Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Denise Inge's Church Times' Review of Dazzling Darkness

Dazzling Darkness: Gender,
sexuality, illness and God
Rachel Mann
Wild Goose £11.50
Church Times Bookshop £10.35

THIS is not a comfortable book to read. In it, the author, who describes herself as a trans, lesbian, disabled, and chronically ill person, makes her confession, beginning with a five-year-old boy’s cherished yellow Tonka truck, and ending with a middle-aged woman strolling the seedy end of Stourport. Through gender dysmorphia, conversion to faith, sex-reassignment surgery, and ordination, Mann charts a growing experience of God, as the God who is unconditional love becomes God who suffers alongside, and finally God who gives voice to the broken and marginalised.

Her title quotes Vaughan’s “There is in God (some say) A deep but dazzling darkness”, apposite
lines, since her story, told in language often itself poetic, travels from initial euphoria of first faith
into a “darkness of possibility, like the darkness before the world began”. Ultimately, for her,
Christian life is not so much about being consoled as being stripped bare, naked before God and
unashamed. Critics of religion often see faith as a panacea, but the author insists that truth is not comfortable and rarely comforting. Being in the company of God is about real and often brutal honesty. She wrestles with God and images of God, confessing that, in words of Belden
Lane, “grace comes sometimes like a kick in the teeth, leaving us broken, wholly unable any longer to deny our need.”

Mann’s determination to voice a particular journey occasionally leads to defensiveness; and, because she outgrew it, she dismisses the kind of Christianity that nurtured her early faith; but this is a book full of brave insights, born of the wisdom of suffering. “We all create myths for ourselves,” Mann writes, admitting that all tellings of one’s life are selective. This engaging book also exposes myths, and its greatest strength lies in its convincing challenge to the myth of a comfortable God.

Dr Denise Inge is Honorary Senior
Research Fellow at the University of
Worcester, and a Thomas Traherne

Friday, 22 March 2013

Are we really *that* frightening? Lucy Meadows, trans* folk and the Press

I didn’t know Lucy Meadows and few can, as yet, have a clue about the precise circumstances and catalysts for her untimely death. Yet, when I read breaking news about this young trans woman’s death I felt shattered, furious and – as I felt my way into my emotions – depressingly unsurprised. As a trans woman myself I know only too well the internal and external pressures involved in ‘transitioning’. I have some experience of the kind of bullying and emotional pressures fearful people can place upon you. When I transitioned in the mid-90s I was studying and, then, working at a north-west university, rather than a small primary school. Yet even in a relatively sophisticated context I got a lot of crap from people who decided I was a freak or a threat.

I cannot imagine the level of emotional, social and personal pressure Ms Meadows faced, especially once the national media spotlight was focussed on her through the dubious intrusion of The Mail and The Sun. I only know that if, when I had been transitioning, I’d received a monstering from the press I would have crumbled. Times of transition – whether we be trans or not – are by their very nature times of vulnerability.  Moving home or job can be terrifically stressful let alone undertaking the challenging multi-aspect transition towards gender reassignment surgery.

Is a trans woman ‘coming out’ and seeking to carry on her job newsworthy? I don’t know. People - in my experience - can be extraordinarily prurient, fearful and anxious. The love of intrusion this can generate does not signify that ‘x’ is by definition ‘in the public interest’. Sometimes the public just needs to grow up. I know only too well how little trans* people have a ‘level playing-field’ in the UK, but I pray – probably in vain – that Ms Meadows' death may help us revisit again the deep prejudices that lurk so close to the surface in our communities.

One closing thought. I know that c1993 I was not an especially ‘passable’ woman. I got asked endless questions by the kids on my estate, not least, ‘Are you a man or a woman?’ I used to cringe and want to hide. Some days, it took all I had to make myself get out of the door. It also became quickly very clear to me that these questions – and the stone throwing and the frankly vile names I was sometimes called by kids as young as four or five – were being generated ‘behind doors’. That is to say, the kids’ prejudices were a reflection of the prejudices of parents who were too afraid to come and talk to me.

My point: I got loads of acceptance from both adults and kids in those days, as well as lots of crap. The crap, as much as the acceptance, was not ‘innate’ – it reflected what adults modelled to their children. The love, acceptance and generosity of children is fostered and enabled by adults. Our society – from so-called adults down – has got a long way to go before it models respect and affirmation to trans* people. We are, after all, typically just ordinary people trying to deal with extraordinary situations.