Many people have found ways to accept and be open about their gender difference and society has made great strides in understanding and combatting discrimination. There are people who experience a mismatch between their body, their sense of self and social expectations. Our deeply-felt gender identity may make us feel at odds with our body, and others’ responses or our fears about them may leave us socially isolated. We have an increasing understanding of those who transition to their correct identity and those who are non-binary – between and both feminine and masculine, or neither.
The Quaker testimonies to equality and integrity help us to see gender identity as part of our spiritual lives, where our personal truth leads to fuller lives, love and service. Quakers believe we become closer to the divine by knowing and accepting ourselves. The Quaker testimony to simplicity helps us to shed expectations and artifice to live truthfully. And our testimony to peace helps us combat prejudice, misrepresentation and antagonism.
Transgender and non-binary are umbrella terms for a wide range of gender identities, with lots of other terms we each use to describe ourselves. In our experience as Quakers with diverse gender identities and experiences, Quakers welcome transgender and non-binary people, whether out or private, who might find a spiritual home in our form of worship, and our witness in the world. We are saddened by worship groups who reject individuals who seek comfort in worship, as they try to reconcile their true identity with God and community.
Gender identity is distinct from sexual orientation and carries no implications about sexuality. The T of LGBT+ means all kinds of gender diversity, and we share with LGB the struggle for equality and end to prejudice.
Expressing one’s true gender identity can be a difficult personal journey if we are struggling with emotion, medical advice, and close relationships – more so if there are other family, employment or health difficulties. This is not done lightly or easily, and needs social and spiritual upholding.
People have lived gender diverse lives for decades. But gender difference used to be largely hidden. We are going through a time when there is much more openness, much more media representation. This has meant more people, especially children and young people, have been able to speak of their own experience and to be heard by support groups, schools and health services. Also our understanding of transition is changing, with more openness to transgender and non-binary people simply affirming their name, pronouns, gender identity, role and presentation and organisations adapting their practices to ensure all are accepted.
We are very aware that this has stimulated an intense debate with people expressing concerns about how young people are responded to, self-declaration as a woman and access for trans women to women’s groups and spaces. Much of this debate is prompted by the forthcoming amendments to the Gender Recognition Act in Scotland, Wales and England, following changes in Ireland.
Below are a few Quaker responses to this blossoming of gender diversity.
Quakers Tabular Statement and gender identity
The annual national count of Quaker members and attenders has for many years recorded each adult as male or female. For a small number of Friends this was not comfortable when we do not fit either male or female truthfully. After this was raised in 2015, Friends House was quick to respond. The annual form now includes ‘Other’: “adults who have indicated a gender identity other than man or woman. This might include people who have stated they are agender, neutrois or who have a(nother) non-binary gender identity.” This has felt positive for many of us, able to be truer to ourselves. Some Friends have asked why have the question at all? But the first step is acknowledging the diversity among us.
Transgender and non-binary inclusion – statement from North East Thames Area Meeting
North East Thames Area Meeting (NET AM) agreed this statement in February 2017. It reflects the Quaker welcome to all, while hoping to make Friends more aware of gender identity and the importance of a welcoming spiritual home for everyone that finds truth in the Quaker way.
‘Facing turbulent times, Quakers in Britain seek a future where Quaker communities are loving, inclusive and all-age. All are heard, valued and supported both in our needs and our leadings. Everyone’s contribution is accepted according to their gifts and resources. All are welcomed and included.’ Our faith in the future (Quakers in Britain, 2015)
Quakers in North East Thames Area Meeting are aware that our community is a continuing creation in which we seek to know and love ourselves and one another in all our differences, united at a profound level in our efforts to reach and respond to others in the things that are eternal.
We want our Local Meetings to be safe places where each person can come as their own true self and find a spiritual home.
We recognise that there is a growing awareness in society, and in the Society of Friends, that the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’ prove incomplete when describing the diversity of gender identity and experience that exists.
We hope that we can all grow together in our understanding of gender identity.
We want it to be known that our Area Meeting is a place where all are welcomed and nurtured, including people who are transgender and non-binary.
We hope that we can share a spiritual companionship, creating a place where we can all listen to and connect with one another, and accompany one another with love.
North East Thames Area Meeting 18 Feb 2017
Supporting family and friends of LGBT+ individuals
Chichester Quaker meeting has a small group called Working Towards Inclusion: The Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Inclusion Group. (SOGII).
In October 2016, at our regular third Sunday talk, Chichester Meeting heard speakers talk of their experiences – of being gay and of being transgender. It was an exceptional meeting – with courage, frankness and humour they opened our eyes to our need for knowledge and understanding and, in the loving atmosphere of the group, it emerged that several Chichester Friends were endeavouring to support close family members and friends through their own joyful and turbulent journeys.
This led to Chichester Meeting discerning our own statement. We recognised that Chichester Friends’ had their own particular and unique experiences, which we wanted to express. In September 2017 our own statement was approved at Business Meeting and in November was approved at Area Meeting.
Our statement includes: ‘In our sharing of personal stories we have come to recognise the need to support both those who are transgender and non-binary and their friends and families who may be struggling in coming to terms with their own personal responses and feelings.’
We held a study day at Chichester Meeting House in March 2018, exploring sexual and gender identity inclusion from the point of view of family, friends and faith.
Coming out makes a person, young or old, highly vulnerable to misunderstanding and even rejection from those closest to them. The day explored a Quaker approach to upholding close relatives and friends who support loved ones. We heard from five individuals who have come out in their sexual orientation or gender identity, and from those who have adapted family lives and friendships with them. We considered how equipped our Quaker meetings are in pastoral and spiritual upholding.
The debate on the Gender Recognition Act
In universities and other organisations, there has been a dramatic change in the way that gender diversity has been embraced, accepted, and individual rights respected and protected. This has provoked reaction from some members of the women’s movement who believe that birth males identifying as female undermines progress made in protecting women from male violence. This has become focused on proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). The 2004 GRA allows individuals to change their birth certificate after medical referral and two years living in the correct gender. It is proposed that the Act might be reformed, so that people can go through a formal procedure ‘self-declaring’ their lifelong identity.
Quakers have a long association with women’s equality and we abhor all forms of prejudice and violence against women. Self-declaration of transgender people fits with Quaker testimonies to truth and equality. We realise there is a debate – some people have concerns about the ease and formality of self declaration, about young people being misadvised, about men pretending to be women for ulterior motives, about the concern among those who transitioned at great personal cost under the existing GRA. But in the opposition to the reforms of the GRA, we also see a lot of misrepresentation of the current and proposed legal position, and a deep misunderstanding of trans people and of gender identity.
The group A Woman’s Place UK is a campaigning group opposing the GRA reforms and claiming that these are a threat to women’s rights. They misrepresent trans women by calling them men, including them within a predatory male stereotype and stating that men claim to become women to get access to women’s protected spaces for sexual violence. They do not acknowledge the experience of most transgender people.
A Woman’s Place has forced itself into Quaker discussion because they have used Quaker Meeting Houses for campaign meetings, notably at Manchester and Oxford. The group was not invited into these Quaker Meeting Houses as has been suggested. The bookings were made with the local meeting house wardens, managers or lettings administrators, who may not have been aware of the group’s stance against trans women. In order to deter protesters, the venue is often not announced until just before the meeting. Staff at Friends House are working on advice to local meetings about letting rooms to groups whose purpose may not be clear.
As a result of the Oxford meeting, there has been a lot of exchange on social media and news websites, some accusing Quakers of failing to support trans people. The nature of the online exchanges is hostile and adversarial, out of tune with the Quaker way of speaking once, listening, and discerning. We trust that QGSDC and Quakers widely will maintain our strong position on tolerance and equality and defend the sanctity of transgender lives.