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A Catholic Transsexual Applauds Several Points in Latest Papal Remarks

An article by a dear friend elucidating the recent, unexpected news that the Catholic Church is showing signs of softening its stance somewhat regarding gay and gender-reassigned people. Though not exactly a definitive swing towards liberalism, these hints do represent a dramatic change of tone from the oft-paraphrased trans people as “nuclear weapons” analogy and in that sense are both meaningful and encouraging: especially to those like my friend who happen to be both trans and Catholic, and risk being ostracised depending on what the “word from the top” is perceived to be.

I have personally been lucky, finding my own Church (Welsh Anglican) to be very inclusive and affirming of trans people, and the congregations welcoming and open, if not always perfectly understanding. I have, however, faced occasional religious bigotry and interrogation and dread to think what it would be to face a life of it …

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19

Transphobia

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.

Extract from “Liberation from the Imperialist Patriarchy of the Bible”

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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…

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Day of Reblogs – Part 2 – ‘”Poof! You’re a Girl!” The Interval of Losstalgia and a Childhood Friend’

Today’s second reblog is an essay by Dr. Aoife Hart: transwoman, devout Catholic, and feminist scholar… which, needless to say, is a rather unique and not always very comfortable niche to fill in today’s world. Though a Christian now, I had the mercy of being raised in secular surroundings in my dysfunctional, dysphoric “boyhood,” so the inevitable bullying of the school sissy was at least not coloured by religious self-righteousness, and though I knew myself to be abnormal, at least I was not encouraged to internalise guilt over that fact. Nevertheless, I can relate all too easily to so much of this moving account.

For an essay that starts on a very theoretical, philosophical note, I was holding back the tears by the end, though not all of them were sad tears…

5

Pride, but no Prejudice

Like you haven’t heard that one before…

There are Pride events in Cardiff (AKA Mardi Gras) every year, though my previous attendance at them has been limited to drifting about aimlessly and wistfully, observing other trans people and wondering what might have been if I had only dared to be as honest with myself as they were. This year was certain to be different, even before the leaders of The Gathering (my LGBT church support group) asked me if I would help out on their information stall, as well as give a brief talk in their Faith Tent. All told, a fairly daunting prospect.

Gathering

(At the information stall. Photo by Andy Wicks)

As things turned out, though, it was the best weekend I have spent in a long time… though since I spend most weekends working in a warehouse, that might not be thought to be saying much. Still, the contrast is all-too palpable, as I realised upon resuming work today. Though I am accepted there, by dint of policy, I do feel awfully like the token freak. That may well be an exaggeration, but the looks I get, ranging from the bemused to the downright disgusted, are real enough to let me know I am as much a fish out of water as ever. I try to make the best of it, be thankful for my uniqueness, and so forth, but it can be a wearisome business.

At Pride this year, for the first time in a long time, I felt completely normal, and I’m almost sorry to confess that it felt damn good. I felt a peace I have rarely experienced, even since my coming out. Sadly, I was born too late for the Summer of Love, but I think I may have discovered my equivalent of Haight-Ashbury, albeit with a lot less mud and LSD, and a lot more glitter and eyeshadow (as things should be). Just a shame they only hold it once a year, but I know where I shall be next August…

As for my talk, although it was almost completely improvised on the spot, inspiration came when it was needed and it seemed to go down pretty well. Is it just my imagination, or is that a wolf-whistle I got when I ascended to the stage? If so, I dread to think what it says about me that part of me hopes it was not ironic…

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Prodigal Daughter?

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In last week’s news, another old cliché took a battering…

The perception of religion in general and Christianity in particular as being not-overly-friendly towards LGBT+ people is pretty well worn, and this blog has done its share of the wearing. One can thus imagine my surprise when I attended a mindfulness and meditation session at St. John the Baptist Church, Cardiff, chiefly attended by older parishioners, and I was frank with them about my transition… which got very little reaction, other than to check they had my new name correct, and to confirm what pronouns I would prefer. Furthermore, the lay minister in charge of the group wished me well and told me this was a positive step if it would bring peace into my life… which will probably be contingent on how well I can resist the addictive urge to waste my time debating online transpolitics, but it’s the thought that counts (and how).

Rather inspiring, I thought, and perhaps a little lesson from above in how I ought to avoid pre-judging people – especially if I wish to be treated as an individual myself, and not as a stereotype. The reason I had gone to this church in the first place was because I had recently got into conversation with a Christian blogger over the issue of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition. They were displeased with the extent to which society was lauding Ms. Jenner’s coming-out, and to a certain extent I could see why. To live as oneself without fear or judgement is everyone’s God-given right, but not necessarily a good enough reason to be handing out bravery awards. Still, as an LGBT+ Christian I felt the need to share my perspective – particularly my experience that queer identity was not something that I had chosen over God or over cisgendered normality, but is an intrinsic part of my being.

And they listened, and they responded compassionately and politely, which I must say is a damn sight more considerate a response than I have often drawn from my secular critics. Since my regular church group, The Gathering, is specifically for LGBT+ people, leaving me with one might argue to be a pretty insulated social outlook, I did say that I would make a point of visiting my old, regular Anglican church, and seeing how they would take to my transition.

To reiterate, they wished me well, asked me my new name, and switched all of their pronouns for me, no questions asked.

No doubt the trans-critical crowd could just seize on that as ammunition to prove how reactionary and conformist trans identity is, that the Anglican Church treats its exponents with respect and sensitivity, rather than with honest-to-goodness vitriol and tactlessness. Still, if politeness is now reactionary, will someone please pop me in a TARDIS and beam me back to Jane Austen World (or am I thinking of “Red Dwarf”?).

In other news, I have started recording audio voiceover clips for the “Imago” film project I have been shooting with Jason Marsh. In the interests of keeping it retro, we are using a Sony minidisc recorder, of the type that was cutting edge for about five minutes or so during the late 1990s…

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Ideally, I would have used this…

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…but my magic eye is too old and faulty to allow recording, alas. I would love to think at least one person will read this and understand what the hell I am gibbering on about.

1

The Joy of Imbalance

I have alluded to my religious leanings a few times, insofar as I have any. I had no religious upbringing, for which I am grateful: dogmatic upbringings and happy outcomes with parents on LGBT issues tend not to go together well… Nonetheless, I was drawn to the figure of Christ at university, after encountering a decidedly trans-friendly interpretation of the Son of Man in the works of P B Shelley, as interpreted by Dr. Bonca. As the years went by, this friend and saviour of misfits remained a figure of great appeal to me, and eventually led me to openly declare myself a Christian – a coming-out which I rather fear disappointed my parents far more than my coming out as transgendered, though given the global Christian church’s rap sheet on LGBT issues I could hardly blame anyone for this. “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians,” as Ghandi probably didn’t say, but what the hell…

But does that make me a spiritual person? Alas, no. I remain a materialist and a sceptic, or I would hardly be aiming to improve my life through chemical and surgical means, or be so ecstatic when I see even a slight change in my physique, a reduction in my facial hair, even a pain in my chest when taking the stairs too quickly, if you catch my drift. I would dearly love to believe in a version of the Christian afterlife in which our eternal, post-Resurrection bodies are perfectly-designed and gendered after the way we feel (as beautifully argued by Peter Kreeft). Perhaps it is true, and I would consider that worth hoping and praying for. On the other hand, does that imply I am being challenged to live the rest of this life in dissatisfaction and physical self-loathing (assuming I cannot learn to overcome those feelings) while trying to keep my spirits up at the notion of a posthumous transition?

Such an idea was tentatively suggested to both me and my likewise gender-dysphoric spouse by a mutual friend, and a very good one at that (One of the best men at our wedding, in fact. My spouse also insisted on having a best man, for reasons that ought to be clear enough). This friend, being of a deeply spiritual outlook, including having some faith in reincarnation, interpreted our dysphoria in these terms: in our previous life, we had both excessively embodied and indulged one type of gender-related energy. To whit, my spouse had been some full-on alpha-male, while I had been some completely passive princess. They were all yang, I was all yin, and our mutual challenge in this life was to be placed in the opposite biological gender so that we could work towards a perfect inner balance between the two poles. I explained this proposition to another of my friends, who succinctly pointed out the plot hole in this intricately-designed quest for perfect balance…

“Why?”

Why indeed? At points like this, I do remember why it was old-fashioned Christianity, with its quaint rituals and checkered history, that drew me in rather than the New Age: because New Age thinking has a disturbing tendency to promote negations, neutrality, and glib simplicities as if they were somehow more interesting and life-affirming than variety, vitality, and, dare I say, a dash of pure honest-to-goodness chaos. People may laud it all they like, but I do find John Lennon’s iconic single “Imagine” – a New Age anthem if ever there was – to be the most perfect vision of a lobotomised false utopia ever committed to verse:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
[…]

Though I do feel I could dream of “nothing” with relative ease… The same issue of negation-as-positive arises in many a spiritual self-help book (of which I have exposed myself to more than my fair share), using words such as “balance” and “oneness” almost religiously. They seem to suggest that the whole point of the universe and every molecule and sapient lifeform within it is to return to some state of primal simplicity and unity, as if this regression was inherently preferably to having individual consciousness and free will.

Seen in those terms, I begin to wonder if my only “spiritual challenge,” as such, is to learn to love and celebrate my difference, since if there is any divine plan, it seems to me that differentiation and complexity are in fact essential to it. Does this mean taking no steps to physically change myself, though? I hope not, since I have no intention of quitting… but ideally, I have to concede it ought not to matter. A person of whatever physical characteristics should have the right to dress, behave, identify, and be referred to by whatever name and pronouns they please. Indeed, the real challenge is probably for the world as a whole to overcome its addiction to facile binaries and comforting (but false) simplicities, and learn to accept and rejoice in such diversity.

Having said which, I am still superficial enough to yearn the day when I can at least fill an A-cup bra without recourse to spare pairs of tights…

0

In the Tunnel, Needing Hugs…

Ok… Yesterday’s optimism and philosophical attitude seems to have packed up and left, and I am currently just doing my best not to catch my reflection, as the sight of it disgusts me. There will always be days like this with gender dysphoria, and all political correctness aside, I have no problems with calling it a disease, as it is certainly not conducive to ease. I will try to see a GP on Monday, if I can get into the walk-in surgery, but even that seems an age away, and all time not spent trying to escape from my prison cell, so to speak, becomes a test in staving off frustration and depression. Finding things to be grateful for in my appearance has, unfortunately, been a dismal failure as a strategy. The more feminine I try to appear, the more jarringly masculine I look, to the extent that I am close to giving up even trying to ever “pass”. Sometimes I would just love to move somewhere with no people at all other than myself and my spouse, who is the the only person who relates to my true self, then I can at least call myself what I like and not cringe inwardly every time somone addresses me as “mate”, “sir”, “young man”, and “Anthony” (who, incidentally, does not even exist. Sorry to everyone who thought that was a real person).

Tomorrow will hopefully bring better news. I will be attending The Gathering LGBT meeting at the United Reformed Church (Windsor Place, Cardiff City Centre). I am hoping that will at least help me find a place within the local trans community, and through that some emotional support to help me through this. At present, I have only my spouse to truly understand my situation, and without them I might well have gone mad… I only hope I do not drive them mad with my melancholic obsession.

Incidentally, if you have a trans friend in this situation, do be very wary of the following piece of reassurance…

“But you’re a great looking [insert birth-assigned gender here]. Loads of people would be grateful to look the way you do.”

This may be well meant, but is just adding guilt to the mix of emotions. One might as well tell a person who has lost their legs to buck up and be grateful because some people have lost their arms as well. It is also the basis of the widely-reviled “reparative therapy”, such as Leelah Alcorn endured, based upon techniques for making the patient feel so bad about themselves that they (sometimes) strive to police their “aberrant” behaviour, (often) commit suicide, or (hopefully) punch out the so-called therapist.

The next one is a lot better, but don’t be surprised if it fails to completely elicit a cheerful frame of mind…

“It doesn’t matter how you look. You are a [insert innate gender here] whatever people think.”

Somewhat akin to telling a life-term prisoner that they are indeed innocent and unjustly convicted (always good to hear), but without actually being able to promise them a release date from their cell… Still, knowing for sure that I have gender dysphoria is better than wondering if I am just screwed up in the head or suffering an extreme manifestation of a fetish (Unlikely, as I would expect a fetish to be fun, and being “cross-dressed” just makes me more painfully aware of my masculinity).

Not that it is easy to reassure someone in this situation. To anyone reading this who is facing it, the most vital thing I still have to suggest is not to face it alone. If no-one in your close circle will see or acknowledge you as you true self, locate your nearest local LGBT group quickly. There are people out there who will help, and if they can’t always bring the light at the end of the tunnel any closer, they can at least hug you for the duration of the journey, and that counts for a great deal.