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.
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...
Today's transgender visibility has not come out of the blue. It is not a modern fad but achieved through profound struggle. For gender diverse people have of course been found throughout history, but, throughout so much of Western 'civilisation', we have been forced underground. It is such a delight therefore to see the publication of a new book which tells the story of Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows. For it seeks to provide us with a comprehensive account of the landmark events which shaped the British transgender community over the last five decades, told through a series of essays by leading transgender people who have lived through this tumultuous time. It places our own struggles today in context, giving our individual lives a fuller, social, narrative. Crucially, it provides us with stories which allows us to appreciate and honour the extraordinary lives and efforts of those who have gone before us, upon whose giants' shoulders we stand. In doing so, it provides a more grounded encouragement and hope for the future...
How often, I wonder, has a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender Christian been attacked as a religious, moral, or logical 'impossibility', 'a contradiction in terms', a living oxymoron? Pretence and deceit are certainly themes which hover around gender diverse people and discussion of our lives and sense of being. Spiritually speaking, such features are typically regarded as unhealthy. Whilst, for instance, there are some positive stories of trickery in the Bible (notably in the case of the patriarch Jacob), these are usually the sign of a wayward, scheming, selfish or misdirected person. Later transitioning religious people are thus frequently caught in certain traps as they become the more 'authentic' selves God calls them to be. On the one hand, we may be called people of pretence and deceit by those who refuse to accept the realities of our identity. On the other hand, we may be attacked for hitherto seemingly living lives that were not true or misleading. At the very same time, we may also be dealing with our own shame, guilt, and confusions about what we may have 'pretended' to be. Yet, as we are reminded in both the powerful scriptural text of 2 Corinthians 6, and a just published book Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Christians: Queer Christians, Authentic Selves (by Bronwyn Fielder & Douglas Ezzy, Bloomsbury Press 2018),, we may be 'treated as impostors but are true' (2 Cor 6.8b)...
I am writing as a member of a group of people who are often hidden and ignored in conversations about the relationship between LGBTI+ rights and ‘religious freedom’. For I am an openly transgender female Anglican priest, in duly regarded paid and active service in my religious community. Like other LGBTI+ people I experience the same needs for freedom and opportunity to love and serve. Yet I, and others like me (some whom have to hide publicly), also have to cope with being caught in the crossfire between certain types of LGBTI+ activism and reactionary Christian calls for greater ‘religious protection’. Often this debate is conducted without any reference to people like myself and measures are proposed which do not help our freedom or livelihoods. In writing, it is therefore my hope that the current Religious Freedom Review may pay proper attention to us and ensure that nothing is proposed which makes our often marginalised situation more problematic...
They say it is the hope that kills you. Every so often a Christian body does something to lift your heart and make you truly proud. A statement is made, a commitment displayed, a sign of genuine understanding revealed about the lives, faith, needs and gifts of LGBTI+ people. You begin to believe it is possible that we will move forward, together. Then you look around and what was written is qualified or changed, what was committed to is downgraded, what you thought was understanding is shown to be so partial and obscured. It happens again and again, as it just has, so clumsily, with the Church of England bishops' backflip on transgender Christian liturgical affirmation. Back in rushes the anger, the frustration, and the deep soul-seeking about whether it is worth persisting: all coupled with a renewed sense of betrayal and lack of integrity. How long O Lord?..
The other evening I did something usually considered unwise: I read the comments on a video by a transgender person on Facebook. This is usually something to be avoided by anyone, especially if you are gender diverse. What might seem almost worse, I even responded to some of the less than helpful contributions! However the exercise proved helpful in a number of ways and has deepened my sense of how we are all travelling together. (The video 'What it means to be transgender' was by writer and military veteran Charlotte Clymer, speaking out about coming out and transitioning, and was on the UK's Channel 4 News: more information here)...
As I complete another full year of my own life, and in the wake of the celebrations of the nativity of Jesus, I have been pondering what it means to be born, spiritually speaking. For birth, like life itself, is easily taken for granted. Actually it is a great mystery, in the best sense of that word. Like gender, it is not simple or straightforward, as many assume. Rather, it is a continuing revelation and developmental process. Indeed I am currently very struck by how my baby grandchild is changing every moment, in response to every encounter and their growing awareness of self. It feels like they are being born afresh, in new ways, every second. Their 'birth' was clearly not finished at their literal entry into this life. Nor is it ever complete for any of us, at least in this life. Rather, each of us, as Bob Dylan once wrote in a notable lyric, is either 'busy being born or busy dying'. Perhaps this is also part of what transgender people have to share with the world in our own (re)birthing?...
The Revd Dr Jo Inkpin: