Recently Mark Russ, a Quaker theologian who is also a tutor at Woodbrooke, Europe’s only Quaker study centre, posted his thoughts on transgenderism on his blog Jolly Quaker. Transgender people continue to be among the most vulnerable and marginalised in society and many of us in the church, even in an inclusive parish such as Badshot Lea and Hale, have not had the opportunity to consider how being transgender might fit with theology. Obviously, Mark writes from the perspective of being a ‘Quaker-shaped Christian’ as he describes himself, but his thoughts are relevant far beyond the Quakers. Here then, with Mark’s permission, is his post.
Within the British Quaker community, a painful conversation/debate/conflict (depending on your viewpoint) centred on the inclusion of trans and non-binary people is increasingly rising to the surface. As I see it, a big part of the disagreement is where we start from. I have recently heard some Quakers speak from a starting point of the safety of cis women, the safety of children, and the safety of lesbians. I want everyone to be safe – this is something all Quakers can agree on – but I think this is an extremely problematic starting point, as it treats trans and non-binary people (particularly trans women) as an inherent threat to the safety of others.
The Quaker tradition as practised in Britain is built on the valuing of individual religious experience. It has always valued the inner life at least as much as the outward life. It involves trusting that when Friends share their inward lives, they are speaking the truth. The starting point for any discussion referring to trans Friends should be an affirmation and celebration of their identity, saying ‘we believe you, you are who you say you are, and we love you’. I am open to then discussing ‘so what implications does this have for x y z’, but a starting point that involves implicitly saying to trans Friends ‘you are lying/deluded/wrong about who you are’ and ‘you are a threat’ undermines the theological bedrock of liberal Quakerism.
Sadly, this conversation/conflict is not going to go away any time soon. For me, this means it’s important to start thinking theologically about trans inclusion. As I see it, the future of Quakerism involves the full, affirming and loving inclusion of trans and non-binary people, or it doesn’t have much of a future at all.
(I should add two things: 1) it’s not as if trans and non-binary Friends have yet to experience being included and loved by others in the Quaker community. Trans and non-binary Friends have been around for a long time (such as the Public Universal Friend). This conflict appears to be a recent phenomenon. As such, I don’t think it compares to previous conflicts within the Quaker community, or that such comparisons are helpful; 2) that the inclusion of trans Friends needs to be defended in the first place must be very painful for trans Friends. No one’s identity should be up for debate.)
Towards a Quaker theology of trans inclusion
So I’ve already noted two things that go towards a Quaker theology of trans inclusion: 1) the valuing of that which is inwards at least as much as that which is outward; 2) and the trusting of Friends to speak of their inward experiences truthfully.
I’d like to add a third: in faithfully expressing who they know themselves to be, trans Friends enflesh the truth that a Spirit-led life leads to a reorientation, renewal or discovery of identity.
I was struck by the words of poet Jamie Hale in The Friend (27 September 2019):
The trans body is explicitly queer. It’s visually different. It becomes a statement. It challenges the simplicity of sex categorisation. You look at my body and there isn’t really anywhere to put it.
I recently wrote about how our whole lives testify to something. Jamie’s comment made me think about the powerful testimony of simply being who you are, and how this testimony may be particularly visible in the lives of trans people. Trans Friends let their lives preach simply by being themselves. In the changing of names and the changing of bodies, they incarnate an important perspective on identity that can be found in both the Bible and the Quaker tradition, that who we are born as is not necessarily who we are or who we will be.
(Of course it is not incumbent upon trans people to be ‘explicitly queer’. I wouldn’t want to suggest that trans people who choose to keep their gender history private should do otherwise, or have a less valuable testimony for doing so.)
We are not who we were, or who we will be
Changing names is not so unusual. Many people change their surname after marriage, and I’ve known several couples who’ve chosen an entirely new surname to mark their partnership. I known both cis and trans people who have changed their forename/s. In each case, a change of name says ‘this new name better reflects who I am’. This is something we see in the Bible too. In the Bible, a name is rarely arbitrarily given. A name describes who a person is. If a person’s life changes significantly, their name might change too. After the death of her husband and sons, Naomi (whose name means ‘pleasant’) chooses a new name – Mara (meaning ‘bitter’) (Ruth 1:20). After Jacob wrestles with an angel, he is given the name Israel, meaning ‘the one who strives with God’ (Gen 32:28). Sarai and Abram, upon receiving God’s promise to be the God of their offspring, are renamed Sarah and Abraham, Abraham meaning ‘ancestor of a multitude’ (Gen 17:5).
The name we are given at first, may not be the right name for us in the long run. New experiences and new discoveries may prompt a change of name. There’s a significant passage about names in the book of Revelation:
Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it. (Rev 2:17)
This white stone is an invitation to the marriage supper of the Lamb, the great feast of all those who faithfully persevere through persecution for the sake of Jesus. This is saying that only when we are in intimate communion with God can we know ourselves fully. As we journey deeper with and into God, we continue to learn more about ourselves:
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Cor 13:12)
As well as a change of name, the Jesus-story also points towards a change in our bodies, specifically at the resurrection of the dead. This is a mysterious and weird (and perhaps embarrassing or absurd to Liberal Quakers) aspect of the Jesus story, and should be handled with care. I see it as an affirmation of the body. The body isn’t something to be escaped. But it also points to some kind of future change – we are not what we will be:
Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (1 Cor. 15:51-53)
This isn’t about replacing one body with a different one. There is some kind of continuity. The resurrected Jesus is still recognised by his friends (although not initially). He still bears the wounds of the crucifixion. And yet he is also changed. The mystery of the resurrection says that the future involves our bodies, and perhaps in a way we may not expect.
A taste of what’s to come
You may find this talk of a future resurrection hard to swallow. Thankfully, the first Quakers emphasised that such ideas about the future weren’t to remain abstract. They believed that this hoped-for future was to be anticipated in the present. The way they were living, the intimacy with God they were experiencing, would one day be experienced by all. The marriage supper of the lamb, the rebirth to new life in Christ, were things that could be tasted now. For example, Early Quaker leader James Nayler referred to himself in his writings as ‘whose Name in the Flesh is “James Nayler”‘ or ‘Written by one whom the world knows by the name of JAMES NAYLER’. He had inwardly received the white stone, and new that the name ‘James Nayler’ did not capture who he now was.
In their journey of discovering who they really are, in faithfully living who they are on the inside and out, in being ‘explicitly queer’, in their changing of names and bodies, trans Friends could be seen as enfleshing the journey we are all on. In incarnating the hoped-for future, they are inhabiting the important Quaker tradition of living the future now. So I want to go beyond saying to my trans Friends ‘I believe you, you are who you say you are, and I love you’, and add ‘I thank God for your testimony. By simply being who you are, God’s glory is revealed and the Religious Society of Friends is blessed.’
Few of us are who our parents expected us to be. All of us have much to learn about who we are. One day we will all see one another face to face, and I expect many of us will be surprised.
In keeping with this being a positive, celebratory post, the comments sections will be a trans-positive space. No comments expressing anti-trans or trans-exclusionary sentiments will be permitted. There are plenty of spaces elsewhere to do that.
Read more from Mark Russ here: https://jollyquaker.com/
2 thoughts on “Guest post: Thank God for my trans Friends”
Thank you for this Stella. I have several trans and non-binary acquaintances/friends and this has helped me accept in a new way the fact that mostly, their transitioning/transitioned bodies do not conform to our standardised norms of gender. Actually, neither does mine as a cis woman, especially after double mastectomy without reconstruction. And most cis women today, in short hair and trousers, would have been regarded as horrendously masculine by our Victorian and Edwardian ancestors!
I am glad it has helped. I suspect that in the future people will look back in horror at the way trans people are often treated.