I felt incredibly grateful to be able to interview incredible social justice advocate, Church of Scotland minister, song-writer and fellow Iona Community member John Bell live last week, as part of my role as co-chair of the Open Table Network. As ever, John shared openly and authentically and gifted us many gritty, honest, inspiring and humbling stories to reflect on. One of my favourite moments was when, having been asked what inspired him to write, John laughed, paused, and then said, in a typically matter-of-fact manner, “It’s really kind of necessity. When you find an [identity or experience] that hasn’t been articulated, you have to”.
This resonated with me, as my own sense of calling is entangled with the realisation that few trans voices are being heard in the Church, and trans people are wanting for support and advocacy. Why am I out in my work? To echo John, it’s really kind of necessity. John also helpfully reminded us that, “New life grows from the ground up”. I strongly believe that the nurture – the light, water, and food – of voices like John’s enables those fresh shoots of new life to struggle up through stony ground. Have a listen to what else John had to say above, and consider how we might work together to “love the you you hide”.
Time and time again, anti-lgbtq+ groups and media outlets have told people that they are standing up for biblical truth. And yet, a striking omission from their articles is… Well… Truth! Truth is a Christian norm and yet…Personally, I have had lies spread about me on a number of occasions, as have many other LGBTQ+ Christians. But it’s some of the bigger, widespread, twisting of truth that’s really frustrating to me.
It is repeatedly reported that LGBTQ+ advocates are fighting against Christians, when the advocates referred to are, in fact, Christians ourselves. It is frequently stated that said advocates target churches solely for speaking out against same sex marriage. We don’t. We ask people not to give resources to churches that support or offer so-called conversion therapy – which is abusive and condemned by every major psychiatric body. The claim is repeatedly made that we are against prayer, when most anti-conversion therapy advocates spend much of our time praying with people who have been hurt by this so-called therapy! We are for prayer, but also understand that there is a nuance and careful consideration is necessary where the lines between prayer and spiritual abuse blur.
The appeal to ‘free speech’ and ‘freedom of religion’ is often particularly problematic. No LGBTQ+ advocate is campaigning for an end to free speech. We want free speech. But free speech does not mean that there aren’t consequences to what you say. Nor does it include the freedom to abuse another human being. It never has. You are free to practice your own faith, and to speak about it. You are not free to do so without allowing others to respond, free to abuse people, or free to compel others to live according to your beliefs. The law is very clear about this.
The common defense is ‘the biblical understanding’ but this is belied by the fact that there is not one, unified biblical understanding’ of LGBTQ+ identities. The idea that all Christians think the same thing, and interpret the Bible in the same way, or else ignore it, is yet another lie, and fuels negativity towards Christianity. If you truly want to defend or spread Christianity, tell the truth about its diversity and it’s values based on grace, truth and love.
Dialogue relies on truth. So until the lies stop, it’s really hard to even consider dialogue, never mind unity. It is time to stop the lies. It is time to speak truth to power in love. God loves all people. That is the truth. Speak it.
The church takes the cross seriously, but only in the context of a trajectory towards new life.
The church must take peoples’ suffering seriously, but only in the context of a trajectory towards hope.
The church must take dissonance seriously, but only in the context of a trajectory towards reconciliation.
Research released this week showed that 9/10 trans and non-binary folk who were subjected to so-called ‘conversion therapy’ experienced anxiety and depression and almost half attempted suicide. I am part of the 47%. After attempts at conversion prayer led by conservative Christian youth workers I experienced severe mental illness. This has to stop. This is not about the freedom to pray – it’s about psychological manipulation and spiritual abuse that is literally killing people.
How do we make sense of this in the midst of Easter?
This is not new life, this is the cross. This is not hope, this is suffering. This is not reconciliation, this is enforced dissonance.
New life is when trans and non-binary are supported in the ways that we ask to be by our families, friends and allies. Hope is when steps are taken towards making conversion therapy illegal. Reconciliation will only begin to be possible when people stop equating abusive practices with prayer. The dissonance trans and non-binary people experience will only be healed by enabling us to take steps to live authentically as the diverse people that we are in mind, body and spirit.
This Easter, bring hope to trans and non-binary people by taking steps to bring an end to conversion therapy today.
I have made a vlog with some of my friends and colleagues for trans day of visibility. So much thanks and credit to all of those who helped me to put this together, but any blame for error sits solely with me as editor! Please do give 15 minutes of your time to this today.
Here’s some of what you can find in the video:
Sarah Hobbs – Co-chair Open Table Network – speaks about what TDOV means to her
Poem – God is non-binary
Ash Brockwell introduces transverse
Lee Gale writes about Trans Bare All: ’10 Years, Still Here’
Adam Jack Holcroft writes about Rainbow & co.
God is Non-binary
God is non-binary God is not a male name
God is fluid and free God is not rigid and caged
God escapes punctuation God is not a full stop
God is love God is not hate
God is a seahorse New life bursting forth in a celebration of creativity
God is a gnarly tree Scarred with the passing of time and the stretching of flesh
God is the stars Explosions that seem to twinkle outside of time
God is glitter and ash Gritty hope interwoven with suffering
God is glittery ashy explosive stars and tree-bark and seahorse skeletal skin stretching and love and escapism and fluid and free and…
God is non-binary Mirrored in you Mirrored in me.
Here are the links that are shared at the end of the video:
I can still picture the first census that I filled in, a decade ago. I was in the early stages of transition and identified strongly as male. I sat in the kitchen of the tiny student flat that I shared with two others, my pen hovering over the boxes. M…F…M…F… At first I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to tick. Then, with a sinking feeling, I realised that the word ‘sex’ was probably used very intentionally… But could I really tick F with a clear conscience? And why should I?
This issue, which is an issue not only of dysphoria, emotion and identity but also of integrity, good data, and the essential governance skill of managing diversity well. This year, the census gender/sex dilemma has hit the mainstream media and it’s fair to say that our leaders have missed the mark, not only for trans people, but for all of us. The reason that the question has been raised is because of confusing government guidance, which was challenged by an anti-trans campaigning group. However, as a conversation with a trans person awaiting their GRC this morning reminded me, the question of how data about sex and gender effects women and trans people alike, and a more nuanced form could have easily resolved the difficulties and captured data sensitively and accurately.
You might wonder whether or not this is a real issue. It’s just a tick box on a form, surely? It doesn’t really matter, does it? The thing is that it really does matter, and it is a whole lot more than just a tick box on a form. Census data is used by the government to plan and run public services. As such, it is essential that census data accurately reflects the demographic make-up of the UK. Any room for error impacts the way in which identity groups that are already marginalised are served by our government. This is a massive social justice issue.
Both trans and cis people need this data to accurately reflect a) sex and b) gender so that services are funded, and run, appropriately for all. Just one reason that this really matters is the level of healthcare inequality that trans people experience, which is effected by both sex and gender. The current system, and the way in which it inter-relates with the Gender Recognition Act also means that the way in which findings represent the number of trans people in the U.K. will be inaccurate.
Jesus famously instructed his disciples to “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” The problem is that identities crosses psycho-social-spiritual-legal boundaries. Identities are deeply personal and spiritual matters which, nevertheless, are lived out in the social sphere and effect – and are effected by – legal and governmental decisions. Many feel deeply called to respond to God authentically by refusing to hide or lie about our identities. And yet, we are provided with a governmental form on which we are legally required to lie.
There is no easy answer or solution. What we can do is consider a) What we are legally required to do this time, b) how we might pastorally reconcile this tension, c) what sort of changes should we be campaigning for in advance of the next census.
This Census – What to Do?
This is an attempt to straight-forwardly describe how trans people are expected to answer sex and gender questions in the current census. It it not intended to imply agreement with this reality, which leaves me, and many others, very frustrated! Some people may choose to answer more authentically. I can not, and will not, tell you what box to tick. All I can tell you is what the guidance suggests is ‘expected’.
a. The Sex Question
If you do not have a GRC, you are expected to tick the box which aligns with your sex assigned at birth.
If you do have a GRC, you are expected to tick the box which aligns with your GRC/revised birth certificate/gender.
b. The Gender Identity Question
This question comes later in the form and is voluntary.
Some trans people will wish to indicate their trans identities here, others will not.
This decision is deeply personal, and there is no right or wrong answer.
This does, however, create a statistical difficulty.
Reconciling – How to Move Forward?
For those required to tick the box, very near the start of the census, that misgenders them, there will be a level of emotional pain involved. It may be helpful to spend some time engaged in an activity that affirms your sense of self, or to have a chat with someone who sees you as you are. It may also be helpful to spend some time in prayer. Here’s a simple one that might help. Consider leaving silence for reflection between each line.
God, Creator, Created, Creative…
I know that you see me as I am.
You feel my frustration with the inauthenticity required by this flawed system.
Help me to let go.
Help me to move forward.
Help me to shape change.
Here I am, you have called me by name, I am enough.
Next Time – Campaigning for Change
The fundamental problem, here, is that the results of this census will not accurately represent a) gender b) sex and c) trans identity. This will contribute to a continuation of significant social justice issues for all sorts of people, and may also be used to downplay the number of trans people in the UK. This is simply not good enough. There is an urgency to this issue that means we cannot simply wait for the next census. Those with the ability/power/networks to commission or work towards more nuanced statistical data should do so as soon as possible. It is important that the census is fair and accurate for everyone. At present, this is presented as a binary debate as to whether the form should include sex or gender. The solution must complexify this polemic and prioritise accuracy.
There is also, however, a real need to challenge those designing the census to do better next time. Potential improvements include moving the sex question to later in the form and including separate questions about sex, gender, and trans identities, although a nuanced and evidence based approach is essential, and will take time and thought to develop. Further, this difficulty has shown the real flaws in the GRA and highlighted, yet again, the need for urgent reform.
If filling in the census is difficult for you this year, please prioritise your self-care. I am here for you, if you need to talk. If filling in the census is easy for you, consider working alongside trans and non-binary people to enable change. Trans stats matter. We must do better.