When I worked in a hostel for ex-offenders, one of our residents was a young man whom his family routinely called 'rat boy'. Little wonder perhaps that he became a delinquent glue-sniffer and ended up in juvenile detention. Most of us know how great a lie the infamous saying is:'sticks and stones may break my bones, but cruel words can't hurt me.' How we are called, and the consequent image we have of ourselves, shapes us greatly. In contrast, the power of a name, and the process of renaming, can enable amazing flourishing. for individuals and communities. Such is part of the gift of transgender naming. It certainly is for me...
Not absolutely everyone changes their name as part of the process of transition. Most people do however, as part of the salvation and/or enhancement of their life. Re-naming also requires no particular spiritual or religious grounding. There are various ways in which celebrities and other people choose their names. Yet, as a Christian, it has been for me a powerful spiritual experience: not surprisingly, considering the Jewish-Christian traditions in which I was nurtured. For the Bible is itself full of name changes, notably including Abraham (from Abram) and Sarah (from Sarai), Israel (from Jacob), Peter (from Simon), Paul (from Saul). Each of these name changes denotes a revealing and claiming of (hitherto obscured) identity as part of participation in the unfolding of the divine, as well as individual and community, purpose. Not for nothing therefore did the early Christians begin a continuing tradition of often claiming their own God-shaped identity and purpose with a new name: in baptism, at ordination, or in the taking of monastic or other vows and/or commitments. This is consequently part of the deep spiritual dynamic associated with the more recent development of re-naming prayers, blessings and other ceremonies for transgender and gender diverse people.
The importance of such spiritual dimensions can be a vital contribution to a person's growth, not only at an individual level, but also in social, relational, and faith terms. Within my Anglican tradition for example, it was a highly significant decision (in July 2017) by the Church of England's General Synod to affirm transgender people and ask the House of Bishops to explore appropriate liturgy for renaming ceremonies. For it set transgender flourishing within the holistic context of our personal, social, and ecclesial relationships as a whole. Moreover, it indicated that transgender lives are to be viewed as gifts not simply for individuals and their particular bodies, but for the wider social bodies of which we are a part, not least that of the Body of Christ. After all, anyone who has engaged in the lengthy procedures of changing name and gender quickly realises how many bureaucratic and other bodies hold such markings! It can be an exacting process, even with the best will of others. Being a dual citizen (in my case of Australia and the UK) does not entirely help either. To feel accompanied in this by one's faith community can thus be a great strength and blessing. At the same time, it provides an opportunity to everyone to reflect more deeply upon their own name and calling. For, biblically speaking, the act of naming is revelatory and prophetic. It is not so much description as it is about creation. It is not so much/only about what is as it is about what is to come. It is both about fulfilment and new creation.
What does your name mean to you I wonder? Where does it come from? What does it signify? Whence does it point you? In my case, my first name - Josephine - feels, on the one hand, to have lived within me for ever, awaiting full disclosure. On the other hand, it is a harbinger of God's future into which I, with others, am called. Like the name of the Baptist, John, it was not the name my personal and faith family expected and it was born in mystery and silence, over much time and apparent struggle. It also took a priest, my wife, to call it into being, when the silence, and my deep reality, could hold it no longer, several decades ago. Yet it so fits. Indeed, a few minutes after I finally, formally, officially, changed my name (at the Queensland Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths), I broke down in a torrent of intense tears. I was overwhelmed by a deep down knowledge I had so long denied, and by a sense of freedom from beyond calling me into an unknown, but joyous, future. I simply had not known what was in me nor did I know what I might be. To hear one's 'true' name is part of being 'born anew'.
Josephine is thus for me a name which affirms both my 'being' and my 'becoming'. It has not come to me deliberately to make a link with my forrner masculine first name, although the abbreviation 'Jo' is somewhat helpful in that, and assisted in my journey towards 'coming out' as I wrestled with the nature of my gender identity and fluidity. Everyone's experience is different and for some there is understandably simply too much pain and need to move on to handle their past name and its associations. I too dislike much of the casual, as well as the determined and offensive, repetition of my 'dead name'. That is not helpful, honouring or holy. Yet, for all that I rejoice in the new creation into which I grow, I also acknowledge that, for me, there was much that was good in what my former name symbolised for others. There is much soul-work to be done in letting go and in forgiveness of that 'self' I have left behind. That is another reason why a 'dead name' is not easy for a transitioning and early 'transitioned' transgender person. However, as Sorel Coward (a treasured trans friend and fellow priest) says so beautifully, our relationship to our past, present and future is more healthily understood as somewhat like a Fibonacci Sequence: new creation as 'emergence' rather than a 'tabula rasa', involving 'spirals of a once and future life',
My name Josephine thus catches up both some of what has been most passionate in me and what has been latent. Looking back, it connects me with a tremendous personal inspiration from my native north east of England: the 'mother of Christian feminism' , proto-liberation theologian, and Anglican saint, Josephine Butler (see here for some reflections of mine). Similarly, my name reminds me of Josephine Baker, the amazing pioneer American woman of colour and 'first black superstar': entertainer, singer (see video clip below), dancer, Folies Bergeres star, French Resistance agent and Civil Rights leader. In terms of my own past, I realised recently, it also connects me with the remarkable Josephine Benoite Bowes (nee Coffin-Chevalie), the 'forgotten pioneer of the art world', who, with her husband John, created what is now known as the Bowes Museum, the astonishing French chateau and arts collection, a stone's throw from my the site of my birth in the Teesdale town of Barnard Castle: bringing beauty to that land of hard-pressed miners, hill farmers and northern saints. Justice, joie de vivre and the search for truth, compassion and beauty: not a bad series of core elements for my own journey?!
Yet there is more: for the mystery of any name given and guided by awareness of divine spirit is never finished, at least in this life. The transgender gift is partly to be a reminder that all lives are emergent. We are all in the process of becoming. What we are now is not what we will become. There are more revelations to come. For all our names - past, present and future - come from the transcendent divine Name "I Am that I Am'/'I Will Be what I Will Be'.
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The Revd Dr Jo Inkpin: