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.


  1. Susannah Cornwall29 November 2013 at 01:40

    Rachel, you hit on something really important here, especially in your final paragraph. Whilst I never dared hope that the Pilling Report would really consider human sexuality in any fulness, and suspected that it would largely continue to talk about human sexuality as though sexuality equalled "homosexuality", I had hoped that the talks with and submissions from a wide range of groups would make it clear that theological reflection on same-sex attraction can't be hived off from broader theological reflection on what it means to be human, embodied and sexed.

    Like you, if I read you right, I'm a bit dismayed that the Pilling Report continues to appear to *defer* reflection on transgender and intersex, rather than consider that getting to grips with them properly might have an impact on everything else that's said and done.

    We could look at this deferral positively, and, at face value, it's a very encouraging step that the Pilling Report acknowledges there's a need to think and talk much more about variant sex and gender, in a way that perhaps really couldn't have been done justice to within the purview of this report. On the other hand, however, it looks a bit like tokenism, to acknowledge that trans and intersex exist, but then barely to engage with the fact that this might prompt us to rethink how our whole model of sex, gender and sexuality works.

    Because that's the nub of the issue, isn't it - perhaps only a very small proportion of people *are* trans or intersex, but frequency isn't really the point. A theology of human sex, gender and sexuality that tries to treat sexual orientation by itself as a discrete phenomenon rather than part of a matrix of bodily and gendered specificities will never, I think, be satisfactory.

  2. Thanks for an enlightening blog post. I have to admit that I only skimmed the paragraphs on trans and intersex, there was so much other stuff to read.

    But I can see that the issue is wider than just there concentration on same-sex-attraction (there term) which doesn't seem to be one that's used by people who are actually gay, lesbian or bisexual.

    They miss the point entirely if they go down one route, Surely the discussion on sexuality should include the whole sphere of sexuality including straight, married, unmarried and singles in permanent sexual relationships and those who experience casual sexual encounters with either gender.

    Because they write of ethics, the theology and psychiatric and medical implications of such sexual actions as if they can be separated from the whole body of Christ, who is acknowledged to have been single, but with a wide circle of friends and followers, among whom there might well have been gay, lesbian, bisexual or people involved in relationships other than with their spouse.

    Jesus didn't condemn and as far as I can discover, didn't actually say anything about such relationships, other than faithfulness should be part of them. And, since the discussion is held to be about those who are in long-term, partnered, faithful relationships of one sort or another, surely the pilling report is a bit of a waste of time as it doesn't address the wider issues that all of these raise.

    The Church seems determined to rely on it's doctrine and to just 'tolerate' that some people are different than their 'ideal' relationship, and hope that a culture of acceptance creep in around the margins, and won't disturb those complacent Christians who are content to let things go on, and discriminate against anyone who doesn't fit their perception of what a 'good christian' should be.

    I'm not holding my breath waiting to see what comes from Pilling, because the evidence is that it will be more 'mediated, faciliated discussions' which will involve more listening without hearing. With perhaps a decision being made to preserve the dishonesty that surrounds the whole issue and to just allow people to be ordained, if their particular bishop will do so, whether in a celibate or sexually active relationship, married or single. Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the discredited policy that operated in the US Armed Forces for decades.

  3. I think you are right - if you tease away at this knot the way Pilling and the CofE is framing things starts to unravel. My surveys of attitudes to same-sex marriage show that pro and con views are driven to a large extent by whether people think men and women are fundamentally similar or fundamentally different. But if there is a much wider spectrum of genders and sexualities it blows up the terms of the debate and undermines trench warfare. It also gets us much closer to a traditional Christian anthropology, which saw sex as much more changeable and transformable - as points on a continuum towards full Godly humanity (maleness was the image of God, but women could achieve it). The latter is not an answer for today, but it is a lot more potentially creative than the narrowly modern 'two sex, male and female' model which is mistakenly taken to be 'traditional'.

  4. Thank you for these lucid and intelligent comments.
    Susannah, your comment ('A theology of human sex, gender and sexuality that tries to treat sexual orientation by itself as a discrete phenomenon rather than part of a matrix of bodily and gendered specificities will never, I think, be satisfactory') is potent and surely fundamentally correct.
    Equally, Linda, your comment about 'traditional Christian anthropology' in terms of change and transformation is v v pertinent. (Linda - It's also lovely to 'connect' virtually again - you won't remember but we met a few times at some Anglican Staff Lunches in the Lancaster U Chaplaincy back in the mid '90s!)

  5. Hi Rachel, I think you might be right about the church tending towards viewing trans and intersex as medical conditions (they are as I am sure you are aware separate issues). However, my evidence is that some trans people (including me) use the medical model to gain acceptance when faced with prejudice. It would be good to talk further with you as I have just successfully completed a PhD research project looking at transsexual transition. My personal experience in the church is of bemused acceptance at parish level but total rejection at an institutional level (quite politely though) Clairejxx

  6. Hi Claire. Great to be in touch. Be good to chat - if you go to my website you can email me via there. Alternatively add me on FB. Cheers Rx

  7. I searched for the word queer and found this nod in the main text:

    227. Queer theology is becoming a distinctive genre in its own
    right, reclaiming the epithet ‘queer’ from negative usages and treating
    difference as a fundamental characteristic of all societies, including
    those of biblical times. With an extensive literature of its own, we
    cannot do justice to queer theology here but note the important
    contribution to the literature in Patrick S. Cheng’s Radical Love:
    An Introduction to Queer Theology."

    plus some stuff in the Bishop of Birkenhead's dissenting view. I suppose when playing catch-up, you can only proceed one decade at a time...