It took its time, but it had to crop up eventually…
…though I am never quite sure if “phobia” is a fair description. He certainly did not strike me as consciously afraid, and even seemed on some level to enjoy the encounter, or at least rather more than I did. “Phobia” does seem like clumsy terminology. Homophobes though the Westboro Baptist Church are, for example, if they are sincerely afraid of gay people then they have certainly picked an appalling strategy for keeping them out of their lives and off their backs… but as ever, I digress.
I was at my usual Anglican church – St John the Baptist in Cardiff City Centre – where I had, some months ago, come out as a transwoman, and been accepted without any judgement or pity, by both the clergy and the laity. This very positive state of affairs went on till last week, when after a mid-week service I was approached by an elderly gentleman whom I had not seen there before. He shook my hand, stated in an friendly but sceptical tone that I was an “interesting person,” and asked me my name…
Eleanor B: “Eleanor.”
Gent: (Confused look)
Eleanor B: “I’m Eleanor.”
Gent: “Alright, but what’s your real name?”
Eleanor B: “That is my real name. It’s my legal name. I-”
Gent: “Yes, but you weren’t always called that, were you? So what’s your real name?”
“Eleanor” B: “Well… my name used to be Anthony.”
Gent: “Right. So you’re a transvestite.”
…whereupon we arrived at the point. I was sternly quizzed about my intentions, and admitted under direct questioning that I was indeed intending to undergo a sex-change operation. Having thus ascertained that I was in fact a transsexual-in-waiting, his expression of benign disapproval became a little more disapproving and a little less benign, and he pronounced something to the effect of…
“God made them male and female, Adam and Eve. I know it’s hard, but you can’t change your sex. It’s not God’s will. But I’m glad you’re coming here. I encourage you to keep doing so.”
…and gave me a parting handshake and another stern little smile.
Well, not to complain. I did, indeed, go back to this church in full expectation of being challenged at some point, and even to discover how this would feel. Am I troubled by it? Not overly, in fact. For the gentleman had already diminished his credentials in my sight by having, before he admonished me, regaled our vicar, Dr. Sarah Rowland Jones, with the following gem of condescension…
“So, you’re one of these lady vicars? In charge of this whole church? That’s a huge responsibility.”
…to which she responded with the utmost diplomacy, though she made it quite clear that she did indeed know her job. He then proceeded to criticise the way the service had been conducted. She answered all of his points calmly and lucidly. He interrupted her repeatedly, laughed dismissively, and pretty much ignored everything she said.
I am reminded of an essay my friend Jaqueline Sephora Andrews wrote on the extreme dilemma of being a Christian, feminist-allied transwoman, and how she reconciles those seemingly contradictory facets:
The words of the Bible were influenced by the Greco-Roman culture, as were other religions and writings during this period. We say that the Bible is misogynistic, but it is the culture that produced the Bible that was misogynistic; the Bible was a reflection of the culture. In this misogynistic culture, there was one, Jesus, who attempted to change the mindset. He was different; one of the things that was different about him was that he valued women, so much that he had women as prominent disciples. He also trusted women to give the gospel message. Women were faithful and were the ones who stayed with Jesus until the end. It was the men who left Jesus to die, while they ran and hid for fear of their lives. The women were the ones who weren’t afraid, so Jesus trusted them to give the message. In a misogynistic world, Christianity was liberating and egalitarian, which frightened the men who wrote the books and letters of the Bible.
I daresay there are theologians who would give Jaqueline an argument on this, but as I watched Dr. Rowland Jones patiently attempt to enlighten this man who had seemingly just come into her church for the sheer pleasure of feeling disdainful pity and demonstrating his own righteousness, I felt she had hit the nail on the head.
Which is not to say that I am absolutely confident that God is as affirming of transwomen as she is of women per se… though if she isn’t, she certainly picked the wrong ambassador to convert this sinner.
My dignity now picked up and dusted off, I shall dare to remain cautiously optimistic…