Sunday, 12 February 2017

Christina Beardsley

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 behaviour 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 marginalised 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 Beardsley
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 mediaeval, 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 compartmentalise 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 realise 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.

Courtesy of the State I was receiving a wonderful education in the study of religion, mediaeval 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?

photo by Christa Holka
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.

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 recognise 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 tyres 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.

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.

Some 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 favourites?

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.

In the Old Testament my favourite 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 favourite 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 favourite 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 organisations 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.

photo by Christa Holka
The Sibyls is the main organisation for transgender Christians, but LGBTI Christian organisations 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 organisations 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 realise 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' behaviour 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 fibres (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 rulebook 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.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

If I Was Your Girl

I was browsing in an airport bookshop lately, and noticed the cover of this book, If I Was Your Girl, by Meredith Russo. The book was displayed reasonably prominently, and was featured as part of the Zoella book club, as a work of fiction for young adults (which is what they are calling teenagers these days, apparently).

If I were your girl: subjunctive, people!
Normally I wouldn't be too interested in fiction for young adults. When I was a young adult myself, I just read fiction for adults. My sister used to read books by Judy Blume, and she would usually show me the juicy parts. These astonished me in two ways. They astonished me because these were books marketed at teenagers, containing detailed descriptions of sexual activity that would likely cause many parents (including ours) to have conniptions. Second, they astonished me because they were depicting a world where teenagers seemed to have no trouble having sex; lots of sex. This seemed like a glimpse into some alien world. As a teenager who was having real trouble finding someone willing even to snog me, reading the books made me feel envious and uncomfortable.

Now that I am an adult, I don't see any reason to read young adult fiction at all. Unless it seems to feature the transgender flag on the cover, which is what drew my eye.

Naturally I bought it, and read it on the flight, all the way through. And now I thought I would write a review of it.

The book centres around the life of Amanda, an 18-yr old girl in her final year of high school. She joins a new school, and falls in love with Grant, a football player. The hook (at least from a transgender point of view) is that Amanda used to be Andrew. Their relationship goes through some ups and downs, before the big reveal, and the aftermath.

I read to the end of the book before I realised that the author herself, Meredith Russo, is a transwoman. She even includes a page of comments for cisgendered readers, as well as another page of comments for transgendered readers. She explains some of the fictional devices she required to use to make the story work. One obvious one is that nobody ever doubts or guesses Amanda's trans nature, because she is already "fully formed": post-surgery, post-hormones, and with a completely realistic face and body. Russo admits this is pretty unrealistic, and I am pleased that she did; for me it was one of the most difficult parts of the story to accept.

Meredith Russo
Russo was raised in Tennessee, and sets the story in a district she is familiar with. I can't help associating that region of the southern United States with God-fearin', gun-totin', Republican-votin' good-ole-boys. To be a transgender child growing up in that environment would be, no doubt, exceptionally difficult, lonely and painful. Amanda, our protagonist, is exposed to a series of very unpleasant events: parental rejection, violent beatings at school (where she is considered to be gay by the other students), and a failed suicide attempt. These events are described starkly (in a series of flashbacks), and the writing is powerful. I dare say they will resonate with young adults who feel different (for any reason), isolated and desperate. Even I got a few pangs.
I brought my wrist up to my chest and looked down. The identification bracelet said my name was Andrew Hardy. If I died, I realized, Andrew would be the name they would put on my tombstone. I thought of the words I wrote down for the counsellor: I should have been a girl.
Amanda begins to settle into her new school, and begins to make friends. She is pleased and gratified to find that she is accepted, though this pleasure is tempered with the knowledge that, if the truth of her background were known, she would surely be rejected.
The cicadas buzzed persistently in the growing dusk. I had read once that they lived underground for most of their lives, only emerging as adults to live out their final days. Was that going to be me? Was I going to live underground for the better part of my life, never coming out into the world? (...) I wondered if joy could ever be felt by itself without being tainted with fear and confusion, or if some level of misery was a universal constant, like the speed of light.
Trans model Kira Conley on the US cover
The parts of the story with which I found most resonance are where Amanda discovers her trans identity, and meets other trans people for the first time. She is mentored in her early journey by Virginia, who introduces her to members of her local transgender support group.
A woman with broad shoulders and a faint shadow of a beard under her make-up entered next. She looked strong and stout, but the longer I looked, the more I saw the beauty in her--here a light step, here a brief touch of the hair, here a wide, open smile. Boone said, "Evening, Rhonda," to greet her.
This resonates with me because of my preoccupation with how people see Vivienne. Since I started my journey, I have come out to a couple of dozen people, and they have all been complimentary about my appearance, even the ones who met Vivienne face to face. But did they have to make an effort to see past the man in the dress to really see Vivienne? And how much of an effort did they make?
I looked Virginia up and down and saw two separate people. One was the beautiful, statuesque angel who had been there to guide me through some of the hardest steps of my transition. The other was a woman with a jaw just a little too strong, forehead just a little too high, shoulders just a little too wide, and hands just a little too big.
Without giving the story away, Amanda begins to find fulfilment and happiness in her new life. Her relationship with her parents improves. She realises other students have their secrets too: one girl takes drugs; another is a lesbian. For me, Amanda's parents and schoolmates are somewhat simple and one-dimensional. Grant, the love interest, is more interesting, though again he is cast as someone who is all goodness: good-looking, pleasant, sensitive, humble, hard-working, popular, kind to his family. The most interestingly subtle character (Amanda aside) is the villain, Parker, another student, whose complex feelings and motives are explored.
His shadow stretched out past mine. I remembered Mom telling me how frightening men were, all men really, how helpless it often felt to be a woman among men, and for the first time I understood what she meant.
The romantic aspects of the plot are well-drawn: the breathless first kiss, and other faltering steps as the relationship between Grant and Amanda begins to play out. I am relieved beyond measure to report that Judy Blume's intimate depictions are largely absent. Though the book doesn't insult its readers by pretending everyone is a virgin when they leave high school, the sexual content is handled deftly and with subtlety, just as (in my opinion) it ought to be.

So in summary, what can I say about the book? I cannot judge it as a piece of young adult fiction, since I have so little knowledge of that genre with which to compare it. I have a friend who writes romantic fiction for a living, and she tells me there is a remarkably strict pattern that her books are expected to follow. I hope the same is not true of young adult fiction, but I wouldn't be surprised (only disappointed) to find that there is. Overall, I think the story is compelling enough, and readable enough (certainly I didn't get bored or struggle to finish it). I think some of the characters are a bit flat. I think that the story of Amanda's life is told with enough sympathy and emotional resonance that transgendered readers (like me) will find much to resonate with, and there is a reasonably positive ending to look forward to.

Blazing the trail: Luna in 2004
Russo clearly hopes that cisgendered young adults will also read the book and come away with more awareness and more sympathy towards transgendered people (of all ages). And it's this, I think, which holds the book back slightly for me. It just has a hint of being slightly contrived for this purpose; as if Amanda's relationship with Grant is shown to be completely pure and perfect to show just how much of a real girl Amanda actually is.

Nonetheless, Russo deserves encouragement. I think this book represents one more snowflake in the blizzard of transgender-related material in the popular media, to which we are now exposed, and it can only do us good to get more exposure, more sympathy and more conversations started. This is Russo's first book, and I hope she writes many more. I also hope that she isn't the "token trans writer" when young adult fiction is considered.

And there are very few other similar books out there. One which Russo mentions is Luna, by Julie Anne Peters. Another is a book which I have touched on before on this blog, Boy2Girl by Terence Blacker. To my knowledge, neither Peters nor Blacker are transgendered, and both have had success with many other books; therefore they are not as brave as Russo. They can afford to experiment with new themes, while Russo has put all her chips on this debut novel. Thankfully it seems to have gone down very well, and it has favourable reviews on GoodReads and Amazon, but the Guardian reviewer (like me) had some reservations.

I haven't read Luna, but I will order it and let you know my thoughts in due course. Meanwhile, I recommend that you get hold of If I Was Your Girl and give it a read. Or perhaps wave it under the nose of a nearby young adult for their comments. And yours, of course, are always welcome below.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

The End of Days

This is a post which I have been dreading to write for a very long time: the one where I talk about the end of my marriage.

Despite my very best efforts, my marriage has ended. And the ultimate reason is my cross-dressing. I guess by posting this I can both help myself to go through the necessary grieving process, and also help other people out there who might be contemplating similar problems.

What it feels like when your marriage is ending
My wife and I met in continental Europe in the early nineties. I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She was living in another country, and spoke several languages. She was artistic and adventurous, where I was scholarly and conventional. We were both students at the time, and we were both seeing someone else. But there was definite chemistry. In the days before the Internet, we wrote long letters to one another. By a series of very unlikely steps, we saw each other again. I graduated, took a job, and in my first holiday, I went to visit her. By this time, she was living in the US, and we were both single.

I persuaded her to come to the UK, which she did, and we immediately moved in together. We married in the late nineties. My family adored her. My uncle (an academic) praised how clever she was. My grandfather said she was the most beautiful bride to walk down the aisle of our local church. Many people have, over many years, complimented me on how lucky I was to be married to someone like her.

I knew all along, of course, that my gender was not completely congruent with my apparent identity. I have known this ever since I can remember. I can remember wanting a pink blanket in kindergarten and being told I had to have a blue one. But I did not tell my wife any of these things.
Grotesque: Corporal Klinger

Partly I did not tell her because of shame: I was in my mid-twenties, and I knew next to nothing about my gender. Wherever I looked, crossdressers were figures of scorn, of ridicule. They seemed grotesque, repulsive. A great example would be Corporal Klinger, the MASH character who is trying to convince everyone he is crazy by dressing as a woman, so they will throw him out of the Army (har-har, what a wheeze). My internal identity was completely different to that. She already had a name in my mind. I pictured Vivienne as being like a wild animal, trapped and roaring in an unbreakable cage. Although I didn't quite know who Vivienne was, I knew that she and Klinger had nothing in common.

The other reason I didn't tell my wife was that I believed that being married to her would cure me. My trans feelings largely disappeared when I was with her, and I believed that I could choose to put crossdressing aside permanently. ("When I became a man, I put away childish things"). This was (I now realise) a very naïve belief, but nonetheless a fervent one. I was trying very hard not to be trans.

Of course it didn't last. About three years into the marriage, I broke down in tears, and told her my secret: that sometimes I like to dress in women's clothing. She was utterly shocked and horrified. That was the inflection point, the point which marked the start of the downward slope which has led to the end of the marriage.

At first things didn't really change. I purged. That didn't last. In all fairness, my wife tried to have a look at crossdressing, and see what it's about. One time we even went to a transvestite ball (I was in male mode) and she spoke to the other people to hear their stories. She was fascinated, sympathetic, charming. She made a very powerful impression on the people there. But as we came out, it was as if the door slammed. We got in the car to drive home. She didn't want to talk about it; didn't want to acknowledge it. Sitting in the darkness, I realised that she was probably shocked, digesting the implications of all of this. But she would come around. In a few days, we would be able to talk about it. But we never have; not one word from that day to this.
Never mentioned: crossdressing

And then there was the Dolly incident. My wife went to Manchester with her friend for a girly weekend. Unknown to them, their hotel was hosting an extravagant transvestite event in the ballroom. It was big, brash, loud and undeniable. My wife and her friend, both very attractive women, were cajoled to join the fun, and they did: laughing and dancing the night away with glamorous trannies. The following day, they got talking at breakfast to a few of them, and my wife said she was amazed by how normal they seemed: ordinary, pleasant guys. One of them, "Dolly", gave my wife his website details. She checked his website a day or so after coming home (without telling me) and was horrified to see pictures of him pouting in lingerie with his penis on display.

This one individual didn't intend to harm me, but did so very severely. What was he thinking? That she would be aroused? That she would think it was cool? Instead, she formed the very solid (and hard to dislodge) impression, that crossdressers, even the nice ones, even the "normal" ones, are not just after glamorous frocks, drinking and dancing, but are perverts behind closed doors. Thanks, Dolly.

It took me a while to realise how my wife has the ability to compartmentalise things in her life. It is as if she can take the idea of Vivienne, and all the trappings, all the accoutrements, and put them in a box, which is never acknowledged, never opened.

My wife came from a non-Western culture, where the behaviour of both men and women is rigidly proscribed. Even though she has lived in the West for decades, there are certain things which, to her, were not negotiable, and one of those things was that her husband mustn't wear a frock. It was even OK for other people to do that, as long as it wasn't her husband. She expected an alpha-male: indestructible, unshakeable, always in control. Never uncertain. Never vulnerable. Never tearful. Such a man would make her feel safe. That seems not wholly unreasonable, but there are two problems with it. The first is that I am not that man. I am not him today, and I have never been him. The second problem is that such a man doesn't actually exist.
Trapped: Vivienne

So she put Vivienne into that box, sealed the lid tightly, and pretended that Vivienne didn't exist. But it seemed that the harder my wife tried to suppress Vivienne, the harder Vivienne demanded to be expressed, to be heard, to be acknowledged. I searched for ways to explore Vivienne's identity without threatening my marriage. I joined the Beaumont Society, in the hope of opening a dialogue with like-minded people, but (as I say in my article) that didn't help much. I explored dressing, and had one or two makeovers. Eventually I started this blog.

What I wanted, most of all (and still do, I suppose) was simply acceptance. I wanted to be able to express this tender, vulnerable side of myself to the person who mattered most to me in the world. Vivienne wasn't just about the clothing; she was about the roles and expectations placed upon me because I happened to be born a boy. I wanted to have conversations with my wife about it, not strangers on the Internet. I wanted to dress at home, not in makeover shops in other cities. I wanted to be accepted for who I am, not for who she (and in fairness, everyone else during my upbringing) told me I ought to be. I wanted to enjoy being myself, being whole.

Instead, she insisted that this side of me was disgusting, unbearable. It must never be spoken of, never acknowledged, never accepted, never tolerated. But gradually that disgust, that poison, began to leak out of the box. It began to be aimed at aspects of me which were not associated with Vivienne. My wife began to gradually shut me out, to express John Gottman's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: the evocative name he gave to the behaviours which start to appear when the death-knell of a relationship is ringing loud and clear. We were four for four. And it was utter agony for me.

It didn't matter that I put rigid boundaries around my dressing. Four episodes a year, or less, and always, always in complete secrecy. We could not go shopping to a department store without her fearing that I was looking at the female mannequins and picturing myself in their clothing. She came to view Vivienne as the other woman, the one who came first in my affections.

It didn't matter that the other aspects of our lives were good: I had a good job and provided a good standard of living; we lived in a lovely house and had lovely kids and lovely friends. I didn't have any other obnoxious habits: gambling, drinking, drugs. That was all outweighed by the fact that I was not the alpha male that she thought she married.
Corrosive to relationships: fear

I see now that she was motivated by fear. Fear that I was going to start having sex with men. For the record, this was never my plan, and still isn't. Fear that I was going to start taking hormones and having surgery. Again, this was never the plan, and it still isn't. Fear that I was going to completely come out, and start showing up at the school parents' evening in a skirt and heels, where I would be a figure of contempt and ridicule (no matter how polite they might be to my face), and a cause for the kids to be mocked or bullied. Fear that other people would look down upon her: what on Earth possessed you to marry that freak?

The antidote to fear is communication, and this was another sticking point: she just would not communicate. The prospect, the existence of Vivienne, was so terrifying, so repugnant to her, that she could not have an ordinary conversation about it. I would talk, and she would not listen. I would listen, and she would not talk. It wasn't just that she didn't talk to me. She didn't talk to anyone: didn't confide in a close friend. Her fears were grinding around inside her, destroying her on the inside. On the outside, she began to shun me openly. The intimacy dried up years ago. To describe what happened, I can't do better than the words of Yoda:
"Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering".
But we still pretended, to the outside world, that everything was fine. For myself, I did everything I possibly could to keep the show on the road. I moved us here to New Zealand. But coming here permanently, we brought Vivienne, and all the other problems, right along with us.

Fabulous but unworn: shoes
In among all the agony were glimpses of hope. Just occasionally, she would buy me girly gifts, such as this pair of fabulous wedge heels. As soon as I opened the box, I was excited and I wanted to try them on. But the look of disgust on her face, as I did so, made me instantly take them off, and I have never worn them since. I think she was really trying to make it work. But in one sense, these glimpses of hope (she bought me the shoes; she must hope I liked them) were actually worse than nothing at all, because the false hope, and the let-down afterward, were especially difficult to bear.

I started to take antidepressants. They were not a solution, but they helped me cope with the daily grinding agony of my life. I am still on them. And I took us to counselling. Good counselling, with a highly-recommended professional psychologist, who saw us for two years, together and separately. But even with his help, we were unable to negotiate, to compromise. My intake of alcohol and comfort food jumped sharply upwards.

In order to illustrate my despair and agony at my situation, I often used the phrase burning to death to describe how I was feeling. I was trying to show how desperately miserable I was in my life: I was desperate to change, to move, to get out of where I was. But, in a very real way, I was also being consumed. Each time we had an argument; each time she stonewalled my feelings, I lost a bit more energy, a bit more commitment. I knew I could not hold on much longer. I knew that one day, the last bit of energy would be gone, and the marriage would be dead.

It didn't matter. My wife was unable to change. And I don't mean this harshly. I realise now that, whether she chose to or not, she could not change her feelings. As for me, I had played my last card. I had nothing left to offer.

I remember the exact moment I realised that the marriage was over. For years, there had been two paths in front of me: the path to stay and try to fix things (which was painful, and exhausting) and the path to leave and start again (which was painful, and exhausting). But always, when I looked at those two paths, the path to leave always seemed the more painful. But one day, the see-saw just tipped the other way, and it has never tipped back. I realised, with sudden clarity: I was never going to be happy if I stayed in this marriage. The realisation was terrible but inescapable.
I can't heeeeeear you!

When I told my wife it was over, she was astonished. Where did this come from? she wanted to know. Didn't you hear me when I said I was burning to death? I replied. But it turns out she didn't get it: she couldn't grasp it. She had denied it, pushed it away, in the same way she did with Vivienne: it's too painful to contemplate, so I will pretend it doesn't exist.

Since then, her anger has gone from being red hot to being blue hot, like a blowtorch. The thing she feared most, that her husband would leave, has come to pass. She cannot--yet--accept that she helped to bring this about. She cannot accept one iota of responsibility for what happened. It's all my fault; that's her truth. And it's OK.

I have called this post The End of Days, because it really feels like that from my point of view. I am losing my lovely home, and I now live in a small rental house. I will get shared custody of my children. That cosy image I once had, of having a nice job, a nice wife, a nice house, and nice kids, and being happy, has turned out to be an empty dream. And unfortunately that dream ends here.

This blog has been profoundly healing for me in so many ways. It has helped me to crystallise my feelings about myself, and my gender, and my identity. Although it's long, this article is only a drop in the bucket compared to thirty-odd volumes of hand-written journals. That banner at the top of the screen? That's one of my journals, and one of my collection of fountain pens. I write every day, when I get the chance, and I have used those journals to explore every possible avenue, every possible way, to keep the marriage on the road, to keep myself sane until the kids got a bit older, to conceptualise my wife's behaviour in different, more manageable ways. I know I am leaving this marriage having tried my absolute best to save it, using every resource I possess.

I also offer these experiences to you, my readers, in case some of you are in a similar position, and these insights help to crystallise your position.

I know that all is not lost; that there will be a new chapter in my life soon. But I don't know what it will look like, and that uncertainty is a fresh kind of agony for me. Where will I live? What will I look like? What will I wear? What will happen to the kids? What will happen to my wife? What role will Vivienne play in my life? I have no answers to any of this, and discussion will need to wait for another day, and another blog post. Meanwhile, let's close the book.


Katie Robbins wrote a powerful and thought-provoking article, with a similar theme, which you can read here. And hers is a lot shorter!

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Faking It - Part Two

It's taken me a while to come round to writing the second part of this article. You can read the first one (written in March 2015) here. Now that I read that article again, I am amazed to realise how far my journey has come.

Much as I adore Freakonomics Radio, that wasn't where I first heard the idea of Faking It. Instead, it was a British TV show which premiered in the year 2000. The premise was simple: they would take an unlikely ordinary person, have them intensively transformed and coached by a team of experts in a particular field--for a short time--then the contestant (known as the "faker") would have to perform in front of a panel of judges (who know they are looking to spot a fake), to see if they could pass.

Title card for the show
As one example, take the very first episode. Alex Geikie, a gentrified English youth from the Home Counties of England, who liked to ride horses, had to pass as a hard-man bouncer in an East London pub. He was coached by Tony Agastini, a kick-boxing champion. Alex shaved off his hair, gradually ditched his pukkah accent in favour of East-End hardman talk (think Guy Ritchie movies), learned to fight by getting beaten up by Tony's girlfriend (!) in the boxing ring, got fake tattoos, and finally worked as a bouncer for a night, among real, hard-bastard bouncers.
Guardian: At RADA, Alex was coached in talking common: "The word fuck is desperately important to all Londoners. Fuck you, fuck me, fuck off! Lengthen the vowel. Let the breath be the impetus. Farkin' 'ell! Don't smile! Mean it." In grammar: "I was, you was, she was, they was."

After a month's training, Alex was one of several bouncers at the Hippodrome on the night of the England v Germany match and the head of security failed to spot the imposter ("Nah! Honestly?") Tony was much moved. "It's like seeing your kid walk and talk for the first time, innit? Very proud. Very proud. But he should be proud of himself too."
The show drew very positive reviews (such as this one from the Guardian, which is where the quote above comes from, written by Nancy Banks-Smith). Subsequent episodes featured burger flipper Ed Devlin who was trained to be a chef (by Gordon Ramsay, no less); classical cellist Sian Evans who was trained to be a nightclub DJ; and cleaner Sharon Pallister who was trained to become Scarlet Fever, a burlesque performer, by Immodesty Blaize with input from Dita von Teese. You can see this last one starting here on YouTube.

Not yet faking it: Spence Bowdler
I've already mentioned on this blog how I believe that there is something liberating about stepping outside your normal life, and being someone else for a while, and how I wonder if some actors and other performers enjoy this aspect of their work. It's this, I think, which the show attempts to recreate.

The show has several brilliant features. First the "fakers" are deliberately selected to be hopelessly inappropriate for their adopted roles. Almost all are quiet, soft-spoken, lacking in self-confidence, set in their ways. They all have a metaphorical mountain to climb to pull off their new roles. Second, the mentors, often in initial despair or exasperation, become fond, and eventually proud of the fakers. Third, the fakers almost always manage it: to pass unnoticed by judges and onlookers. Finally, it's clear that the experience of the training--and the faking--opens up new and undiscovered vistas for most of them; they discover qualities in themselves that they never knew they possessed. In short, it is visibly life-changing, and often this is very emotional for them. It all makes for extremely compelling television.

The producers made at least one follow-up episode, where they revisited the fakers a couple of years later. Almost without exception, they had reacted positively to the experience. I notice, for example, that the Scarlet Fever episode was uploaded by Scarlet Fever herself on her own YouTube channel.

Drag: Dave Lynn
And that brings me on to Spence Bowdler. If you live in the UK, this episode (in fact, the whole series) is available to watch, free, on the Channel 4 website. If you live outside the UK, you may as well forget it: I've been trying for days. There are only a few episodes of Faking It available on YouTube, and this is not one of them. However, the Guardian reviews are very helpful and give a real flavour of the episodes.

Bowdler, a 30-yr old ex naval officer, and self-confessed macho man, was to fake it as a drag queen. His mentor for the show was veteran British drag queen Dave Lynn. This episode was one of the most popular episodes of Faking It ever produced. The normal hour-long episode was stretched out to 76 minutes, because there was so much good material to include.
Guardian: There's an ancient affinity between drag queens and sailors - where you find one, you will usually find the other at no great distance.
Lynn and Bowdler strike up an unlikely friendship, helped perhaps by Lynn's straightforward, matter-of-fact approach to a man shaving his legs, wearing stilettos and false eyelashes, tucking ("you sort of shove them back in their sockets"), and all the other activities required to become a drag queen.

We follow Bowdler through a series of increasingly uncomfortable experiences. The most powerful is when Lynn shows him a rack of frocks to try on, and it dawns on Bowdler that he is going to be expected to wear a dress for the first time ever in his life. He has a visible meltdown, retreats from the camera, and won't come back into the room. The producers may have thought that was the end of their show.

Getting the lippy on: Spence
But come back he does, and carries on. Later, he struts his stuff on the stage, in full drag, under the drag queen name Britney Ferry. And the judges don't spot him as the fake. At the end of the show, Bowdler muses about his initial prejudices; how he felt he had overcome them, and how shallow and misplaced he now felt they were. It's a powerful moment.
Guardian: But what made Faking It so gratifying were the clear, measurable results of the experience for both student and mentor. Spence was euphoric in his realisation that life is a great big fruit salad, and that "prejudice is just balls" (and therefore best tucked out of sight). Dave Lynn, the hardened old pro, softened up and admitted that he'd learned even more about his place in the world. The two bosom buddies closed with a duet of Stand By Your Man; seldom have the words "sometimes it's hard to be a woman" rung so true.
The episode resulted in Dave Lynn getting a considerable boost in popularity, and he made several subsequent appearances on TV. There is a great interview with him here. And the Guardian review of this episode, written by Rupert Smith, is here.

So what relevance does this show have for me? I don't especially have any affinity for drag as an art form. I've never been to a drag show. I think drag is a form of performance art, whereas Vivienne feels very much part of my identity; an inextricable part of me, not some persona that I adopt when I get dressed.

I suppose the first part of it is that I am envious. Bowdler gets four weeks of intensive tuition in performing as a woman: make-up, clothes, hair, shoes, gait, the works. Perhaps four weeks would be too much, but I certainly feel I could use a few tips from the experts about how to improve my overall look as a woman. (Clue: I'm trying not to look like Bowdler in the picture!)

Second, there is permission. All of the fakers in the show get encouragement, verging on a requirement, to step outside their ordinary world and embrace something entirely new: a new way of doing just about everything. Some of the rest of us (i.e. me) hesitate at every tiny step outside the comfortable boundaries of what others expect of us. The fakers blasted those boundaries wide open, and did it with the support of those around them. And for each of them, that must have been a very powerful and long-lasting experience. Faced with the end of my marriage, I am contemplating what the new me will be like. Some of those boundaries will need to be redrawn: but which? And I will need to make my own permission to make it happen.

Finally, though, the people in the show are faking it. After the credits roll, they can, if they choose, return to their previous lives and pick up where they left off, as if nothing had happened. This is not true of me: Vivienne remains an awkward, uncomfortable part of my life, and my future life will need to include her, one way or the other. The faking it, for me, was pretending Vivienne didn't exist.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Sex and Gender in Sports: Part Two

In my previous article I considered the distinction between male and female athletes competing in top competitions such as the Olympic games. Right at the nub of the issue is whether women with naturally high levels of testosterone have an unfair advantage against women with lower, or "normal" levels of testosterone.

But what about transgender or transsexual athletes? Those born in an apparently ordinary male body, who legitimately transition to the female sex? What happens to them?

Renee Richards
Renee Richards is the first example I have to offer. Born Richard Raskind, the child of two doctors, Richards was a successful male athlete, and also obtained a medical degree. In 1975 (which puts her age at 41), she pursued a career as a professional woman tennis player. However, in 1976 the US Tennis Association had introduced Barr body testing (a type of genetic testing) that year. Richards refused to take the test, and was therefore banned from top tennis tournaments, the US Open, Wimbledon and the Italian Open that year.

Richards took the US Tennis Association to court, alleging discrimination by gender in violation of her human rights. She won her case, and was allowed to play in the 1977 US Open tournament.

Richards' tennis career was quite short-lived, and she retired from professional tennis in 1981, just 4 years later, and returned to medical practice in ophthalmology.

Richards' case provoked considerable discussion. Official sports governing bodies were very uncomfortable. According to Wikipedia, the US Olympic Committee stated:
IOC: There is competitive advantage for a male who has undergone a sex change surgery as a result of physical training and development as a male.
And indeed, it's hard to argue with that viewpoint. But in addition to official perplexity, Richards faced consternation from the general public too. My correspondent Rhonda wrote "I recall it being said that Renee had an advantage because she competed in a new category, unique to her: 'Mixed Singles'." And even her own fellow athletes were unhappy: when Richards was allowed to play as a woman, 25 of 32 competitors promptly withdrew in protest from the Tennis Week Open.

In this article describing her life and career, written by Emily Bazelon, Richards herself comments on her status as a transsexual athlete. I quote the final paragraph in its entirety:
Bazelon: The science of distinguishing men from women in sports remains unsettled. And Richards has come to believe that her past as a man did provide her advantages over competitors. “Having lived for the past 30 years, I know if I’d had surgery at the age of 22, and then at 24 went on the tour, no genetic woman in the world would have been able to come close to me. And so I’ve reconsidered my opinion.” She adds, “There is one thing that a transsexual woman unfortunately cannot expect to be allowed to do, and that is to play professional sports in her chosen field. She can get married, live as woman, do all of those other things, and no one should ever be allowed to take them away from her. But this limitation—that’s just life. I know because I lived it.”
Michelle Dumaresq
Wikipedia has a list of transgender athletes, both female-to-male and male-to-female. There are, unsurprisingly, few Olympic type events, though there are cyclists, such as Canadian mountain biker Michelle Dumaresq, and fighters, such as American mixed martial artist Fallon Fox. Caitlyn Jenner is of course mentioned.

In 2003, the International Olympic Committee drew up regulations to cover transsexual athletes. To me, at first glance, they seem pretty reasonable:
  1. The athlete must have undergone sexual reassignment surgery, including changes to the external genitalia and gonads.
  2. The athlete must be legally recognised in their desired sex.
  3. The athlete must undergo hormone therapy for at least two years.
These guidelines were modified in 2015, due to recognition that it might not be acceptable to require surgery in otherwise healthy people, and that some countries refuse to grant legal recognition to people who change sex. Therefore, the regulations were changed. The requirement for surgery was dropped, and the only stipulation now requires that the athlete's testosterone level be under 10 nmol/l. (See my previous article for why this might be problematic).

Chris Mosier
As for these games, the UK Daily Mail reported that two unnamed male-to-female athletes were considered for inclusion in Team GB to compete in Rio, but the Internet has been silent about whether they managed it. Meanwhile, Chris Mosier competed as a triathlete for team USA. As a female-to-male, Mosier needs to take testosterone, though a Therapeutic Use Exemption means it's acceptable. The Wikipedia article states that "two closeted transgender athletes competed" at Rio.

The first transgendered sportsperson I recall ever hearing about was Mianne Bagger, a professional golfer from Denmark. According to Wikipedia, Bagger was only the second high-profile transgendered athlete who won recognition from sports' governing bodies to compete in their desired sex, after Renee Richards. A 2004 article from the Guardian newspaper reports that Bagger experienced a slightly warmer welcome from her fellow professionals than Richards did. Subsequently, Lana Lawless sued the Ladies' Professional Golf Association in 2010, which at that time was clinging to a rule that women golfers were required to have been born female. In 2014 another doctor, Bobbi Lancaster, was permitted to play in an LPGA tournament, and this article describes her as the first transgender woman golfer to compete in such a tournament.

So much for the professional athletes. What about those lower down? Una over at TransasCity has produced a couple of relevant articles, and you can read them here and here.

Judit Polgar
I want to close this double article with a shout out to one of my heroes, Judit Polgar. Polgar, 40, is the strongest female chess player in history. The youngest of three sisters, the Polgar girls were intensively coached in chess by their polymath father, Laszlo Polgar, who believed that "geniuses are made, not born".

Everybody "knows" girls aren't as good at chess as boys. Even FIDE, the world chess governing body, awards separate women's titles. The Woman Grandmaster (WGM) title is easier to attain than the Grandmaster (GM) title. But try telling that to the Polgar sisters. They refused to compete in woman-only tournaments, from the beginning, bringing them into some conflict with the Hungarian Chess Federation. However, the Polgars persisted. Laszlo wrote:
Laszlo Polgar: Women are able to achieve results similar, in fields of intellectual activities, to that of men. Chess is a form of intellectual activity, so this applies to chess. Accordingly, we reject any kind of discrimination in this respect.
And his daughters went on to prove him right. Judit achieved an astonishing series of accomplishments: she achieved the rank of full Grandmaster (not WGM) at the age of 15, then the youngest person ever to have done so. She was ranked 55th best player in the world at age 12. She is the first ever (and so far, only) woman to achieve an Elo rating of greater than 2700, and she peaked at number 8 in the world in 2005. Now, of course, FIDE allows players of both sexes to compete in tournaments, but of 1441 GMs in the world, only 31 are currently women, so the women do have some catching up to do. And I bet nobody even bothers about their testosterone levels.

I wonder how much chess is like golf. In most Olympic sports, muscle mass, lung capacity and other physical measures of fitness really matter. In that circumstance, one could say that the extra physical size of someone born male could offer an advantage if they transitioned. However, in golf, this is less obvious, and Mianne Bagger has insisted that she has no physical advantage from being born male.

In chess, of course, physical fitness is irrelevant, provided you can deal with the stress of the games and tournaments. I believe that the low number of female grandmasters is not a reflection of women's ability to play chess, but a reflection of how few women take up chess seriously. I did a quick Google search for transgender chess players, but didn't turn anything up. As always, comments are welcome. Meanwhile, whether it's golf, chess, cycling or whatever, keep doing your thing.