Some days we can glimpse why we were put on this earth. Yesterday was one such moving moment for me, as I led a short rite for a soul friend preparing for gender affirmation surgery. We made no extra special great fuss about this. Nor should we have to, for such signs of grace for LGBTI+ people are really very natural, if our world would but allow itself to know it. Yet it was profoundly significant in the journeys we are making at this time. For today's sea-change of understanding gender and sexuality not only brings healing and hope to specific individuals. It also offers vital hope and healing to tired aspects of our society, not least to religious groups and their members. In a profound sense it is thus sacramental: helping to reveal what has been hidden, opening up and helping to sustain fresh pathways of life and transformation. Our short rite yesterday was like that. It publicly honoured deep movements of life and spiritual wrestling which have not only been unacknowledged and unsupported, but often tragically dismissed and disastrously resisted. It also proclaimed that new life for all of us is to be found in the tender solidarity of us all, in the mystery of God's extraordinary and abundant grace and diversity. Our 'transgender' rite was just a small part of our usual Milton Anglicans Sunday parish eucharist. As such however, it was no 'hole in the wall' secret ceremony, but a truly grounded and open affirmation both of a remarkable sacred particular person and of our growing sense of what it means to re-create community and 'church' today. It felt like a renewing movement of spirit for our community, certainly for my own sense of priesthood, and a re-presentation of what it means to be differently ordered bodies together in the body of Christ. It also made us wonder why such things are not expected in the life of all spiritual communities...
There is much more than property at stake in current Sydney Anglican developments, For ultimately, suppression and distortion of the mind and soul is so much more destructive than that of the body. This is a transgender truth which continues to be violated in so much conservative and fundamentalist Christianity. Much response has thus, rightly, been made to legal, property based, moves by the Anglican Diocese of Sydney to repress religious freedom within its ranks. This includes suppression of what its leadership has termed, but not defined, as 'transgender ideology'. Yet, in its 'Gender Diversity Initial Principles of Engagement' it brings forward its own transgender ideology this week. This, and the guidelines it proposes (outlined on pages 68-73 of its Standing Committee's Annual Report), represent a powerful, but not to some immediately obvious, attack upon gender diverse people, their families and friends. For whilst it is laced with language about compassion, it is a typical master of misdirection, based on outdated understandings and a priori convictions about gender diversity and its relationship to human, not least spiritual, growth. It displays little or no meaningful engagement with the expertise of those engaged in enabling gender diverse people to flourish, never mind the lived experience of transgender people as a whole (even the increasingly visible and articulate gender diverse Anglicans and Christians) themselves. It reflects a form of misapplied compassion; caged in narrow, false and controlling 'biblical' preconceptions; seemingly wholly ignoring the realities and insights of intersex and non-binary people in particular; and essentially treating gender diverse people as sick, broken and disabled from knowledge or agency of their own health and freedom. Such views are not those of the Sydney Anglican diocese alone but widespread in certain types of vocal Christianity and in broader society. Codified as they are in the Sydney diocese's work however, they offer a disturbing model of practice which will not only harm the lives of gender diverse people within the diocese's own reach but, if taken up elsewhere, will have negative effect more widely. As a potential vehicle of spiritual abuse, it thus demands critique, opposition, and transformation into something wholesome.
The Museum of Transology is a wonderful encouraging initiative. It is hosted by Brighton Museums in England (at least until April 2019) and includes a wide range of artefacts, photos and video material, amounting to the largest collection representing transgender people in the world. Crucially this representation from trans people themselves, emerging from trans community members in Brighton. This makes a vital difference. For too much of what is produced representing trans people, even by sympathetic allies (even sometimes LGB ones) falls short or distorts the realities of trans lives and issues. Admittedly things are continuing to improve in many quarters. Led by groups such as the fashion industry, a gradual increase in public representation is occurring (both in numbers and variety of trans people). Occasionally a trans person, rather than cisgender celebrity, is also now actually chosen to play a trans part in a production. Yet trans people are still spoken about, objectified in extraordinary ways, and not allowed to represent ourselves in so many places and critical debates. Museums have similarly typically colluded with this silencing, exoticising and obscuring, where they have considered trans people at all. In contrast, with great credit to Brighton, the Museum of Transology offers a hugely welcome breakthrough of authenticity, identity and ownership...
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.
The Revd Dr Jo Inkpin: