This article is for Friends who want to learn about transgender experience and the social implications of gender difference. Some Quakers are uncertain about asking questions that may offend. This is intended to be informative, but it is not a discerned position 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 judgments about the life journeys of others… Advices and Queries 22
Each of us has a particular experience of God and each must find the way to be true to it… Advices and Queries 17
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)
The language in which we express what we … say is of vital importance; it both shapes and reflects our values..… Our Quaker tradition enables us to recognise that our choice of language, and our reaction to the choice that others make, reveals values which may otherwise stay hidden…… Having in mind that much Christian teaching and language has been used to subordinate women to men, bear witness to our experience that we are all one in the Spirit and value the special characteristics of each individual. Remember that the Spirit of God includes and transcends our ideas of male and female, and that we should reflect this insight in our lives and through our ministry. Quaker Women’s Group, 1982; 1986 – QFP 23.44 (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
Gender, not sexual orientation
‘LGBT’ is often heard as being about gay people, but the ‘T’ is not about sexual orientation or about sexuality. The T stands for Transgender. Trans for short. It is about who we are. It is about gender in relation to ‘being me’ – knowing you are essentially man, or woman, or neither, or both. Trans is about knowing that your gender is different from the one usually associated with your body. This affects about 1% of the population. The NHS services for trans people are called ‘gender identity’ services. Like lesbian, gay and bisexual orientation, The T is about personal self-knowledge and being vulnerable as a minority.
Gender 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.
From birth, all these words are used interchangeably: female, woman, feminine. Male, man, masculine. ‘Female’ and ‘male’ are about physicality but often used to denote gendered behaviour and hence the blurred lines between physicality and gender. Similarly, ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ tend to be used interchangeably in legal and other contexts.
What is gender?
Gender usually means sex – like when you fill in forms: ‘Gender? Male, Female, Prefer Not To Say’. Quakers have always worked for gender (sex) equality. Quakers encourage accessibility and diversity of female and male roles and freedom of gender expression. We challenge conventions that pigeon-hole men or women into positions of power or subservience.
In terms of personal outlook, behaviour, relating to each other, It is almost impossible to say what gender is. There is hardly anything that defines masculine or feminine. 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 masculine and feminine roles, dress and behaviour. Over the years, masculine and feminine assumptions become broken down, then reinvented, always with continuing discrimination and continuing abuse against women. Some believe that the social construct of gender could eventually be discarded.
Men can be feminine and women can be masculine; they can express themselves and behave accordingly – though it is very hard for a man to express femininity without derision. And individuals may be gender non-conforming without being transgender.
Mismatch of mind and body
Being transgender is realising our gendered sense of self is not in line with our body. We just know something feels wrong. Some say there is something innate in the interplay of mind and body, affecting one’s sense of belonging in the world. It is realisation of self, who I am and what I can give. It is delicate, definite and constant, even if we do not have the words for it. This self-knowledge might be realised clearly during childhood, or might take many years to grasp. It can feel completely paradoxical – ‘my body looks female but I am more like a man.’ Or, ‘I am confused but I know I am not a woman.’ Or, ‘I cannot bear myself, I feel wrong.’ It can be difficult to find sense in these feelings.
Gender is a spectrum
We now understand that gender does not simply the match the binary man and woman. Some people realise they are a mixture of masculine and feminine, or neither – there is a wide variety of non-binary experience. 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 ask to be referred to as ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’. It is important to respect this request.
The effect of gender mismatch is discontent, feeling stuck in limbo. Unhappiness ranges from confusion and sadness to deep depression, from hopelessness to despair, from inability to communicate to isolation, from guilt to shame. It might be …. not knowing what is wrong with me; …. not relating to my body; …. not relating to boy / girl behaviour expected of me; …. a longing for something unattainable; …. an inability to say what this is, to make myself understood; …. guilt and shame about being transgressive or immoral ….
Trans people may also experience mental health and wellbeing issues which do not have an external source – which may or may not be connected with being trans. Combined with disability, ethnicity, poverty, being trans may be harder. In addition there is the anxiety about being bullied, or alienating family and friends and grief for aspects of life which can never be achieved. And there is also happiness – an elusive joy about our self-knowledge, that becomes realised the more we are able to live out our truth and are recognised by loved ones.
We do not choose our gender. Gender incongruity is an inconvenient truth, not a lifestyle choice. Self-acceptance can take a long time, but it can lead towards self-love, and fulfilling our human and spiritual gifts.
Coming out as trans is similar to coming out as gay. The deep feeling is, ‘this is the truth I want you to know about me’; or, ‘I am struggling with something important and I want your love and support’. The experience is more often embarrassment, shame, rejection. Most of us simply do not have the words to answer the questions. People don’t believe us. People think we are deluded, misguided, perverted. Sometimes we are humoured. At best, our family listens, accepts, nurtures us. Some families grieve for their loss in order to love anew. Many do not come out – over the years, people have been ashamed of their hopeless self-knowledge. Some cover it up by doing things typical of the sex and gender they are seen as. The most sad trans lives are those locked in pretense.
Expression and transition
Everyone, to some extent, expresses ourselves through name, nickname, dress and manner. Some of us are constrained by social convention, or do not feel outward appearance is important. When a trans person is able to express themselves outwardly, to move outside gender expectations, we approach personal equilibrium. This is so, even when body and voice reveals birth sex. It might be jewellery, accessories, hair style, or clothing, or adopting a name, or using neutral pronouns. Personal identity is an interpretation of self-awareness. Outward expression is very important to free ourselves of gender that does not fit.
Some people may compartmentalise their gender difference, and express it at times when we are safe and able – in evenings out, or at home, or in art, and not have the need, or not have the liberty to make it overt all the time. Some might call this cross-dressing or being a transvestite – both very loaded and one-dimensional terms, which can diminish others’ respect for us.
For a transgender person, ‘transition’ means the actions we commit to that help us get closer to the ‘real me’. Social transition means living openly in community without necessarily having any medical treatment. This might be by being openly non-binary, or ‘living as a woman / as a man.
Transition most commonly means gender-confirming medical treatment, which might comprise hormone therapy, gender reassignment surgery and cosmetic surgery. Some people use the word transsexual, to describe knowing they are the other binary gender, even when they don’t transition. Gender reassignment surgeries do not change someone’s gender; they change the body to match the gender more closely. One common cause of upset is the media saying ‘she was once a man’, when actually she was never a man. Transition of all kinds transforms a trans person’s well-being for the better.
One important and often overlooked aspect of transition is shedding the learned behaviours of gender convention. We may then find comforting affinity with men’s realm, or women’s realm, or non-gendered realm. There is a trans privilege – of recognising what is strong, human and grounded in people we relate to, after knowing our own gender incongruence. This does not mean icons like Daniel Craig or Beyoncé, but ordinary people in ordinary communities.
Accepting our gender incongruence is difficult when it does not fit with social assumptions and expectations. This is why personal contemplation is important in a journey of affirmation. Dealing with a trans dilemma is partly to be still, sharing with another, not struggling with words. That’s prayer, and a route to my spiritual life. Knowing and accepting you are trans is a glimpse of something that is eternal. However, the intense focus on physicality distracts us from the deep truth and wonder of ourselves. And many faith groups reject trans people when trans people look to faith.
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 hearing, then 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. Communication is painful, sometimes shuts down. So a trans relative might also need ‘come out’ to friends 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 always 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, not just Jan Morris and Eddie Izzard, but Rev’d Rachel Mann, the author CN Lester, the actor Rebecca Root, the DJ Paris Lees and a few Quakers. Some of us learned more about non-western and historic cultures recognizing and naming different genders or a third gender.
This openness led to more people finding the words and having the courage to come out. It became more possible for people to reveal an ambiguous gender – to use a new name and neutral pronouns. We overcame barriers to getting medical support for people depressed by the dilemma of their self-knowledge. Policies changed in schools and workplaces. Institutional discrimination in the workplace, in education, healthcare and the armed forces has been positively addressed. In day-to-day life, greater openness means that trans people experience the snide or rude disparagement similar to everyday racism and sexism, but also encounter unquestioning friendliness.
Several years on, being trans in public has become more complicated. Because inclusion of trans people has increased, there is a fierce backlash. The harshest discrimination is the systematic undermining of transgender dignity by right wing media and politicians, and hate crimes against trans individuals. This intolerance and vindictiveness 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
As openness about gender diversity has increased, and as more highly personal, private stories become shared publicly, the more concerns we hear from mystified people. ‘Get over it’ is simply not fair for people who feel very worried. For some ordinary people, it seems that
- it has now become too easy to think you might be gender-variant;
- 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.
Some of the questions and challenges that have emerged are:
Biological fact, personal knowledge and gender fantasy
There is a strong link between biological reproductive sex, privilege and discrimination against women.
- Some people say that there is something innate about ‘my gender, myself’.
- When that is communicated to others, it is expressed as identifying masculine or feminine – ‘gender identity’ replaces ‘my gender’. Identity can seem to be modeled on cultural image.
- Some people believe that masculinity and femininity is not innate, that it is entirely cultural; an idea, not real. ‘Gender identity’ is a nebulous feeling, which contradicts facts.
Trans has always been a paradox; transgressing sacred wisdoms about man and woman. The question of what is real is acutely sensitive to women and trans people. Some people assert that:
- Male, female and intersex are anatomically defined. Biological sex is ‘as born’, even if I have surgery to reconstruct my genitalia.
- If you look at biological sex differences, someone who undergoes complete transition to a woman is still originally male-bodied.
- If this woman transitioned because of feelings about gender, those feelings of intangible gender supersede the facts of biological sex.
- Someone who identifies as a woman based on feelings, without any medical changes, might be legally recognized as a woman. This would give precedence to gender above biological sex and would weaken women’s certainties and safeguards.
To say you are a man or a woman despite your bodily facts, seems like enactment of a fantasy. If we look at gender as just a social construct, transgender entrenches gender stereotypes, because some trans people adopt presentations of feminine and masculine that reflect a culturally-derived image, sometimes outdated parodies of women and men.
A contested terminology
In order to articulate trans experience and to enable inclusion of trans people, a terminology has grown, including terms like ‘gender identity’, ‘non-binary’ and ‘gender-fluid’. Some terms originate from academic studies, but are then adopted by trans individuals as personal identifiers.
Academic studies seek to distinguish trans people from people that are not trans – ‘cisgender’ or ‘cis’, which is used instead of value-laden words like ‘normal’, ‘usual’, ‘real’. All the terminology around trans is contested by some women, because it reframes everything we know as womanhood.
Devaluing women and lesbians
When this language creeps into day to day life, such as facebook chats or group discussions, it makes some women feel controlled – yet again. 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, even controlled, by the need to accept trans terminology. In some settings, ‘I am required to introduce myself as a cis woman, and my pronouns are she and her’. 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. We have achieved so much in lesbian and gay rights, but that does not dispel the stress of coming out 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, to a social ideology of redefining men and women. Some people believe that trans advocacy has evolved into a trans ideology; that support for individuals has evolved into promoting gender transition; and that this undermines family and social stability. Advocates and support charities appear as political activists. This became acutely focused when campaigners for LGBT+ equality coined the slogan ‘transwomen are women’- a jarring collision of personal with political. It has diverted a huge amount of energy and argument between people that should be equal rights allies. Detractors revel in it.
The history of sex-discrimination is accompanied by men’s privilege and disadvantaged women. This is constantly infuriating for most women. But it is highly provocative in relation to a birth male transitioning to a woman. As a birth man, it seems you can neglect to shed masculine behaviours, still try to control and dominate. It appears to some women that becoming a woman is another male entitlement. Some transitioned women do not acknowledge the realities of women’s biology and discrimination they never had. And it sometimes seems that sexually, they will still pursue women or men they fancy.
This focus on transwomen 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 undiversity – the transwoman.
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.
Medicalisation of a personal condition
Now that there is so much knowledge and 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 and less stressful courses, that may relate to adjusting social interactions, using health, well-being and meditative practices, and importantly, from seeking affirmation and peace 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 there are 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 I am using my changed name (such as a payslip).
As a non-binary gendered person, it is not possible have this shown on my 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 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, and who protest against critical speeches.
Use of Quaker meeting houses for campaign meetings
‘Gender critical’ 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 criticized and where relations with trans and trans-affirming communities became strained.
The Government held a public consultation in autumn 2018 on reforming the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. It was not a yes / no poll; rather it was a long set of nuanced questions. In Spring 2020, the minister for Women and Equalities indicated that the Government intends to bring proposals to the Commons, which would maintain the existing system, safeguard children and protect women’s safe spaces. This provoked renewed lobbying of MPs.
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’s appearance; some trans people are irritating or emotional; some people are too persistently political; someone asking a question might sound discriminatory; there are Friends affected by difficult personal experiences; there is nervousness about saying the wrong thing. Quakers can uphold all, even in extreme discomfort, while we wait for new light.
Please let us know how this can be corrected, to be clearer, or to address omissions.