Marriage Equality and the Church

I was due to write, in March, about relationship equality for trans people. I have brought this forward a little, to focus on Marriage Equality, given current discussions about this topic.

There are five key problems that I would like to explore here:

  1. Current U.K. marriage law is based on sex, rather than gender.
  2. Current marriage practice in U.K. denominations often seems to be based on appearance and gender, rather than sex.
  3. This means that trans people are discriminated against regardless of sexuality and contrary to our rights under the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) and the Equality Act (EA).
  4. Many ministers do not have adequate knowledge of a) law and b) pastoral concerns in this area and, as a result, are unable to respond adequately to couples that include trans people.
  5. There is sometimes a tendency in research/writing/campaigning regarding ‘equal marriage’ to either a) ignore these problems or b) use language around sex, without consideration of gender.

This post will, necessarily, be quite long and complex. If you would like to skip the evidence and find out what you can do to help, feel free to jump to the last section! The bottom line is that we all must take care that attempts to provide for same sex marriage for cis couples do not contribute to the violation of trans rights. Rather, all equal marriage campaigners should take trans experiences and rights seriously.

Sex Based Law

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act (2013) is based on sex, rather than gender, although in law the two terms are often used interchangeably. It gives same sex couples the right to marry under a separate act and with separate requirements to opposite sex couples. The contracting words of a marriage are ‘I (your full name), take you (your partner’s full name) to be my wedded wife/husband.’ There is no provision for the gender neutral term ‘spouse’. Nor is there provision for the words ‘wife/wife’ or ‘husband/husband’ to be used for ‘opposite sex’ couples. What this means is that where one partner is trans and does not have a Gender Recognition Certificate*, or where one partner is non-binary, they are normally* mis-gendered during their marriage ceremony. This is unacceptably painful for many, and often leads to couples delaying their marriage to avoid this indignity.

Appearance-Based Practice

Legally, whether a marriage is same or opposite sex is based on the sex on a person’s birth certificate. However, because of their exemption from equality laws, denominations can also make provisions in order to avoid marrying trans people, regardless of the sex on their birth certificate. In the Church of England, a minister may refuse to marry a couple if they believe one of the parties to be trans. What this means, in practice, is that, rather than asking to see a person’s birth certificate, which is the legally standard, some ministers look at a person, assume them to be trans if they do not have passing privilege, and ask intrusive questions which, whilst they might be more tactful, essentially amount to asking people what their body looks like underneath their clothes. This is clearly abusive and should be a serious safeguarding concern. It also means that trans people with passing privilege are more likely to access church marriage than those without. Further, this creates a confusing loophole whereby some marriages that some people may see as same sex marriages in the Church of England are legally permissible and some opposite sex marriages are not. Whilst other denominations do not document similar practices, the lack of guidance means that they are likely widespread.

Discrimination

The Gender Recognition Act (GRA) and the Equality Act (EA) should stop the above abuse from occurring. Whilst there is no relevant case law re the GRA to my knowledge, it is assumed by many that religious exemptions from equalities laws mean that these do not apply. I believe that all religious exemptions from equalities laws are unjust and inherently discriminatory. Where the GRA is concerned, these exemptions are also oppressive and present clear safeguarding risks. The GRA is supposed to make it possible for a trans person to live entirely in their true gender. This means that they should not have to disclose their trans identity. It is illegal, under the GRA, for anyone who has learnt in a professional capacity that someone is trans to disclose this information. It is unclear whether religious exemptions include allowing such disclosures. Whilst ministers are allowed to disclose trans identities for their direct supervisors, the wider disclosure that is commonplace is questionable. It is clear that current practice means that some ministers are requiring trans people to disclose their identities and are then disclosing these to others. This is important because the GRA exists in part to protect trans people from discrimination, oppression and danger. Current ecclesial practice regarding trans people and marriage does not only bar trans people from equal marriage but also poses considerable safeguarding risks.

Pastoral Care

Due to a lack of understanding of the above complexities, not to mention the added difficulty of the spousal veto, the vast majority of ministers in all U.K. denominations are not properly equipped to pastorally care for trans people or to offer us appropriate advice with regards to getting married in Church. Many also lack understanding regarding the pastoral and practical consequences of their espoused theologies and doctrines and actual practice regarding marriage and gender identity. From a slightly different angle, I also wonder whether ministers should be more concerned than they appear to be about whether their practices are lawful.

Research/Writing/Campaigning

Here are some tips for making your research/writing/campaigning for equal marriage trans inclusive.

  1. When doing research and writing about equal marriage consider asking a trans person for their views, and ensure that you have adequately understood and addressed the implications for trans people of your argument or the topic about which you are writing.
  2. Ensure that you use the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ accurately and not interchangeably. Where law and church practice differ on these, note this.
  3. Make sure that you understand the denominational, legal and pastoral complexities as well as is possible before offering marriage advice or pastoral care to trans people.
  4. When referring to ‘equal’ marriage, consider critiquing the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, and avoid implying that once marriage in all church denominations is possible marriage will then be equal.
  5. When curating forums (magazines, newspapers, campaigns, blogs, etc.) where equal marriage is a key concern, ensure that trans+ and bi+ voices are heard. Consider prioritising them.
  6. Whenever you hear someone say that equal marriage and/or same sex marriage is not about trans people, correct them.

*On receiving a Gender Recognition Certificate a person is legally recognised as the sex that correlates with the gender determined by that certificate. Such a person’s birth certificate is re-issued with a new sex marker. It is important to note that it is very difficult to get a GRC.

*exceptions apply

Safer Spaces

For February’s campaign, let’s focus in on safer spaces. What do I mean by safer spaces? Why are they needed? Isn’t there disagreement? How can you make a difference? Where can you find out more?

What do I mean by safer spaces?

Safer spaces are physical spaces, groups and services that are fully accessible to, and safe for, trans and non-binary people. Some examples are safe, private, gender neutral toilets, survivor services and other therapeutic services that are centred around trans experience, and non-gendered support and social groups and spaces. These spaces might sound like a given, but a lot of trans people are limited, even house bound, by the lack of safer spaces.

Why are they needed?

The LGBT: Trans in Britain Report includes statistics about the lived experiences of trans people, which highlight the urgent need for safer spaces.

  • Almost half of trans people (48 per cent) don’t feel comfortable using public toilets.
  • More than two in five trans people (44 per cent) avoid certain streets altogether because they don’t feel safe there as an LGBT person.
  • A third of trans people (34 per cent) have been discriminated against because of their gender identity when visiting a café, restaurant, bar or nightclub in the last year.
  • Two in five trans people (40 per cent) adjust the way they dress because they fear discrimination or harassment. This number increases significantly to half of non-binary people (52 per cent).

These statistics show that there is a need for safer spaces for trans people. We need clean, private, accessible toilets, that do not rely on us looking stereotypically male or female and where people do not ask intrusive questions about, our bodies or attack us. We need safe streets, where allies protect us from assault. We need safe public spaces where we can go when we feel threatened. We need safe social spaces, where we can relax and meet friends without fear of discrimination or harassment. We need safe worship spaces, where we are not judged or gossiped about.

  • One in four trans people (25 per cent) have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.
  • Two in five trans people (41 per cent) have experienced a hate crime or incident because of their gender identity in the last 12 months.
  • Three in ten non-binary people (31 per cent) have experienced a hate crime or incident because of their gender identity.
  • Younger trans adults are at greatest risk: 53 per cent of trans people aged 18 to 24 have experienced a hate crime or incident based on their gender identity in the last 12 months.
  • Hate crime against trans people is significantly underreported; most trans people – four in five (79 percent) – don’t report it to the police. Some trans people who report a hate crime don’t feel supported by the police or experience even further discrimination.
  • Three in ten trans people (29 per cent) who accessed social services in the last year experienced discrimination.

These statistics show that there is a need for safer services for trans people. We need shelters and hostels that let trans people in, keep us safe, and have staff who are trained in our identities so that they don’t discriminate against us. We need victim support groups, advocacy services and police forces that understand trans identities and will help us when we are attacked. We need social services that treat us fairly. We need allies who will work with us to demand and ensure that all public service staff are trained in trans identities.

On a personal note, I have lived through many of the difficulties in the stats above. I have walked into public toilets at a train station, late at night, only to find myself surrounded by urinals and having to walk out, shame faced, and wait the hours until I got home. I have walked with my hood up, to avoid being seen and attacked. I have been assaulted in a busy public street, and no-one stopped to help. I have experienced 3 serious hate crimes and countless hate incidents since coming out as trans ten years ago. I only reported 2 of these. I was made to regret reporting both times. I have been asked to leave churches, just because I am trans. And, as trans people go, I am relatively lucky. Can you imagine living with the fear that trans and non-binary people experience every single day because we are not supported to live in safety?

Isn’t there disagreement?

There isn’t actually much disagreement about the need for safe spaces for trans people. There are, however, a number of people who are concerned that safe spaces for trans people mean less safe spaces for women. It’s not a competition! Everyone deserves access to safe spaces, facilities and services. That includes trans people. That also includes women – both cis women and trans women. Trans people do not want there to be no safe spaces for women – but we want there to be safe spaces for us too, whatever our identity. This campaign isn’t about removing safe spaces, it is about adding them.

How can you make a difference?

How can you add safe spaces for trans and non-binary people in your circle of influence? We all access spaces; spaces where we live, socialise, volunteer, work, worship, shop and more. We also have levels of influence over those spaces. If you spend time in a place that has no gender neutral toilets, have a conversation with the people who shape that space over how that might change. If you spend time in a place that could be a difficult environment for trans people, have conversations with the people there about how that space might be changed. If you attend single-gender groups or services, work out if that group can be made accessible to trans people, and consider whether or not it really needs to be single-gender or whether additional services could be added. If you own a space, or run a group or service, consider doing a gender audit and making some changes.

Are you unsure about whether your space or service is accessible to and safe for trans people? Would you like to make a difference, but don’t know where to start? I can provide customised audits for a range of sectors and spaces. If you would like support to assess your space and perhaps make some changes, get in touch.

Gottmik, that Little Black Dress and Another New Normal

When we talk about the ‘new normal’, we are often talking about life after lockdown. This flippant phrase, however, hides a problematic truth in plain sight: we live in a world which is controlled by norms. Those norms are set by the dominant and powerful and, throughout history, they have been used to oppress and marginalise those who do not fit the norm. Norms are increasingly shifting, though, as Drag Race contestant Gottmik shows. What better time than LGBT history month which, this year, is exploring Body, Mind, and Spirit, to explore the ways in which gendered bodily norms are gradually becoming a thing of the past.

Gottmik

In Drag Race season 16, episode 6, Gottmik, the first transmale competitor, wore very little other than a little black doll dress covering her genitals.* The look was iconic precisely because of the way in which it subverted all sorts of ideas about gender and bodies, but I will come back to that later. As is often the case on Drag Race, mean comments by another contestant dragged Gottmik’s moment down into a whirlpool of controversy. Nina Bo’nina Brown commented that “Of course, Gottmik can wear this and still have curves – oh we know why.”

Nina’s comments completely miss the gender-queering that makes Gottmik’s look so iconic. Nina implies that the goal of drag is to have curves and so to look stereotypically female or feminine. As a slim, toned transman taking testosterone, Gottmik’s body combines curves and muscles and does not fit stereotypical expectations of male or female bodies. In other words – it’s not about a man trying to look like a woman, it’s about transforming and destabilising those bodily norms altogether.

When I saw the image of Gottmik’s look on social media I almost cried. Why? Well, I’m certainly not a drag race fan but this image matters. This was the first time that I had ever seen someone like me nearly naked on TV. Gottmik’s drag tells my story, and the story of so many other trans people who rarely see people who mirror their story back to them in the media. It’s not just about seeing ourselves, though, it’s about how the world sees us. The world sees bodies as stereotypically male or female. Media, culture, society and individual people are used to images of people who have penises, muscles and flat chests or vulvas, curves, and full breasts. These images and assumptions are toxic, not only for trans people, but also for cis people who don’t fit society’s expectations of the so-called ‘perfect’ body. If the images of bodies that we see every day are starting to change, then that is something to celebrate.

What next?

It would be problematic to idolise Gottmik as a solitary role model. Her body is but one type of body. There are other drag artists that I would also recommend that you explore, including Shea Couleé and Darienne Lake and many more. The little black dress is itself, after all, an image that reflects and calls out societal misogyny, racism, and fatphobia. We need images like the one that Gottmik powerfully created for us as well as images of Black, Asian, Latinx, fat, disabled, intersex and genderqueer bodies to be shared and discussed in order to change our automatic assumptions about what people should or do look like. All bodies are important, but some are more visible than others. It is about time that that starts to change!

Church Bodies

Many of the responses to Nina’s transphobic comments have focussed on the private nature of the body – suggesting that Gottmik’s trans embodiment is none of Nina’s, or our, business. The thing is, Gottmik is a performer who chooses to make her body our business by using it to entertain and to challenge. This is a valid and important aspect of Gottmik’s embodiment. Other trans people experience embodiment differently and value privacy. Both are valid and important ways of being human. But, in today’s world, there are bodies that are public and it is important that the expected normativity of those bodies is challenged.

In the church, we have often focussed on embodiment as being private, or none of anybody’s business. We shy away from conversations about bodies and nudity, seeing them as impolite, or possibly even a safeguarding risk. I have been involved in three LGBT History Month services this year, and have wrestled with the ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ theme each time, carefully navigating lines around what supposedly can and can’t be said in church.

This isn’t only a problem for cis and heterosexual Christians. LGBTQ+ Christian campaigners have often needed to focus on the importance of privacy regarding our bodies and our sex lives in order to highlight how problematic the church’s obsession with who sleeps with who is. And we are right to do so. A person’s private life is their private life and it should be an individual’s choice what aspects of that they choose to share with others. A person’s body or what they choose to do with it should certainly never be controlled by ecclesial ‘authorities’. The fact that it still is, in many churches, is simply wrong.

The fact is, though, that as long as the church only talks about LGBTQ+ bodies as problematic, and never talks about embodied diversity openly, honestly, and with joyous celebration, the church will continue to promote normative embodiment and to deny the image of God in LGBTQ+ bodies, fat bodies, Black and Brown bodies, and disabled bodies. Until the church starts to talk more, and better, about bodies it will be complicit in abuse. Until the church starts to talk more, and better, about bodies it will be unable to fully embody Christ in the world.

Time and time again, I have experienced assumptions about my body in churches. Assumptions that either suggest that I see my body as a problem, or that I have or want a stereotypically male body, or that I am still female because of chromosomes or genitalia. Often, these assumptions are voiced in public, sometimes even to a national audience. My body, because of my openness in speaking and writing, is – like Gottmik’s – a public body. And I celebrate my created and recreated, transformed and transforming, wonderfully queer, trans body. The question is, can church cope with this new normal?

*Note: Gottmik (she/her) is the drag persona of Kade Gottlieb (he/him), who is a transman.

New Network for Trans and Non-binary Ministers

Many trans and non-binary ministers feel isolated, without a network of peers within which we can share experiences, discuss best practice, and offer and receive mutual support.

Would you like to join with others to set up a new network for trans and non-binary ministers? A group of us are making it happen.

Get in touch for more info! Peace, Alex

Colours of LGBTQ+ (hi)Stories

I’ve been thinking a lot, in the lead up to LGBTQ+ History Month about the importance of flags and colours to LGBTQ+ people. Flags can be a tool of division: used to symbolise who is in and who is out, used to start wars, rather than to inspire reconciliation. For the LGBTQ+ community, though, flags have, throughout our history, been used to bring people together, to signpost places of safety, and to re-imagine reconciliation. Our flags say something about stories of our past and hopes for our future. But, this year perhaps more than ever before, we have seen how important it is to think about the colours that we use to represent ourselves, and to repeatedly consider transformation in the name of progress.

I use the zentangle method for reflection, meditation, expression and reconciliation. I’m not a professional artist by any stretch, but these simple, yet deceptively complex, patterns help me to process, reflect and learn. I would like to share with you a piece of zentangle inspired art that I made based on the colours of various pride flags.

A Black Ribbon

The black ribbon represents grief.

We must remember the stories of the many members of the LGBTQ+ community that we have lost. In the Holocaust, to AIDS, to the death penalty, to transphobic violence, to religious and spiritual abuse, to suicide. We must work to end the harm against LGBTQ+ people that leads, both directly and indirectly, to death. Every day I hear horrific stories of suffering from people like me. Every day I am taken aback by how unsurprising these stories are. Every day I remember my own stories, and regret the fact that so little has changed for trans people coming out today. We must work together to create a better future, so that the stories we share can be stories of hope and reconciliation.

The Pride Flag

The first pride flag was created by Gilbert Baker in 1978. The colours that Baker used weren’t random. They were:

pink for sex

red for life

orange for healing

yellow for sunlight

green for nature

turquoise for art

indigo for harmony

and violet for spirit

We need to remember these colours from our past stories as we write new chapters. Today, they raise these questions for me:

Why do so many churches focus on sex and ignore the lives that are being damaged or lost?

What would healing and reconciliation look like for LGBTQ+ people in the UK today, in light of an ever more divided and dangerous society?

When will we be free to dance in the sunlight?

How can we help people to remember and to understand that nature is not, has never been, binary?

What would life be like if everyone prioritised creativity over tradition?

How can we celebrate diversity in harmony?

Where is Spirit moving in LGBTQ+ lives today?

I would like to encourage you, if you have some time, to pause and ponder these questions. If you are someone who likes to journal, you might like to write down your answers, you might prefer to doodle or colour, or perhaps to simply reflect quietly.

Progress

Recently, a new LGBTQ+ flag has been created. The progress flag includes

pink

white

and blue

and

black

and brown

to represent the fact that trans, black and brown people have been, and still are, marginalised within the LGBTQ+ community and in wider society. We must continue to focus on trans, non-binary, and black and brown LGBTQ+ lives, and to insist on change. Our siblings are suffering and dying and we must do something about it.

What Next?

I have left some blank ‘leaves’ on my pattern, to represent the unknown stories of our future. Our past and present are full of stories of suffering, of injustice, of resilience, of creativity and of hope. What stories will we be able to tell in 2030? Will you be one of the writers of a better future? What colours will be woven together by the spirit of transformation?