Monday, 6 May 2013

More Than Broken Hearts - Disability, Sexuality and Starting Over

I once read that if you’re being interrogated the worst thing you can do is accept a cigarette or a drink from your inquisitor. For once that basic transaction has taken place you’ve crossed a line where sooner or later you’ll be coughing your guts up. I've no idea if that is true, but I worry that I too have got the confessional habit and that instead of keeping it for the sanctity of the confessional, I've acquired a need to take my emotional clothes off in public. I worry that the kind of public confessional mood signalled by Dazzling Darkness has become my modus vivendi for dealing with my inner conflicts. The justification I give to myself - almost certainly a feeble one - is that in telling my story I make space available for others to tell theirs.

It’s been nearly four years now since my ex and I split up. And – after what feels like an absurdly extended period of time (Four years??!? Really?) – I have some good news: I’m actually ready to move on. As I drove back home from my weekly trip to the hospital last week I had a rare moment of clarity:  'Enough of the hankering after what has gone,' I thought, 'time to start being a bit more emotionally open again'. Of course being a mawkish idiot, part of me will always be a bit broken up and romantic about the twelve year relationship that I’d thought was the one. I will always look back fondly on that particular relationship. It was a good one but it had run its course and it was time for it end. I’m afraid that for all my love of new stuff and creative adventure, when it comes to emotional things I get readily settled, like sediment in a slow-moving river. But as I drove along that dismal bit of road, the M60, almost crashing into a van because I’d got caught up in my own thoughts, I thought, ‘Enough. Stop being a mawkish prat and get on with stuff.’

If you’re a shy bunny like me it’s not that simple. I’m very happy at fronting up stuff and people tell me I’m pretty good at it, but when it comes to love, romance and all that I’m about as sophisticated as a dreary afternoon looking at majolica pots in Kettering. I guess anyone who knows me reasonably well can adduce all sorts of reasons for that.

Some people might imagine that the fact I am trans might be a factor in my caution, shyness and reticence about getting into another relationship. In my own case it’s not. I feel, for the most part, secure in my identity. As far as I’m concerned I’m a woman who happens to be trans. My story might freak out one or two potential partners, but in the kind of circles I hang out in, probably no more than my love for things like loud music and Peter Ustinov’s stellar performances as Hercules Poirot.

There are two significant pressure points for me, however. My basic romantic and sexual orientation is towards women. It’s just the way it is. And of course that’s cool with me, but given my vocation and role in the Church of England, there are some ‘professional’ issues. At a local level, I sense my church just wants me to be happy and there are endless supportive lay and ordained folk in the wider church who see gay relationships as part of God’s grace.  There are also bishops who are privately (and very occasionally publicly) supportive of queer folk in relationships. But there is a structural issue and it is pernicious. Nonetheless, it will come as no surprise that this structural injustice, which forces gay folk to pay a price of silence, caution and  (if they’re in a public relationship) of making absurd pronouncements that they’re in a celibate relationship, would not lead me to turn down a chance of companionship and happiness.

The other pressure point is more personal and is raw enough that I’m still working through it. Yeah, I may happen to be trans, lesbian, a vicar and all that, but my sometimes childish caution and fear about intimacy comes back to my illness and disability. This anxiety has at least two aspects. (At this point I’m trying not to go into Monty Python in Spanish Inquisition mode.) I worry that my capricious and fragile health will put people off. This may be irrational but it’s true. I also worry that I’ll be a git to a future lover and be unable to give them the kindness and respect they deserve. I know only too well how much I am inclined to get caught up in the sometimes demanding mechanics of my condition. (I recognize I’m probably working through some stuff from my last relationship here.) The other dimension is the one that really troubles me.

I’ve had some form of colostomy or ileostomy for the best part of fifteen years. I have had a permanent ileostomy for five years now. I will always have a stoma and in ways I find hard to express I’m actually damn glad I have one. After being diagnosed with Crohn’s in 1999, lots of things fell apart and having a stoma was a key part of getting my life back. Sure, getting control of my Crohn’s has, like a particularly evil version of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, kept moving out of sight and control, and it’s led to loads of other surgery, but having a stoma is cool. It’s part of me and the scars that – along with the fun stuff – that’s made me who I am.

But I suspect I’m not alone among single folk with stomas in worrying about what a future partner would make of this curious and – sometimes – furious poo-machine that pokes out of my abdomen. Having a bag and being without a partner for all this time has hit my emotional and sexual confidence. I’m the first to admit that I’m not hugely driven by sex. I’m always going to be more about love as companionship and friendship than sexual desire. But I am a person of desire still. But the nature of this concealed disability and the implications of Crohn’s – the olifactory impact not least! – can make me stupidly shy.

I know that there are loads of folk out there who have a far worse time than me and I’m not trying to claim any special privileges. Far from it. I have life very, very easy and the truth is that I’m my own worst enemy. I know I shall get over this psychological block, but when I factor in my disposition towards depression and (this surprises a lot of people who’ve seen me play rock and roll or preach or talk etc) my English reserve I do worry.

Still it is good to feel that I am ready to begin ‘beginning again’. And that is something I’m very chuffed about indeed. Joni Mitchell wrote – contra St Paul – ‘As a child I spoke as a child/I thought and understood as a child/But when I became a woman/I put away childish things/And began to see through a glass darkly.’ A lot of the time things still have the feel of looking through a dark glass, but maybe I can see some exciting glimpses of light too.


  1. Thanks for posting this & hope people respond with equal honesty. Have come by via VB's tweets (Beeching not Beckham). Look forward to reading more.
    Have just put 2+2 together & realised I have driven & trained past your church on A34 numerous times (it is a unique shaped building that one). Residents in Stockport area are we.

  2. Fascinating post of real honesty. I had never even heard of a stoma before reading this so it was interesting learning about it and then having an opening into the mind of someone that has one.

    Thank you for sharing and, from your twitter-seen personality, when Mrs Right does come-along she will be a lucky woman.

  3. The telling of your story is incredibly important, and I thank you for it. You do make space, space in which the stuff of God can happen. I'm looking forward to getting my copy of Dazzling Darkness back and reading it again. I've lent it out. Thank you, Rachel.

    Mary x

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