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.