Disagreement

In April, an episode of Songs of Praise that I was privileged enough to be interviewed in was aired on the BBC. I was really blessed by the positive reaction and support I had around me, and there weren’t too many trolls or transphobic complaints. I expected a lot, but there were only a few. There was one bit of the interview that caused some debate in the LGBTQ+ community, though, and I wanted to talk about it. I felt that the production company, and Aled, did an amazing job, but TV interviews only allow for snapshots and soundbites, so it’s really valuable to be able to think and talk about wider questions and understandings.

Near the end of our 20 minute interview – cut to about 5 minutes in production – Aled asked how I felt about churches that disagreed with me being trans. I said that “it’s ok that different churches think different things” and that there are “some churches where I can’t feel welcome. Aled expressed his surprise, saying that “surely every church should welcome everyone”. I responded by saying that “I believe that” but that there are “less welcoming opinions” and that people have every right to hold such opinions. I stand by my comments, but I think it’s important to explain, in a more lengthy format, what I meant.

Many of those who commented felt that I said that it was ok if some churches did not welcome trans people. This really surprised me! As an autistic person, I speak pretty carefully and try to mean exactly what I say. Perhaps I sometimes struggle to foresee how things might be heard! In any case, I was very careful with my wording to say that there are some churches where I can’t feel welcome.

I strongly believe that every church should welcome everyone. Anything else is not only less than a Gospel ideal, it is an active partaking in the oppressive and divisive systems of humanity. In order to uphold the liberating message of the Gospel and reject the oppressive and divisive systems that are opposed to it, every voice must be heard and every person must be welcome; starting with the poor and the oppressed.

However, whilst some churches do, sadly, actively turn away trans people, they are in the minority. What I’ve found to be far more common and pervasive are churches that actively welcome LGBTQ+ people in and then treat them like second class citizens. These churches may be moderate-to-liberal and will be especially welcoming to married LGB couples and binary-gendered trans people. They use the language of ‘Christian men and women’  and believe in a biblical ‘ideal’ but ‘accept’ and ‘welcome’ people who don’t meet it. They might even ‘allow’ (problematic language in itself!) LGBTQ+ people to preach… as long as they don’t tell their authentic testimonies; as long as they don’t talk about being LGBTQ+. These churches are a considerable majority and I do not feel welcome in them at all.

Are these churches the perfect church? No. Is their message the gospel message? Not fully. Should they be shut down? No. Because, the thing is, welcoming everyone means welcoming everyone. It doesn’t mean agreeing with what they say or how they behave but it does mean welcoming them. And challenging them of course. And churches, and people within them, are capable of change. They are persuadable. They are the places where I, and many others, have found ways in to speak and teach about the realities of LGBTQ+ lives and ways in which churches can become more welcoming and prioritise the voices, needs and hopes of marginalised people. Gradually, such churches can become genuinely welcoming to all. Gradually, some might even speak up for LGBTQ+ people publicly and renounce their former views and behaviours. They will never be forced to do so, though, change requires grace. That, too, is a key part of the Gospel message.

Will I speak up for you if you are being oppressed or marginalised? Absolutely.

Will I help you to learn more about trans people and the oppressive idolatry of the gender binary? I would love to.

Will I demonise or avoid churches and people who are still open to learning? No. Never.

 

A Decade of Change

A lot of my friends have been doing the decade challenge – posting a photo of them 10 years ago and now.

The first of these photos was just over 10 years ago. I was learning to cook in preparation for university. Within a year I was embarking on transition. The second photo was last night, as I celebrated the coming of a new year with Jo, my wife.

IMG_20200101_133838.jpgSo much has changed for me in ten years. I came out, began my transition, discerned my vocation, trained for ministry, fell in love, married, was ordained as a minister, completed three degrees and started a fourth, published my first book and moved into our first manse.

But the changes in me have been greater than any list can explain. I am well. I am content. I am not perfectly happy, nor perfectly whole, but I am moving in the right direction. You see, transition isn’t a straightforward process with a beginning and an end. It is a journey through life with eyes wide open to the potential, in any moment, for transformation.

Things have changed a lot for trans people too. In the first picture, I didn’t even know that trans people existed. Just a decade ago, we were not visible. That has changed dramatically, and is still changing.

I loved spending the transition into a new year with someone I love, witnessing to the power of light in the darkness. The light from each of our torches was tiny but, joined with thousands of others, we created a ring of light that could be seen for miles. Imagine the changes those people could enable in the world…

Where will you carry your light this year?

The light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. Happy new year!

New Book

I am delighted to announce that my book, Transgender. Christian. Human. will be published next month. Structured around the story of my life so far, this book also contains exercises, prayers and theological understandings. I hope that it can be a help and a comfort to trans and non-binary people and their families, as well as all of those who would like to learn more.

I felt honoured that Canon Rachel Mann wrote a forward for my book. Here are her words:

‘The first time I met Alex, over half a decade ago, it was obvious I was in the company of a very smart, creative and talented person. They were someone who had clearly negotiated the profound inner and outer pressures of being transgender in our often uncomprehending church, as well as a hostile wider world. They had faced challenges many could barely comprehend. In the midst of their wounds and exciting personal discoveries, they had begun to live the kind of authentic life which changes other people’s lives for the better. I shall never forget the power of their personal testimony both in private conversation and, on one memorable occasion, delivered in front of several hundred youth workers at a Youth Work Conference. The audience gave them a spontaneous standing ovation, and I felt honoured to share a platform with them. When I heard that Alex was exploring ordained ministry in the United Reformed Church, I was both delighted and unsurprised. Their intelligence, sensitivity and character were obvious. Since then Alex has continued to grow into a sophisticated theologian and serious leader.

Transgender. Christian. Human. represents, then, a culmination of lived wisdom and honest wrestling with the joys and traumas of embodying God’s call; not just God’s call to ordained ministry, but God’s invitation to live our bodies, our lives and our very being as fully as we can. For Alex this means celebrating being trans, Christian and human. In a church culture that is still inclined to act as if anyone under forty is little more than a child, some who read Alex’s book may be surprised by the depth and honesty of their insights. They should not be. There is a kind of wisdom and knowledge that only becomes available when one goes back, with determination and hope, to the sources of pain and grace.

Alex knows what it is to have faced those sources. The details of their experiences are, on occasions, searing, disturbing and shocking, but Alex handles them with skill and intelligence. In doing so, their particular experiences offer space for people with quite different lived experiences to see the world afresh. Transgender. Christian. Human. is not always an easy read, but it is a sensitive one, which negotiates the facts of a life without prurience or flinching.

There have been many memoirs by trans people over the decades, including my own Dazzling Darkness, also published by Wild Goose back in 2012. In one sense, Alex’s book is part of that tradition. However, it represents a fresh departure as well. Many memoirs have been written by those trans people like me who – for whatever reason – have felt very comfortable fitting in to existing gender binaries. Newer, fresher voices like Alex increasingly question the easy distinction between ‘male’ and ‘female’ and have brought insight into ideas of gender and identity. They have thereby shaken up the trans community, into the bargain. Alex’s voice, formed through rich Christian and theological accents, speaks up for a biblically nuanced and culturally dynamic understanding of gender. I suspect some who read this book will find this very challenging. I hope so. It is usually out of honest wrestling with tough, well-formed ideas and lived experiences that new ways of going on emerge.

There are several outstanding features of this book. Firstly, it exists as a kind of holy workbook centred on gender, faith and compassion. Alex is – as a pastor and teacher – unafraid to encourage their readers to search and go deeper in a quest for understanding. This makes the book so much more than a memoir and brings leaven our anxious society desperately needs. Alex is a helpful guide in a world where trans kids and wider trans identities are mocked by those who wish to use trans people as a whipping post.

Furthermore, this book takes the risk of allowing some of the significant others in Alex’s life to speak and share their experiences of walking with Alex. This is terrific and rare stuff, in which Alex’s wife Jo and their mum Pam speak with moving honesty and authenticity. Both take us to the joy, delight and real cost of recognising otherness, within and without, as part of God’s gracious economy.

Finally, as a minister, Alex is unafraid of prayer. In one sense, this is hardly surprising. If anyone should be comfortable with prayer and its possibilities it should be pastors and ministers (though too often this is not so!). This book is threaded through with it. Prayer, at its best, acknowledges mystery, gift and grace. This is certainly the case in this book. Prayer really matters in Alex’s journey (as in so many deeply honest ones) because to live well is to dare to live in mystery and gift. It is a way of going on that entails a work of recognition – that we are not the source, only God. That is the heart of Alex’s story and wisdom as I read it: they have discovered that their fundamental identity as transgender, Christian and human flows from the Living God. It is inspiring, hopeful and real.

Canon Rachel Mann
St Augustine’s Day, 2019′

Butterfly or Prophet? A Review

A Biblical Exploration of ITV’s Drama Butterfly_20181030_102849

In Mark 6 Jesus is found to be ‘a prophet without honour in his home town’. This passage immediately came to mind as I considered how to respond to ITV’s recent drama series Butterfly. 

Setting the Scene

In Butterfly, Maxine, a young transfeminine person, is supported by her mum to pause puberty, whilst she discerns the call to transition.

I wonder whether Maxine and Vicky are the ‘prophets’ in this story.

Is her dad, Stephen, an ordinary disciple, struggling to hear an extraordinary message?

Are the healthcare system and social services attempting to maintain archaic, legalistic expectations that are challenged by these visionary prophets, this new message?

Some might struggle with this interpretation of Gospel, or this understanding of a prophet, but try to be open, as you read, to new possibilities, new understandings, multiple ways of being, reading, knowing.

1. What?! How?!

Verse 2: On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!

Jesus is misunderstood by those to whom he tells his story. They don’t get it. He is too ‘out there’. Who has given him permission? Is it really allowed? How dare he! This outrage is a response to Jesus’s challenging of tradition. He implies that a text which is sacred, deeply culturally and religiously important, can be transformed by him.

I wonder if it is similar for trans people. Maxine tells her story and others don’t get it. She is too ‘out there’. Who has given her permission to say these things? Is she really allowed to be a girl? How dare her mother support this! This outrage is a response to Maxine’s challenging of tradition, and her mother’s support of Maxine’s journey. Together, they imply that the supposedly ‘sacred’ cultural and religious norms of binary gender conformity can be, and need to be, transformed. Even, or perhaps especially, by a child.

Maxine’s challenging of norms is one of the triumphs of Butterfly. She is not straightforwardly feminine. Nor does she respond quickly and easily to questions. She refuses to simply deny her ‘male’ past. Rather, she hesitates and searches for the difficult truths. Instead of merely living into the norm of female, she embodies the complexity of being trans with honesty, humility and grace.

2. Be Normal!

Verse 3: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary[a] and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

The very norms which Jesus, and Maxine, challenge are reinforced by their peers. Jesus’s listeners immediately zoom in on his very ordinary family background. “He’s just a normal bloke. He has a mother and brothers and sisters like any normal person. They are living amongst us. Who is he to suggest doing things differently?”

Similarly, Maxine’s normal family with its normal problems are central to her story. Stephen’s infidelity, Vicky’s tricky relationship with her own mother and Lily’s (Maxine’s sister) struggles with boys are all the bread and butter of TV drama. At times they threaten to overshadow Maxine’s story. The lives of Maxine’s seemingly ‘ordinary’ family make it difficult for peers and professionals alike to hear Maxine’s truth.

3. Is a Butterfly a Prophet?

Verse 4: Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honour, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

Jesus picks up on this selective hearing in the well-known saying “Prophets are not without honour, except in their hometown”. It is perhaps hardest for Stephen, Maxine’s dad, to hear and understand her truth precisely because Stephen is ‘just’ her Dad. Stephen represents Maxine’s hometown. He loves her and knows her as an ‘ordinary’ child, making it all the harder to recognise that she is extraordinary. Similarly, Maxine’s grandparents fail to recognise her extraordinary story. They see their grandchild as an ordinary kid who is, perhaps, trying too hard to be different.

Biblical prophets are extraordinary. They hear the call of transformation in ways which stand out from their ordinary surroundings. Often their stories and messages confound ordinary people and challenge authorities, rules and norms. They are usually heard or understood more readily by strangers than by family and friends and, as such, tend to gather new communities around themselves. Eventually, though, people hear their truths and begin to listen. That is when reconciliation is possible.

Maxine is extraordinary. She hears the call of transformation in ways which stand out from her family’s ordinary surroundings. Her story confounds people and challenges the authorities, rules and norms that her life is governed by. Her own dad, Stephen, struggles, at first, to hear or understand her story, so she gathers a new community of trans people, helping professionals and peers around herself. Eventually, though, Stephen hears her truth and begins to listen. This listening leads to reconciliation; a new understanding, a new start, a second chance.

4. Shake Off the Dust

Eventually, in preparation for Jesus’s departure, the disciples take on the role of prophet, sharing the message with those who have ears to hear it. Jesus instructs them:

Verses 10-11: He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”

Maxine’s second chance can only begin, though, when her family choose to shake off the dust on their feet. To leave behind the powers that refuse to hear them.

Let’s be honest, Vicky messes up the first time. She shakes the dust off a little too vehemently and almost loses her chance to aid her daughter’s transformation. Vicky takes Maxine to America to try to speed up the process, ultimately resulting in Vicky’s arrest and the courts gaining control over Maxine’s life. This, in my opinion, is Butterfly’s weakest moment. Few parents go to these risky extents to help their children, and I wonder if this part of the story creates unnecessary controversy which distracts from the real lives of trans children and the families.

However, I can empathise with Vicky’s passion. Her child needs help and, like many psalmists in the Hebrew Scriptures, she curses all who stand in her way. Perhaps, though, a different approach, a more gentle approach, to defiance in the face of oppression is what Jesus is suggesting in Mark 6.

Vicky and Stephen, reunited in the purpose of saving their daughter, still have to shake the dust off their feet. They have to challenge and ultimately abandon the court that is seeking to enforce particular restrictions on Maxine’s life. Instead, they turn in another direction, returning to the clinic that did welcome them and does have the power to act.

Concluding Thoughts

A prophet is honoured except in their home town. Does Butterfly honour the stories of trans children and their families? In places, yes. Are trans people honoured in their home towns? Often, sadly, the answer is no. The biblical way forward is to dust off our feet when we are not welcomed and go to those who do welcome us, who can support us to create change.

Are you a prophet? Where’s your home town? How can you be better supported to speak the truth to power?

 

 

Brave

When I started doing trans advocacy work, my mum sent me a link to the song Brave by Sarah Barielles.

‘Say what you wanna say, and let the words fall out. Honestly, I wanna see you be brave.’

Later, she sings

‘and since your history of silence, don’t do you any good, did you think it would? Let your words be anything but empty, why don’t you tell them the truth?’

It is a fear-filled time for trans people. In the UK, exclusionary feminists are responding to a government attempt to improve our lives by spreading transphobia in an increasingly public and violent manner. In America, our very existence is being questioned by those who hold power.

Whilst I would never advocate putting oneself in direct danger, I do not believe that now is the time to return to our closets. Yes I am afraid, yes I have considered the cost of my public work.

My faith, though, teaches me that the Christ-centered (cruciform?) way to live is honestly. We must speak our truths to power, standing up for those who cannot speak out. We must challenge oppression and lies. We should be the ones to define our own identities and to live our brave, beautiful lives.

So, ‘say what you wanna say, and let the words fall out. Honestly, I wanna see you be brave.’

PS. if you are a significant other, friend or family of a trans person, ask them how you can support and help them in challenging hate and speaking their truth to power.

Pps. If you need help or support please get in touch!