Wednesday 20 January 2010

'A sign of a healthy and mature society'?

Dr Stephen Whittle, OBE (right) and his wife Sarah Rutherford:
married in June 2005 in Heaton Mersey Methodist Church.
The couple, who had been together for 26 years, have four children.
Stephen was born female and transitioned to male in the 1970s.

Yesterday, in the House of Lords, Baroness Thornton, speaking on behalf of the government, accepted two amendments to the Equality Bill relating to transsexual people: 58A from the Bishop of Winchester (moved in his absence by the Bishop of Southwark) and 58B (moved by Baroness Gould of Potternewton).

These amendments were designed to protect clergy and ministers from claims of discrimination should they to refuse to solemnise a marriage where they had reason to believe that one of the parties had undergone gender reassignment.

The Gender Recognition Act 2004 gives transsexual people who transition to their acquired gender the opportunity to apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate. If granted they can then apply for a new birth certificate that states their acquired gender, and thereby obtain the right to marry someone of the opposite sex to their acquired gender.

Prior to this Act transsexual people could pass through the entire process from male-to-female or female-to-male, and all their documents would be changed, except the birth certificate, which continued to record a gender the very opposite to the one in which the person was living. Producing the birth certificate, in these circumstances, was always the final indignity for the person who had undergone gender reassignment, and the anomaly of living in one gender yet remaining legally a member of another prevented someone who had transitioned from marrying a person who was the opposite to their acquired sex.

Thankfully, the Gender Recognition Act brought that situation to an end, but an exemption was included for Anglican clergy (in England and Wales) who objected to gender re-assignment on conscientious religious grounds, and who would otherwise have had to marry a couple, one of whom had transitioned, because they lived in their parish.

This exemption appears to have been overlooked in the current draft bill, and so the Bishop of Winchester’s amendment restores it, for the time being, to the legislation, while Baroness Gould’s extends its protection to clergy beyond the Church of England and the Church in Wales.

Back in 2003, Claire MacNab, Vice-President of the Transsexual lobbying group Press for Change, could not foresee a problem with this kind of exemption, not least because Press For Change is an organisation with a passion, not just for Trans peoples’ rights, but for Human rights generally, and therefore, had no desire to deny the rights of those who questioned the possibility of gender reassignment on religious grounds.

Yesterday Baroness Gould took a similar line: ‘Surely it is a sign of a healthy and mature society that we can recognise someone’s true gender while also recognising that some people of faith – who undertake the important duty of solemnising marriage – may not accept that a man or a woman can change gender under law, due to their religious convictions’.

Likwise, Baroness Thornton, for the government, put it like this: ‘This is an area where the Bill should strike a balance. In striking that balance, we agree that, as under current law, people of faith who have the ability to solemnise marriages, should not be forced to go against their strongly held religious convictions’.

I can see all this about the balancing of competing rights and yet I am still troubled that there is something mean-spirited about such amendments – and horribly impractical too. How is a minister to establish their reasonable belief that the couple who have come to book their wedding are not a natal man or woman and that one of them has undergone gender reassignment? Wouldn’t it be hugely presumptuous or intrusive to suggest that they have done so? And how embarrassing if one were proved to be wrong: as the case of South African athlete Caster Semenya is demonstrating people’s gender is not always that easy to read.

Behind these amendments I detect the spectre of hostility to same-sex marriage for that, according to those who deny the possibility of gender re-assignment, is what such a marriage would be, were it to go ahead. Since, according to their beliefs, a woman cannot transition to become a man, nor a man transition to become a woman, then the couple sitting in the vicar’s study, or the parish office, are actually two women, or two men, depending on which of them has transitioned.

My advice to any Trans person who wishes to be married in church, where there is no legal impediment, would be to find a minister who you know is likely to be sympathetic. It’s easy enough to establish this. Don’t go to a church where you’re bound to be rejected. Word on the street will tell you which church is likely to be inclusive and welcoming to those who are different. And then be honest with the minister about one’s past, for the minister’s sake, as well as for your own and your partner’s sake. It’s safer that way: if the people who need to know are in the know. For what you are planning is going to be the happiest day of your life, which you’ve probably awaited for a very long time, and neither the day, nor indeed its preliminaries, should ruined by the minister’s views, however conscientiously they may be held.


  1. Yes, I agree, In fact why not set up the 'Church of the gay saint' and leave the rest of us in peace?

  2. Ehud,I may be mistaken but the second half of your sentence leads me to believe that you have not really understood what I have been writing about here. You say that you agree (with what?),ask a rhetorical question,and then express a desire to be left in peace. Why not try and engage with the issues in this post, which are about government legislation which will affect trans people, as distinct from lesbian and gay people?

  3. The issue of marriage in an Anglican church is not that complex. No Anglican cleric is compelled to marry a couple who live in his or her parish. The incumbent must allow the couple to marry in the parish church - but the marriage need no be performed by the incumbent.

  4. Thanks Anonymous, That's a good point - and one that was not mentioned in the debate at all - that the right to marry in the parish church is not affected by this exemption. I just wonder whether a couple would wish to go through the hassle of being rejected by the parish priest and then of having to insist that he or she provide a minister who does not have conscientious objections to the proposed marriage because one (or even both?) partners have transitioned. I guess if you have had long links with that particular parish you might, and you would be within your 'rights', but my sense is that the whole idea of conflicting 'rights' is tending to obscure the pastoral need here, and the loving intentions of the couple.