Create, Liberate, Transform

Reflections on 2020 and Hopes for 2021

2020 has been an unusual year for all, and a deeply painful year for many. There have been tangible moments of destruction, captivity, and stagnation. Covid19 has been responsible for much of this, bringing illness, death, fear, and lockdown. It has also formed the backdrop for societal difficulties including deepening divides between opposite ideologies, increasing weaponisation of free speech, and rapidly rising transphobia, racism, and ableism. 2020 has also, however, brought tangible moments of creation, liberation and transformation. Creatives have found new ways of doing things, liberators have found new ways of speaking truth to power, transformation has been central to our lives, as we work out how to adapt to almost continuous change. For me, 2020 has been a year of fear and of hope. I would like to take a moment, now, to reflection on my experiences of 2020 and to look forward to 2021. Lots has happened, which I will skim over here. For more details, visit my ‘year in review’ posts here and here.

My academic work has been a wonderful privilege this year. In particular, I have loved working with ten amazing research participants to begin to shape my PhD thesis, teaching a class on trans and non-binary readings of scripture at the Cambridge Theological Federation, and leading a workshop on gender identity and church for the Council for World Mission. In the area of inclusion and diversity, I have been delighted to lead workshops on trans and non-binary identities for fabulous groups of people, and to continue to write and work as a consultant. I am honoured to have been invited to be co-chair of the open table network. I also enjoyed being interviewed for Songs of Praise by Aled Jones. I had some very difficult times as a result of transphobia, but have been overwhelmed by the support people have given me. Starting and facilitating Churspacious, a social media based church, has been a real highlight this year. I have learned so much about vocation, spirituality and church from our members, and love exploring life together in creative new ways.

In family life, near the end of 2020 Dharma, a second rescue dog, moved in to join Digger! She is a welcome new addition and has made our home that bit more… chaotic. Jo and I have renewed our commitment to, and passion for, eco-justice in the past year, and embarked on a vegan, teetotal lifestyle over the summer. We are still enjoying this new way of living, and are experimenting with other ways to support our planet and our local community. My membership and Jo’s associate membership of the Iona Community is a great support and inspiration in this commitment, and our local family group has been a wonderful source of friendship, support, and new life.

We have also enjoyed opportunities to explore deeply spiritual and life-giving practices of creativity and of time spent in nature. This has included all kinds of craft practices. The ones that seem to have stuck with me have been embroidery and zentangling, whereas Jo has begun to love crochet. In terms of nature, I have discovered kayacking, Jo is very into sea-swimming, and we both enjoy long walks on the beach or in the woods with or without dogs! I have also, much to my surprise, finally managed to stick to fitness classes and a yoga practice. Both have been instrumental in reconnecting with my embodiment and overcoming mental and physical challenges. The latter has also been immensely spiritually valuable.

At the start of this post I mentioned destruction and creation, captivity and liberation, stagnation and transformation. It might be tempting to separate these into two lists, one of ‘bad’ words and one of ‘good’ words, but I’m not convinced that that is how life words. In scripture, we read about God’s people destroying and creating, enslaving and liberating, stagnating and transforming. We see these cycles in nature too. I would suggest, though, that both God and nature are most alive in processes of creation, liberation and transformation.

Idealism is not always helpful. 2021, like 2020, will include elements of destruction, injustice and stagnation. My prayer, however, is that we may experience moments of new life in which we mirror God in our creativity, our work of liberation and our willingness to be transformed every day. I also hope we might find spaces and times to mirror God in resting, in anger at injustice, in joy and celebration, in understanding of difference, in breaking down of institutional walls, in spiritual exploration, in genuine dialogue and in love. Here’s to a new year. Let’s live in it fully.

2020 in Review: Ministry and Advocacy

Trans and Non-binary

My trans and non-binary work increased dramatically in 2020. That is, perhaps, unsurprising, given the cultural and legislative moment at which we find ourselves. From 2010 to 2020, trans and non-binary visibility, acceptance and rights increased rapidly. Many, myself included, were hopeful that this trajectory towards being able to play a full and equal part in society would continue. Sadly, our fears that that might not be the case have been realised this year. The government announced that, despite the very constructive results of a 2016 review of trans and non-binary rights, they would not make any substantial changes to the Gender Recognition Act. This leaves trans and non-binary people with serious gaps in our access to legal personhood, dignity, safety and healthcare. Further, this has led to intense debates about trans and non-binary rights in the media and social media as well as in the courts, which have played a part in an increase in hate crimes.

Just before lockdown, as a result of the publication of my book, Transgender. Christian. Human. in December 2019, I was invited to speak on Songs of Praise, in an interview with Aled Jones. This was aired early in the first lockdown. I really enjoyed the interview, and was pleased that it got a largely positive reception and helped some people who had not previously realised that it was possible to be trans and Christian. It was sad, however, that, as usual, there was trolling and hatred from both outside of and within the LGBTQ+ community. There is a need, more than ever, to heal our divisions and to work together for justice and reconciliation. I was honoured, this year, to be invited to become co-chair of the trustees of the Open Table Network, a fantastic organisation that is a vital part of that work of reconciliation.

The increased use of technology in 2020 has made it possible to work with people from a geographical distance. In November, I was able to facilitate four workshops on trans and non-binary visibility, acceptance and rights. These were attended by 20-30 people, and were a fantastic opportunity to build a dispersed community of trans and non-binary people and allies who are equipped to create change in our own communities. I also became the founding moderator of the Iona Community’s LGBTQ+ Common Concern Network. Our Zoom Community Month enabled me to share the importance of this network, and some current campaigning aims, with Community members from around the world, many of whom I might never have met otherwise.

My trans and non-binary work in 2020 also involved the last of three years working as a member of the Co-Ordinating Group of Living in Love and Faith (LLF). This was incredible costly, in many ways. The LLF resources have now been released, and the group disbanded. I share the misgivings that many LGBTQ+ people have about LLF, in particular regarding the power dynamics at play. I did also, however, experience genuine dialogue, listening, and willingness to change. I continue to pray, in hope, for the Church of England.

Sadly, events following the release of LLF have shown me, yet again, how unsafe it is to be out as a trans person in any church context. A video of myself and Jo telling our story as part of the LLF process was misused and trolled by a UK charity in an opinion piece that included extreme misgendering and questioning of my vocation. This led to unhelpful media coverage and online hatred, including frightening threats against myself and my wife. I fully believe in free speech. Speech does, however, have consequences and, as such, there are lines that which, when crossed, necessitate action. Thankfully, the video has now been removed. I mention this only to highlight the fact that there is still much work to be done in raising the visibility, acceptance and rights of trans people in the UK. I will continue to play my part in this work, despite the costs, and wish to share my gratitude to, and solidarity with, all of the other amazing people who are also working in this area.

I am excited about upcoming opportunities to work more closely with others in the area of diversity, equality and inclusion over the coming year, watch this space!

Churspacious

As a result of lockdown 1, Jo and I started up Churspacious in March 2020. In the Summer, my 25% deployed ministry role was officially moved to Churspacious. Churspacious is, I am told, a vibrant and creative social media based church. We welcome, affirm, and shape ourselves around all people, but are particularly called to be accessible to those who might, for various reasons, not feel that their spiritual needs are fully met by traditional church.

I am incredibly grateful to our 470 members for teaching me a new way of being church, for becoming kin, for helping me to understand my own vocation, and for being open to exploration, experimentation and transformation. It has been both real fun, and deeply moving. I have been surprised at how much this way of being church has spoken to LGBTQ+ and neurodiverse people and the connections that have been made across all sorts of divides.

Churspacious has a new facilitation team, and we are looking to the future. This is a really exciting time for us, as we continue to work out what it means to be a text and image based church who meet together on social media and celebrate our diversity. Who knows what we will become? We are enjoying this journey together.

2020 in Review: Research and Writing

Throughout 2020, I had the privilege of working on the PhD research that I started in 2019. I study at the University of Birmingham, and am sponsored by the Council for World Mission. By the beginning of 2020, I had obtained ethics approval for my research, drafted a chapter about the methods which I would use and had recruited many wonderful participants to interview. I have interviewed two of those amazing people face to face before lockdown started. With the help of my supervisor and the ethics panel, I altered my methods a bit, and was able to complete interviews via zoom, eventually interviewing ten trans and non-binary people with a remarkable diversity of identities and understandings. I absolutely loved talking with, and listening to, my participants, and have learned so much.

I had some exciting academic opportunities in 2020, two of which I would like to mention here. Both of these opportunities were aided by the possibility of presenting and workshopping via Zoom, which I have found immensely beneficial. In September, I was able to teach a class on trans and non-binary readings of scripture for the Cambridge Theological Federation as part of their Bible in Context course. It was a real joy to be able to offer something back to a place that was so foundational in my own personal and vocational development. In November, I was asked to present a seminar for the Council for World Mission, as part of the Academic Accompaniment scheme, which supports my studies. It was wonderful to be able to workshop ideas with theologians, ministers and activists with a wide range of identities and specialisms.

In 2021, I will be completing a literature review and starting to draft the main chapters of my thesis. This is an exciting stage in the research process, which should lead to a full draft being ready by April 2022, at which point I will move into ‘thesis awaiting’. Whilst that might seem like a long way away right now, it feels like things are moving very quickly indeed! It seems like just yesterday that I was wondering whether I had any chance whatsoever of even starting a PhD, and now I can see the work beginning to take shape. It’s hard to put into words how exciting that is! I am also looking forward to several conference, teaching and writing opportunities this year.

Another big change in 2021, will be to the team that I am working with. I have been so lucky to have Dr. Deryn Guest, whose work on queer theology has been a real inspiration for some time, as my supervisor for the first half of my studies. When I visited Birmingham, to meet Deryn and to decide whether or not we would work well together, I was so nervous! The genuine warmth, kindness and interest with which Deryn welcomed me transformed that visit into a moment that I now see as a vital landmark on a journey to increased self-confidence and capability. I am so thankful for Deryn’s expertise, support, encouragement and kindness over the past 20 months.

Deryn is moving on from the university and, as such, I have two new supervisors! There is an increasing move towards team supervision, and so I will be supervised 60% by Dr. Ben Pink Dandelion and 40% by Dr. Elliot Evans. They both bring diverse and valuable areas of expertise to the team, and I am very excited about working with them. Whilst transitions are always tricky, I continue to be full of gratitude for all of those who are supporting this work and for all of the opportunities that I continue to have.

URC Response to Living in Love and Faith

I welcome the recent United Reformed Church Statement – United in Christ through God’s calling (urc.org.uk) – which reaffirms our commitment on human sexuality and our calling through Christ, and ‘call[s] upon all with whom we are united in Christ to pray with us, in the words of the Commitment made by the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church: “In love and submission to Christ who holds us together, we … commit ourselves to stay together, to work and pray together, to treat one another with respect, and to seek God’s gifts of unity, harmony, wisdom and deeper understanding”.’

I will not be commenting any further on Living in Love and Faith or the various responses to it at this time, and commend this statement to you instead.

With peace,

Alex

People not Problems: Campaigning in 2021

As readers know, I am passionate about campaigning for trans and non-binary equality and justice. It is my experience that campaigning is at it’s best when a community of people can get behind topics and campaigns and work together to inspire, advocate for and enable change. That is why I’ve decided to outline the campaigns that I will be working on for the first six months of 2021 now – and I hope you will join me!

I will write about one campaign each month, and will suggest ways that we can work together for transformation. These vital changes won’t happen in a month – but we can take real, achievable steps that move trans and non-binary rights forward and help each-other to understand and advocate for trans and non-binary equality and justice. The campaigns will, of course, continue long after each month is over! If you are interested, follow this blog and watch this space for more each month!

January – Gender Recognition Reform Now

There has been cyclical debate about the Gender Recognition Act (GRA, 2004) throughout the past two decades. Reform is urgently needed. For an introduction to the difficulties with the GRA, click here.

February – Safer Spaces

Many public spaces are inherently unsafe for, and/or inaccessible to, trans and non-binary people. Everyone should have access to safe public spaces and facilities. For a previous blog on gendered spaces, click here.

March – Statistical Representation

Trans and non-binary people are not well-represented in statistics re gender justice. This foundational problem contributes to the marginalisation and silencing of trans and non-binary people. To learn more about how the UK Government classifies gender data, you could start by clicking here.

April – Relationship Equality

The way in which relationships are described and legislated for in the UK, as well as cultural norms and assumptions, is cis-normative and effects the rights of trans and non-binary people. For more on the ‘spousal veto’, just one of the legal difficulties trans and non-binary people face in this area, click here.

May – Safer Support

Trans and non-binary people often struggle to find support groups/services, therapists, pastoral carers, policy advisers etc who are specifically trained and committed to understanding and supporting us. I believe that this need to change. For a study which shows why this support is essential, click here.

June – Non-binary Visibility

People who identify as non-binary, or similar, experience intense stigma, a lack of safety, and poorer visibility than binary trans people. For an introduction to non-binary identities and visibility, click here.

I hope that you are able to join me on this journey towards equality and justice. Have a blessed December and I look forward to seeing you/organising and campaigning with you soon!