Monday, July 9, 2007

Blog for TransEpiscopal by the Revd Dr Christina Beardsley

Blog for TransEpiscopal by the Revd Dr Christina Beardsley
Thank you for inviting me to write this blog about trans issues in the UK from my perspective as a trans woman and a priest in the Church of England. I thought it might be helpful to begin with a description of the medical and legal context here before commenting on Church matters.

Medical treatment
In the UK treatment for gender dysphoria is available on the National Health Service (NHS), and the Gender Identity Clinic located next to Charing Cross Hospital, London, has been diagnosing and treating people for over four decades. Its leading clinician, until his recent retirement, was Professor Richard Green. Gender Re-assignment Surgery (GRS) takes place at Charing Cross and a number of regional NHS Trusts. Some trans people used to complain that NHS protocols and waiting times were unbearably slow, but one hears this less and less. In the past, however, it often led those who could afford it to turn to private medicine.
The main UK private practice, also based in London, used to belong to Dr Russell Reid, who has treated many trans people, myself included. Highly respected in the trans community as a compassionate, skilled practitioner, he has just emerged from a protracted set of hearings before the British Medical Association, accused of flouting the Harry Benjamin International Guidelines. Dr Reid routinely prescribed hormones to patients as a diagnostic test, arguing that those who are not trans would be unhappy with the changes; and there was criticism of his practice in a few cases, though he was not struck off. He is retired now and Richard Curtis, a trans man and former GP, has taken over his practice.
The NHS GRS surgeons also have private practices, but many trans women go abroad for surgeries, Thailand being a popular destination.

Legal changes
It’s only eight years since the Sex Discrimination Act was amended to protect transsexual people who are ‘intending to undergo, undergoing, or have undergone’ gender re-assignment. Prior to that people who transitioned often lost their jobs (as well as partners, family and friends), so this change has been important for the economic stability of trans people, and has enabled employers and colleagues to appreciate that we are not a threat in the workplace.
This legal support was a great help to me when I transitioned while working as a healthcare chaplain, in the summer of 2001, as the hospital personnel department was familiar with the law and its implications. Unfortunately, the Church of England, as my sponsor, seemed to lag behind, perhaps because it has a habit of trying to negotiate exemptions to equality legislation (despite being the national church ‘by law established’).
The Gender Recognition Act 2004 has been the most significant piece of legislation for trans people in the UK, allowing us to change our birth certificates and to marry in our ‘acquired gender’ (to use the quaint phrase used in the Act itself). Prior to that trans people could change their name and gender on passports, bank accounts and other personal documents, but transition was never quite complete. Now it can be, and the Act also protects the privacy of trans people; though here again, the Church of England, along with other faith groups, has managed to obtain certain concessions, for the time being, at least.

Society and Theology
The legal changes that continue to improve trans people’s lives in the UK owe much to the work of dedicated campaigners, particularly Stephen Whittle, Christine Burns and Claire McNab of the trans campaigning organisation Press For Change. These changes also reflect increasingly sympathetic attitudes to trans people, often promoted by the media, whether through ‘scientific’ documentaries, soap opera storylines, or interviews.
So far churches in the UK have been cautious about these developments, at any rate, in their official statements. The Evangelical Alliance (EA) was the first to comment in its report Transsexuality, published in 2000 (possibly in response to the amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act in 1999). Entirely opposed to transition on the simplistic, and, supposedly, biblical ground, that male and female are immutable, God-given categories, its conservatism was in keeping with the EA’s earlier reports on homosexuality.
The long-standing focus on sexuality in the Church of England and in the Anglican Communion is also the background to Some issues in human sexuality: A guide to the debate (2003). The work of four Church of England bishops, this document attempts to address the inclusion of LGBT people in the Church and has a chapter on Transsexualism. My own contribution to ‘the debate’ was to write an article for the English journal Theology (September/October 2005, Vol. CVIII, No 845) critiquing this chapter, especially its omissions.

I have occasionally heard trans people say that we should avoid being mixed up in the sexuality debate in the church; that our ‘issue’ is one of gender, not sexuality; and that the Church seems more ready to accept us than it does lesbians and gays. I can’t go along with that, for while sexuality and gender can be distinguished, they are often linked inextricably; nor would I want to belong to a church that included trans people while rejecting other minorities. Perhaps this has personal roots in that I identified publicly as gay (in 1989) before I accepted myself as a trans person.
Whatever the reason, in 2005 I was pleased to be invited to serve as the trans spokesperson and trustee for Changing Attitude, the Anglican campaigning organisation which has recently broadened its mission from lesbian/gay to LGBT inclusion. Likewise, this summer, it was an honour – especially given the suspicions of trans women in certain lesbian circles – to be elected the female co-convenor of the Anglican LGBT Clergy Consultation. Since taking up these roles I have met with Canon Phil Groves of the Anglican Communion Office, a sign that the listening process in the Church of England is being extended to its trans members.

The social revolution in which we have been living in the UK during the past few decades has affected the medical treatment and legal status of transsexual people as well as theological reflection about gender and sexuality. There has been a shift from paternalism to participation, from exclusion to inclusion. In many ways it has been the best of times for trans people, even though, in Christian circles, it has sometimes seemed the worst of times, mainly because the Church is often so reluctant to accept what God is doing in the wider world.

Revd Dr Christina Beardsley

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Freedom and Resistance

I have a friend, a fellow LGBT person, whose very favorite holiday when we were growing up was the 4th of July. I never could quite wrap my mind around that preference—to me Christmas was better by a longshot. I also have to admit I didn’t yet understand how, especially as an LGBT person, one could claim pride to be from a country in which individuals and communities can explore, become, debate and critique freely. To me the 4th of July was bound up with patriotism, and to me the latter evoked Americana, ‘family-values’, apple pie, anti-immigration, anti-change, etc. Not my cup of tea (though I do make a mean apple pie).

But one February about five years ago my partner and I were walking in Concord, Massachusetts near the Old North Bridge. We were in the throes of figuring out what would happen to our relationship as I prepared to transition. I was already using my current name and had some medical procedures on the calendar that had taken a lot of discernment, preparation and coordination. Everyday events—being greeted at checkout counters and receiving mail, for instance-- brought up a strong sense of dissonance between myself as I and those closest to me knew me and the expectations others projected onto me. I was struggling to carve out a place for myself and resisting enormous social pressures to do so. We were in Concord that day because I love the old burial grounds we have here in New England, the ones with the rounded tombstones with medieval-looking skulls and crossbones. There’s something about that raw, yet exuberant, Puritan aesthetic that I’ve come to love, paired up with inscriptions that emphasize embodiment—we’re not talking mere memory, we’re talking ‘here lies buried the body’.

Walking across the Old North Bridge was almost an afterthought, and I don’t think I’d ever before noticed the words below a statue that we passed along the way. Not the famous Concord Minute Man Statue that bears the immortal stanza of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.

It was the obelisk on the other side of the bridge that caught my attention, or more specifically, the inscription at its base:

Here, on the 19 of April, 1775 was made the first forcible resistance to British aggression. On the opposite bank stood the American Militia. Here stood the Invading Army and on this spot the first of the Enemy fell in the War of that Revolution which gave Independence to these United States. In gratitude to God and in the love of freedom this monument was erected A.D. 1836.

I was so struck by these words that I took a photo and pasted it on the inside cover of my journal. This action was highly unusual for me. No patriotic words had ever struck a personal chord before. There was something about “resistance” against an Goliath-like aggression, the sense the phrase conveyed of feeling gradually, increasingly squelched and, when it became unbearable, needing to create a space in which to breathe, to live freely. And, movingly, there was an expression of gratitude to God for that freedom.

Two months later on the day of my first shot of testosterone—‘T’, as it’s called in trans circles-- I was celebrating with some friends over beer in Cambridge. My partner was out of state doing a post-doctoral fellowship, and I would be joining her the following year. But that night, as I regaled my comrades with the day’s events, one of them noted the date: April 19th. The state holiday was to be on a Monday, but this was the actual ‘Patriot’s Day’. “Dude!” a friend joked, “yours was the T shot heard ‘round the world!” Who knew? When I got home I looked inside the front cover of my journal. The inscription included the date. On April 19th, 2002 I began a very different sort of journey of resistance.

Transition wasn’t the only journey I was on then. I had started a doctorate that fall, and I was also a candidate for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. Just about three years after ‘T-Day’ I was ordained to the (‘transitional!’) diaconate. The day after my ordination I took a friend, visiting from California, to the Old North Bridge. We paused in front of the obelisk. It had already been a long journey, and I also knew it was only the beginning.

What stays with me, and particularly strikes me this week of the 4th of July five plus years after my transition, is the sense that a single act of resistance is never enough. After all, what began as resistance against British oppression also brutally wiped out native peoples across this land and now all too often participates in the oppression of others both within and outside our national boundaries. In the days since September 11th the value of that freedom itself—especially the freedom to critique-- has fallen under steady assault. As someone who now moves easily through those same everyday encounters that used to chafe, who gets offered white, heterosexual male privilege at the drop of a hat—though not in every context, and not as long as my history is known-- I have to keep choosing to resist lest my freedom unwittingly become the instrument of another’s oppression. At the same time what I feel more than anything else is gratitude. I am profoundly grateful to be in a country where I am free to be, and become, myself. In how many places around the globe would that be possible?

Stir up your power, God of Mystery and Might, and grant us the strength to celebrate the freedom with which we are endowed in your image (BCP Catechism, p. 845), and to have the strength always to resist oppression, wherever it may surface. Amen.

Rev. Cameron Partridge