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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Aug 27

All About Drag

The world of drag is closely entwined with the trans community and although the focus of Sister House is trans fashion, we sometimes forget that our history and our fashion largely came from drag. In fact, some of our sisters make their living as drag queens and at least one of our major cross-dressing contributors, Vera Wylde, does drag. Drag Queens have been our fashion models and have led the race for equality and acceptance, so this section is dedicated to honoring their contribution.

The history of drag is long and most fascinating. Before RuPaul there was Finocchio’s and their many fabulous entertainers over the years. One of the last living. performing queens is the Cuban legend, David de Alba and we’ll have a special section on him as well.

The Queen of the Queens of course is RuPaul.  RuPaul’s “Drag Race” is more than a TV show It’s a movement. This article by Ryan Carey-Mahoney of the Washington Post says it well.

the queens of RuPauls drag race

The queens of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars.” (Courtesy of Logo TV)

If you think lip-syncing is easy, you probably haven’t done it for your life. Just ask the many drag queens of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

When faced with elimination, these queens battle bleached-white tooth and manicured nail for their spot in the competition. Every syllable, flourish and split needs to count.

There’s a desperation to stay and a need to leave a lasting impression. Vying to become America’s next drag superstar won’t kill you, of course, but it could kill your career. And in front of drag’s most prominent living icon, isn’t that the highest stake of all?

“Our girls go directly from the club onto a national and international stage,” RuPaul, 55, told The Post. “You’re not getting some rehearsed … version of the gay experience. You’re getting it straight up, raw, unfiltered.”

Long before Jimmy Fallon grabbed a mic or Spike produced its own “Lip Sync Battle,” “Drag Race” — and drag as an art form in general — were there. Now, given its moment in the sun, we can see how little credit drag has historically received for its impact on pop culture.

“Drag has always been thought of as the stepchild of show business or even of the gay-rights movement, and [now] these girls are at the forefront of gay culture and of pop culture,” RuPaul said.

Drag itself is nothing new. Before there was “Drag Race,” it thrived in nightlife — at clubs, on glittering stages and on street corners — before entering other aspects of life.

There was Divine, a legendary comedy queen whose look inspired Ursula, the evil sea witch from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” There was pre-“Race” Ru, a true supermodel of the world and Billboard-charting dance artist. And don’t forget about Lady Bunny and the iconic subjects of the drag-queen documentary “Paris is Burning.”

drag queen from RuPaul's Drag Race

(Washington Post illustration; Logo TV)

Drag has always influenced mainstream pop culture, but because of its underground roots, people stole from it without credit. Things have improved for this next generation of young queens, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a ways to go.

“On new shows they use phrases like ‘throwing shade’ … and it’s kind of funny,” said Alaska, 31, a runner-up in Season 5 of “Drag Race” and a contestant on the second season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” which debuts Aug. 25. “You wouldn’t see a drag queen on any of those shows unless it was as a punchline … we are nameless and faceless.”

The 21st-century lexicon — “yas,” “shade,” “sickening” — would be difficult to recognize without drag’s influences, particularly from queer people of color in the 1980s and ’90s. Words like “reading,” for instance, have little to do with actual literature: “Paris is Burning” used that phrase in its slang context, in which you “read” someone and tell them how you really feel about them.

draq queen from Ru Paul's drag race

(Courtesy of GIPHY)

And vocabulary is not the only place where drag has made an impact.

“I went to my 24-hour CVS last night and I looked at Katy Perry’s new ad for CoverGirl and I thought she was me,” said Adore Delano, 26, a Season 6 runner-up and “All Star” contestant. “A lot of these celebrities don’t know but like, girl, it’s bleeding into the system.”

Watch any episode of “Drag Race” and you’ll see the artistry in progress. Marvel at their perfectly drawn eyebrows and puckered lips. Get lost in the splashy sea of sequins, wigs, caked-on foundation and, yeah, a lot of duct tape. But like any drag queen, “Drag Race” is about more than looks.

“Throughout the history of the gay-rights movement, drag queens have always been at the forefront,” RuPaul said. “We threw the first brick at Stonewall and this show gives us the chance to not only tell our history, but to inform young people about the rich cultural heritage that their brothers and sisters before them have created.”

There’s an overarching authenticity that runs deeply through the show: Over the course of the series, there have been 100 contestants of all shapes, ages and races, each able to speak to the portion of the queer community they represent.

Some have come out as transgender and genderqueer; others have revealed the harsh realities of abandonment and prison. Some are living with HIV, others recovering from addiction.

On Season 4 in 2012, Chad Michaels spoke out on the importance of marriage equality. While talking about his longtime partner, he choked up thinking about the lack of access or say in any important medical decisions in an emergency.

“There’s a lot of things I could have said about gay marriage at that point, but I wanted to hit a nerve,” Michaels, 45, who later went on to win “All Stars” Season 1, said.

Because “Drag Race” doesn’t come off as heavy-handed or overtly political, it paints the most realistic depiction of the queer community currently on television. Airing on Logo, a channel devoted to programming for LGBTQ+ audiences, the show is about owning who you are and shrugging off those who tell you differently.

There are — well, were — other examples of TV shows that spoke to the community: HBO’s “Looking” looked at life as a white, gay man in San Francisco; “Will & Grace” brought gay men onto prime time; and “The Ellen Show,” “Queer As Folk,” “The L Word” and others aimed to represent various viewers.

But “Drag Race” does have the edge on other series because of its format: reality show. The queens aren’t scripted, which adds another layer of authenticity.

drag queen

(Courtesy of GIPHY)

“‘Drag Race’ is giving visibility to our community,” Alaska said. “It’s on TV and you can see RuPaul, who is a black, queer, powerful figure who has run this empire for years, and I think that’s an amazing thing.”

That authenticity, however, is not without criticism. In earlier seasons, Ru had messages titled “She-Mail” delivered to her queens. Some online found that offensive to the trans community, who fight everyday to secure their identity, and view “she-male” as a derogatory term.

But drag, as Ru says, isn’t about securing identity. It’s about making fun of the social construct of it.

“You can’t explain irony to people, and drag has always been about irony,” he said. “If you have to explain a joke, then it loses its funniness. If I have to explain so much, then the person you’re explaining it to isn’t ready to hear it.”

If there’s one thing that’s not up for debate, it’s that this show is beloved — or, as Alaska called it, a “phenomenon” like “Star Trek.” Its appeal spreads beyond gay men; many straight women latch on to the series. Michelle Visage, a longtime judge, is one of the show’s biggest fans.

“The word is just getting out at how amazing and how life-changing this show truly is,” Visage said. “This amazing art craft has gone far too long for not being recognized and validated.”

Some may say that’s why drag took so long be noticed by the mainstream: It was never meant to be recognized or validated. Drag doesn’t seek out acceptance from “the man” — unless that man is dressed like a woman and goes by the name RuPaul.

An interview with RuPaul as he reflects on decades of draq

RuPaul

Mar 15

A History of Trans Lives in Film

From ‘Glen or Glenda’ to ‘The Danish Girl’
By Parker Molloy

Over the course of the past several years, transgender individuals have inched their way into mainstream consciousness. Trans people typically face high levels of unemployment, increased risk of contracting HIV, discrimination—in housing, employment, restrooms, and access to medical care—and a host of other challenges unique to their struggle for equality. As GLAAD notes, less than one in 10 Americans actually know a trans individual, making the media the public’s primary source of education on trans issues.

dallas buters club

Still image from Dallas Buyers Club, Voltage Pictures

For more than half a century, from Glen or Glenda to Dallas Buyers Club, the entertainment industry has tried to get a handle on how to accurately and respectfully portray trans people. Unfortunately, it sometimes appears that the creators wind up using trans characters less as people and more as props, to be used for comedic effect or to shock the audience.

2014 saw the debut of trans-centric series like Transparent, The T Word, and True Trans with Laura Jane Grace. These shows—created with trans people in either starring or consulting roles—are a sharp departure from trans media of years past and instead paint trans individuals as real, non-sensationalized people. While these series are examples of success in documentary, comedic, and dramatic portrayals of trans people, they are far from the norm.

transparent-jeffrey-tambor

Alexandra Billings and Jeffery Tambour in Transparent

Over the past half-century, the entertainment industry has portrayed transgender individuals hundreds of times.

In 1953, writer and director Ed Wood released Glen or Glenda, a film centered around society’s disdain for those who deviate from traditional gender norms. At the time of the film’s release, it was illegal to be caught publicly cross-dressing in a number of states. Glen or Glenda became a cult sensation and was later re-popularized in Tim Burton’s 1994 film Ed Wood in which Johnny Depp plays the titular character coming to terms with his own compulsion to wear women’s clothing. Wood did not identify himself as transsexual; the term “transgender” wouldn’t make its way into the cultural lexicon for another couple of decades.

Glen or Glenda

In 1970, director Michael Sarne released Myra Breckinridge, a film based on Gore Vidal’s 1968 novel of the same name. Sarne’s adaptation features Raquel Welch as Myra Breckinridge, a teacher at Buck Loner Academy who takes advantage of her male students and sexually assaults them. The film ends with Breckinridge reverting back to her former male self. Like Glen or Glenda, critics panned the film. In 1974, Vidal published Myron, a sequel centered on Breckenridge’s struggle to establish true identity.

1975 saw the release of Dog Day Afternoon, a film inspired by the story of real life bank robber John Wojtowicz and his transgender wife Elizabeth Eden. The film starred Al Pacino as bank robber Sonny Wortzik; Chris Sarandon played Leon Shermer, a character based on Eden. The film won an Academy Award for best original screenplay and received nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Sidney Lumet, the famed director of such films as 12 Angry Men, Network, and The Verdict), Best Actor in a Leading Role (Pacino), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Chris Sarandon), and Best Film Editing. Dog Day Afternoon marked one of the first times a mainstream film featuring a prominent transgender character received critical acclaim. Sarandon’s nomination for playing a trans individual signaled the start of a trend that would eventually lead to Oscar wins for straight actors Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry) and Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club).

The 1980s featured films like Brian De Palma’s critically praised Dressed to Kill, in which Michael Caine plays Dr. Robert Elliott and his murderous, female alter ego Bobbi; 1982’s The World According to Garp, which earned John Lithgow an Oscar nomination for his role as Roberta Muldoon, a transgender woman; and 1983’s Sleepaway Camp, in which a transgender woman goes on a homicidal rampage.

John Lithgow in the World According to Garp

John Lithgow in the World According to Garp

For better or worse, the 1990s featured some of the most iconic depictions of transgender and gender non-conforming characters Hollywood has ever produced. From Silence of the Lambs’s Buffalo Bill to The Crying Game’s Dil and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective’s Lt. Einhorn, it slowly became more commonplace to use gender variance as a plot device in mainstream Hollywood, even if it wasn’t always done in a particularly accurate or flattering light.

Still image from Boys Don’t Cry, Fox Searchlight Pictures
In 1999, Hilary Swank portrayed transgender man Brandon Teena in the award-winning film Boys Don’t Cry. The film depicts the tragic, true story of Teena and his death at the hands of two former friends. The film brought mainstream attention to the devastating reality of violence that transgender individuals. Swank took home an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role, and co-star Chloë Sevigny was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role at that year’s Academy Awards. Sevigny would later go on to play a transgender woman in the 2012 British TV series Hit & Miss.

In 2001, John Cameron Mitchell directed and starred in Hedwig & the Angry Inch, an adaptation of his 1998 stage musical of the same name. Hedwig tells the story of an East German gay man named Hansel Schmidt who falls in love with American soldier Luther Robinson. Schmidt learns that if he were to marry Robinson, he would be able to travel home to America with his new husband. Unfortunately, same-sex marriage was not a reality in East Germany or the United States at the time, so Schmidt decided to subject himself to sexual reassignment surgery in order to be able to marry Robinson. Despite the sacrifices made by Schmidt—now going by the name Hedwig Robinson—the marriage falls apart, leaving Hedwig to reconcile with her new reality, all the while performing in a glam rock band. The film explores these gender-related themes, focusing on what it means to be a man or a woman, and finding oneself.
In 2003, Showtime produced Soldier’s Girl, a story based on the lives of transsexual performer Calpernia Addams and her boyfriend, U.S. Army Private First Class Barry Winchell. In 1999, Winchell was murdered by his fellow soldiers after they learned of his relationship with Addams. This tragedy ignited criticisms of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, instituted just five years earlier. Congress would repeal the policy in 2011, granting gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals the right to serve openly in the military. As of this writing, transgender individuals are still prohibited from serving in the military.

In 2005’s Transamerica, Felicity Huffman plays Bree, a trans woman who learns just a week before undergoing sexual reassignment surgery that she fathered a son years earlier. The film follows Bree’s journey across the country with her newly found teenage son, and focuses on the complexity of human relationships and what it means to be a family.

TransAmerica

Felicity Huffman in Transamerica, The Weinstein Company

 

The portrayal of transgender individuals has frequently been defamatory, inaccurate, and based on outdated stereotypes. In a review of more than 100 episodes featuring a transgender character over a 10 year span, LGBT media watchdog GLAAD found that in more than half of surveyed TV episodes, trans characters were portrayed in a negative or defamatory light, and only 12 percent were deemed “groundbreaking, fair, and accurate.” The organization went on to highlight specific instances of negative trans representation on TV, which included shows like CSI, The Cleveland Show, andNip/Tuck.
The past few years have seen a rise in the number of positive portrayals of trans characters. Even more importantly, there has been an increase in the number of trans actors and actresses cast in mainstream shows.

From 2007 to 2008, transgender actress Candis Cayne had a recurring role on ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money, in which she portrayed a woman named Carmelita, the mistress of a high-profile politician. Cayne’s performance illustrated some of the pain and shame trans women and their straight male partners often face, as well as the elevated risk of violence these women face. From 2013 to 2014, Cayne appeared in three episodes of CBS’ Elementary, a modern take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

In 2013, Netflix premiered Orange Is the New Black, a comedy/drama about life inside a women’s prison. The show features transgender woman Laverne Cox in the role of Sophia Burset, one of the inmates at the prison. Prior to appearing on OITNB, Cox had appeared on a couple of reality TV shows, as well as episodes of Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and HBO’s Bored to Death. For the most part, these roles embodied many of the problematic elements outlined in GLAAD’s study. Her role on OITNB, however, broke from many of those stereotypes, and while not perfect, has done much to bring trans awareness to the mainstream. Last year, Cox became the first out trans individual to be nominated for an Emmy in an acting category.

In June of 2014, The Matrix creators Lana and Andy Wachowski unveiled the cast list for their upcoming Netflix sci-fi drama series Sense 8. Among those cast is Jamie Clayton, a transgender actress who had previously appeared on HBO’s Hung and TRANSform Me, a makeover reality TV show featuring Clayton, Cox, and Nina Poon; all transgender women. Lana Wachowski, herself, is a transgender woman, having come out publicly in 2012.

Years from now, it’s entirely possible that Cox, Cayne, and Clayton will be heralded as pioneers of the golden age of trans media representation in scripted television, a format in evolution. As these women and other trans people find themselves part of the entertainment industry, they will be better suited to mold coverage, and reduce inaccuracies and stereotypes.

In theory, documentaries are the one format where individuals can most directly tell their own stories. Unfortunately, in both long- and short-form documentaries, trans lives have been portrayed in similarly sensationalistic ways as they are in scripted endeavors. Many of these tropes—trans women shown putting on makeup, a laser focus on surgical procedures, and other common themes of trans documentaries—have become so prevalent that they’ve prompted viewers to create their own “Trans Documentary Drinking Game.”

Nonetheless, there are documentaries that have been done right, such as 2007’s Red Without Blue, which focuses on a pair of identical twins, one of whom eventually comes out as transgender. The film manages to avoid more stereotypical tropes and keep the focus on some of the struggles many trans people face in navigating familial relationships after coming out.

red without blue

Other films, such as the 2011 Chaz Bono documentary Becoming Chaz or 1990’s Paris Is Burning, have received critical acclaim. In the case of Paris is Burning, success came mostly in the form of its cult following. Paris is Burning stands apart from many of the other trans documentaries, by focusing not only on trans individuals, but on the larger, LGBT culture found in New York City’s mid-to-late 1980s ball scene.
Last year, Laverne Cox and Laura Jane Grace each released their own trans documentary series, titled The T Word and True Trans with Laura Jane Grace, respectively. One only hopes these seres will pave the way for more relatable, human representations of trans people in both documentaries and broader pop culture

Last April, it was announced that actor and recent Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn, Les Misérables, The Theory of Everything) would be playing the role of Lili Elbe in the upcoming film adaptation of The Danish Girl. Elbe was a transgender woman who, in the early 1930s, underwent one of the first documented sexual reassignment surgeries. While Redmayne’s work has been consistently well-received, his casting in The Danish Girl raised concerns. Will he be able to accurately portray the film’s subject.

Redmayne do Lili Elbe in the Danish Girl

Redmayne do Lili Elbe in the Danish Girl

In an interview with E!, Redmayne is quoted as saying, “Even though it is period and under completely different circumstances than today, I’m meeting many women from the trans community and hearing their experiences. I have put on dresses and wigs and makeup. I’m beginning to embark on that and trying to find out who she is.”

Few question the value of speaking to trans women about undertaking the role, but Redmayne’s comment set off red flags. Does he think gender identity is nothing more than “dresses and wigs and makeup?”
This statement harkened back to Leto’s Dallas Buyers Club acceptance speech at the Golden Globe Awards, where he said, “I’d like to use this opportunity to clear up a few things. I did not ever use any prosthetics in this film. That tiny little Brazilian bubble butt was all mine. It was a very transformative role, and I had to do a lot of things to prepare. One of the things I did was wax my entire body including my eyebrows. I’m just fortunate that it wasn’t a period piece so I didn’t have to do full Brazilian.”

This idea, that appearance and adherence to gender norms are intrinsically linked to one’s gender identity, is one of the very stereotypes that advocates for trans rights frequently look to dispel. While having trans characters and trans themes featured in Hollywood is seen as a generally positive development for trans people, casting actors who don’t seem to have a real grasp on the characters they portray can be a cringeworthy experience to watch.

Will Redmayne do Lili Elbe justice? It’s certainly possible. Would it have been nice to see a trans actress in that role, or for the film’s script to have been written by a trans woman? Absolutely. But progress, here as everywhere, is incremental.

As we enter 2015, the question of whether modern day portrayals of trans individuals will be remembered as accurate or offensive remains an open question. As portrayals of trans individuals become more accurate, so does trans perception in the public eye. Progress is invariably linked to portrayal, and upcoming years will prove pivotal to the state of trans rights in the immediate future.