Sep 25

Christina Beardsley, a Trans Minister, Speaks on the Bible

Christina Beardsley is an ordained priest in the Church of England and she is trans. There is much we can learn from her. Thanks to my good friend, Vivienne Marcus from New Zealand, we are bringing you an extensive interview with Dr Beardsley which Vivienne also has posted on her blog Bluestockingblue. So in Vivienne’s words.

Vivienne Marcus

Vivienne Marcus

It’s been a while since I considered religion as a topic, but it’s been in my mind a lot lately. I was raised in a strongly Christian family, but have been increasingly critical and questioning of much of that for many years now. I have nonetheless experienced quite a considerable amount of existential guilt about exploring my gender identity. Not all of that relates, of course, to religion, but it all fitted together: religious views of sex as dirty, impure and shameful featured large in my upbringing, and there was no tolerance whatever of any idea of homosexuality or transgenderism.

The Old Testament contains stern and forbidding passages like this one:  He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD. —Deuteronomy 23:1.

Ouch! Make sure you look after your stones! Some people view transgender behavior as inherently sinful. As you know, I don’t agree. I believe that this is the way I was created: a man with a generous spoonful of woman in the mixture. In addition, I think that Jesus went out of his way to befriend the marginalized people in his society: lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors and whatnot. These days, if Jesus were among us, I think he would (among others) be befriending transgender people–and no doubt attracting the same scorn and criticism for doing so, as he did back then.

Christina Beardsle

Christina Beardsle

We seem to be in the midst of a landslide in transgender acceptance, where transgender people seem to be everywhere: in the media, in sports, in politics, in the military, in entertainment, in the arts, and so on. So what of deeply religious people, those in ministry? Are there any transgender clerics out there? The answer turns out to be yes, although they are not easy to track down. I wanted to talk to them: to ask them about their own journeys; how their gender conflicted (or perhaps not) with their faith; about how they face up to those disapproving biblical passages. And I was delighted when I was able to make contact with the Rev. Dr. Christina “Tina” Beardsley, an ordained woman priest in the Church of England, who happened to be born a boy. Tina has been in ministry for nearly four decades, and worked as a hospital chaplain in the UK for the last 15 years, and has recently retired. She is the author of several books, and a blog (see the end of this article for details).

Not only did she kindly agree to submit to my battery of interview questions, she provided detailed answers. I hope you will find those answers as interesting and enlightening as I did. She taught me that priest can be used as a verb, and she can spell medieval, and I learned a whole new (and somewhat wonderful) word: transcestors.

Can you tell us a bit about your trans journey? (A potted life story, if you will).

It’s tempting to compartmentalize our lives, and when communicating to others one might have to focus on the trans aspects of the journey, but I see my life as a whole, and am glad that you reframe this question by asking for a potted life story.

I’m 65 years old now so that’s a fairly long life history. I was born in West Yorkshire, in the north of England, near an industrial town, but grew up in a small town on the edge of the Peak District. I am the eldest of two, and my brother was born when I was 6. My family was working class – I come from a long line of miners on my father’s side (though my dad did not work down the pit) and country house (the home of industrialists) gardeners on my mother’s side. I was the first person from my family to go to university.

My childhood was relatively happy but my gender presentation was problematic to my father in particular. I once overheard him complaining to my maternal grandmother how unhappy he was that I was ‘so effeminate’ which came as something of a shock, though it shouldn’t have, as I can recall many occasions from my earliest childhood when he expressed disapproval with my gendered behaviour. My grandmother’s response was that he should not worry and that it was something that I would ‘grow out of’. Through therapy I have learnt to appreciate that I was feminine rather than effeminate and that my femininity is something that I have ‘grown into’, though not without a struggle because there were many years of denial and suppression before I was able to accept myself.

You said that you were “feminine rather than effeminate”. Can you unpack what that means exactly?

Effeminate is a pejorative term arising from the hierarchy in which the male is considered superior to the female and feminine boys/men whether or not they turn out to be trans are taunted with all sorts of unpleasant names. To see oneself instead as feminine reclaims and owns one’s behaviours or gender expression as fitting, appropriate and nothing to be ashamed of.

Like many people who are not understood within their family I found escape in study, and when it was time to go to university I went to Sussex University in Brighton, a city that has always had a liberal, even naughty reputation. That was 1970-73 and while at university I met the man who would become my husband. In my mid-teens I had begun to realize that I was attracted to males, but there was also ‘something else’ going on–cross dressing–which I was not able to talk about, and which I also associated with the childhood shame of being ‘effeminate’. I was very fortunate in my partner because he preferred feminine men and told me that was one reason that he found me attractive. We certainly talked about drag, and one of my fantasies while preparing for university, had been to join a drag entertainment collective (like Bloolips) and maybe not change back into male clothes, but I knew it was a fantasy

Christina BeardsleyCourtesy of the State I was receiving a wonderful education in the study of religion, medieval philosophy and church history, and when I graduated I had the opportunity to go to Cambridge to do doctoral research. That kept me occupied for the next three years, and even though I was vaguely aware of another student who was in transition in Cambridge, and was intrigued, I didn’t see that as being for me at that time. Despite being in a loving relationship I think my self-awareness about being transgender (though that wouldn’t have been the term used then) was poor and my emotional intelligence still fairly limited.

I had experienced a call to ordained ministry when I was about twelve years old (in a small wood near the church) though I also had a strong sense that I should teach, and it wasn’t clear which of the two would have priority – today I realise that one could do both! I was accepted for ordination training and went to theological college, which meant another two years of study, followed by three years as an assistant curate (assistant minister) in a city parish in Portsmouth. My college principal, the bishop who ordained me, my training incumbent and the parish leadership were all aware that Rob was my partner and very affirming of us both. Sexuality was the dominating issue in my life at that point, rather than gender identity, though of course that had not gone away but, hey, there were plenty of other things to think about and to do.

When it was time to move on my training incumbent asked me to stay on in the parish to look after one of the daughter churches, which I did for another four years before leaving the city to become the vicar of two rural/suburban parishes, where I was even busier, but it was here that the Holy Spirit broke in and ministered the divine love to my heart.

By the late 1980s I had been vicar of the two parishes for four years. It was just as the AIDS epidemic struck the UK and was a very bad time for gay people in the Church, especially gay clergy. Remember that gay and trans were still blurred in the 1970s and 80s; this was 1989. I woke in the night knowing I must include these words in my sermon the next day: ‘God loves me, including the fact that I’m gay.’ It wasn’t a good career move, but I felt an imperative and as if this was ‘meant to be’.

A few days later the Sunday School leader came to see me about something else. ‘It’s wonderful that you came out’ she said as she left, ‘It’s such a good role model to see a gay man in a caring profession.’ And I thought to myself, ‘But I never said that I was a man!’ That was when I knew, definitely, who I was, and that, however I might have appeared on the outside–and by this time testosterone had begun to masculinise my features–I was, as I began to express it at the time, ‘90% to 100% female on the inside’, though I can appreciate that may sound strange to some people; nor was I clear what it would mean for me at that stage. I’m aware that this is becoming a long answer, so let me say more about this episode and about what happened next as I try to answer the next question.

How did that overlap with your spiritual life? I know that you were ordained before you transitioned. Did you think that ordination would somehow prevent you transitioning? Or did you consider that you might pursue transition at some point post-ordination?

In terms of gender awareness I had always been intellectually committed to the ordination of women, and after ordination became a member of Priests for the Ordination of Women. It was apparent to those around me that I was a feminist. The ordination of women as priests in the Church of England proved a much longer struggle than any of us had anticipated, but when it eventually happened (the successful vote was in 1992) I was not as elated as I had expected to be.

christina beardsley

photo by Christa Holka

When I was ordained in 1978 Church of England priests had all been male, and later, in therapy, by which time women were being priested, one of my dreams suggested that this dynamic had been going on in my mind: ‘priests are male; I am a priest; therefore I am male.’ Once women were ordained though, this stasis was undermined and I was forced to reframe it: ‘priests are male and female, I am a priest, therefore I am … female’. So, although it occasionally occurred to me that I might transition post-ordination, especially after seeing the landmark BBC programme about Julia Grant in 1980, I always found reasons why this was not appropriate – some of them to do with natural law and living with one’s given body – and just hoped this was something that would ‘go away’. The green light for women’s ordination made me face up to my gender identity.

Did you pray to God not to be transgender? (I know I have, many times).

Once I began to recognize that I had ‘a problem’, yes, I did pray that God would take it away permanently – on one memorable occasion I was driving along a dual carriage making this my earnest prayer… and one of the tires punctured! It was a dramatic sign, but what did it mean?

It took time to sink in, but it looked as if God was not going to magically remove this aspect of my personality, and that, just as with my sexual attraction, my gender identity was also loved by God, and I would need to learn to love it too. You see, those words about God’s love that had formed during the night in 1989 had come out of considerable pain, following the death of my training incumbent, and had set in motion a train of events during which, as a friend remarked, I appeared to have faced my demons. I had certainly felt as if I was experiencing death and resurrection and I knew, just knew, that Paul’s words were true, that nothing, nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God. This was to give greater depth to my work as a priest and prepared me for the intensely pastoral role I would begin a few years later as a hospital chaplain.

A new spiritual practice that developed from that ‘coming out’ in 1989 was that I immediately began to dance – circle dance with friends, then movement classes in Skinner Releasing Technique, and later still contemporary dance classes at the Brighton Natural Health Centre on my days off. This practice helped me to relate to my body – I seemed to have spent so much of my life in my head avoiding the body – and alongside other women. Occasionally there would be men in the class but more often the other participants were women and I felt wholly at ease. Eventually my dance CV was extensive enough to gain me an interview as a part-time research supervisor at the Laban Centre of Contemporary Dance, but I was not appointed. This was in the late 1990s, by which time I knew that I needed to transition and that I might not be able to work for the Church, but I am a priest and it seems I was not meant to be anything else.

How did knowledge of your transition go down with your parishioners? And what about fellow priests and bishops? Did you meet any hostility or rejection? Is that still going on sometimes?

In 1997, roughly seven years after the ‘coming out’, I was planning a long overdue sabbatical from the parishes, and given my interest in dance, I assumed that I would be attending a dance academy, but when I applied not one was able to take me during the months I was available. Again, it was in the night that it came to me that I must use the sabbatical to address various ‘unfinished business’, one of which was my gender identity. Just prior to the sabbatical I took part in Diane Torr’s five day workshop ‘Gender in Performance’ at the Chisenhale Dance Space in London’s East End, and I knew after that that I did not want to be sometimes male and sometimes female – like Diane who is a Drag King – but that I needed to integrate my gender identity, though how I would do that as a parish priest was not at all clear.

christina beardsley

photo by Christa Holka

I was not aware of any transgender role models for clergy: the one clergy person who transitioned at this time did so on retirement, nor did I think it was fair to the parishes where I worked to land them with another coming out! They had been affirming in 1989 but I did not want to impose ‘my stuff’ on them again; and in any case, after fifteen years in post, I was ready for a move. In my annual ministerial reviews it emerged that I ought to work part-time (in my mind to deal with the rigours of transition), that I should work in a non-parochial role (to establish better boundaries between work and home) and that, ideally, I should live in our own home. This would happen in 2000 when I was appointed to a very part-time post as a chaplain at a hospital ten minutes’ drive from our house.

By this time I’d been on hormones about six months, was living as a female, and working as an androgynous male. Five months later, in November 2000, I met with my manager to raise the possibility of transition at work, and was on the point of discussing this with the acting bishop when the press began to track me down – I had been outed to a journalist by another trans person who was also a Christian. (This seemed a catastrophe at the time, but in retrospect it was a blessing as it would open up many opportunities for me, but I was unaware of this then and it was all rather terrifying.)

Although I was not named in the press at that stage it made my discussions with the bishop extremely strained as there were huge anxieties surrounding possible press exposure. I’d like to think that the bishop might have been more understanding had we not been meeting in this fraught context, but his opinion was that he could not support me and that I should surrender my licence, which I needed to continue as a chaplain in that particular hospital. This was one of the most painful episodes of my life, but transgender people were not well understood at that date, and with the support of the human rights organisation Liberty, I held my ground.

I also began to look for work elsewhere because it was apparent that, whatever the outcome, I was not being supported and I didn’t feel safe. I was now presenting as female all the time and had three job interviews in a row, and it was after the last one that I was appointed to the hospital where I have worked for the past fifteen years and from which I’ve just retired. My new bishop was cautious about my status to begin with and I was under his direct supervision, but after three or four years it was obvious to him that there had been no ‘issues’ and that I was in my element as a chaplain – well of course, because I was now at last able to be myself.

Prior to taking up my new post the press did try to ‘expose’ me but my former hospital’s press officer was ready for that, and my story in my own words was sent off to the Press Association to prevent the newspaper concerned claiming an exclusive. Prior to transition at work I wrote to friends, former parishioners, and the priest who had succeeded me in the parishes, explaining what I was about to do. Most people were supportive.

Do you know other transgender clerics? Perhaps even those of other faiths? How do they get along?

In 2000, while I was working towards transition, my clinician informed me that another priest was transitioning. He could not tell me who it was of course. When the news broke in the media it turned out to be Carol Stone with whom I had been at theological college. Carol was supported by her bishop and her parishioners, remaining as parish priest until her untimely death last year. Later I would meet the priest who transitioned on retirement. I was next in line to transition after Carol.

christina beardsleySome of those who followed me were less fortunate. One was given an ultimatum – give this up or resign: she chose to resign and is no longer in public ministry. Another was told to withdraw from her parish until her transition was complete: it would be a decade before she returned to ministry. Those who were ordained after transition – I am aware of two such clergy and of others currently in training – seem to have a better time. Another friend lost her public ministry because of transition.

My impression is that trans clergy and ordinands are better supported now than when I transitioned although the Church of England still lacks a policy for clergy who transition – something that I and other Changing Attitude, England trustees have urged the Church to do.

I have networked with trans clergy and laity in the US and attended the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in Indianapolis in 2012 when three trans inclusive resolutions were passed. Yes, I do know of trans clergy from other faith traditions – one of my friends is a rabbi – not least through Twilight People: Stories of Faith and Gender Beyond the Binary.

I am sorry to nail you down to this, but I am curious about your interpretation of some Biblical passages, which are sometimes used to justify trans-exclusionary views. The first is obviously Deuteronomy 22:5. Can you let us know what your thoughts are about that passage? (You might say that you are now a woman, and I would agree with you, but other people, as you know, might disagree, and say that you were born a male and therefore remain one).

The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.

The Deuteronomy verse troubled me a little as a child but even then I realised that the New Covenant was more gracious than the Old, and studying biblical criticism soon clarified that this verse was not about twentieth century cross dressing. Indeed, the text begins with a prohibition on women wearing men’s clothes, in particular armour, so it appears to be about prescribing gender roles and avoiding a mixing of categories that is completely broken down by the ministry of Jesus and the work of Christ.

And my second passage is Matthew 19:12. What do you suppose Matthew was talking about here when he was talking about “eunuchs”? Do you think he meant intersex people when he talked about “people born eunuchs”? Can you give us your interpretation of that passage? (As you know, some people interpret scripture very literally, so I am trying hard to get a scholarly viewpoint).

For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of [by] men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.

It’s a fascinating passage. Just as St Paul thinks that it is better not to marry, because the end times have begun (1Corinthians 7:25-31), here Jesus seems to be saying that the arrival of the kingdom means that some people (his apostles) are to be entirely focussed on its concerns rather than procreation, marriage and family, which were strongly emphasised under the Old Covenant, and, one could add, are once more in modern Christianity.  The early Christian tradition too favoured virginity over marriage.

In this passage it seems likely that Jesus was referring to those we would describe as intersex people, and also to the eunuchs who played such an important mediating role in ancient societies, and who do appear to have represented a third gender. I can relate to a theological essay like Lewis Reay’s chapter ‘Towards a Transgender Theology: Que(e)rying the Eunuchs’ in Trans/formations (SCM 2009) which regards the biblical eunuchs as our ‘transcestors’, but can also appreciate the criticism that this could imply undue focus on surgery, and that other biblical frameworks might be more appropriate – my current collaborator Chris Dowd is working on this.

Like the virgins and infertile women of the Old Testament, the eunuchs were ‘barren’ but God seems to choose these unlikely people to demonstrate that God alone is the arbiter of fruitfulness, as Isaiah prophesied (Isaiah 56) and as the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 8:26-end) illustrates.

Are there any Biblical passages which you consider supportive to trans people? I guess I am asking which are your personal favorites?

I have learned of many such passages from my friend Peterson Toscano, especially his show Transfigurations –Transgressing Gender in the Bible and by reading some of the scholarship that lies behind it. The gender variant people in the Bible he performs or refers to in this show are the Judge Deborah (Judges 4 & 5), Joseph in the Genesis (Chapters 37 onward) narrative (whose supposedly colourful coat is probably ‘a princess dress’), the eunuchs in the Book of Esther, the ‘man’ (though the Greek word used is for human being rather than for a male) carrying the jar of water, a woman’s role, (Mark 14:13, Luke 22:10), and a female disciple interpreted in the light of verses from the Gospel of Thomas.

Ichristina beardsleyn the Old Testament my favorite passage is the Joseph narrative in Genesis, not least because there God turns disaster into blessing, as God seemed to do for me following the attempted outing during my transition. My New Testament favorite is Galatians 3:28:

There is not Jew nor Greek, there is not slave nor free, there is not male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus

…and my favorite New Testament book is the Gospel of John which is astonishing, powerful, utterly beautiful, and yet profoundly earthed in first century culture, the Word made flesh indeed. In this gospel Jesus sits at the well with the Samaritan woman, and we observe his affection for the family at Bethany: Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus.

What do you think about the Biblical role of women? It certainly seems to me that the Bible seems to regard women as being subservient to men, and many female figures (I am thinking about, say Eve, or Delilah, or Salome, or Jezebel, or the Whore of Babylon) are depicted as temptresses, adulteresses, and moral corruptors of men; while all the heroic figures (Moses, Abraham, David, Solomon, Jesus, the Apostles) are all men. (Of course there are exceptions on both sides).

The Bible could be read as highly misogynist were we to focus on the women mentioned here, although feminist and queer readings are questioning such interpretations by examining the way editors and redactors have shaped the material. These readings highlight the strength of biblical women, and let’s be clear, there are plenty of examples of men – even those chosen by God – behaving badly!

I love the way it is now common to name the matriarchs as well as the patriarchs: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah are constrained by patriarchal conventions but also subvert them. When my chaplaincy role was based mainly in the women and children’s division, including maternity, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Anita Diamant’s take on Jacob’s wives and midwifery in her novel The Red Tent. The early church’s emphasis on virginity has affected traditional interpretations of Mother Mary and Mary Magdalen but there are plenty of feminist readings of both, and I loved Carlo Caretto’s Blessed are you who believed (Burns & Oates 1982) which locates Mother Mary in her middle eastern setting, and the deconstructive reflections and  poetry of Nicola Slee’s The Book of Mary (SPCK 2007).

Can you talk more about the Sibyls? Are they an international organisation? What other organizations exist which are supportive of transgender Christians?

Sibyls, Christian Spirituality for transgender people, is a UK organisation, but it has had members from further afield, including as far away as Hong Kong.

It was founded as a support network by Jay Walmsley in 1996, at a time when trans people were being turned away from their churches if they came out or transitioned. Churches are much more inclusive today, but in those days Holy Communion was celebrated at every meeting as people were being denied this sacrament in their own churches then.  Sibyls has always held meetings in both the north and the south of England (and in Wales) and the pattern has been two retreat weekends a year, plus social gatherings. People talk to one another on the retreats – conversations with other transgender Christians being vitally important – and there are prayer times morning and evening, free time, and a film or home-made entertainment (the latter was usual in the past, and intended to help people gain self-confidence). There is now a London meeting every two months, which begins with Evening Prayer at St Anne’s, Soho, and then members go out dinner together. Sibyls’ members are involved in educating the churches about transgender people through workshops, research, speaking engagements and writing.

christina beardsley

photo by Christa Holka

The Sibyls is the main organization for transgender Christians, but LGBTI Christian organizations like Changing Attitude, England (which had three trans trustees at one point) and the Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement (LGCM), whose former CEO identified as genderqueer, (these two organizations are about to merge) are supportive of gender variant people and campaign on their behalf, as does the LGBTI Anglican Mission, Inclusive Church, Accepting Evangelicals, Diverse Church (aimed at younger people) and others beside.

What is your relationship status currently?

I was married in 2006, following Gender Recognition and the issue of an amended birth certificate thanks to the passing of the UK Gender Recognition Act 2004.

Your husband presumably fell in love with you when he thought you were a gay man. How did he handle you becoming a woman?

Well, as I’ve said in the narrative I never fully saw myself as a gay man – gay yes but not really male and on reflection Rob has said that he can see now that I always was a woman looking back, for example, at the times that we were n holiday, sitting each side of a table, and irrespective of how we may have been perceived by others.

Which famous person would you most like to meet, and why?

A fun question and one I rarely get chance to think about. Recently, though, I was sad to discover that my dance heroine, Gabrielle Roth, had died five years ago and that I had left it too late to try to visit her in New York. The Five Rhythms practice she developed has been important for me and I would have loved to have heard about it directly from her rather than from her books and videos though her ‘voice’ is strong in both. I’m a big fan of the BBC television programme Call the Midwife, and as a chaplain have tended to see my better self as the rather wonderful sister superior, Sister Julienne, while knowing deep down that I am probably more like the ancient Sister Monica Joan, who is sadly teetering on the brink of dementia, but remains profound and wise, and is always raiding the biscuit tin. Tea with the two actresses who play these characters – Jenny Agutter and Judy Parfitt – would be lovely!

May I ask one last question? What advice would you personally give to people who feel a powerful conflict between what they feel their gender to be, and what their religion teaches them?

That’s a big question in that it could cover so many varied experiences and, as I said in another interview, I’m not supposed to give advice, but since you ask … I think it’s wonderful that we have the internet which we didn’t when I was exploring these things, so, researching via the internet, reading books on the subject and networking with other gender variant people of faith would be my initial advice.

===

With all my interviews, I like to reflect on a few points. Clearly there is a lot to talk about, and since this article is already very long, I might save some of it for the next time.

First, this interview only reinforces my idea that transgender people are everywhere: in every walk of life. You need only look, and there they are; and in fact, as has often happened before when I talk to someone, I realize that not only are there transgender Christians (including some in ministry and the religious life), there are a lot more of them, being a lot more active, than I had previously thought!

It doesn’t surprise me that transgender clerics exist: Jesus chose only male apostles (which has long been used as justification for keeping women out of ministry). But a lot of Jesus’ behavior is what we might associate with femininity: nurturing, avoiding conflict, kindness to the sick, the elderly and children. Therefore men who (like me) relate strongly to that aspect of Jesus’ work might easily possess a strong feminine side.

I had hoped that Tina might provide some resources to those of you who might be struggling with a conflict between what your own heart tells you is your gender, and what your religion tells you is your gender. And I am delighted that she has provided several resources to consider. As someone who has been a priest for many years, she clearly has reliable credentials to draw upon. If you are questioning, or worried, or ashamed, or guilty, it’s clear that you are not alone; others have walked the same path, and there is plenty out there to inform, support and guide you.

In terms of what Deuteronomy forbids and permits, I must say I don’t put much store in any of that. The same chapter describes that you must build a parapet on your roof in case someone falls off it; that you must not plough your field with a donkey and an ox together; that you must not wear a garment woven of two different fibers (such as wool and linen); and that you must make tassels for the four corners of the cloak you cover yourself with.

Many of the old Testament books contain prohibitions against all kinds of things. It makes sense (to me) to advise people to build a parapet on the roof to stop somebody falling off. It makes sense if you see one of your brother’s sheep straying, for you to bring it back if he is not around. It doesn’t make sense (to me, at least), to prohibit wearing of garments made of two or more fibres (this practice is in any case nearly ubiquitous these days). Deuteronomy 21:15 warns of the scenario where a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved: a man must treat his first-born son with honour, even if he is born to the unloved wife. Bigamy is illegal in the Western world, though Deuteronomy talks about it as if it’s not unusual. So Deuteronomy discusses activities which are now illegal on the one hand, and near-ubiquitous on the other (for a humorous and powerful discussion along these lines, take a look here). Therefore I cannot use it, in isolation, as any sort of useful rule book to live by.

The wonderful BBC programme The Why Factor has an episode devoted to cross-dressing. The presenter, Mike Williams, talks to consultant psychiatrist Dr. James Barrett, from London. Barrett points out that this is evidence that cross-dressing probably happened even in Old Testament times: why bother to prohibit something if nobody is doing it anyway?

To those who would argue that being transgender is inherently wrong or sinful, I would point to Tina, who has shown that one can be transgender and live a life in Christian ministry at the same time.

I hope that this article provokes more conversation on the topic of transgenderism and religion. Comments from other faiths apart from Christianity are especially welcome (though I propose to talk further about other faiths in a future article).

My thanks to Tina, for taking time to answer my questions so fully, and for providing the photos which I have used to illustrate this article.

===

Tina is co-editor, with her long-time collaborator, Michelle O’Brien, of ‘the Sibyls’ book’ This is My Body: hearing the theology of transgender Christians. She also wrote, The Transsexual Person is My Neighbour: Pastoral Guidelines for Clergy, Ministers and Congregations, to which Michelle contributed an Appendix on Intersex people. Published by the Gender Trust, it is now out of print but is available online here or here or here. Tina is now working with Chris Dowd on a transgender pastoral care manual, which is due for publication in 2018 by Darton, Longman & Todd, and is based on Chris’s research into transpeople’s spirituality.

Tina is sole author of a biography of a notable Victorian preacher, Unutterable Love: the Passionate Life and Preaching of FW Robertson (Lutterworth 2009). Robertson was preoccupied, both personally and theologically, with the relations between the sexes, or as we would describe it today, ‘gender’. Follow this link for the book’s contents and free access to its Preface, Introduction and the 2nd Chapter.

Tina has also blogged for some time about transgender people and faith here. You can also read her interview with the Cambridge Festival of Ideas here.

 

 

Apr 19

The Reality of Church PTSD

Church PTSD. Are you kidding me?. There is no such thing. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is something you have after being in combat or a victim of sexual assault, surviving a plane crash or maybe a tornado. How the heck can church, of all things, cause PTSD?

religion and PTSD

Okay, let’s all take a breath. What’s going through your head right now?

Were the beginning statements ones that crossed your mind when you saw the headline?

Or were you squirming in your seat because it triggers unwanted feelings of your own experiences?

Over the past couple years, I have come to terms with my own mental illness. I have discussed it many times and even shared some of the darkest points of my life, partly in hopes that others will know they are not alone and partly for my own sake, getting it out in the open and shining a bit of light on the darkness.

I also have been no stranger to discussing many of the issues I have faced within the church being a transgender woman. But the one thing I really haven’t wanted to admit or even realized for that matter is the mild form of PTSD, if it is that, due to the betrayal and painful experiences caused by people in the church.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is complex and each person reacts differently, both physically and emotionally, after they have experienced a traumatic event. Multiple factors before, during and after traumatic events play a integral role in how a person responds. Many times the onset of PTSD doesn’t happen until months or years after the traumatic experience(s).

By no means do I want to take anything away from those men, women and children who suffer debilitating forms of the disorder. But as a society, we shy away from talking about mental illness, let alone talking about PTSD. We have fallen short of truly considering the long list of things that can cause the disorder, recognizing the symptoms and how best can we help heal the wounds left behind.

Trauma, as defined by The PTSD Workbook by Dr. Mary Berth Williams and Dr. Soili Poijula, represents any injury, whether physical or emotional, to yourself or those close to you. Even witnessing injury to others is enough to be a traumatic event in your life and those events can be enough to cause long lasting affects for someone.

Church PTSD, also called Post Traumatic Church Disorder (PTCD), is most commonly experienced as a result of two different circumstances. There are many people who have suffered severe spiritual abuse at the hands of a manipulative church, pastor or theology.

Wende Benner, a spiritual abuse survivor who grew up in the homeschool environment of the Bill Gothard theology, has been outspoken about her experiences. She was raised in an oppressive and abusive environment that, to this day, still tries to invoke a harmful influence in her life and the lives of her family. “I think of uncovering the trauma is like a cone shaped spiral. As I’ve lived my life post-abuse, it’s like I started at the bottom. Everything was traumatic. But I didn’t have a big picture of why and how it affected me.”

The other group of individuals that experience PTSD from the church are those who have been the victim of a single or repeated attacks from people they trusted in the church. These experiences can be so emotionally damaging that it is like being involved in an emotional train wreck or earthquake.

Regardless of what the cause is or whether the effects of those experiences are severe or mild, PTSD is real for these people and has, to some extent, interfered with their lives.

Though I have known some of the road blocks I have with the church, I am just now figuring out just how it is interfering with my life and being able to be an active member of a church body. I am only now putting tow and two together and understanding the connection of my past experiences and how I am today.

There have been several instances that have led up to how I am now but one event in particular would rise to the level of traumatizing. It was shortly after I had fully transitioned. I had shared my journey with someone I thought I trusted in the church I was currently attending. I was interested in being more involved in the goings on in the church and she told me that the pastor would like to talk with me about it.

The day of the meeting came and my friend met me at the church which I thought was a bit odd but put it out of my mind. She escorted me to the pastor’s office where the pastor and the pastor’s wife joined us. I took a seat on the couch, catty corner from the door to the office with the pastor behind a big desk, the pastor’s wife to my left and my friend in a chair which was positioned between me and the door.

I instantly felt trapped.

I quickly realized that I had been ambushed.

In one short sentence, the discussion quickly turned from my desire to be an active part of the congregation to how they felt being transgender was against “God’s plan”. I was totally unprepared to counter their twisted dogma. It was as though my legs had been cut out from under me. At that point emotionally, I couldn’t return their volleys of condescending and hurtful rhetoric.

They had done their ‘research’ and hit me with every example they could find of people who had de-transitioned. They talked about what I have since learned is conversation therapy practices. They spouted scripture about how God made man and woman. They said they loved me and only wanted the best for me. But I knew they would never accept me for who I was.

They said they would pray for me and I knew exactly what that meant. They would pray that I would come to my senses and turn from my sinful ways and return to living as a man.

When it was all over, I couldn’t walk to my car fast enough. I felt absolutely gutted.

I had one last obligation with that church and for some stupid reason and against my better judgment I fulfilled it. In doing so I learned that the conversation, that meeting in the pastor’s office, the one that I thought was private, had been shared with others. Not only had I been ambushed but people in church leadership had betrayed my trust.

For a second time, I stood there eviscerated.

Needless to say I never went back. I knew even if they continued to use Meggan as my name, they would never accept me for the woman I am.

This particular incident was not the only negative encounter I have had with people in the church. In seven years I have had to walk away from four churches. I have encountered everything from unspoken disdain to out right hate from people I thought I trusted and people I considered good friends.

Even with these traumatic experiences, my faith in Christ was shaken but has not waned. I can’t say the same thing for my faith in my fellow Christians. These experiences have left me with a high mistrust level. Just last year, when I was invited to dinner to the home of one of the pastors of the church I had been attending for a few weeks and found out the senior campus pastor was going to be there as well, I flashed back to that horrible meeting. Even without knowing any details of the dinner, my brain automatically went to the worse case scenario.

During church services, a single line from a hymn will make me tear up.

In a sanctuary full of people, I can feel claustrophobic and absolutely alone all at the same moment.

I sit in the sanctuary wanting to pull something relevant out of the sermon, yet I am unable to fully concentrate on the message. Even though I have found friends in the church, I look around to those sitting there. My mind wanders to thinking about what these people would think and how they would react if they knew I was transgender. I find myself always listening for triggers. Those key words that might reveal where this pastor sits in regards to LGBTQ issues and to being transgender.

I have attempted to reach out to the leadership of different church bodies where I have attended but rarely received anything positive in return. The few times I have met with pastors, it has always ended in me feeling attacked or they just can’t bring themselves to accept me for who I am. I have gotten to the point where I am not sure what is worse – being ignored or made to feel small and inhuman for making the choice to live an authentic life.

Whether or not what I experience rises to the level of PTSD as defined by the DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association 2013), I’ll let the professionals diagnose that. But when I look at some of the most common signs of PTSD, I can’t help but recognize in me many of the same issues.

  • avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind us of the trauma
  • loss of interest in activities and life in general
  • feeling detached from others and emotionally numb
  • anger & irritability
  • guilt, shame or self-blame
  • hyper vigilance, on constant “red alert”, feeling jumpy and easily startled
  • feelings of mistrust and betrayal
  • feeling alienated and alone
  • depression

It is not as though I haven’t tried to find an affirming church. I’ve attempted to reach out to the leadership of different church bodies where I have attended but rarely received anything positive in return. The few times I have met with pastors, it has always ended in me feeling attacked or they just can’t bring themselves to accept me for who I am. I have gotten to the point where I am not sure what is worse – being ignored or made to feel small and inhuman for making the choice to live an authentic life.

I know there are church bodies out there who are welcoming and affirming. I know there are places where I could finally put the traumatic experiences behind me. But worship is a personal experience. Not all denominations or individual church bodies are for everyone.

Maybe it’s misguided and maybe I am a bit naive, but I continue to believe there is the possibility of having a contemporary, evangelical body that can be affirming for the LGBTQ community. I continue to have faith that there can be a place, no matter the denomination, for people who have experienced hurt to heal. Isn’t it Christ himself who said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” If that’s not a mission statement for a church, I’m not sure what is.

Wounds caused by trauma take time to heal and that process is unique for each person in recovery. The list of techniques to aid in the healing process is long and not all work or are appropriate for everyone.

Some people have even found healing in the most unexpected circumstances. For Wende, healing took a huge leap forward with the birth of her own children. “One of the biggest turning points in recovery for me personally was having children of my own. With the idea of God as my parent I realized the things I had been taught about God were things I would never, ever do to my kids because I loved them so greatly. I finally realized the things I was taught in my youth would actually be abuse if I did them to my own children. So how could a good, loving God/parent do such things to me?”

“It has been a long journey of unraveling the lies and truth. In many ways I have needed to tear everything down and rebuild my beliefs and views of life over again. But, every moment of hard work has been worth the freedom of knowing it is acceptable for me to be my own person, to have my own thoughts and desires, and to know I do not have to sacrifice my whole self in order to love my family.” Wende Benner – Homeschoolers Anonymous

But regardless of the methods used in the healing process, at the core to healing is love, support and understanding. This is something that the church needs to comprehend.

The number of hurting people continues to rise.  Whether they suffer from PTSD or not, the hurt needs to come to an end and the damage done needs to be healed. Far too many people are running away from organized religion because they have seen the worst it has to offer.

PTSD is called a disorder for a reason. It takes the natural order of our lives away from us. It interferes with who we are and who we can be. This is something that is absolutely contrary to what Christ wants for our lives. The church needs to remember the parting words Christ gave to the disciples was one of peace. He said. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

For more on PTSD ( Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), you can check out the following links:

http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/symptoms-causes/dxc-20308550

There is also a Facebook group geared to healing Religious Trauma.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/PTCSgroup/

Reprinted from ChicagoNow by Megga Sommerville

If you would like to follow Megan, you can find her on Facebook at Trans Girl at the Cross and at Twitter @Megganrenee

Meggan Sommerville is a Christian transgender woman with a heart for educating others about the transgender community and her faith in her Savior, Jesus Christ. Her career life has taken her on a variety of adventures, from being a veterinary technician in the Western burbs of Chicago to being an EMT/Paramedic, EMS instructor, and a paid on call firefighter for Bolingbrook , Illinois. Since 1998, she has been the frame shop manager for a national craft retailer. You can contact Meggan via email at Meg.Sommerville@aol.com or find her on Facebook at Trans Girl at the Cross

Jan 26

Meet Reverend Linda Herzer, Transgender Advocate

Linda Herzer transgender advocateIn 2012, Rev. Linda Herzer joined the staff of a church with a large transgender population. This inspired her to read, study, attend gender variant support groups, and listen to the stories of her trans congregants.  Having learned much, Linda is now an active trans ally, an engaging diversity trainer and a thought-provoking preacher. She is also the author of The Bible and the Transgender Experience: How Scripture Supports Gender Variance, reviewed in our book section of the Library

Prior to becoming a trans advocate, she had a 10-year career as a school library media specialist. Throughout those years she developed and taught an extensive research skills curriculum. During her seminary years, Linda did diversity training while working as Assistant to the Director of Women’s Concerns. She also designed the curriculum for the school’s course on Women in Ministry. Linda has created and facilitated numerous workshops for a variety of groups

As a trangender advocate, Linda has preached on the transgender experience at her own church and others in the area. Here is her two part video series on gender non-conformity and The Genesis Gender Dilemma.

 

 

Mar 01

How To Tell If Your Church Is Welcoming For Transgender People

Welcoming churchby Fr. Shannon Kearns

Religion is an important part of the life of many trans people but rejection by the church is not uncommon and it can be devastating. But there are welcoming churches and the experience can renew your faith. This article  provides some clues what to look for..

Is your church welcoming of transgender people? And if it is, does anyone know?

Lots of churches declare their “open and affirming” status on their websites. Or they will put a rainbow flag on their church sign or website homepage. But those symbols often don’t tell the whole story. Many churches that have done a lot of work on gay and lesbian issues haven’t bothered to study anything about transgender people. They have outdated language on their websites or don’t mention transgender issues at all.

Some folks will ask “Why do we need to mention it at all? Why can’t we just say we welcome all people?”

Because most churches don’t. Because I’ve sat through too many services where my life and identity is either ignored or talked about badly. If your website says nothing about transgender people I will automatically assume that you are not welcoming of transgender people.

If you are a church leader or part of a church you absolutely must understand how crucial this is if you are actually going to be welcoming to transgender people. My default stance is to assume that your church will not be welcoming because most of them are not. If your church is, you need to be upfront and clear about it.

But don’t lie. If your church needs to do work on transgender issues, you need to do that work on your own without having a transgender person be your guinea pig. Please, don’t overstate your welcome if you’re not ready to actually be welcoming

Here are specific things I look for on a church website to see if it’s a place that I would be willing to visit:

Do you mention transgender people anywhere on your site? And if so, are you using language that is currently considered appropriate? I can’t tell you how many church websites are using “transgendered” somewhere on their sites. (Here’s an article about why that’s not the word to use.)

Do you make it a point to mention that you have gender neutral or single stall bathrooms?

Does your statement of inclusion specifically mention both gender identity and gender expression?

How do you refer to God on your website? Do you use only male pronouns? Or only binary pronouns?

Do you have lots of gender specific ministries and groups? If so do you make clear that transgender people are welcome in those groups? Do you have groups for transgender or non-binary identified people? (And really, do you need gendered groups to begin with?)

Do you mention that you welcome families with gender diverse children?

Do you mention that people can dress however they are comfortable?

Tweet it: If your church is welcoming of #transgender people, how will people know?

Along with your website, your church should actually be prepared to welcome transgender people.

Do some work with your greeters to help them understand how hurtful gendered greetings might be (even if someone doesn’t “look like” they are transgender or don’t identify with the gender they are presenting as being called by the wrong pronoun or by a gendered address can be really hurtful).

Help your folks understand that policing bathrooms is not okay. They might think they are directing someone to the “right” restroom but they are actually being hurtful. Let people use the bathroom that they want to use and let them use it in peace.

Provide an opportunity for people to give you their pronoun, whether it’s by having space for that on church name tags or as part of the greeting time.

Help people understand that it’s not okay to stare. You wouldn’t think you would have to mention this, but you do.

Help people to understand that it is not, under any circumstances, okay to out someone. Even if you think it’s “obvious” that they are transgender. Even if they have told other people. Even if it’s on their personal website/blog/facebook page/twitter account. It is not your business and not your job to out people. (I can hear your excuses now and the answer is no. Not okay.)

It is okay, without saying anything more, to correct someone who uses the wrong pronoun. Simply say, “So and so uses X pronoun.” and move on with your conversation.

Personal note from Tasi: I’ve found that most of the Unitarian Universalist churches (UUC) and the Metropolitan Community churches (MCC) are welcoming of transgender people.

Feb 28

Religion and the Transgender Person

Religion and faith are important in the lives of many transgender people but some churches reject transgender people while others, be they family, friends, or associates  condemn us based on some religious doctrine. This 6 part series from Transascity.org is the most comprehensive and authoritative review that I have seen on what the Bible says about crossdressing and what it means for the transgender person. I recommend it to you……Tasi

Religion Faith and the Transgender Person-8       Republished from Transascity.org

The following articles talk to other issues in our faith as trans people and hopefully will broaden your interpretation of those issues as they apply to you.

 

Jul 13

Why Conservative Christians Fear the Affirmation of Transgender Identity

Reposted from rhrealitycheck.com. By Dianna E. Anderson, Faith and Feminism

At its annual meeting this past June, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)—one of the largest Christian denominations in the world—passed a landmark resolution on the issue of transgender rights, making its stance on trans* people an official part of the doctrine.

The resolution says, in part, that SBC’s leaders “condemn acts of abuse or bullying committed against [transgender individuals].” But they also resolve that no efforts should be made to “alter one’s bodily identity (e.g. cross-sex hormone therapy, gender reassignment surgery) to bring it in line with one’s perceived gender identity,” and that they “continue to oppose steadfastly all efforts by any court or state legislature to validate transgender identity as morally praiseworthy.”

In other words, even as the SBC ostensibly condemns physical aggression against trans* individuals, it has resolved to support state and institutional violence against the same people.

Visibility for trans* individuals has notably increased over the last decade, with the last two years in particular ushering in a skyrocketing amount of press and media aimed at trans* celebrities. Several prominent artists—musician Laura Jane Grace and director Lana Wachowski, for instance—came out as transgender women; Emmy-nominated actress and trans woman Laverne Cox appeared on the cover of Time magazine this June. And as the nation begins to look at LGBT rights with a wider lens, many prominent members of America’s conservative Christian churches have begun to shift their focus as well.

Several popular leaders of these denominations have brought transgender issues to the forefront of their rhetoric and teachings. Unfortunately, this shift in focus comes largely without corresponding education, resulting in skewed, transphobic sermons. Most famously, the president of SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore, wrote in 2009 about the ethical quandary that “repentant” transgender individuals posed for a pastor. Moore came to the conclusion that pastors should encourage people to embrace a gender identity that matches their assigned sex at birth and that transgender identity is, first and foremost, a sin.

In more recent years, Denny Burk, professor of biblical studies at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky, has apparently resolved to set himself up as SBC’s resident “expert” on transgender identity. Unfortunately, Burk’s writing mangles even the easiest explanations: He continuously uses “transgender” as a noun rather than an adjective, for example, and purposefully misgenders trans* individuals. The misgendering, in particular, seems to extend from a desire to “correct” others on their gender by reminding them of the one they were assigned at birth—a possible manifestation of many SBC leaders’ proposed method of “loving” trans* people.

Overall, the religious right’s recent push against transgender identity has been led by white, straight, cisgender men—and it has developed political implications outside the church. Shortly following the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision in June, the heads of numerous religiously affiliated organizations wrote a letter to President Obama asking for similar exemptions to his recent executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against the LGBT community in the workplace. In fact, this letter specifically objected to the idea of transgender inclusion.

One of the most notable of these signatories was D. Michael Lindsay, president of the evangelical Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. Lindsay’s move in signing the letter has led some alumni of the college to return their diplomas in protest, indicating that the anti-trans* sentiment is largely a generational gap.

But Gordon is not the first Christian college to embroil itself in controversy regarding transgender students. George Fox University, a Quaker school in the liberal bastion of Portland, Oregon, also found itself in hot water with activists this summer when it refused a transgender student the opportunity to live with his male friends.

The questions of religious exemptions and the liberty to practice religion as one sees fit are complex and complicated—far too much to go into here. One aspect of this quickly moving battle for both civil rights and understanding, however, is the theological ground for rejecting transgender identity.

Simply put: Conservative Christians are standing on shifting sands.

The Bible doesn’t speak directly to transgender identity. So leaders on the religious right get around this by conflating non-binary gender with sexual sin—namely, “sexual immorality,” a vague umbrella term covering everything from sex outside of marriage to homosexual acts. Gender, in the eyes of evangelicals, determines sexuality: If you are a man, it is your God-given role to marry and bed a woman. If you are a woman, you are to submit yourself to your husband. All other deviations from this norm are sin.

Without fixed gender, one’s sexuality is therefore unstable. And fixed sexual and gendered roles are a necessity for the evangelical vision of family and church.

This series of assumptions is at the root of the evangelical fear of both marriage equality and transgender acceptance. The cultural hegemony that conservative Christian culture enjoyed for barely a generation is eroding, and with it the power evangelicals had to adapt the world to their whims. The very existence of gender outside a binary puts fear in the hearts of evangelicals because their narrow theology is dependent upon them: male and female, good and evil, heaven and hell. But since the Bible doesn’t speak directly to the topic—the most we see is discussion of eunuchs—evangelicals must figure out a way to make transgender identity a sin of sexuality, forever muddying and confusing the issue.

In an August 2014 article for 9 Marks journal, for instance, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. addresses the issue of transgender identity by addressing sexual sin, arguing that the physical body is vital “to our personhood,” and as embodied creatures of God, a fixed gender is therefore necessary for human reproduction and, in turn, playing out the creation drama in which God placed us. Mohler admits that the Bible does not speak to transgender identity; therefore he must connect it to the evangelical concept of family—that reproduction is part of God’s plan for everyone—in order to speak against it.

And in Good, an eBook recently released by celebrity pastor John Piper’s Desiring God ministry, Burk continues his quest to undercut trans* identity, writing:

We must tell the truth about what the Bible teaches about gender. Among other things, the Bible is clear that there is a normative connection between biological sex and gender identity. The ‘normative connection’ I am speaking of is not defined by the sociological observation that a certain percentage of the population experiences their own gender in a that conflicts with their biological sex. The sociological norm knows nothing of the Fall and confuses what is with what ought to be. The norm that we must insist on is the norm that is not normed by any other norm: Scripture.


Amidst that word salad, what Burk is essentially saying is that while transgender identity may occur as a sociological and statistical reality, such “realities” don’t take into account the influence of sin and the fall of man into evil; therefore, sociological facts don’t represent the kingdom of God as what should be. In other words, Burk recognizes that transgender people exist as a matter of course, but he doesn’t care because the scripture—which he does not cite—allegedly says they shouldn’t.

This is the theological basis for denying the rights of real people who survive in the real world: that they don’t match up with an eschatological conception of life without sin, and therefore should be rejected and discriminated against. Any person who is unrepentantly trans*—who does not flagellate themselves before the altar of the binary and biologically determined gender—is therefore acting in open defiance to God’s good law about gender. And sinning so openly means discrimination is the only holy response.

Such a belief is so dependent upon a number of evaporating cultural assumptions—straight marriage that will always produce children, gender and sexuality as fixed states, the idea that men are leaders and women are followers—that it’s fairly easy to see why representatives of various Christian organizations are panicked at the idea of affirming transgender identities. That affirmation, after all, would be a devastating blow for the house of cards upon which they’ve built their faith. Accepting the very existence of trans* people is an act that threatens their image of God—because God, in conservative Christians’ eyes, only created (and called “good”) male and female in a compulsory heterosexual binary.

And yet, this is precisely why trans* visibility and laws protecting trans* identities are so important. One shouldn’t have to engage in an in-depth theological debate simply to exist as the person they are. One shouldn’t have to make a theological case simply to justify why they should be allowed to hold a job or attend the college of their choosing. But this is the reality for many trans* Christians today—even if it is a house of cards, evangelicals are still fighting with all their might to keep it standing.

Note from Tasi. Not all evangelicals believe that transgender is a sin or violates Gods will. We are all aware of many church’s that support the LGBT community. Here is one transgender Christian who believes that the Bible can be part of our lives and I was amused that this video was in response to a southern Alabama preacher that transitioned

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