Tuesday 12 January 2010

Probing away: bishops and the medical model of Trans people

Yesterday evening in the House of Lords, an amendment to the Equality Bill, relating to Gender Reassignment, by the Bishop of Chester, Peter Forster, was moved, in his absence, by John Hind, the Bishop of Chichester. Bishop Peter’s amendment called for the words ‘under medical supervision’ to be added to the description of the category of people protected by this section of the Bill, namely, a person who ‘is proposing to undergo, is undergoing, or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex’.


Although a majority of Church of England Bishops voted in favour of the provisions of the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which did so much to overcome the legal injustices experienced by transsexual people, it is the negative statements of some of their colleagues that tend to be remembered. Inevitably, therefore, this sort of intervention is unlikely to be welcomed by Trans groups, and, especially, those who have been rejected by their churches, but it was offered as a ‘probing’ amendment and, as such, I think that it has served a useful purpose.

Firstly, it shows that the drafters of the Equality Bill have really listened to Trans people by eschewing a purely medical model of gender reassignment, which can be inappropriate because of the limitations of an individual’s age or health.

Secondly, it has demonstrated that Section 7 of the Bill is, as its title suggests, about transsexual people who transition from their birth gender to their acquired gender, with or without hormones or surgery.

So far this point has not been clear, mainly, I think, because at the consultation stage, Trans organisations and individuals, knowing that Transphobia was by no means limited to transsexual people alone, were keen that the legislation should protect the widest spectrum of transgender people.

Yesterday however, Baroness Thornton spelt out very clearly that ‘Clause 7 of the Bill does not cover transvestites, or others who choose temporarily to adopt the appearance of the opposite gender’. Even Trans-friendly probing amendments at an earlier stage were unable to establish this outcome conclusively

and it will be a disappointment to many Trans people, and their allies, who recognise the complexity of transgender people’s experience: that people can, and do, move from one category to another, and that the indeterminate and androgynous are probably the most at risk. The Baroness went on to add that those who did so present did not deserve to be treated badly either, but that the Bill’s anti-discrimination provisions were intended specifically for people with gender dysphoria (the opposite of euphoria, and therefore, meaning ill-at-ease with their birth gender) who had undergone a ‘permanent’ change of gender.

However, a lack of clarity hovered over the debate because no one seemed able to answer the question, put twice, once by Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and again by Baroness O’Cathain: what were they to make of paragraph 27 of the document prepared by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which stated that 'Most transgender people do not live permanently in their acquired gender'?

Someone ought to have replied that, whilst this might be true of transgender people - 'transgender' being a term which covers the broad spectrum of people who do not fit the gender binary - most transsexual people who undergo gender re-assignment do, in fact, live permanently in their acquired gender.

Here I have to agree with Bishop Hind’s closing remark that the Lords need to ‘do more work to understand what we are talking about’, as well as his point that ‘this is a question not just of doctrine and liturgy but of pastoral care.’ My own small contribution in this area, with the help of my friends, has been to draft a set of pastoral guidelines on transsexual people, specifically with pastors, clergy and congregations in mind:


Withdrawing the amendment Bishop Hind also promised to consult with his colleagues on this issue. It would be wonderful if they were also prepared to include in these discussions the Trans laity and clergy who are members of the Sibyls, especially in view of Bishop John’s haunting and inviting words:

‘It seems to me that there are big questions about how we understand what it means to be a human being and the role of gender, and I do not think that we are quite at the end of that discussion yet’.


  1. Thank you so much for this article, Tina. I live and worship in the Chester diocese and, I don't think I am being unfair to say that, in my opinion, the request for people to be under medical supervision was most likely to be motivated by ignorance of the issues and possibly by suspicion of the reality/ integrity of transgendered and transsexual people.

    In 2003 ( about then I think)Bishop Peter was arrested by the police and interviewed about his comments that gay people could be helped by reparative therapy - he was not charged.

    I particularly dislike interventions which masquerade under the guise of "compassion" when, I suspect, there may be other factors at play.

    It is important that those who understand the issues through personal experience are consulted and respected in these matters - the need for a bit more of the "listening process" to occur.

  2. Thanks Suem, it's great to have your comments on this piece, and from Chester diocese too. 'Masquerade' is an interesting word and makes me think of the carnival where people assume disguise, and perhaps, 'get into character', or even, begin to see and feel how others live. There may well be other factors at work here, as as you suggest, but for now, at least, I am enjoying the spectacle of compassion.