This article is for Friends looking for information about transgender experiences and the social implications of gender diversity. It seeks to reflect testimony amongst Quakers, but this is not a discerned statement for QGSDC or Quakers. We hope it might provide context for on-going discernment.
Respect the wide diversity among us in our lives and relationships. Refrain from making prejudiced judgements about the life journeys of others…. Advices and Queries 22
Personality, sex, race, culture and experience are God’s gifts. We need one another and differences shared become enrichments, not reasons to be afraid, to dominate or condemn. The media have increased our knowledge of the world, but we need greater self-awareness if our actions are to be changed in relation to the information we receive. We need to consider our behaviour carefully, heeding the command of Jesus that we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves. Meg Maslin, 1990 – QFP 23.33 (part)
Until we as a Religious Society begin to question our assumptions, until we look at the prejudices, often very deeply hidden, within our own Society, how are we going to be able to confront the inequalities within the wider society? … Susan Rooke-Matthews, 1993 – QFP 23.46 (part)
Our bodies, our gender
The word ‘gender’ has become a mash-up of the personal and the societal. Gender usually means sex – like when you fill in forms: ‘Gender? Male, Female, Prefer Not To Say’. The words Female, Woman, Feminine blur into a single meaning; the same with Male, man, masculine. Gender in society has come to mean bodily sex, roles, and inequality between men and women.
The gendered words masculine and feminine have become associated with stereotypes about activity (beer-drinking / make up), rather than a personal awareness of ‘that of man’ or ‘that of woman’ making us human.
Some say gender is innate in the interplay of mind and body, affecting one’s sense of belonging in the world. Some say that gender is entirely socially contrived. Gender is a set of conventions about ways of behaving, presenting and communicating, typical of men or women. In terms of social convention, the feminist insight that gender is culturally conditioned by imposed roles and expectations is right; it is a social construct – British society has set conventions for men’s and women’s roles, dress and behaviour. Some believe that the social construct of gender could eventually be discarded.
But does this understanding of social gender conventions negate our personal sense of gendered self? Quakers living simply, equally, without artifice, wearing our jeans, fleeces, badges and sensible shoes can ask, what does it really mean to be feminine, masculine and whole?
Sex assigned at birth
When we are born, our genitals dictate whether we are assigned male, female or intersex. Our body shape, hair and bodily functions dictated by organs and hormones, make up part of the picture of biological sex. Our male or female bodies are assumed to be aligned with our gender: masculine male, or feminine female.
Gender emerging as we grow
Gender in a personal sense is about being masculine and feminine in our nature, regardless of our sex, regardless of how we look and regardless of social role. Gender links mind and body, and is part of our personality, our presence and relationship with the world. While much of our behaviour is learned as we grow, some comes naturally, some does not. Being transgender is realising our sense of self is not in tune with our body.
What is the experience of realising you are trans?
The realisation of a gender incongruence is delicate, definite and constant. This self-knowledge might be realised clearly during childhood, or might take many years to grasp. It is completely paradoxical – ‘my body looks female but I am more like a man.’ Or, ‘I act the part well, but deep down I know I am not a man.’ We know something is wrong – we might not be comfortable in our body. We know something is right – a sense of maturity, completeness, an elusive joy. The effect is discontent, ranging from feeling out of place to depression and hopelessness; a compulsion to reveal ourself to live out our truth and are recognised by loved ones.
The term of convenience is ‘gender identity’. The NHS services for trans people are called ‘gender identity’ services. This affects about 1% of the population.
Gender identity, not sexual orientation
‘LGBT’ is often heard as being about gay people, but the ‘T’ for Transgender is not about sexual orientation or about sexuality. Like lesbian, gay and bisexual orientation, T is about being vulnerable as a minority.
The spectrum across masculine / non-binary / feminine
Personal gender does not simply match the binary masculine and feminine. Some people realise they are a mixture of masculine and feminine, or neither – this is described as being non-binary. Many people now identity as non-binary, as it provides a name for a personal truth that over decades has been invisible. We use alternative words to name our gender, and we tell our family and friends what we prefer – to help explain, to ease acceptance, to avoid offense. This is why some people who identify as non-binary ask to be referred to as ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’. It is important to respect this request.
For a transgender person, ‘transition’ means the actions we commit to that help us get closer to the ‘real me’. Some people may compartmentalise their gender difference, and express it at times when we are safe and able and not make it overt all the time. Social transition means living openly non-binary, or living as a woman / as a man in community without necessarily having any medical treatment.
Transition most commonly means gender-confirming medical treatment, which might comprise hormone therapy, gender reassignment surgery and cosmetic surgery. These treatments do not change someone’s gender; they change the body to match the gender more closely. Transition of all kinds transforms a trans person’s well-being. Combined with disability, ethnicity, poverty, being trans may be harder.
A trans person just knows. Self-acceptance can take a long time, but it can lead towards self-love, and fulfilling our human and spiritual gifts. However, the intense focus on physicality and what other people may think distracts us from the truth of ourselves. Self-acceptance is helped by faith, but many faith groups reject trans people.
Not all trans people are ‘out’, some remain closeted, or private through their lives. Some cover it up by doing things typical of the sex and gender they are seen as. Coming out to a close friend, or everyone that knows me is to say, ‘this is the truth I want you to know about me and I want your love and support’. It is hard to find the words. The experience is often dismay. People don’t believe us. People think we are deluded. Sometimes we are humoured, rather than understood.
There are two realms of trans experience: being trans; and being the parent, partner or sibling of a trans person. Most families go through immense challenges in accepting a loved one who declares their gender difference, and further challenges if they medically transition. Many trans people sadly lose respect for and contact with a family member. At best, a family listens, accepts, nurtures us. So a relative might also need to ‘come out’ to share their worries and joys. They might then find renewed love and pride in their child as they grow up; or in their parent as they grow old, and sometimes in their spouse as they grieve, then honour their bond.
Recent history and shifting perceptions
Up to the end of the 1990s, gender variance was taboo – people were secretive because gender transgression is personally embarrassing, disruptive of close relationships and socially dangerous. Trans experience enjoyed a moment of fresh air in about 2014. We began to see some real lives highlighted, television documentaries and dramas, advocacy groups for trans.
This openness led to more people finding the words and having the courage to come out. Policies changed in healthcare, education, workplaces and the armed forces. In day-to-day life, greater openness means everyday vulnerability, but also accepting friendliness.
Several years on, trans inclusion has led to a backlash. The harshest discrimination is the undermining of transgender dignity by right wing media and politicians, and hate crimes against trans individuals. This intolerance is called transphobia, echoing racism, homophobia, and sex discrimination through history.
In addition, and not to be casually branded transphobia, there is intense scrutiny of the implications of trans policy from some defenders of women’s rights, reaction from family organisations against trans advocacy, and rows within academia about free speech and political correctness.
Challenges to transgender visibility
Anxieties of people about accepting gender diversity
Even when accepting trans people as they are, it is fair to appreciate the anxieties of others. ‘Changing sex’ and transgressing gender certainties has always been difficult to understand. The perceptions of some people are that:
- it has now become too easy to think you might be gender-variant
- it is too easy to get medical support for a sex change
- families are stressed by children saying ‘I am a girl’ or ‘I am a boy’
- It is too easy for a young lesbian to be convinced she is a boy
- too easy for a privileged, mature man to claim sympathy and rights as a woman
- trans advocacy groups have created an culture that promotes transition
Gender and biological sex
Where is the reality of gender within body, mind, spirit? If you are born male-bodied, can you actually be a woman? Male, female and intersex are anatomically defined. Some say that someone who undergoes complete transition to a woman is still originally male-bodied.
Some people believe that saying you are a man or a woman despite your bodily facts, seems like enactment of a fantasy – if this woman transitioned because of personal feelings, those feelings of intangible gender supersede the facts of biological sex.
It is focused by legal recognition – someone identifying as a woman based on feelings, without any medical changes, might be legally recognised as a woman. This would give precedence to gender above biological sex and would weaken women’s certainties and safeguards.
If we see gender just as a social construct, transgender seems to entrench gender stereotypes, because some trans people adopt presentations of feminine and masculine that reinforce a hackneyed image of women and men.
This is important because women have particular health needs arising from our sex, need protection from abuse by men, and have hard-won rights against systemic sex discrimination.
The history of sex-discrimination is accompanied by men’s privilege. This can be provocative in relation to a male transitioning to a woman, if masculine ways persist. Some transitioned women do not acknowledge the realities of women’s biology and discrimination they never had.
Disruption of the gender binary
While people ‘changing’ from one gender to the other has always been derided, at least it maintained the clarity of two genders, masculine and feminine. The freedom for non-binary people to express their difference disrupts this binary certitude, and provokes discomfort in social interactions and amongst faith groups.
A contested terminology
In order to enable trans inclusion, a terminology has grown, including terms like ‘gender identity’, ‘non-binary’ and ‘gender-fluid’. All the terminology around trans is contested by some women, because it reframes everything we know as womanhood in deference to trans people. Academic studies seek to distinguish trans people from people that are not trans – ‘cisgender’ or ‘cis’.
When this language enters day to day life, it makes some women feel controlled – yet again. In some settings, ‘I am required to introduce myself as a cis woman, and my pronouns are she and her’. Many women have had a childhood/girlhood growing up with men telling us what to say, do and think and what not to do; each of us found our own voice and power, after some struggle – and continue to do so. Some women feel our voice and integrity is now compromised by the need to accept trans terminology. For lesbians, this is more acute, as acceptance as lesbian has required circumspection and self-protection, and trans language seems to ride over this experience. Hard-won gay rights do not dispel the stress of coming out lesbian for the first time, or of remaining closeted for years. The acknowledgement of women’s lives demands humility and respect. How can we acknowledge trans without dismantling the certainties of womanhood and lesbian lives?
This terminology seems to go beyond articulating a private personal issue. Some people believe that trans advocacy has evolved into a trans ideology promoting gender transition; and that this culture, spread through social media, undermines family and social stability. Advocates and support charities appear as political activists.
Social implications of transgender
Services for women
Male and female segregation occurs for courtesy, privacy, practicality and safety. In swimming pool and sports changing rooms this also protects women from voyeurs and sexual harrassment. Where safety is paramount, such as in rape support groups, women’s refuges and prisons, the law enables strict segregation. Also, single-sex health and therapy services are permissible. In many situations, such services are equally open to transitioned people.
The focus on trans women means that other people are overlooked – trans men, non-binary people, closeted trans people, older trans people. The progress we were making to embrace gender diversity has become focussed on un-diversity – the trans woman.
Medicalisation of a personal condition
With so much awareness of gender diversity, it can seem that the only response is to seek assessment at a gender identity clinic and embark on medication. The power of this might distract people from simpler affirmative actions, such as adjusting social interactions, health, well-being and meditative practices, and seeking affirmation through a spiritual life.
Children and young people
There is now so much information, that there is a concern that children may be mistaken about who they are during turbulent teenage years. This is both helped and hindered by a wealth of advice on the internet and affected by many social media influencers – people who make video blogs about their own journey through transition and style changes. There are drugs that delay the onset of puberty and a lot of debate about whether or not these present risks about future health or a change of mind. There is a specialist service for young people with gender discontent; there is very skilled and careful assessment, but there have been legal claims made against the medical service.
Criminality and prisons
There are prisoners who committed sexual crimes and went to prison, and transitioned to live as women in prison – and then asked to be put in the women’s prison. The prison service rarely allows people in this scenario to be unsupervised with other women. There are individual cases where someone seriously assaulted women prisoners, which for some people, casts suspicion over other trans people.
How can it be fair that someone who has been through male puberty competes in a women’s running, jumping or swimming game? Before initiation of hormone therapy, trans women have the advantages of male athletes, so self-identifying as female is not enough. Even after hormone therapy, body shape and mass is different, playing out differently in different sports. The International Olympic Committee and other sporting bodies state an upper limit of testosterone. It reduced the limit for the Tokyo Games. Trans women have been allowed on these terms to compete in women’s sport for some time but women athletes that are not transgender are still winning competitions.
The law about gender reassignment
Gender reassignment is a protected characteristic in the 2010 Equalities Act, alongside women, disability, ethnicity and so on. This protection applies to anyone who is ‘proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex.’ – this includes social transition as well as medical transition.
A trans person can currently change passport, driver’s licence, bank account and utility bills to match their self-declared gender, as M or F, with a letter from the doctor, a deed poll name change, and evidence that they are using their changed name (such as a payslip).
As a non-binary person, it is not possible to have this shown on their passport, driving licence etc, but the government acknowledges this has to be addressed.
The 2004 Gender Recognition Act enabled transsexual men and women to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate and change their birth certificate, after two medical checks, a diagnosis of ‘gender dysphoria’ (medical term for distress) and proving two years of ‘living in their acquired gender’ with a judicial panel deciding. British Quakers Meeting for Sufferings supported the new law. Some now say the process is bureaucratic and unduly intrusive and favour a process based on self-declaration, rather than two medical reports. The Westminster and Scottish Governments are considering reforms to gender recognition certificates. The Irish government changed their legislation in 2016.
Campaigning for and against reform of the GRA
The concept of legal self-declaration has stimulated an intense debate. Trans people believe it would help people in need of recognition and dignity. Opposition voices say reform based on self-certification means someone male-bodied people can be described as a woman, undermining sex-based rights. In particular, they say that it could undermine the equalities enshrined in the 2010 Equalities Act.
This has led to a polarised debate between a gender critical position, which ranges from worries about legal reform to outright disparagement of trans people; and trans activists who campaign for improvements to the rights and dignity of trans people, protesting against gender critical positions. The Government held a public consultation in autumn 2018 on reforming the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. Government proposals are awaited.
Use of Quaker meeting houses for campaign meetings
People campaigning against the changes to the GRA in 2017-18 booked Quaker Meeting Houses for campaign meetings. This prompted concern amongst some Friends about the use of our Meeting Houses by speakers critical of trans rights. In Brighton, Norwich, Southend, Oxford, Manchester, this led to Quakers being criticised and where relations with trans and trans-affirming communities became strained.
Quaker oversight and upholding
Quakers accept everyone who finds a spiritual home here. We have a testimony to equality but sometimes we seem locked into old certainties. There are some elephants in the room – we might feel uncomfortable with a trans person; someone asking a question might sound discriminatory; there are Friends affected by difficult personal experiences.
Quakers can uphold all, even in extreme discomfort. While views are polarised in politics and the media, Quakers can acknowledge and learn from the testimony of Friends and wait for new light to discern unity.
Please let us know how this can be corrected, to be clearer, or to address omissions.