Trans people are not a problem for society or the churches – they are a gift. It is society, when its laws lag behind current knowledge, and the Christian church, when it prefers to judge rather than to love, that is the problem. In many traditional cultures, trans people were often the priests and shamans, and honoured for their spiritual gifts. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott’s essay ‘We Come Bearing Gifts: Seven Lessons Religious Congregations Can Learn from Transpeople’ (in Trans/formations, 2009) argues that it could, and should, be like this today.
Sadly, though, it can often be a struggle for trans people’s gits to be recognised – even by the trans person concerned – let alone received, but one must hope. Below the Tian Tan Buddha, a huge statue at the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island, which I visited last Sunday afternoon, three striking figures offer their votive gifts, like the magi who knelt before the infant Jesus, and they inspired me to hope that things can be different.
According to Wikipedia most Hong Kong residents ‘are either agnostic, atheist, or indifferent to religion.’ Roughly one and a half million people espouse Buddhism, another million are Taoist, which makes Christians – 480,000 Protestants; 353,000 Roman Catholics – a minority, but a very active and vocal one. Christians in Hong Kong attend church in great numbers – as I discovered at St John’s Cathedral last Sunday morning – and attitudes to sexual matters remain conservative. So-called ‘traditional’ Christian views on the family, and Chinese belief in the necessity for ‘filial piety’, combine in opposition to the marriage of transsexual people – as reactions to the ‘W’ case demonstrated – and to homosexuality.
Many of these social attitudes stem from the British colonial era, but while UK legislation has increasingly affirmed the equality of lesbian, gay and transgender people, the Hong Kong legislature has remained almost in a time warp, as has its mainstream churches. In the UK too, of course, it is the churches that have been most resistant to these developments – though it looks as if things are finally beginning to change for the better – and we have a more developed progressive Christian approach to these matters, which is why last week’s conference on the Legal Status of Transsexual and Transgender persons, held at Hong Kong University, had two talks exploring ‘Christian views’ from a UK perspective.
Duncan Dormor, Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, mapped the varied understandings of human nature that inform different responses of Christian churches and denominations to transsexual people, and concluded that the gender binary upheld by many conservative Christians was largely shaped by post-Enlightenment culture. My own contribution illustrated some spiritual dimensions of gender transition using the metaphors of metamorphosis (change of form) and migration (border crossing), ending with reflections on the transition and spirituality of human rights lawyer, the late Sonia/David Burgess.
Hong Kong is almost 6,000 miles from the UK, which was an awful long way to go to deliver a half hour lecture, but judging from the discussion and networking that followed our lectures, it felt incredibly worthwhile.
How was it, someone asked, that ‘the Christian view’ seems to have been hijacked by right-wingers? Bullying and big money play a significant role, in my view, as do the apathy of the moderate majority, and the media’s love of polarised views. Hong Kong churches could be particularly rejecting to members who transitioned. Transition was seen as sinful: how could people be helped to deal with that accusation? It was interesting to reflect how things have moved on in the UK. Fifteen years ago UK trans people were often rejected by their churches when they transitioned – this is why Sibyls was founded – but now people are more likely to find understanding and welcome from their congregation. How might the Churches, church leaders, and schools in Hong Kong be encouraged to take a more sympathetic approach to trans people? I wondered whether a Changing Attitude Hong Kong was needed. The churches’ tendency to confuse transsexuality with homosexuality was also discussed. Gender identity and sexual orientation are distinct and involve separate issues, but can also intersect – both groups can be victims of oppression, and LGB&T alliances can provide the numbers necessary to effect change.
But the conference contributions that I found most moving were from two Hong Kong trans people, Joanne Leung, founder of the Hong Kong Transgender Resource Centre, who I had been corresponding with beforehand, and Kasper, both of whom spoke with dignity and pride about what life was like for them being post-transition in Hong Kong at this time, and it was important for delegates to hear their voices. But why not listen to Joanne for yourself? Or rather, read what she says, as she is speaking in Chinese, but there are subtitles. A Christian as well as a trans activist, I love the way she gets to the heart of the matter in this video. Bullied at school for her femininity she can now see her gender identity as a lovely gift, the LGB&T community as a nurturing one, and, as for the Bible, how could that be hostile to her when its fundamental message is love?