest. For she looked even more gorgeous than she usually was, and that dress deserved its just reward. But a little bit of me cried inside. For all kinds of reasons, I'm constitutionally not cut out to be a Norman soldier. I never was. So it was a powerful symbol of my captivity...
Have you ever considered how many of the best known Bible stories may, in one way or another, be queer or have queer aspects to them? One of the wonderful benefits for everyone of reading scripture afresh 'through LGBTI+ eyes' is certainly the new light that is thrown on so many passages we take for granted. As we bring the wide range of queer experiences to the text we ask different questions and find different things springing out. This is nothing new of course. The Bible has never been a closed book but has always been re-interpreted by every new generation, thereby encountering love and truth in new ways in scripture. It is only fundamentalists and entrenched conservatives who would freeze scriptural interpretation and imprison it in ideology and political self-interest. Take the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis for instance. Reinforced by the success of Tim Rice and Lloyd Webber's hugely successful Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, many of us are used to a particular set of 'standard' readings. Recent scholarship however opens up the possibility of other creative interpretations, not least fascinating gender variant possibilities...
beyond the looking glass - 'autogynephilia', cultural narcissism and the fear of gender & sexual diversity
Want to mess with the heads of closeted trans females? Try something like the use of the term 'autogynephilia'. I should know. It bound me up, albeit very briefly, as I struggled in the past to come to terms with myself. It is a crude and toxic theory invented in the late 1980s by American-Canadian sexologist Ray Blanchard (and promoted by others such as J.Michael Bailey and Anne Lawrence). It is defined 'as a man’s paraphilic tendency to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of himself as a woman", whereby types of male to female transvestism and transsexualism are understood as 'erotic target identity inversions'. As such, it is roundly rejected both by transgender people and by authoritative research and transgender health expertise (see further, for example, Julia Serrano here). It does not cohere with the sheer complexity and texture of gender and sexually diverse people's experience. Indeed, whilst purporting to offer a basis for care and compassion, it invalidates our knowledge of ourselves and prevents wholeness. It thus does nothing for a healthy wider sexual ethic or positive gender relationships today. Yet, as a simplistic and sex-obsessive approach, it has become one weapon in the armoury of people on the religious right. Frightened perhaps by their own, actual but unacknowledged, sexual and gender fears and compulsions, they seek to portray sexual and gender diverse people as willingly, or unconsciously, perverse (in the destructive sense of that word). Indeed, the accusation of narcissism thrown at transgender people from such quarters, is in fact a better description of that approach itself Hypnotised, it seems, by an exceedingly narrow desired image of humanity, they cannot see beyond the mirror of their own imagined selves. In doing so, not only are the realities of those who are 'different' denied, but, in 'othering' us, they distance themselves from the divine Other which is the source and pathway of their own authentic identities. For no wonder they are consumed with outrage about so-called 'political correctness' and 'identity politics'. What gender and sexually diverse people do is to threaten the brittle identities some seek so hard to insist upon as wholly defined and exclusive. In doing so, we offer an invitation to greater authenticity for everyone...
In times to come it will be extraordinary to imagine that some Christians insisted on married transgender people divorcing if they wished to claim their full identity. How scandalous a betrayal of God's love and Christ's teaching this is! It has been a long journey to address this in secular law in Australia and, sadly, the battle is not over in some religious quarters as well as in many parts of the world. Queensland, in which I now live, thankfully finally changed its law last night (with only four votes against, from the fringe Katter and One Nation parties). Hitherto, married transgender people have had to divorce if they changed their birth certificate to their true gender. I rejoice for friends and others who will directly benefit from this. For I know the pain this law has caused and have personally therefore lobbied hard for change. It will also be an encouragement for other necessary steps forward and for more religious people to come to their senses and renew their understanding both of marriage and of people of gender diversity.
I write this with feeling, as well as after deep reflection on these subjects. For the status of my own marriage is under question in some slowly moving and blinkered parts of the Church, even in Australia itself. A leading member of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney for example has even gone so far as to challenge both my marriage and the ministry of my wife and I as 'living contrary' to the doctrine of Christ - see further transgender and the doctrine of marriage in Brisbane. Of course, in that instance, the aim is a distinctly political one: to attack my archbishop, my diocese and the mainstream pastoral approach and unfolding theology of the Anglican Communion as a whole. Yet such 'stop the world, we want to get off' thinking will not work. The ground is shifting in religious spheres too, as the actual lived experience of transgender people and their loved ones is gradually being revealed. Anglicans and other Christians across the world are responding, if sometimes hesitatingly, burdened as we are too much by our often exacting processes and the frenzied reactions of some. The Church of England for example, the church of my birth, has declared that it fully welcomes me and other transgender people, at every level of its life. As its leadership have expressed it (with my emphasis):
The House of Bishops welcomes and encourages the unconditional affirmation of trans people, equally with all people,within the Church, the body of Christ,and rejoices in the diversity of that one body, into which all Christians have been baptized by one Spirit.
My concern however is not with politics but with the love of God in people's lives. For, in some ways, in the face of such great odds, transgender people are still 'living miracles' even to exist at all - and some of us, tragically, do not make it. Our relationships are also always challenged, and sometimes shattered, by becoming more fully the people God has created and called us to be. The misery of rejection some of my gender diverse friends endure cuts me to the heart. So why would we not seek to strengthen those relationships which have not only worked through demanding change but have emerged stronger? In my case, and in others I know, my marriage is so much deeper for the full truth we live together. My wife could long see that we were suffering unnecessarily for years: 'where has Josephine gone?' she would say when I struggled to come to terms with myself. She knew, better than I, what I, and we together, needed. No marriage is 100% perfect, and I do not pretend to be a moral paragon in my relationships in the past or present, but it is insulting, as well as disappointing, when fellow Christians cannot recognise that my marriage, of 33 years to date, is not a rich example of God's sacramental love to the world (nb. that is my wife and I above in case such a picture is needed).
In transitioning, I and others have not chosen (as has been alleged) 'to challenge the Biblical view of marriage' or to place my archbishop, or any one, 'in a difficult position'. Rather, we have simply sought to respond more fully, faithfully, with the whole of our being (as human beings, Christians, and priests), to the love of God for us. Of course, this means that we need to renew some aspects of received understanding. That however is the history of Christianity, as well as that of humanity as a whole, as we have developed our theology of marriage over 2000 years: working through inherited patriarchy and polygamy, rejecting women's subordination (and, for most of Christian history, lack of legal rights), developing compassion and legal recourse for those trapped in violent or unhealthy marriages, and embracing what is good in companionate relationship. Moving beyond the pressing past survival and scarcity preoccupations which informed obsessions with procreation and cis and hetero-normativity, our liturgies today increasingly reflect the wisdom we have gained and the love to which we aspire. There is a desperate resort of late to seeking proof-texts, such as Genesis 1.27 and Matthew 19.5, which may turn back the waters. However, apart from the inability of such texts to be bear the strain (even when isolated from their context and the weight of scholarship), this only confirms such Christianity as a latter day Canute, fruitlessly resisting a sea-change of love and affirmation.
I therefore urge all people of faith similarly to affirm unconditionally the lives, marriages and loving relationships of transgender people. Rather than be anxious, never mind put stumbling blocks in our lives (or worst still 'conversion' therapies), why not work with us at providing appropriate pastoral resources to strengthen our relationships? We certainly need them. Listen, educate, and above all hear and affirm the love and faith we have to share. It is astonishing to me that Christians would not want to see healing and the renewal of such love for others. Marriage, like the sabbath, as Jesus might have said, is not made to subjugate the wondrous diversity of human life into a constricting bed of pain. Marriage, at least for Christians, is made for God's renewing of humanity.
It was a delight to share with Transfaith co-author The Revd Chris Dowd in a podcast conversation with the Anglican Dean of Brisbane, Peter Catt, and producer Dom Fay on the subject of transgender identity and faith. This can be accessed from the On the Way - Transgender Identity and Faith link here. Our hope is that this is a further contribution to shedding light and enabling an increasingly warm welcome to gender diverse people, our gifts and insights.
“On the Way” itself is a series of recorded conversations (podcasts) exploring the deeper mysteries of faith, meaning, and beauty that people from all over the world are able to listen to on smartphone or computer. These invite others who are also “on the way” into conversation; seeking a transformative spirituality and inclusive faith that speaks to real issues of today. Together in dialogue and storytelling the aim is to discover meaning and articulate a Christianity that expresses the liberating and life-giving message of the Gospel in our time. It sits so beautifully with the journey I and so many others are making
Links to the other published podcasts, and further information about this Cathedral project may be found here.
Some days I am staggered at how demented (I use the word advisedly) and upside-down our world is! Three of the greatest mental illnesses of our day, for example, are homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. How strange it is therefore that it the victims and survivors of them who are often tarred with the mental illness brush. Indeed it is not so long since being trans was listed worldwide as a mental ill-health condition and today there are still requirements of seeing psychologists and/or psychiatrists and/or other doctors for some treatments. Rarely however do we see calls for treatment for those who perpetrate such outrageous transphobic, biphobic and homophobic comments and actions. To some of them we even give status and attention, as leading politicians, religious and other cultural leaders. Increasingly therefore we need to continue to work on what, borrowing from Harry Potter imagery, we may call 'Defence Against the Dark Arts'. This, for me, is part of what is represented by IDAHOBIT (the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia), marked each year on 17 May. Our task together, on this and every day, is to call out the Dementors of our world and nurture the 'divine magic' of compassion and creativity in us all..
I wonder how many sermons you’ve heard about eunuchs? Not many I would guess. Yet is actually quite extraordinary how many eunuchs are mentioned in the Bible. Perhaps the story from Acts of the Apostles (chapter 8 verses 26-end) might be one we do recognise. Many others however are simply passed over. Jesus for example spoke positively about eunuchs and his words are recorded in Matthew chapter 19. Very little is ever said about that and some people do not even know those verses are there. Even the story we hear today is also usually interpreted without too much attention to the specifics of the person baptised. This is all very sad. For it misses out some very powerful messages for us, for the Church, and for the world, not least those, like the Ethiopian eunuch, who are quite different kinds of people to many expected norms. It is one of those very many ‘queer’ stories in the Bible which speak of a very ‘queer’ kind of God and mission…
It is appropriate that this year's Transgender Day of Visibility is also Holy Saturday in the Western Christian tradition. For Holy Saturday is easily passed over, sitting awkwardly as it does between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, between pain and joy, shame and liberation, death and new life. Yet those themes are central to the experiences and journeys of so many gender diverse people, and of course others. Indeed, reading and experiencing the Passiontide narrative and Paschal mysteries 'with transgender eyes' can shed positive new light on the Christian Gospel, as well as strengthening and deepening life for many of us. Like Holy Saturday, gender diverse people are easily regarded as awkward and passed over. However our own border crossing, interstitial, and boundary transforming existences are essential parts of the whole and powerful reminders that profound transformation typically appears in the threshold times, parts and people of our lives and world. This involves much, even deep, pain, but also tremendous hope and vitality...
The Revd Dr Jo Inkpin: