Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Pilling Report and Trans People

One thing no one can accuse The Pilling Report of being is lightweight. It’s substantial enough that it’s going to take a while for most of us to come to a proper mind about its contents. However, I admit that my reading of the report has been affected by the fatigue induced by 'committee speak' and that awful wave of nausea generated by the feeling that straight cis people are trying to get their heads about ‘us’ again. So, please take the following comments with caution. I may have missed the point entirely. I know I can be a contumacious priest who says intemperate things, That is not my intention. I just want to get beneath some of the presenting headlines.

So, I want to reflect on one small aspect of the report that leapt out to me - its brief comments on trans people. In some ways they seem of marginal interest to the headline stuff – the ‘gay blessings’ stuff – and yet, I suspect, they indicates just how very far the church (and indeed perhaps wider society) has to travel towards respect, love and affirmation of queer people. 

The two paragraphs of interest (I've come across thus far!) run as follows:

‘The issues raised by the transgendered people we met were not primarily about sexuality as such, but about feelings of shame and exclusion in relation to gender.’
‘This report focuses on questions concerning same sex relationships. However, the group believes that the experiences of those with transgender or intersex conditions raise important theological and pastoral issues. Some of these issues were outlined in chapter 7 of 2003 House of Bishops report Some issues in human sexuality and the Church of England needs to address them.’

Pilling uses the latter paragraph to help narrow the purview of the report. At one level, this is understandable. The report is already vast and Pilling wants to keep the attention on sex relationships. There is also much to be said in favour of clarifying terms. And, I guess, from the point of view of dealing with a massively divisive matter within the church, the move in this paragraph permits the authors (and the church) to postpone trans and intersex discussions to another time. However…

However, I’m currently struggling to properly comprehend the meaning and implications of these two seemingly insignificant paragraphs. I suspect this is to do with the fact that I was one of the trans* people Pilling ‘listened to’ as part of its process. I cannot speak for other trans people involved in the process, but I don’t quite recognize the substance of the discussion I took part in in the phrase ‘The issues raised by the transgendered people we met were…about feelings of shame and exclusion in relation to gender.’ I’m not even sure what that phrase means. ‘Shame’ is a powerful word which gestures towards an experience common among those who have been abused or belittled. So perhaps the phrase means, ‘Trans people raised issues about being made to feel ashamed about being ‘differently’ gendered within the church.’ And indeed the silencing of and shaming of trans people on grounds of being trans does happen in the church.

Yet, my memory of the conversation I took part in – and I have a notoriously dodgy memory! – has a different feel to the one gestured towards by the comment above. The conversation I remember took very seriously the reality that being gendered bodies – trans or cis – is the theatre and ground for our sexual lives. Being trans (as with being intersex) has profound implications for how one figures one’s sexuality and is left to negotiate the minefields of church perceptions of terms like ‘orientation’ or ‘sexual politics’ or ‘sexual ethics’. That is, while being trans has massive implications for how one is perceived as a gendered being, it also has massive implications for how one's sexuality is figured.

Perhaps then I’m just being a little precious about how matters significant to a tiny group (which includes me) have seemingly been reduced to one slightly opaque sentence and a follow-up paragraph. Maybe that’s it. But it may just be something else.

When Pilling says, ‘The group believes that the experiences of those with transgender or intersex conditions raise important theological and pastoral issues…and the Church of England needs to address them,’ I wonder if it quite comprehends what it’s saying.

It is noteworthy that Pilling treats trans* and intersex as ‘conditions’. The use of that term does tend to set off my ‘pathologizing’ klaxon. That is to say, in talking of ‘conditions’ one has already placed trans* and intersex in the categories of medical pathologies, measured against a normative standard (I guess, gender dimorphism). I appreciate that many will argue that placing trans and intersex in discourses of ‘variance’, ‘illness’ etc is an appropriate move. It is certainly a common one. I only want to flag up here that such a move is an increasingly disputed one and the fact that Pilling deploys the term without scare quotes indicates how very far we are yet to come in appreciating the implications of difference for our understanding of human being/s.

However, if we park that point for a moment, my instinct is that the ‘theological and pastoral issues’ raised by, e.g., the existence of trans folk are precisely those which deserves not to be hived off, but must be brought closer to the centre. For what it means to be intersex or trans (and therefore for what it means to be ‘cis’) will increasingly become the focal points for our future understandings of what it means to be ‘desiring’ creatures. For – as Pilling rightly flags up – we are embodied and incarnated beings. We are bodies. Not mere flesh or meat, but bodies nonetheless. Surely if we are to begin to come to any sort of fullness in our understanding of sexual selves, we must return again and again to the body (of Christ?), to bodies and embodiment. And if we do that, trans and intersex folk and the ‘pastoral and theological issues’ (‘issues’?) we raise will not be elided and redacted away but reveal more about the story of God and us.