TransEpiscopal TransEpiscopal Blog achieved great success at the 2012 General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States. Three transgender non-discrimination resolutions were debated and approved by the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies. It was a significant breakthrough, and at the 2015 General Convention the TransEpiscopal delegation hope to present a resolution to adapt an existing name changing ceremony for use with Transgender People. Hearing the news of the Blackburn Diocesan Synod motion about liturgies for transgender people, TransEpiscopal have invited me to write a blog post about it, and the English context, which I will also post on the Changing Attitude website. Meanwhile, I’m posting this document, which is the briefing paper I prepared for the Revd Chris Newlands for the Blackburn Diocesan Synod debate.
WELCOMING TRANSGENDER PEOPLE AND RESPONDING TO THEIR NEEDS FOR PRAYER
A Briefing Paper to accompany the Blackburn Diocesan Synod Motion
The Blackburn Diocesan Synod motion is based on a pastoral encounter with a young transgender person that took place in Lancaster Priory. A similar encounter could occur at any parish church and highlights the opportunity to welcome transgender people and respond to their particular needs for prayerful affirmation. The Church of England prides itself on its welcome to everyone who lives in the parish, but the presence of a transgender person in a congregation, or with a request for ministry, may require an informed and sensitive response.
Transgender is an umbrella or generic term for a range of gender variant people.
The transgender people referred to in the motion are those who have made, or are in the process of making, a permanent gender transition.
Transition is the process by which one adopts the gender expression that matches one’s gender identity. It can be an extremely stressful time for transgender people, especially if they are perceived as gender non-conforming and deviant by others as a result. It is usually preceded by the person’s ‘coming out’ to others as transgender.
Transsexual people usually experience persistent cross-gender identification, and many – but not all – undergo gender reassignment or, more accurately, gender confirmation or reaffirmation, with or without the assistance of hormones or surgery. Transsexual people usually claim never to have doubted their gender identity, their problem being its mismatch with their birth gender.
‘Gender dysphoria’, signifying unease with one’s birth gender, and ‘gender variant’, are helpful substitutes, especially in the technical literature, with ‘trans’ emerging, somewhat surprisingly, as the preferred catch-all term in most contexts, increasingly signified by the addition of an asterisk: ‘trans*’ to signify the widest range of gender variant people.
Here is a useful summary:
- incongruity between one’s phenotype (external sex characteristics of the body) and psychological experience of oneself as male or female indicates gender variance: atypical development between one’s gender identity and physical sex
- the personal experience of this is gender dysphoria
- its profound & persistent form is transsexualism
- the feelings arise in early childhood but children usually deny or suppress them and conform until later in life
- children presented to doctors with this condition do not always turn out to be transsexual in adult life but many more transgender children and adolescents are presenting and finding appropriate help now that society has become more aware of the phenomenon
A Female-to- Male or FtM is someone with a female phenotype and a male gender identity. A Male-to-Female or MtF is someone with a male phenotype and a female gender identity.
An issue of gender rather than sexuality
The distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation often requires reiteration because of the assumption that transsexual and transgender people are homosexual. This is partly a hangover from the infancy of modern sexology, when transsexual people were regarded as a subset of homosexuality. Unlike homosexuality, which was removed in 1973, the US Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders[i] still includes ‘gender dysphoria’, because gender transition is often overseen by psychiatrists (though in some countries endocrinologists have this role). However, the item about transsexual people’s sexual orientation was deleted as irrelevant to the supervision of their treatment. It stated that gender dysphoric people, like the rest of the population, can be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or asexual.
Several studies show a link between transsexualism and neurodevelopment of the brain.[ii] Transsexualism is not responsive to psychological or psychiatric treatments alone. It is multi-factored: a combination of genetics, hormones, environment, the psychosocial, and the cultural. To quote Bernard and Terry Reid:
There appear to be many potential etiological pathways and these are likely to vary between one individual and another, yet it is safe to say that the condition does not result from psychopathology, nor is it a life-style choice, or some kind of whim or fantasy.[iii]
Transgender people often seek to align their gender role or appearance with their gender identity. Transsexual people, under medical supervision, may access hormones or surgery to effect this alignment. Transition is the process of changing gender role or appearance and usually involves a legal first name change by statutory declaration or deed poll. At this initial stage, or even at the person’s ‘coming out’ as transgender, parochial clergy might be approached for suitable prayers.
The Standards of Care for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People are issued by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health[iv] (WPATH – formerly the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association) and include the following:
- psychiatric referral and supervision or counselling to ensure mental health & wellbeing
- hormone therapy – after 1 year [or less] of cross-gender living or living in ‘acquired’ gender role (Real Life Experience), or 2 years of counselling
- Gender Reassignment/Confirmation Surgery after 1-2 years Real Life Experience
- Special protocols for children and adolescents – hormone blockers to prevent puberty are prescribed now in the UK.
Not everyone who transitions seeks hormones or surgery. Many trans men have not, until recently, chosen phalloplasty, though that surgery is now more successful than it was. Some androgynous or gender non-conforming folk are assumed to be have undergone ‘gender reassignment’ and so covered by current UK equality legislation as well as being targets for the same abuse that other transgender people experience.
The Gender Identity Research & Education Service (GIRES 2009) estimated that between 300,000 and 500,000 people in the UK have experienced some degree of gender variance, 60,000 to 90,000 of whom desire complete role adaptation.
In 2007 the number of people presenting for gender reassignment nationally – though small – was estimated at 20 per 100,000. The number presenting for treatment was estimated at 3% per 100,000, i.e. 1,500 presenting for treatment, and the total number who had presented for treatment at that date was 12,500. The ratio of adults to children presenting annually for treatment was 100 children and adolescents to 1,500 adults, but the figures for both are rising, and the gender balance is closing (hitherto male-to-females have outnumbered female-to-males).
- The number of [presenting] trans people in the UK was estimated at 6000 (2009)
- March 2008 – 2,366 had applied for Gender Recognition Certificates (only 3% were refused)
- The numbers of people likely to present is rising and likely to increase (GIRES)
- Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic, West London receives 500 new referrals each year and has 2000 people on its books
TRANSGENDER PEOPLE’S HEALTH AND SOCIAL NEEDS
It was as recently as 1999 that the Sex Discrimination Act was amended so that those who intend to undergo, are undergoing, or have undergone, gender reassignment cannot be dismissed from the workplace on those grounds. In spite of this and other legal changes, like the Equality Act 2010, transgender people can still find themselves manoeuvred from their jobs, ostensibly for other reasons, but in fact because their employer or colleagues are uncomfortable with their transition.
The statistics around transgender people’s health are particularly shocking. According to the 3 year longitudinal study conducted by the National Gender Identity Clinic at Charing Cross Hospital and published in 1992, 1-in-5 male-to-female transsexuals had received in-patient treatment in a psychiatric hospital. This was well before the legislation that has improved transgender people’s lives. Nevertheless, even today, many transgender people, regardless of social position or class, experience isolation and limited understanding of their lives, and are at risk of alcohol abuse, depression, suicide, self-harm, violence, substance abuse and HIV. In a survey of 872 transgender people 34% had considered suicide one or more times before receiving professional help & support.[v] Transgender people are a high suicide risk group and young transgender people are especially vulnerable.[vi] Many trans women are visibly trans for several years after starting living in their new gender role, and (transphobic) violence is more often directed at them than at trans men.
Transphobia is defined as ‘Emotional disgust/negative attitudes … towards gender non-conforming persons’.[vii] McBride & Hansson (2010)[viii] highlight the extent of transphobia and that transgender people are subject to harassment from both members of the public and public service providers. There are some deeply worrying statistics:
- 73% of trans people surveyed had experienced harassment in public (comments/verbal abuse/physical violence
- 21% avoided going out due to fear of violence
- 46% had experienced harassment in their neighbourhoods
- 64% of young trans men and 44% of young trans women faced harassment/bullying at school – from staff, including teachers as well as pupils
- 28% moved neighbourhoods because of their transition
In December 2011 the UK Government published a Transgender Action Plan (HM Government 2011)[ix] which acknowledged that transgender people still lag behind in terms of equality. It was based on several consultations and three surveys, but the two main areas of concern for transgender people were their health and employment. The second survey around transgender people’s health had 500 respondents, 75% of whom had experienced delay in accessing treatment for gender dysphoria. The greatest delay was referral to a psychiatrist and almost 50% thought GPs – usually the first healthcare professional to whom they present – needed awareness training on transgender issues.
Even in routine social interactions, mis-gendering – referring to a trans woman as ‘he or him’, Mister or sir’ or to a trans man as ‘she or her’ ‘Miss or madam’ – can be a particular cause of distress when someone is transitioning, or worse still, after they have transitioned. When someone describes themselves as a trans man or trans woman it’s important to remember that trans men are men and trans women are women.
Post transition many transsexual people will not wish to refer to their history, preferring just to be considered their chosen gender.
THE EXPERIENCE OF TRANSGENDER CHRISTIANS
It is quite possible for a transgender person to be present in a congregation without anyone knowing. Perhaps the person concerned is conscious that they are transgender but chooses not to discuss this with anyone; in which case there is always the possibility that they will come out to others at a later date. Alternatively, the person may have transitioned and there is no suggestion of their gender history, nor would they wish to discuss it.
In the late 1990s transgender people were unable to rely on the support of their church if they ‘came out’ and announced their intention to transition. Many experienced ostracism by their faith community. Those who held church offices or performed in a church music group, for example, were told they must relinquish these roles and some people were refused communion or asked to leave their church community. One reason that led Jay Walmsley, a member of the Church of England, to found the Sibyls[x] in 1996 was to provide transgender people with a safe space where they could receive Holy Communion without fear of judgement or rejection for being themselves. The Sibyls is a UK organisation dedicated to Christian spirituality for transgender people.
Some individual churches and clergy were always incredibly supportive of transgender people but it is observable, within the last decade, that UK churches generally are becoming more aware of and open to the transgender people in their midst or who seek their ministry. Legislative changes, such as the General Recognition Act 2004, and heightened awareness of transgender people’s lives and stories in the media, have led to increased understanding and acceptance.
Older transgender people may feel wary of the Church. The Evangelical Alliance document, Transsexuality (2000) was particularly wounding as it failed to draw on transsexual people’s experience, the practice of the medical establishment and the latest scientific studies, yet insisted that transsexual people could be ‘cured’ by psychological or counselling therapies. Although satisfaction rates for gender transition are high a small number of people do experience regret and return to their birth gender. This can sometimes follow a religious conversion but the use of prayer, counselling, and Christian companionship to re-adjust the person’s sense of gender identity so that it aligns with that of their phenotype can also be highly manipulative and harmful. For example, one member of the Sibyls who had transitioned from male-to-female came under pressure to conform to conservative Christianity, and reverted back to male, before, finally, after prayerfully attending to their own heart, returning back to female again (Batty 2004).[xi]
The Church of England contributed to this field in 2003 in Some issues in human sexuality: a guide to the debate. Chapter 7 of that volume, entitled Transsexualism, drew on the Evangelical Alliance document but also referenced articles by Rodney Holder, Victoria Kolakowski and Fraser Watts which take a more theologically affirming perspective of transgender people and gender transition. Although it was commended by the Pilling Report, this chapter was also weak on the latest scientific evidence and transgender people’s experience.[xii] Nor did it reach any conclusion. Two theological positions – one opposed to transition, the other supporting it – were presented as alternatives over which the Church would need to make up its mind.[xiii] Once again, this did not signal a wholehearted welcome for transgender people, although the authors did at least concede ‘there is general acceptance that there are no biblical texts that can be seen as addressing transsexualism as such.’[xiv]
There is an impression too that, due to their negativity about same-sex marriage, the churches were opposed to, or negatively influenced, the final shape of the Gender Recognition Act 2004, especially the requirement that a married person could obtain full gender recognition only by ending their marriage; albeit they could, if they wished, then enter into a civil partnership with their former spouse. This anomaly, which was only overturned last year by the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples Act) 2014 soured the relationship between transgender people and the churches, especially for those married couples who decided to stay together, which meant that the transgender partner’s legal gender recognition was delayed by up to a decade.
THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND[xv]
In fact, the Church of England’s position on transgender people has been more progressive than that but the detail is not widely known. In 2003 the Church of England House of Bishops agreed that two opposing theological views of transsexual people’s experience, and gender transition, can ‘properly be held’, one affirming, the other negative: similar to the ‘two integrities’ over the ordination of women to the priesthood. To quote the House of Bishops Memo HB(03)M1:
The House recognised that there was a range of views within the Church on transsexualism and accepted that (as matters stood at present) both the positions set out below could properly be held:
- a) some Christians concluded on the basis of Scripture and Christian anthropology, that concepts such as ‘gender reassignment’ or ‘sex change’ were really a fiction. Hormone treatment or surgery might change physical appearance, but they could not change the fundamental God-given reality of ‘male and female He created them’.
- b) others, by contrast, whilst recognising that medical opinion was not unanimous, were persuaded that there were individuals whose conviction that they were ‘trapped in the wrong body’ was so profound and persistent that medical intervention, which might include psychiatric, hormone, and surgical elements, was legitimate and that the result could properly be termed a change of sex or gender.
The House agreed that the Church should continue to engage in discussions with the Lord Chancellor’s Department with a view to safeguarding the position of bishops unwilling to ordain transgendered candidates and, once marriage of transsexuals became possible in law, securing an exemption for clergy not willing to solemnise such marriages.
The wording of the final paragraph sounds defensive, but having recognised a divergence of views within the House, the Bishops did not oppose the Gender Recognition Act 2004. Some bishops spoke against the Bill, while others spoke in favour. The outcome was that a man or woman who has been issued with a gender recognition certificate may marry someone of the opposite sex in their Church of England parish church unless there is a legal impediment, or the parish priest has a conscientious objection to officiating at the marriage of someone who has undergone gender reassignment and been legally recognised in that gender.
At roughly the same time (and again there is a hint in the Memo’s final paragraph) the House of Bishops discussed transgender candidates for ordination, at least two such having come forward. The Church of England’s position on transgender ordinands is set out in Paragraph 17 Section 2 of the DDO’s handbook as follows:
Sponsorship of transgender candidates
In 2002 the House of Bishops agreed that Bishops’ Advisers should not be placed in the position of having in effect to decide with regard to transgendered candidates on an essentially doctrinal/ethical question. To that end, any Bishop intending to sponsor a transgendered person for a Bishops’ Advisory Panel will certify that he has decided that he would be prepared to ordain and offer a Title to that person if during the course of training and formation she/he were deemed to have a vocation to ordained ministry. Bishops’ Advisers assigned to the Bishops’ Advisory Panel at which such a candidate was due to be considered would be given the opportunity of declaring in advance whether or not they could conscientiously recommend for training a transgender candidate. In such cases, either they or the candidate would be moved to another Panel.
It is important that the DDO handles such situations sensitively and with integrity and that both the candidate and the Bishops’ Advisory Panel know the mind of the Diocesan Bishop in a given situation. Any decision regarding candidates needs to bear in mind the public nature of the ordained ministry, an understanding of the human condition and the gospel imperative of holiness and integrity of life for all believers. Criterion D (Personality and Character) and Criterion E (Relationships) are pertinent here.
Here there is positive discrimination for the transgender candidate in that they would not be expected to attend a Bishop’s Advisory Panel where a Bishop’s Adviser had a conscientious objection to transgender candidates, and also, assuming their vocation is confirmed, they are promised a title post in their sponsoring diocese (though presumably they would be free to find another in another diocese). The guidance does not explain what would happen if the bishop were to have a conscientious objection to the ordination of transgender people.
Clergy who transition
The diocesan bishop’s theological perception of transgender people has been determinative for clergy who have transitioned in post. In the Church of England only the late Revd Carol Stone had the full support of her bishop when she transitioned. The other parochial clergy who indicated to their bishops that they hoped to transition were unable to continue in parochial ministry. A priest in sector ministry was able to continue in that ministry. The Ministry Division is aware that there is a lack of guidance for clergy who transition and are in conversation with the House of Bishops about this matter. The Blackburn motion, if passed, would broaden that discussion.
Christina Beardsley, March 2015
[ii] http://www.gires.org.uk/assets/Research-Assets/etiology.pdf Section 7, p. 4
[iii] Scientific Background – Transsexualism is but one expression of the wide variety of human nature and development. GIRES (Bernard & Terry Reid)
[viii] McBride, R. and Hansson, U. (2010), “The Luck of the Draw”: A Report on the Experiences of Trans Individuals Reporting Hate Incidents in Northern Ireland, Belfast: OFMdFM.
[xi] D. BATTY, ‘Mistaken Identity’, 31.07.2004 Guardian: Society <http://www.theguardian.com/society/2004/jul/31/health.socialcare> accessed 28.11.2013
[xii] C. BEARDSLEY, ‘Taking issue: the Transsexual Hiatus in Some issues in human sexuality,(2005), Theology, CVIII, pp. 338-346.
[xiii] HOUSE OF BISHOPS, Some issues in human sexuality: A guide to the debate. A discussion document from the House of Bishops’ Group on ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’, Church House Publishing, London 2003, pp. 247-249, 285-288.
[xiv] HOUSE OF BISHOPS, above n. 11, p. 228.
[xv] See C. BEARDSLEY, ‘Nudging Towards Serendipity: The Church of England and Transsexual people’, (July-September 2013), Crucible: The Christian Journal of Social Ethics, pp. 17-24.