Friday, 19 January 2018

Rachel Dolezal

Here is a question. Is a person's identity something they determine for themselves? Or is it something which is imposed upon them by society? Is it a bit of both? Or is it neither, but somewhere in between?

I do not have an answer to it, but I do believe that a consideration of Rachel Dolezal* is pertinent to the discussion.

Rachel Dolezal as an adult
First, a brief bit of background. Born in the United States in 1977, Dolezal attended Howard University, a historically-black university in Washington, DC, and obtained a Master of Fine Arts degree in 2002. She taught part-time in Africana at the Eastern Washington University. In 2014, Dolezal was elected the president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. By all accounts, she fulfilled her duties with energy and enthusiasm.

But in June 2015, things hit a real snag. I need to pause now to make a few further points. I don't live in the US, although I have spent some time there. I don't pretend to understand much about race relations in the US, although I have read about it to some extent. But the simplistic bottom line is that, up until this point, nearly everyone thought Rachel Dolezal was a black woman.

In June 2015, Dolezal's parents publicly announced that Dolezal wasn't black. They themselves are European Americans, of Czech, Swedish and German descent. And they released photographs and even a birth certificate to prove it. "She’s clearly our birth daughter, and we’re clearly Caucasian", they said. Dolezal had been estranged from her parents for some time prior.

Not actually black? Dolezal as a teenager
There followed an explosion of interest in Dolezal. She was immediately scrutinised from all quarters, and came under an enormous barrage of criticism. She stated:
Dolezal: I acknowledge that I was biologically born white to white parents, but I identify as black. (...) I don’t, as some of the critics have said, put on blackface as a performance.
She was forced to resign from her post in the NAACP, and was later dismissed from her post at the Eastern Washington University. Later there was some confusion when Dolezal seemed to use terms such as transracial to describe herself; this term was already employed to describe children adopted and raised by a different race.

In a detailed interview with the Guardian, Dolezal "rejects the idea that she is a black person in a white person’s body – and spurns the concept of transracial. (...) Dolezal has made a point of describing herself as black, not African American, a distinction derided by Vanity Fair, but one that black Africans in the US would recognise. She describes African American as a particular historical experience. To be black is broader, unbound by dates or borders."

Let's steer clear of any further terminological confusion, and get right into some of the criticisms.

Guardian writer Syreeta McFadden writes:
McFadden: Dolezal’s messy theft and fiction of a black American identity uses the currency of a subculture of privilege that is rooted in white supremacy too. If anything, to believe that one can transfer one’s identity in this way is a privilege – maybe even the highest manifestation of white privilege. The ability to accept marginalization, to take on the identity of blackness without living the burdens of it and always knowing you could, on a whim, escape it, is not a transition to blackness; to use it to further your career or social aspirations is not to become black.
Meanwhile, across the pond, Denene Millner writes that Dolezal's chosen (African-derived) name represents "doubling down on her insistence" of her black identity in response to the controversy:
Millner: The woman formerly known as Dolezal is still a white lady with fussy hair and a bad tan, trying to make fetch happen. Snatching two words from two separate African languages and claiming them as a reflection of her connection with blackness cannot — and will not ever — earn her the soul of black folk.

Blackness is a bright and shiny diamond, and here in America, everyone wants to wear it like a Rockafella chain around their neck. (...) Like diamonds, blackness is created under extreme pressure and high temperature, deep down in the recesses of one's core.

And it is the ultimate in white privilege, really, for a white woman to see that diamond, all shiny and hard and unbreakable, and pluck it for her own, like it's a gift from Tiffany's, with seemingly zero regard for the pressure, the heat, the pain it went through — that we went through — to earn that shine.
And Britain's Dominic Lawson writes:
Lawson: Rachel Dolezal is merely the most spectacular example of the growing phenomenon of people posing as victims — itself the consequence of a culture which portrays victimhood as a form of moral superiority.
I was being me: Rachel Dolezal
Criticism was not confined to Dolezal herself. An article supportive of her entitled "In Defense of Transracialism" and published in April 2017 in peer-reviewed feminist philosophy journal Hypatia, provoked a storm of protest on social media, culminating in an open letter to the editorial board demanding that the article be retracted, and a subsequent (unauthorised) apology from some of the associate editors. The Editor-in-Chief and the Board of Directors have stood by the article, and have refused to take it down. The Wikipedia article offers a good summary and is well worth a read.

The author of the article, Rebecca Tuvel, pointed out that in 2015 Caitlyn Jenner came out as trans, and was widely praised and accepted, appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair and being named one of Glamour's Women of the Year 2015. In contrast, Rachel Dolezal was widely vilified and lost her job and status. I think Tuvel has a very good point in highlighting the significant contrast there.

So where is the damage?

Until I started to write this article, the above was all I knew of Rachel Dolezal, and it prompted me to consider several points.

First, until her parents outed her, Rachel Dolezal was accepted to be black by everyone around her: her employers, her friends, her students, and the wider community. Nobody seemed to notice. Nobody seemed to point at her and say "Hey, you know, you don't seem very black to me?" Nobody seemed to think she was doing harm. Nobody seemed to think she couldn't do her job, and it certainly doesn't seem as if she was breaking any laws. What, I wonder, was she doing wrong up until this point? Where was the damage?

The Guardian quoted NAACP president Cornell William Brooks, who said that the NAACP is “not concerned with the racial identity of our leadership”, and went on: “Our focus must be on issues, not individuals.” And her colleague at NAACP, Cedric Bradley, spoke up in favour of Dolezal's positive work in social justice. Some of her other colleagues and friends have spoken in support of her.

Rachel Dolezal's biological family, with her four adopted brothers
My next question was: why was she outed in the first place? And that's where the story takes a darker turn. Dolezal seems to have been very creative with her own life story. She has stated that she was born in a teepee and that her parents hunted for food with a bow and arrow. She told people that several different black men, most commonly a friend called Albert Wilkerson, were her father, (while her biological father was only her stepfather); and that her adoptive brother Izaiah was her son. She described herself on some websites as a professor, without ever having been one.

Worse, Dolezal complained to police on several occasions that she had been a victim of hate crime, presumably race-related. Police investigations revealed no evidence of crime, but did reveal strong suggestions that Dolezal had fabricated racially-motivated threats against herself. It was as part of the wider investigations into Dolezal's background which turned up her true biological parentage.

So now the question of where the damage is can be answered. Dolezal's fabrications have wasted police time and resources investigating crimes which never took place, invented for the purposes of attracting sympathy and validating Dolezal's own identity and sense of victimhood. There was a deception there. One can argue about whether it was malicious or not, but it was deliberate and indisputable.

A bright and shiny diamond?

Dolezal's birth certificate
So the next question becomes: why did all this arise? Dolezal's upbringing in rural Montana was pretty tough. In the 2015 Guardian interview, journalist Chris McGreal writes "Life was dictated by the couple’s strict interpretation of the Bible, including a strong belief in creationism and a puritan-like commitment to simple living and harsh punishment". Even the identity of the medic who delivered her as a baby is recorded, on her birth certificate, as "Jesus Christ". Perhaps he works for the State of Montana.

She grew up with her natural brother Joshua, and they were home-schooled. Her parents adopted four further children when she was a teenager; three African-American boys and a Haitian boy. Dolezal accuses her parents of frequent beatings, and these accounts are corroborated to some extent by her brothers. It certainly seems pretty likely that her childhood was unhappy, and probably pretty miserable and cruel at times. The Guardian reports that she used to imagine herself as really an Egyptian princess who had been kidnapped by her parents.

We can only speculate on where the idea of associating herself with black identity came from. Was it distancing herself from her parents' culture? Or attempting to pursue a new identity (Denene Millner's bright and shiny diamond)? Some people have accused her of mental illness, which seems to me unduly harsh. She told the Guardian:
Dolezal: As long as I can remember, I saw myself as black. I was socially conditioned to discard that. It was an all-white town. I was very unhappy. I felt like I was constantly self-sabotaging in order to conform to religion, culture dynamics. I was censoring myself. I was shutting down inside.
Given some of Dolezal's other porkies, I think it's reasonable to take some of this with a grain of salt, although I accept her point that she felt stifled and unhappy by her strict parenting, and I feel reasonably sure that Dolezal's attempt to switch race has been triggered by her difficult and painful childhood.

Let's set aside, for a moment, what Dolezal's motivations are, and accept at face value her comments that she identifies with being black; she feels black (and always has); and that she wants to continue to be black. Let's also set aside the lies she told to get into her jobs, and the indisputible hurt and anger she has caused to lots of people by pretending to be black.

Let's just consider this one point. Consider a white woman, born to white parents and raised accordingly, who describes herself as black. She has adopted brothers who are black. She was married to a black man between 2000 and 2004, and the first child she bore is thereby of mixed race (therefore black). She went to a formerly black university; taught African studies; and worked for a group to further black rights. I have no doubt that she affects mannerisms of speech, posture, gesture, dress and custom which would be considered "black". Not least, she was accepted and taken to be black by hundreds of people over many years. Is that enough for her to be accepted as black? And, if the answer is yes, is that OK?

Establishing race and identity

Black and white: not as simple as that
How much of "you" has to be black, for you to "be" black? Is it enough if you are one half? One quarter? One eighth? Is it a matter of inheritance of genetic material at all? Is it a matter of exactly what tone your skin is? Is it a matter of your upbringing, your culture? Is it (as Denene Millner writes) a matter of shared experiences? Is it a matter (as Touré Neblett insists) that the one thing all black people share is experience of racism? Or is it something intangible, something indefinable?

Bliss Broyard writes an excellent piece exploring what it means to be black, having first discovered that her father was of mixed race, literally as he lay dying. This revelation had a subtle but far-reaching impact on her image of herself and how others related to her. Broyard's article points out that, since 1970, Americans are allowed to "self-identify" their race on the Federal census. Nobody checks up on which box you tick, and the results form national statistics guiding official policies. Since 2000, Americans have been allowed to tick more than one box to identify their race.

And her piece was linked to this article by Steven Thrasher (my italics for emphasis).
Thrasher: I have zero personal insight into why Dolezal chose to perform race as she did. But the reason that her story is so fascinating to me and to the rest of the world is that it exposes in a disquieting way that our race is performance – that, despite the stark differences in how our races are perceived and privileged (or not) by others, they are all predicated on a myth that the differences are intrinsic and intrinsically perceptible. (...) Like it or not, she’s exposed how shaky and ridiculous the whole centuries-old construct of individual “race” is.
This certainly feeds into my own thoughts, which I touched on five years ago on this blog, writing about Jaye Davidson, who is considered "Black British" by virtue of his Ghanian father, even though he doesn't look black. Does blackness "trump" other aspects of your ethnicity? And it brings me back to the essence of this article. Is your identity something which you determine for yourself? Or is it something which is imposed upon you by others?

Dolezal: Black like me
Rebecca Tuvel's article considers four questions about Dolezal's purported black identity. The first is the necessity of cultural experience, including the experience of racism (as per Touré Neblett's article). Dolezal seems to have been so determined to experience this that she concocted it for herself. The second is the question of ancestry; the truth is that we are all mixtures of various races and ethnic groups, and Bliss Broyard has had her DNA tested four times with four different results.

The third is the idea that the black community could be harmed when a white individual seeks to enter. For me, it seems plain that nobody seems to have complained that Rachel Dolezal harmed the black community, until she was revealed to be white.

And the fourth question is an extremely sensitive one: the idea that Dolezal is wrongfully exerting white privilege. As touched upon by Syreeta McFadden, this would mean appropriating black identity without accepting any of its burdens, and with the luxury of being able to leave it at any time. Tuvel quotes the writer Tamara Winfrey Harris: "I will accept Ms. Dolezal as black like me only when society can accept me as white like her". My point is that Dolezal seems to not have changed her mind in response to some extremely negative experiences, and (in the words of Denene Millner) "doubled down" on her identity. If she could retreat, wouldn't she do it?

Tuvel considers these questions and argues against them all, drawing parallels with gender reassignment, and coming to the conclusion that Dolezal should be accepted to be black. It is this conclusion which led to the outburst of protest against her paper. I am pleased with the decision by Hypatia to let the paper stand. As I have written elsewhere, protesters should not be allowed to silence considered, peer-reviewed publications, just because they get upset about them.

Wrapping it all up

So let's try to wrap this all up. As always, there are many layers of complexity to consider.

We don't know why Rachel Dolezal chose to attempt to switch races, and we will never know. I think it's likely she will say whatever casts her in the best possible light, so I don't think her own personal accounts of her motivations are completely reliable. The best we can do is to accept her statements that "I wasn't identifying as black to upset people. I was being me."

It's clear that, along the way, she fooled a lot of people, to her own advantage. In other countries, I suspect people would be much less bothered about what Dolezal's purported race was, but this was the United States, where a lot of people take race identity extremely seriously, and she must certainly have known that, and how upset they would be if they knew the truth. As a result, her deception was harmful, and deliberately so. In addition, there was the issue with fabricating the hate crimes, and a further issue around legal action against Howard University. (This article is already too long to go into this!)

Nonetheless, I have some sympathy for Rachel Dolezal. I don't know if it would be possible for her to try to live her desired black lifestyle without an element of deception. At first, she seems to have achieved a sense of belonging, only to have it torn painfully away when her deceptions were revealed. Ironically, if she hadn't cooked up her stories of experiencing hate crime (which presumably she did to validate her identity), she might never have been outed. In any case, it will now be extremely difficult for her to escape from the shadow of what has happened. She has written a book about her experiences, entitled In Full Color. Although I disagree with her wrongdoing, I cannot find it in me to condemn her for wanting to live and identify, and be accepted, in the way she chooses.

It certainly seems to me, as per Steven Thrasher's article, that the notion of race is very vague. Nobody can quite agree on how it can be defined, or determined empirically. It clearly isn't based just on what you look like. It's a phenomenon which comedian Sasha Baron Cohen has deliberately satirised in his Ali G persona. ("Is it because me is black?") I will not be convinced that blackness is something indefinable, intangible; something I couldn't possibly understand because I am white.

Is he really black?
Are there others like Dolezal? Living "stealth" in different races or cultures? Should we be asking ourselves, when we meet a black person: is this person really black? Or are they an impostor? There are, as Bliss Broyard points out, many people of black ancestry who are pale enough to pass for white, getting by and wisely keeping their mouths shut. Before today, the only person I know of who was even remotely similar to Rachel Dolezal was the writer John Howard Griffin, who passed as a black man in the Deep South in 1959, and wrote the book Black Like Me about his experiences of racism from the opposite side. Griffin's project also necessitated deception, of course, but this deception was not to Griffin's personal advantage, and Griffin resolved not to hide either his name or his true identity if confronted. His book is well worth a read.

And then today, I learned of the existence of Martina Big. She is a white German woman who has taken medication in order to darken her skin, seemingly with considerable success. She also has gargantuan breast implants. Deary, deary me.

But that aside, I wonder about what happens in other countries. India, for example, has a rigid and elaborate caste system, which prescribes rigid social codes for people at every level. Nonetheless, it must be the case that people purport to be in a different caste, from time to time, and I bet you can't always tell by looking who is whom.

Race and gender

And of course I need to consider this aspect of the discussion. There are so many parallels between Rachel Dolezal and trans people that I don't know where to begin. And there are comments from across the board (which are hard to refute): if someone is born and raised as a boy, how can that person become a woman (and legally recognised as such)? And if we accept that this is possible, how can we refuse to allow a similar change of identity for Rachel Dolezal? Some of the statements made by Dolezal sound very like the statements made by trans people. And some of the criticisms aimed at Dolezal sound very like the criticisms aimed at trans people, including the one that a transwoman in a female-only environment is merely trying to enact male privilege.

There is certainly a very blurry area between the two conceptual boxes labelled "male" and "female". Likewise, there is a very blurry area between the two races labelled "black" and "white". There are some people who are incredibly uncomfortable about these blurry areas; and some people seem to be fine with one but not with the other.

For their part, many trans people seem to be falling over themselves to distance themselves from Dolezal, when in fact I think the parallels are clear, and certainly worthy of exploration and discussion. This distancing seems understandable, given the amount of ire which Dolezal has provoked. On the other hand, not all of it is objectively demonstrable. Statements like "I am a woman, while Rachel Dolezal is only pretending to be black," just aren't persuasive enough for me. And statements like "Transgender brains are different; it's medically proven," are just not convincing enough for this neuroscientist to accept. And the idea that, while gender and race are both social constructs, there exist fundamental differences between them, seems unsupportable to me.

I think a discussion of Rachel Dolezal is very pertinent to a discussion about gender. I think there are many more similarities than differences, and writers like Rebecca Tuvel are right to consider them and debate them in the scientific literature. I think that ultimately, even if a person asserts a particular identity, there are always going to be other members of society who will reject that identity, if it doesn't fit their own world view.

The last words will go to Tuvel and Dolezal.
Tuvel: I wrote this piece from a place of support for those with non-normative identities, and frustration about the ways individuals who inhabit them are so often excoriated, body-shamed, and silenced. (...) My article is an effort to extend our thinking alongside transgender theories to other non-normative possibilities.
Rachel Dolezal told the Guardian: “The discussion’s really about what it is to be human."

* Although her birth name is Rachel Anne Dolezal, she legally changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo in 2016. For clarity I have stuck with her original name, since that's where most of the information out there on the Internet is to be found.

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!