Conversion ‘Prayer’

I have been struggling for some weeks to discern what I might helpfully write about so-called conversion therapy. Most trans people that I know have experienced attempts to persuade them that they are, in fact, cis, many of which are experienced as attempts at conversion. Many trans people have also experienced more formalised conversion therapy. I, personally, have experienced attempts at conversion through prayer. I believe that this was, and continues to be, a form of attempted conversion therapy. I also believe that it is just as damaging as conversion therapy in a more formal practice/setting.

I have often touched on this experience in my writing and speaking, but have avoided talking about it explicitly. Why? I simply cannot face any contact from the church concerned. I have removed any details that identify the church from this account, and hope that this will be respected. I do feel, however, that it is essential to write about this, given the important conversations that are ongoing in political, religious and public life regarding conversion therapy and prayer.

My experience, below, is contained in a coloured box, please feel free to skip this section if descriptions of attempted conversion and it’s effects are triggering.

When I was 15, I went on a three-week trip with my church youth group to a foreign country. When on that trip, I accidentally came out, through a casual comment. That night, a youth worker came into the room that I was sharing with another young person, knelt by my bed, put her hand on my head, and prayed for me. The prayer included a clear sense that I was incorrect about who I was, that I would be judged by God, and that God could change my heart so that I could avoid the consequences of that judgement. I was also told to avoid socialising with the other young people on the trip. For the rest of the trip, I was isolated, and was not cared for appropriately. Every morning and evening, during devotions, I was prayed for, which often included unwanted physical contact.

I became very ill during these three-weeks, experiencing extreme nausea and vomiting, being unable to keep down any food, breathing difficulties, and fatigue. My illness was treated by some as a fabricated inconvenience. Others correlated the illness with sin. Still others suggested it was part of a ‘healing’ process. When I finally arrived home, my parents rushed me to our G.P. who, seeing how unwell I was, was concerned that I had contracted a disease during my trip. Eventually, after a lot of tests and conversations, I was diagnosed with severe anxiety. I suffered with anxiety, breathing difficulties, nausea and vomiting, eating difficulties, and fainting episodes for several years following this experience. I still experience generalised anxiety, social anxiety, and fear of judgement.

I find it hard to comprehend how any person could read my account, and the accounts of other survivors of conversion therapy, and believe that faith groups should be permitted to continue these abusive practices. The effects of this abuse ripple through the LGBTQIA+ community in ways not unlike a pandemic, often isolating us from peers and communities, severely impacting our physical, social and mental health, and changing the way that we see the world forever. This needs to stop, urgently.

In her annual speech, the Queen asserted that, “Measures will be brought forward to […] ban conversion therapy”. This promise appears disingenuous, however, given the fact that, after three years of waiting, we will now be subjected to yet another public consultation which, it seems, will prioritise the views of ‘medical professionals, religious leaders, teachers and parents’.

A key discussion point has been prayer. I was finally persuaded to write this post by a Tweet this morning by campaigner Jayne Ozanne, who writes that

I couldn’t agree more with Jayne. Further, I’m not sure that ‘prayer’ that attempts to change another is prayer at all. Prayer is about listening to God, witnessing God’s image in creation and humanity, and expressing our innermost truths to the Source of all that is. Prayer to change someone else simply isn’t prayer. Let’s stop pretending that it is. #banconversiontherapy now. No ifs, no buts. This is not ok.

Time for Truth

Transcript

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. 

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!

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?