A Trans Priest’s Response to the “Harmful” Open Letter

by the Revd Dr Tina Beardsley, retired healthcare Chaplain, researcher and co-author of This is My Body and Transfaith

tinabeardsley

As I write this I’m on my way to Basingstoke to give an after-dinner talk to the Southern Federation of the National Association of Funeral Directors. They’ve invited me to address how to ensure a deceased trans person has the funeral they would have wanted. The reason for the invitation, sadly, is that some trans people don’t.

Just occasionally, the deceased’s family refuses to honour their loved one’s transition. At the funeral the deceased is referred to by the name they were given when they were born, not the name they adopted at transition. This is known as “dead-naming” but can happen to trans people in life as well of course.

At these funerals the deceased is referred to by the pronouns applicable to their birth-assigned gender, not the pronouns appropriate to their transition. This is called “mis-gendering” and again that doesn’t just happen at funerals. It can happen to trans people in life. Like dead-naming it’s considered extremely disrespectful.

Trans people can take steps when alive to prevent this from happening. Should it happen, a memorial service can be arranged at a later date when the person can be remembered in their integrity. What pleases me is that funeral staff, like many professionals, are keen to be informed about trans people and our needs.

Trans awareness training, usually led by trans people, is standard nowadays in most educational and professional settings. Would that it were a higher priority in clergy training. Reading the recent Response to the Church of England’s House of Bishops’ Guidance on using the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith it seems that many clergy have much to learn.

I wonder if readers of the Response have noticed that it never once speaks of trans people – the term that trans people themselves usually prefer. Instead, it begins with the term ‘gender dysphoria’, a medical diagnosis that describes the distress that some but not all trans people experience. The medicalisation of trans people, which began in the early twentieth century, made hormonal and surgical transition possible.

But the therapeutic consensus today is that being trans is a human variation, not a pathology. This is the position of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s Standards of Care (Version 7). This document is the gold standard in the field, but again never mentioned in this Response. The recent UK consultation on the Gender Recognition Act 2004 took place precisely because the medical model – which often stigmatised trans people, as if they had a mental health problem – is no longer considered appropriate.

It is simply untrue, as the Response claims, that ‘the evidence [about gender dysphoria] from the medical and social sciences is often conflicting’. If it were, the NHS would not have been enabling trans people to transition for the past half century. Nor would the UK therapeutic bodies have signed the Memorandum of Understanding (Version 2), opposing conversion therapy (which advises trans people not to transition or, if they have, to de-transition) for trans people.

Signatories to the Response need to be aware that such advice is proposed or implied in some of the resources appended to the Response, and that the majority of healthcare professionals consider it not just ineffective, but potentially harmful.

The Response then refers to ‘controversial new theories about the relationship between biological sex and gender and the social meaning of gender’ and their links to gender dysphoria, but since it doesn’t define these theories it’s hard to grasp the point being made here.

The next paragraph says that ‘many ordinary parents and teachers’ are expressing concern about these new theories. No evidence is provided that this is the case, nor is it any clearer what the theories might be and whether they are relevant to the spiritual care of trans people, which was the subject of the Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance.

The Response then raises the spectre of the premature introduction of under-researched interventions but presumably is not referring to the care of trans people: Magnus Hirschfeld’s magisterial study of trans people appeared in 1910; Harry Benjamin’s pioneering use of cross-gender hormones began in the late 1940s; surgery has been available in the UK’s NHS from the early 1970s.

Astonishingly, the Response states that, ‘our guiding principle should be “first do no harm’’’, when the uncertainty it is promoting about trans people’s experience and treatment would itself be regarded as harmful by professionals in the field. I’m presuming that the Response was not discussed with the senior gender identity specialists at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust.

The House of Bishops are then described as ‘well-intentioned’ in issuing Guidance that is said to lack ‘serious theological analysis to address the philosophical, anthropological and social issues in public discourse.’ Here and elsewhere there is a problematising of trans people, contrary to the spirit of the Blackburn Motion which led to the Guidance and passed in General Synod with a huge majority.

At Point 4 the drafters are keen to uphold what they refer to as ‘sexual dimorphism’. Leaving aside their claim that this is ‘an almost universal biological reality’ I’m struck by the sentence which precedes it: ‘the possibility of celebrating gender transition appears to be based on the rejection of physical differentiation between male and female’. Trans people who transition are not rejecting the differences between male and female. It’s simply that our experience is different from people – the majority – whose gender identity and birth sex align. Trans people’s experience should not be construed as undermining other people’s reality simply because it’s different.

Last Sunday I joined my ninety-two year old mother at her church where the vicar, who is Evangelical, was the preacher. His theme was unity not uniformity. He reminded us how the variety of nature and people shows God’s love for diversity. We, he observed, try to play down diversity and make everyone the same, whereas God rejoices in it. Then he added, very movingly I thought, that God’s love alone can hold all our rich variety together.

Photo by CHRISTAHOLKA2015@TWILIGHTPEOPLE.COM

 

 

 

 

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9 Responses to A Trans Priest’s Response to the “Harmful” Open Letter

  1. Thomas Pelham says:

    Dear Tina, Thank you for your reply which has offered some insightful critique to the letter, and has avoided the ad hominem attacks of others.

    I’d quite like to know where you locate this gender identity – is it a spiritual thing? Presumably you are suggesting that gender is not embodied, in which case, if is it a matter of the soul or spirit then how does this interact with the Patristic principle, ‘that which is not assumed is not saved.’ (Irenaeus, Athenasius et. al.) Presumably, if you are is correct, Jesus had a gendered soul (and presumably a masculine one!) – does this not exclude women from the cross? Historically this is one of the good reasons that souls have been held to be sexless in the teachings of Christianity, and therefore gender and sex to be an attribute of our body and not a spiritual division, contra the claims of the Gnostics and Manicheans, who were happy to posit such a divide.

    Therefore I’d take issue with the concept that this doesn’t undermine other people’s reality. It very much does!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. David Baker says:

    May I also thank you, Tina, for avoiding ad hominem attacks and engaging with the issues themselves.
    Thomas Pelham, it seems to me, raises a good point.

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  3. Tina Beardsley says:

    Thanks for this Thomas. I don’t think I’m suggesting that gender is not embodied. Let’s assume that your gender identity aligns with your body. You could though, I assume still distinguish between your self as male and your body. A classic disconnect between gender identity and the body can happen when women undergo chemotherapy and lose their hair or undergo mastectomy prior to surgical reconstruction. Women in these circumstances can report that what has happened to the body challenges or even undermines their gendered sense of self, so this distinction between gender identity and the body is not unique to trans people, it’s just that the contrast can be more extreme for trans people. As you’ll know there is theological writing about what Jesus’ gender might have been especially given the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, but I prefer to focus on the Patristic stress on the humanity of Jesus in elation to salvation rather than his maleness. The idea that trans people are engaging in some form of Gnostic heresy goes back to Oliver O’Donovan’s booklet on trans people and marriage but doesn’t really address trans people’s experience – I don’t think Oliver spoke to any trans people when writing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thomas Pelham says:

      Dear Tina,

      Thank you for replying. You write ‘You could though, I assume still distinguish between your self as male and your body’ – I’m not sure I can particularly, in the sense that the I that I am is not separate from the me, there is no ‘otherness’ to my embodiment. I guess you might claim that this is because my sense of maleness and my embodiment align, so I wouldn’t necessarily have a ‘jarring’ between the two. That said, I do not think there is a possibility of an outward ‘view’ of myself in that way – if there was, it would suggest that there was some sort of duality happening in myself; I do not think that is the witness of scripture or tradition.

      Regarding the Gnosticism, it was there as an example, rather than as an accusation. I do not think that trans people believe that the ‘material’ world is evil and the ‘soulish’ world good. I do wonder whether theologically speaking some sort of dualism is required between body/mind/soul in order to sustain trans theology though:

      even if I lost the embodied signs of my maleness I would continue to be male; no-one, I think, would claim that it simply the possession of sexual organs that makes one male of female – they are just the ‘accidents’.

      And if someone lost their male or female genitalia accidentally it clearly wouldn’t change their gender. So I would argue there is more than just a physical claim. Indeed, your analogy of a women’s disconnect after a mastectomy is an interesting one. Given the obvious appropriateness of counselling and support, rather than transition to a male in the case of the women who has undergone a procedure which ‘undermines their gendered sense of self’ isn’t there an argument for the same in the more extreme cases of trans people?

      Thank you for engaging with me,

      Thomas Pelham

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  4. Peter Ould says:

    Thank you for this piece Tina. I’m grateful it did not have the enmity that Rosie Harper’s piece contained.

    I don’t think you’ll find many of the signatories would actively dead name someone even if they were opposed to gender transition. With that in mind I think your opening paragraphs don’t really move us to discussing the substantive points.

    On the issue of the use of “gender dysphoria”, even DSM 5 uses it to refer to the wider trans experience which doesn’t necessarily include distress. Whilst it recognises that distress may happen, the primary description is “Gender dysphoria involves a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify.” (https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/gender-dysphoria/what-is-gender-dysphoria)

    You must recognise that there is actually little academic consensus in the cause of the trans experience. Whilst researchers have identified some forms of brain matter differentiation between cis and trans people (especially in the cortex and in grey matter) there are actually conflicting results across MtF and FtM as to whether trans brains look more like the trans sex than the cis sex, appear to be a “halfway point” or see little difference. There is also conflicting research evidence on whether transition (surgical or non surgical) produces improved mental health outcomes.

    You are correct that hormone therapy has been available for a number of decades, but this is not the case with children / adolescents. There is very little research on the physical effects of both hormone blockers OR additional sex hormones given that are contrary to the biological sex of the child. There is also a real sparsity of research into the mental health outcomes of children who undergo either or both of these interventions. Where such research does exist it is primarily anecdotal and based around parental reporting of child wellbeing (which is subject to parental bias and child reporting what they think parents want to hear) rather than proper clinical assessment of mental health. Indeed, I have struggled to find any research that covers the latter. Perhaps you can point me in the right direction?

    These reasons amongst others are the drivers for the letter, together with our concern that the House of Bishops has rushed through this liturgical innovation without considering its sacramental and theological impact. Many of us actually want to learn more about the trans experience and offer an effective pastoral response, but we want such a response to consider carefully and reflectively the full body of evidence, be aware of and be honest about the lack of evidence (where it is missing) and we don’t want liturgical innovation done because of activist demand, whichever side of the theological debate that comes from.

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    • Kate says:

      Peter

      Perhaps you could explain the relevance of the lack of evidence you see for pediatric outcomes to your call that the liturgy be rethought? You say that you are against liturgical innovation but surely suggesting that liturgical decisions should be affected by what research papers are to be found in scientific journals is itself liturgical innovation of the first order?

      Like

      • Peter Ould says:

        That observation was in response to Tina implying there was a scientific consensus. It’s clear to anyone familiar with the corpus that that isn’t so.

        We don’t know what causes gender dysphoria. We don’t really know what the long term outcomes are of early (teen) intervention. These are just two good reasons to not have a liturgy that is based on sociological assumptions that are very much unproven.

        None of that means that anyone is justified in being unkind to trans people or excluding them from church life per se, but it does mean the creation of a service to say gender transition is a good thing creates a theology (Lex orandi, Lex credendi) that actually has little consensus to it in the wider CofE.

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  5. Kate says:

    Actually, as someone who has changed gender role to affirm my true sex, I find it refreshing that the open letter does not use the terms trans or transgender which many of us find stigmatising. I find the way the new guidance does insist on the term transgender insulting.

    Once someone has a GRC (unless they are gender fluid or non-binary), by definition they are neither trans nor transgender, although it is fair to say that they had gender dysphoria. There is very, very much wrong in the open letter but as someone affected the terminology in the letter isn’t an issue, unlike the new guidance which is horrible in terms of terminology.

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  6. kiwianglo says:

    Thank you, Tina, for your obvious support for the Bishops’ Letter, and your principled objection to that of their opponents- on the issue of accepting Transgender people fully into the Church.

    Until the Church is strongly convinced that LGBTI+ people are not a threat or danger to the life and witness of the Church, it will still be seen by those whose families and friends are personally involved, as flawed in its witness to the world of the reality of God’s love for all people – no matter their race, social, cultural, gender or sexual orientation may turn out to be.

    Like

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