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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.

Understanding: not taking the ungiven

  • Posted on September 13, 2014 at 12:01 pm

With open-handed generosity, I purify my body.
I undertake to abstain from taking the not-given.
Buddhist precept

When we say ‘you’ll never understand’ we tend to forget that we too shall never understand. And this use of ‘understand’ can be used as our protection, both of what we feel helps identify us, and from what we feel might change us. And we all do it.

Before I start, this isn’t about religion, gender, race or any minority or majority – it’s about all of us. We all have things we want to be known as, and things we do not, and things that we feel diminish or erase our identity. I can’t presume what yours are, and you can’t presume mine. That is taking. We must speak, and clearly, and allow honest questions from those who want to understand. That is giving. Do I get it right always? You bet I don’t. And neither do you.

Limits to understanding

Probably the biggest tag in my wordcloud for as long as I’ve been blogging is ‘understanding’. It reflects my desire to be known and not blamed or othered, for being trans. I don’t know how much I’ve succeeded; a bit. But I still remember saying to one psychiatrist at the gender clinic, that even though they go to work every day, as specialists, to hear the like-for-like stories, hour by hour, of trans people, they will never know what it feels like to be transsexual. Of course they can’t. What I guess I really want is ‘enough’ understanding – and to be believed and validated.

I have friends who say very kindly-intended things, but which reinforce my feeling that they really don’t understand either, and equally I also know other people whose traumas, or simply differences from me, I will never know from experience either. But when I get bullied or rejected for not understanding, when all I have attempted is dialogue, or exchange, I start to wonder whether not being understood can also become a protection, a place where we can belong with others who share an experience, where we can also hang onto our difference because it’s something we can legitimately own, and in a way be unique.

It is customary in gender-variant circles to protest labels, or being over-defined restrictively. And yet non-trans people also object to ‘non-trans’ being termed ‘cis’ – a factual descriptor can become an emotive label. Some labels are used derogatively, such as ‘tranny’, often compared with the n-word. Labels leave sticky residues though, whatever they are, so when we try to describe as a way of understanding, we must be careful of limiting or reducing other people. Some say I cannot be lesbian, because I did not go through early socialisation as a girl. Some emphasise that I have known male privilege. Others that having white skin and European heritage means I can never understand racial prejudice. These are things I cannot change, any more than being born transsexual. And they are used to say ‘you can therefore never understand’ whilst at the same time being used to blame for not understanding.

So how are we ever, as social human beings, to understand each other? What kind of discourse can we possibly have? I have my boundaries, you have yours, and in places we overlap. How exclusive must I be to maintain my personal territory in order to feel safe? How far can you enter my territory before I feel you have disrespected me, or taken something away from me? How much am I, are you, an individual, and how much irretrievably part of a group to which I or you must always be confined or belong?


What if

  • I believe taking a photo steals part of my soul?
  • wearing a First Nations American headdress erases the destruction of my culture?
  • drag makes a parody of either my gender or a joke of my dysphoria?
  • conspicuous wealth insults my misfortune?
  • two heterosexual men get married for the wrong reasons (true, this week)?

Examples like these suggest to me that we are not naturally good at understanding and respecting each other. What are we to do? I think firstly there is a difference between deliberate persistence in disrespect in order to demonstrate disrespect, and naïve or unknowing treading on toes. Do both deserve the same backlash?

If someone shouts ‘tranny’ across the street I will react differently from correcting a friend’s mispronouning of another who has just come out as trans. So I have felt very hurt by very different recent instances of being personally slammed after very innocent writing (not here). And I have felt very hurt too after my own privacy was breached and then justified by others. Accident and deliberation can be very hard to distinguish, for us all.

Another word that goes around is appropriation. I wonder whether misappropriation is more correct. We live in a very mixed society where cultures, art, expression are very shared. We listen to and play each other’s music, eat each other’s food. And yet some things are not for sharing. Since prehistoric times, when people traded decorated pots there will have been tensions over stealing designs that had group or tribal meaning. I can trade it with you, but you cannot make one; didn’t you know that motif is symbolic? Or painting: when is something ‘in the style of’ (e.g. cubist) too much an imitation (e.g. after Picasso)? Does it need Picasso’s permission or blessing? Does it make a difference if Picasso dies penniless? Is it stolen? Copyright law is both recent and specific.

When is something so invested with meaning that it can never be used by someone else? When is a Cornish pasty mislabeled, and is Bakewell tart a commercially protected brand? Up the scale, dreadlocks, with a very ancient near-eastern history, can be highly emotive because of more recent ethnic association. Have they become so exclusive that on just anyone, they diminish their current social ownership? A Hilda Ogden-style hair-restraining turban is not the same as a male turban fashion accessory for a non-Sikh. That dilutes their prime significance to Sikhs, at least in that style and in this country. Native Americans may make and sell moccasins so we can walk in their shoes; but a cheap war bonnet made in China erases dignity. Or a cross worn because it’s a ‘Christian country’ rather than as a real faith designator? Time also erases history very selectively.

I wonder whether the feelings some of us identifying as transsexual feel about transvestites who overdo the glam, because tomorrow they can be ‘normal’ again, are similar. Is cross-dressing a misappropriation of something that threatens us? How can I defend myself against a radical feminist who says I can never be a real woman (appropriation), when all around are what appear to be men dressing as women? Is this why society in general finds gender dysphoria so difficult to handle? And where does gender queer or dual-gender or non-binary fit in my comfort zone? Whose sensitivities hold primacy?


Is this all about what is given (and by whom, and who has a say) and what is not? Is it about who has a right to belong in a social space, and who can arbitrate? Or is it mainly about exclusivity of membership and safety? Sometimes we hang on tight to our rights for the wrong reasons, and find we have created a tension by doing so. Anger works exceptionally well in achieving this. It might be because of something that can’t be undone, like history – or that can be undone like my story (that I keep telling myself as the only one). Sometimes a knot cannot be undone without releasing both ends …

Again, it is all down to giving respect: both ways. But I still maintain that respect requires a mutual willingness to communicate, an appreciation of where things come from, where ownership is and is not shared. If I am too strident about being transsexual in a very non-trans world forgive me. But if I tread innocently on your toes over some other innocent remark or question, please don’t chase me down the street shouting, for being so rude and ignorant for not understanding. We all deserve better than that, however angry and frustrated we feel about the way our society can treat us.

We all enter and leave this world as individuals, not as groups, yet in between we live and strive and fight as groups. I just want to be taken as me, here, now, learning, hoping to understand better each day.

Please give generously.