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Dis-believing: religion and the transgender person

  • Posted on January 4, 2015 at 4:38 pm

Did I tell you that I almost entered the ordained ministry with the Church of England? I had a training place all lined up and I had the approval of the bishop – everything.

I’m not proud of it, but I was struggling to overcome my gender issues, interpreting them as sex issues, and engulfed by guilt and shame, because I felt my religion defined me as sinful and wicked for being like I was. Religion would fix it, I thought, but in fact religion was causing the problem. Deciding not to follow this ‘vocation’ was not really to do with my issues, as I shall describe in a moment, and I drifted out of church things anyway, and got married. Friends assumed we were still religious, but we were both moving away.

I shall never forget the young man in a church baptism service, standing at the front confessing his sins in tears. He was not much younger that I was, and my wife and I had been invited to the service by friends. We were seated in the rear balcony, looking down on proceedings. The young man was confessing to his god and the congregation, with promises and undertakings, with repentance and shame, about wearing women’s clothes. I’m sure he meant it. I desperately hope he found his authentic gender despite all this. I was collapsing inside with the guilt and shame for what no-one else knew about me. I could have been that young man. Nobody must know. Especially not after this spectacle.

In fact, my departure from faith, after a very evangelical spell in my teenage years, was only to do with common sense and learning. That I remained guilty and ashamed thereafter was the psychological tattoo of religion, which I found so hard to erase. Where I parted company was in my critical thinking. I kept finding that I was ‘asking the next question’, and going places where other people with faith wouldn’t dare to tread. If something just did not make sense, or seemed irrational, requiring ‘faith’ to trump reason, I could not follow. That kind of faith is not strong, it is incredibly weak. It might feel a comfort or a reassurance, but if it cannot sustain reasoned argument without engaging in wholly internalised circular arguments (e.g. the bible is the word of god because it says so – even if you don’t know what a word of god looks like), then it has no link with reality, only with doctrine or dogma.

Yes, I feel quite strongly about the role religion plays, but I can’t apologise if you are offended. If you have the kind of faith that makes sense with everything else you experience and see in the world, well and good. But if your religious faith damages another human being through being dogmatic and infallibly ‘right’ about your faith’s idea of what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, then I would say your faith is misplaced.

Certain eras of the Judaeo-Christian religious movement have majored more on mankind’s sexual urges than on love, generosity and equality, for all their doctrine on the love of god. The fallout has been incalculable, resulting in laws the world over, over centuries, spread largely by missionaries and christian dogma, that have led to the deaths, or physical or psychological harm of countless human beings. The legacy of religious persuasion about human sexuality or gender (including plain misogyny) continues to cause immeasurable harm.

Why am I bleating now? I didn’t lose my faith, I rejected it. Not for the social good that does come out of other aspects of religious community, but for the social harm it also does, founded on internal propositions on its own origins and importance. I’m bleating now because religion has come once again into the spotlight over conversion therapy, inspired by false morality, to psychologically torture transgender people rather than help them. It was once true for non-heterosexual relationships, and in parts of the world it still is violently true. Time and again LGBT hate finds a skewed reasoning based on religious ideology. So why do non-believers feel that being LGBT is ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’? My view is that the legacy of religious morality underlies a lot of it.

Given that you do not require a god to know that taking another person’s property is socially undermining, why do you cite a god to tell a transgender person they should not exist, and that it is wrong to declare their own gender? What right have you to hold your book aloft, misquote or misinterpret a few words in it, decide that the person was made by your god, and that your god does not make mistakes?

And then to call your god a god of love?

I may bleat, but I am not a sheep following a flock.

Let me touch both extremes. At one end there are some hugely bigoted christian movements in the US, such as the Westboro Baptist Church, or the American Family Association. At the other end are those simple little congregations and ministers that would hesitate to allow one of their number to transition openly and hold any office or public role. Very different, but neither able to see themselves as the contradictory entities that they are. All of them influence people unable or unwilling to think independently, with compassion and understanding. They provide a ready-made framework for the lazy ethics of unthinking people.

And so it is that this week the Internet has erupted worldwide over the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a 17 year-old from Cincinnati, whose parting blog on Tumblr expressed her despair, attributed to parental fundamentalist belief that their god does not make mistakes and therefore, the world being only as they see it, Leelah was simply deluded. Leelah, to the end and after, was their god-made boy.

My goodness; what outrage I feel about the role of religion in damaging human life, through spurious unreasoning belief. The influence of religion, past and present, pervades social attitudes towards a clinical condition, a state of being at birth, that we call gender dysphoria. And those attitudes lie behind the appalling suicide statistics among trans* people, the social disadvantage they suffer, and the violence – physical, psychological and emotional – they experience.

OK, so you’ve got this far, perhaps protesting under your breath all the way. You are accepting of diversity in sexuality and gender, you are Christian,or Jewish or Muslim (capital letters), you have faith, and your idea of god does not regard LGBT humanity as being a lifestyle, but of nature, god-given, not even nurture. Well done you. But I question why you need a god at all to develop your morality. Is it not worthy enough to stand by itself as shared common social sense?

And what have you to say ‘from the inside’ to believers who continue to harm fellow human beings through unreasoning beliefs? Do you feel you have any responsibility to speak out? Or do you feel you can’t because you share a god and therefore owe some loyalty? Tell me a good price in human life, for not calling out faith that is not love? For this declaration that a human state of being and nature, is a sin? For not protecting trans* people like Leelah Alcorn from extremes of your own religion in the name of your god?

Why is my tame little blog suddenly angry against religion? Just resentment at what it did to me? Of course that must be present, but more, I am angry that religion retains such a pre-eminent respect whilst holding a legacy responsibility for the continuing harm it causes. I feel angry because society does not have to be like this, because religion is a choice, a lifestyle choice, whilst LGBT identity is not. And because the lifestyle choice is what causes the social damage, not the identities of human beings who need to express their authenticity and truth.

So yes, I do think that religious morality has a responsibility here, for recognising its legacy and the harm still caused, and especially because for some reason it commands respect within a largely secular society. You cannot have faith and tolerate harm in the name of it, whoever it is by, or wherever in the world. If your god creates or makes people, your god creates transsexual people too. Speak that truth, and respect us. Leelah will not be the last by a very long way, so maybe it’s time for your confession and repentance instead.

Angry. OK?!

  • Posted on August 2, 2013 at 11:01 pm

transgender flagHave I done anger yet? Maybe a bit, for example: We have had enough, but it feels like time to talk anger, to feel anger, see anger and to speak it. Not in fury or resentment, but from the heart.

This week, weekend to weekend, has been Pride in Brighton. Being the centre of the world, of course it’s a non-local event, and has become a carnival, a big party, a celebration. Look, world, we can be gay, we can be lesbian, and our sexuality has nothing to do with you and everything to do with how we were born. Stuff you, we’re proud! And by now Pride everywhere attracts our friends and relations in joyful support.

We’ve arrived! YeeHaaa!

Haven’t we? I could walk out of Pride Park and be abused on my way to the station. Not for being gay or lesbian, but for being trans*. But in fact the worst street abuse I have had, and in Brighton, in daylight, was for being a woman. Vile stuff that went on and on, from men in a small truck.

Pride has become carnival for the huge strides in acceptance of sexual diversity in this country. It began in anger, in protest for equal human rights, against hate and bigotry embodied in the law, expressed in the media, ingrained in culture and perpetuated by blind beliefs. In no small part, religious dogma and doctrines have been responsible for the roots of this culture.

I want anger again. I want real anger for media hounding and othering. I want anger for women being expected to protect themselves rather than men being expected to drop their societal privilege. I want anger because of events like 50 rape threats an hour online when Caroline Criado-Perez succeeded in her campaign for a woman to feature on a UK banknote. Sexual threat against any woman who has an opinion, success without acting masculine or adopting male dominating attitudes is a deep sickness that has been accepted in our society. It’s just men being men. Carry a rape alarm and avoid dark places. It’s up to you to be safe.

I want anger that Pride has had to exist at all. I want anger that countries where Pride is a feature still allow trans* people to be demeaned and diminished, working below their skill levels or unemployed, and subject to violence and hatred. I want anger, that at one end of the year the carnival streets are alive with Pride, while at the other there are quiet, dignified events marking the Transgender Day of Remembrance. That one is in the media with colour pictures, whilst the other hardly features for its sobriety.

I want anger that a large proportion of people attending pride still have no idea what trans* really means. That ‘T’ is an honorary add-on member smiled upon and thought of as being something sexual.

Trans Pride – a first

This year in Brighton saw the first Trans Pride event in Europe. It was a gathering in celebration of trans* people finding each other, being free and happy together, enjoying a degree of quiet acceptance, good entertainment, and rain. But among the 1,500 who went, probably every single one will have suffered some abuse, and every one will at least know another who has attempted suicide, if not having done so themselves. Many, if not most, will have experienced some rejection by one or more family members.

I wish I could have gone, but I had previous commitments. And to be fair, I do have some reservations about anything that requires me to ‘belong to a community’, when I just feel normal and ordinary. And yet standing out is an important statement too. Or at least standing up. Because there is much still to be said, and a lot to be angry about.

The need to speak righteous anger

Injustice should shout to everyone who believes in humanity. Instead we have become a society of individuals afraid of being noticed, and afraid of reaching out to protect others lest we too be attacked. Pride is easy, because it’s a carnival. It wasn’t when it began. And there is nothing carnival about being trans* on a daily basis. If we survive, we are strong. As I often say, we are not brave, but we need a hell of a lot of courage.

Tomorrow I shall stand up in the largely LGB tent at Pride to read. I’ve wrestled with what to write, read or say. A nice bit of stirring, fun performance poetry? Would something gentle and thoughtful be more settling instead? (cue polite applause) But in reality I want to challenge, I want to be angry for my two minutes, for all the injustice and unfairness that happens on a daily basis to trans* people everywhere, including Brighton. And for where it comes from.

Our society as it is didn’t come from nowhere. We are not male dominated by default, not by some divine proclamation, and not because humans evolved fighting bears for survival. Comparative physical strength rather than inner strength is not by default the determinant of rights. And yet our heritage is stamped with ‘male is default’ (unless stated otherwise with ten good reasons listed beneath). Men are listened to more, expected to be the leaders (sorry, darling, didn’t notice you). Women are still expected to be the respondents and givers of pleasure through food, home-making or sex, still expected to accept what to do, still expected to listen before they speak, to concur before they disagree. All old feminist stuff? All still so terribly true.

And so I want to be angry that Pride has ever needed to exist, and that the carnival hides what is still a bigoted, wilful, male-dominated, unequal and unjust world right outside Pride Park. So if you are L or G or B, or just content to support and welcome others who are, spare more than a thought for what trans* people still encounter every day, with fewer protections and less support. Share a bit of anger for the overt and covert discrimination, for the hatred, for the media sensationalising, for the parents denied access, for the loneliness of being ‘different’ whilst being exactly the same as you on the inside. Because it all stems from not challenging societal norms, in origin flavoured powerfully by masculine religious culture and past doctrinal teachings.

I don’t mean deliberately to run up against people with faith – I will respect you if you respect me. But we do need an honesty about where societal norms originate about right and wrong, good and evil, and about how those norms have been given authority and by whom. Is your god male? Does your god have a history mostly of working through men, where women are the exceptions? Does your god have a history of male law-makers and priests, disciples, bishops, cardinals, and popes? Does your religion reflect ancient cultures where men ruled and women were usefully subservient? All of these things have helped give us a binary, clear-cut world where even gender and sexuality can be right or wrong. Why do so many feel suspicion about trans* people? Why is there that thought, that ‘something isn’t right here’, or indeed is ‘wrong’? Why is something that can be clinically diagnosed regarded as a moral issue, or distasteful? I reserve a bit of my anger for this, because in no small part I lived 40 years in fear and self-anger because of this cultural belief.

And now? I’m proud alright. And I’m angry. OK?!

Unorthodox icon

  • Posted on July 28, 2013 at 10:26 am
Orthodox icon

I have a lasting memory of black and gold religious icons of a revered madonna. Mysterious, impassive, unjoyous. And I have abiding memories from my religious experiences of feeling that something about me was deeply wicked and unspeakable. Somehow there was a connection, and patriarchy and male enforcement was common ground. This is deeply feminist, but I do not mean to offend anyone. However, largely as a result of religious views, I had no voice; I could not speak. I was illegitimate. Icons are part of our culture still, if not religious. But they are co-opted, made by and for…

Eostre, I am at one with you

  • Posted on April 6, 2012 at 2:00 pm
Beginning transitioning at Easter seemed symbolic. But which Easter? Lots of allusions to both Easters here, and I felt much more at home in the Easter of the originating name, where nothing of me dies, yet I come to new life. No disrespect to the religious intended, and a certain positive playfulness.

Easter, as old as the realisation of Spring –
that the sun never dies, that ground revives and

March hares box into an Osterhase that bounds
into daffodils, juggling expertly with eggs

boxed, around chocolate indulgences for sins
half-remembered by a half-forgotten Lent –

borrowed Easter symbols for a dying rising Christ
all named for the goddess of fertility and the dawn.

With a passion Eostre calls, new life in her flight
all light and love and no regrets, nothing to forgive.

I follow, as I must – this Friday, Good without dying,
branch and stock holding new blossoms, leaves

proud and high and bright as any ascension,
nothing crossed out or buried, nothing lost in celebration

of simply living, extravagantly becoming, singing
strong, vibrant – all affirmation in her passing over.

For me, this Easter, a man does not die, though
a woman lives with all the joy of Spring

and requires no forgiveness for long Winter –
only smiles of a goddess returning, bringing

colour, completeness, fullness of purpose
not rising from death, but waking, with a sun ready

to make fruit before she departs again to sleep,
and to play with hares, break eggs and share –

take, eat – she says. This is my body, and I am
indulged and free, at one with Eostre.

2012 © Andie Davidson

Equality, mistakes and diversity

  • Posted on March 11, 2012 at 3:21 pm

What an extraordinary day. Today in Roman Catholic churches all over the UK, congregations will be exhorted to stand up for tradition. Nothing new in that, since the RC church has more tradition and ritual associated with it than any other.

Today it is about the tradition of marriage. Well, actually about the western christian church’s tradition about marriage. It seems the tradition that marriage is first and foremost about procreation and raising kids (and therefore really tough luck if it turns out you cannot) and that every other reason for a committed, sealed partnership is a poor second. Including sex for bonding, comfort or just pleasure. That seems to be allowed of course, because between the fun and bonding, there is a family.

Marriage is supposed to continue for life by this argument, so that there is a stable extended family. Grandparents matter too. But marriage is not about equality.

The matter of fertility

Nowadays we can tell before marriage if we are fertile, whereas when the early church adopted various existing marriage rites and principles, people largely could not. That’s a shame, because the primacy of procreation and family would have meant infertile couples could not marry – or the purpose and benefits of marriage would have been expressed differently. If so, today’s tradition argument against same-sex marriage would not have arisen in quite the same way.

It isn’t quite so clear what individual priests in the RC church like to say about couples who marry with no intention of raising a family (or who cannot) – a very recent statement by one was clear that marriage would not be offered. So is this as sinful as having sex with someone to whom you are not married? Since one of the arguments about same-sex marriage is that the sex itself is sinful, it would appear to be on a par with deliberately persistent non-procreative hetero sex within marriage. But maybe we do know about that too, since there is clear RC policy on contraception, even though the other denominations do not.

So is fertility the real heart of the marriage tradition? How does that inform our structure of marriage today?

The Bible doesn’t have a lot to say about lesbian relationships, maybe because it assumes no real sharing of fluids, at a time when reproductive biology was pretty rudimentary? Gay sex isn’t explained, but I can only assume that the sharing of fluids that were not understood was, on the face of it, as risky a thing to do as eating parasite-infested pork and similar forbidden foods.

Divine mistakes or divine permission?

Is all this a sound basis for marriage tradition, as if traditions have never changed? Are all traditions ‘right first time’? If so, that is the best example of total quality assurance ever: give Moses an ISO 9001! As for mistakes in manufacture, isn’t that the basis for evolution and survival? Creationists aside, we don’t call the platypus one of God’s mistakes, and similarly, traditions evolve. This marriage tradition isn’t a duck just because it has a beak and lays eggs.

Gay, lesbian, queer, intersex and trans people do not choose to be how they are. Not many would strongly claim that God deliberately made them that way, and certainly the RC church (this is today’s conversation, I’m not picking on anyone) cannot say either that God did so, or that He (I insist – She) made a mistake. At best, God ‘lets LGBTQI and infertility happen’, but many in the RC church implicitly deny that anything other than a heteronormative procreative way of being can be socially valid. Tradition excludes, not God. Which is odd, since St Paul has a very strong line on ‘neither slave nor freeman, neither Greek nor Roman’ kind of equality in the eyes of God.

And our planet’s remarkable biodiversity: is it a story of divine deliberation, mistakes or laissez faire? Or is the variety of penguins authentic, whilst homosexuality among penguins (yes, and with no social pressure) is not? Look at racial diversity: Babel is a mythic attempt to explain that, and the result is seen as diversity, which increasingly the whole world respects. Now look at gender and sexuality as we understand it today, in terms of what genetic factors drive it. Why is that not set at the same level of diversity as race, the platypus and the gay penguin?

LGBTQI and marriage equality

Society for all its traditions changes, hugely. Knowledge and understanding likewise, whether of biology, sociology, health – or diversity.

So God does not make mistakes over gender and sexuality, does not do this deliberately, and the ‘woops!’ result therefore means everyone who does not actually procreate within a marriage and then stay in that marriage, is an outsider to the RC faith, and God’s world, and is forbidden the primary partnering relationship based on love?

Civil marriage has tagged for too long on the absurdity of this particular religious tradition with all its notional exceptions. A church, founded on the love of God and a message to love one another, is exceptionally discriminatory and rejecting when the one solid rite of creating stable committed partnerships of love is so selective. As such, the church has no business at all telling everyone else how they can express their love in formal social relationships. And the one thing that really sticks in my craw is that when one partner in a marriage comes to understand they are transgender, to establish their authentic gender identity, the marriage has to be dissolved and replaced with a civil partnership, which is not available to heterosexual couples! Only a fossilised church tradition could find logic in that.

I hope that individuals in RC congregations everywhere also think, and fail to see the purpose and validity of the marriage tradition as it is being expressed today. I hope they also fail to see the authority in a church with an appalling reputation throughout its history, recently with respect to abuse of children in its care, and make their own minds up about equality.

And I hope that our civil lawmakers brush today’s message aside, with those from other traditions in recent weeks, and embrace the diversity that exists, with a truly equal regard and respect.

 

For more about how this situation arose, Christine Burns has an excellent article at Just Plain Sense.