A Cause for Shame?

by Mark Rees

from Signs of the Times, No. 15 - Oct 2004

"Don't worry, I'll sort out the congregation," the vicar assured me.

It was 1971 and having lived as a very unhappy gender-dysphoric female for the first twenty-eight years of my life, I was beginning to undergo medical treatment to enable me to live as a male. The university I attended was very supportive, but going home in my new role was a challenge. A little apprehensively, I went to church.

"Hello, Mark."

The vicar had obviously 'sorted out' the congregation. Everyone greeted me as if they had always known me as a man. During the years since I have always been treated with equal acceptance and received much support from church people.

Yet not all enjoyed such positive experiences. In 1972 a friend of mine, John, also gender-dysphoric, but then undiagnosed and untreated, confided in his curate that he thought he was a lesbian. (Before the condition was generally known, we did wonder if we were homosexual. There seemed no other way of defining ourselves). The curate spoke to the vicar who promptly banished John from both the church youth club and the church.

Ten years later, John, having since changed gender roles and living successfully as a male, was employed by a different church to set up and run a project for unemployed people. It was a great success and an Open Day was held, with many civic and church dignitaries present. But at 3 pm, 'a silly young woman' told the vicar of John's role-change. John was sent home and told to return at 6 pm for 'a re-interview.' He did so and was praised for having done a wonderful job but at 6.02 was told that 'The church could never employ someone like you.' It is surely significant that, twenty years later, the experience is so seared into John's memory that he can recall the exact timings of events.

He was 'broken by this experience' and for six months was unable to work. It was John's partner who saved him from committing suicide. Her careful enquiries revealed that that the congregation had been told that John's dismissal was 'something to do with children.' Understandably furious, she rang the local bishop and the Archbishop of Canterbury's office, and received a similar response from both, "I'm sorry for the distress it has caused but there really is nothing we can do about it."

John has since become a leading academic lawyer with many years of supporting transsexual people. He still hears many stories similar to his own. That such attitudes still exist were made painfully evident by Baroness O'Cathain during the Lords' debate of the Gender Recognition Bill. She introduced an amendment, which would have permitted churches the right to refuse employment to transsexual people, deny them goods and services (including accommodation) and ban them from worship. The Bill, now enacted, has played into the hands of the fundamentalists by maintaining the churches' exemption from the regulations banning discrimination against transsexual people. John has confirmed that, "Any religious group can refuse to employ a transsexual person and to deny him or her use of any goods or services the group provides, including attendance at any religious event." These exemptions are allowed in order "to comply with the doctrines of the religion or avoid offending the religious susceptibilities of a significant number of its followers." (1999 Employment Act, Section 5, Subsec-tions 3&4). Even after re-registration as male, John could again suffer treatment similar to that he experienced over twenty years ago.

Is it not to the Church's shame that it seeks legislation to deny people rights solely because of their medical condition? Where is the compassion of Jesus?

Why, in 2004, does the disparity remain between 'the hardcore' who opposed the Bill, especially in the Lords, and my Anglican friends, who are tremendously supportive? It seems that those least able to accept us are at the extreme ends of the spectrum. For them either the Bible is the total and inerrant authority or, at the other end, the Church. (The Vatican has declared gender role change as sinful.) Can one ever hope to change the minds of those who have 'the Truth' and resist any explanation?

Those who trot out Genesis 1.27, 'male and female created he them' ignore the fact that sex is not dipolar but a spectrum with an amazing number of people in the centre ground. They also ignore the fact that there is an increasing amount of research which suggests that transsexualism may have a biological basis and that no one has ever been 'cured' by psychotherapy. In terms of improved quality of life, gender role re-assignment is 97% successful. Untreated, the condition has been described by a leading specialist as 'a lethal disease' because so many attempt suicide.

'Transsexual' is a very misleading term. The matter is one of gender identity, not sexual orientation. (It should not therefore have been included in the Bishops' Report on Human Sexuality.)

One cannot hope to change those minds which, like concrete, are firmly set, but they are, although vociferous, a minority. What we can hope is to enlighten others. Transsexual support groups are increasingly receiving invitations to talk to employers, unions, police forces and other organisations. I have personally addressed about thirty Samaritan groups and know that one school of nursing had my autobiography, Dear Sir or Madam, on its reading list. Yet neither my colleagues nor I have ever been invited to speak to a church group, or, perhaps more importantly, those in training for the ministry. It is also important to remember that transsexual people are members of families and communities, who may also need support. Is it fair to let the priest face such a situation totally unprepared? Will he or she be able to 'sort out the congregation'?

Transsexual people do not want tolerance from the Church; we want acceptance as people who are as worthy of respect and love as anyone else. We want to be treated as Jesus would have treated us. Is that too much to ask of Christians?

Mark Rees is an associate lecturer at a college of further education and an associate student at the South East Institute for Theological Education.