Saturday 29 August 2009

An Interview with a transgender Anglican lady

There’s a fascinating interview with a Christian trans woman on the conservative website Virtue on Line

In the introduction David Virtue explains that this was his first face-to-face encounter with someone who has transitioned; in this particular case from male-to-female. The interviewee - identified only as M - also a conservative Christian, had not stated beforehand the reason for the meeting, and David had no idea, when they first met, that she had undergone gender re-assignment. Thanks to modern medicine she ‘passed’ – in her case, as a woman - as many people do after transition.

Once transition is ‘complete’ – albeit that it is also a life’s work – most people prefer to ‘live by stealth’, as it often called, and to blend into society. Those who are prepared to acknowledge their trans status, either publicly, or, as in this interview, anonymously, usually do so to increase understanding about the condition of gender dysphoria, the dissonance between one’s perceived gender and one’s internal sense of gender identity, a conflict that is usually successfully resolved by a medical transition that involves hormone therapy and, possibly, surgery, though there are people who opt for a non-medical transition.

In the interview with David Virtue, M talks mainly about transsexualism, often seen as the extreme limit of gender dysphoria, when a person’s cross gender feelings and behaviour have become so intense that they have an overwhelming desire to transition. M does not use the sort of language I have just used. She has a more matter-of-fact approach, which is fine. For her transsexualism is a birth defect, a medical condition, that needs to be, and can be, sorted, and I liked the way that she dismisses the idea that transsexual people are confused about their gender. Trans people know what their gender is, she explains: their problem is that it doesn’t match their birth sex.

I’m a little uncomfortable, though, with the way M’s clear-cut approach seems to drive a wedge between transsexual people and transgender people, not least because all concerned will be experiencing gender dysphoria to a degree, and ‘transgender’ often describes a stage when people are exploring who they are, and whether they should transition, as well as being a valid form of transition in its own right for those who cannot, for whatever reason, proceed with a medical transition.

Similarly, M is keen to distinguish transsexualism from homosexuality, on the ground that the former is about gender, that latter about sexuality. But this kind of sharp distinction between sex and gender is somewhat simplistic, and indicates that M is talking mainly from a male-to-female perspective, given that many trans men have lived as lesbians before transition. Agreed, the LGBT alliance is not about saying that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are all the same, but we often face similar issues, one of which came up in the interview. Reparative therapy for lesbian and gay people is a hot topic at the moment, and M was asked to comment on an organisation that claims to offer a psychological ‘cure’ for transsexualism. Her robust dismissal of this option is great.

As a conservative, Anglican, Christian M, who fathered two sons, and is now divorced, upholds ‘traditional’ biblical teaching that sex is permissible only within heterosexual marriage and her review of the relationship options for post-op trans people is, understandably, inconclusive. She herself is celibate, and David Virtue was shocked to hear that M had been thrown out of two churches, ‘one Episcopal, one Anglican’ after informing the minister concerned about her journey. Sadly, this has all too often been the experience of trans Christians.

The interview is a very respectful piece of journalism by Virtue On Line and this was true, more or less, of Hans Zeiger’s coverage of last year’s Lambeth Fringe seminar ‘Listening to Trans People’.

Perhaps, as M implies, Christians are more comfortable talking about gender, than they are about sexuality (though it is hardly less controversial, given the issue of women bishops); and if you approve of the gender binary, as conservative Christians evidently do, then people who transition appear, helpfully, to reinforce it. (In his book, Exchanging the truth of God for a lie, Jeremy Marks has noted that some Evangelical pastors, unable to countenance same-sex relationships, on biblical grounds, have more readily accepted people who have transitioned).

There are other items in this interview that I hope to return to another time, but what strikes me today is how important it is that these conversations are going on; thank you David, and M, for allowing us to be ‘a fly on the wall’ of this one.
Christina Beardsley


  1. So...? What I have heard is precisely the opposite. That the ick-factor is bad enough, but gender-bender is beyond comprehension for most Calvos/Evangelicals.

  2. That's why this piece is so interesting. True, many of the people who comment on it on the Virtue site take interviewer and interviewee to task, but compassionate voices are also to be found there. The point is that this trans woman is 'one of their own', a conservative Evangelical Christian, and therefore, she is being listened to and, to some extent, heard, in a way that would not happen, presumably, if she were just another 'liberal Christian'.