When I was 13, I fell into evangelical Christianity. I was confused – but then most teenagers are – but, perhaps more importantly, I was also lonely. The idea that there was a God who knew me, loved me and wanted me to be the best I could be was incredibly appealing, especially in a Victorian boarding school in late spring. The little booklet I was given seemed to promise me answers – and salvation from a death I still fear.
But very quickly I realised that this new group I found myself in expressed hate and fear themselves – and in the late 70s and early 80s it was often directed at “homosexuals”. “Gay” was not then a term in common usage, but “queer” was, and was often hurled at people as an insult. I just couldn’t get becoming a woman out of my head, and this then played havoc as puberty also got a hold. It made me feel almost perpetually guilty. Each day I felt I failed. And the diatribes regularly launched about the evils of homosexuality meant that I simply knew I couldn’t open up to others in the group. I didn’t know whether I was homosexual or not – I mean, I fancied girls, but I wanted to be one.
When I was 17 my best friend at the time (and he’s still a really good friend today) explained to me that he was gay. We were walking through the Berkshire Downs at the time, and I can remember pummelling him with questions – because at last I had someone I could ask them of. I quickly came to the conclusion that I wasn’t gay, but the media coverage of trans people had convinced me that I wasn’t trans either.
When I was 20, shortly after I graduated, I went into meltdown for about a week. To this day I know that I couldn’t remember a single thing that had happened during that time. Later on I had another period where I effectively broke down. However, the real crunch came 11 years ago. The only way I can describe it is that my brain froze. It got stuck on a single track of thought, and the fear of loss which I thought would inevitably result made me suicidal. Because in the intervening time I’d bought into the evangelical line, believing that getting married and having children would remove these sinful thoughts. Of course neither of those actions worked. They simply gave me more to lose, more fear and hurt to encounter, and more reason to end it all.
The vast majority of the Christians I knew at the time simply couldn’t cope with my revelation that I was trans – and no longer thought it was sinful. Their messages were mixed. After all, some of them couldn’t understand why a bible-believer could have clinical depression. Wasn’t my faith strong enough? If I was saying I was trans, was I saying that God made a mistake? My understanding (at the time) that God had made me exactly as I was, was met with bafflement – trans was surely sin, and God didn’t make that kind of sinner, surely?
I was asked to leave church – I’d already stepped down from my lowly leadership position. I had the church leader sit in my armchair and, after saying I couldn’t come as my true self, said I needed to deal with my “anger problem”. It felt as though he’d just broken my leg and then said “you really ought to sort your leg problem out” – without any acknowledgement at all of the role he had. When later challenged on the theology of their position, another church leader eventually admitted that they had no basis for their action at all other than a vague sense of needing to protect their congregation and my children – but they really weren’t sure from what.
My evangelical Christian in-laws wanted me to see a psychiatrist that they knew, because he would be able to sort me out. When I eventually phoned him, within 3 minutes he said “I don’t know why you’ve been asked to phone me. You’re trans and that’s not an illness. There’s nothing I can do, or would want to.” The new church my wife started going to was quite happy for me to come along, but if I ever wanted to do something, then they would have to have a big theological debate as to whether it was right to have a trans person as a member.
The constant message from the church was that I’m a problem, not a person.
Some considerable time – a number of years – has elapsed between then and now. By-and-large I have an attitude of live and let live when it comes to church issues. I was asked to become a trustee last year of a group that’s campaigning for LGBT equality within the Church of England. After much thought I turned them down – mainly on the basis that I really objected to the church’s insistence throughout the same-sex marriage debates that “I believe this so you must do that”. I didn’t want to apply the same argument the other way round. However, I don’t see that the underlying attitude towards me would have changed – I would still be a problem in evangelical circles.
But actions over the last two weeks have made me so angry with Christianity – or at least the vocal bits of it. I know there’s a broad church out there, with many different viewpoints – but the ones who seem to get the media time and be influencing, or even being, legislators are the ones who haven’t moved their views on since 1978.
Evangelicalism instils a strong sense of “righteousness”. This all-powerful God may decide to inflict terrible things on us if we make the wrong decision. The Bible becomes everything, although contradictions within the book are papered over, or allow different “rules” depending upon circumstance. I cannot and will not defend evangelicalism any more – and I also see that atheists (such as Dawkins and Hitchens) can be equally evangelical and fundamentalist. This sense that you know what God wants is, however, dangerous. It drives people to campaign based on fear masquerading as love. Being “holy” becomes more important than being loving. Indeed, the attitude towards LGBT people is often defended as being tough love – as if you can shock people out of being who they are. Sure, you can shame them into behaving differently for a while, but only at the cost of denying themselves.
Firstly the Church of England’s response to the Pilling Report seems to take it backwards. It accepts that LGBT people exist, and probably that they’re not going to change, but that therefore they should remain (at best) second-class members of the church, without the same rights and respect as heterosexual people. This is the same church that pronounces loudly that marriage is between a man and a woman, while completely ignoring trans people like me who are married then transition.
Secondly Uganda’s new law, hard on the heels of a similar one in Nigeria, which punishes people for being LGBT with a life sentence in prison. The Ugandan law also makes it an offence for someone not to inform on a person suspected of being LGBT. A worse snoopers’ charter I cannot imagine. The net effect is that people are being hounded out of their houses and jobs. Rumours get around quickly, and mobs aren’t always correct. Remember the paediatrician who was harassed at his home by a mob of Sun readers who confused the medical discipline with paedophilia?
Equality is not hard. In fact it’s terrifically easy. What’s hard is maintaining inequality, because you have to jump through all sorts of hoops to justify why you are treating one person inherently better than another simply on the basis of what group you’re categorising them by.
While I believed, I can remember facing dilemmas about LGBT people. There was a discussion at one church I attended about whether they should require that a (hopefully theoretical) trans woman have “reparative surgery” before she could join. There were campaigns to prevent trans people having surgery on the NHS on the grounds that surgeons should not “mutilate” the body that God had given, while conveniently ignoring the idea of corrective or plastic surgery or even medicine. There was much comment about AIDS being God’s righteous judgement on these awful queer people, who wanted to convert people to their self-centred and hedonistic way of life. I don’t know of a single gay person who has tried to convert anyone – quite unlike evangelical Christians.
There are Christian groups who have an enlightened view. A good friend of mine is training for the priesthood right now, and she is appalled at the hatred being displayed towards LGBT people by the church. But confronting people with hard-and-fast beliefs when they’re already afraid of confronting other inconsistencies in their faith is not going to work. Instead we must try to change the ground-rules of debate.
Why is it right for a religion based on love as its central tenet to treat people as sub-human? What justification do they have for stating that sexuality is a matter of choice? Do they think that causing harm by standing up for some outdated and legalistic version of holiness is really the right thing to do?
What would Jesus do? Well, if the accounts in the gospels are accurate, I don’t think he’d be too impressed with the church’s actions right now. Trying to instigate witch-hunts and violence towards people is not a policy I see anywhere in the gospels. It’s time that evangelical Christians opened their eyes to see the massive damage that they are doing – not just to LGBT people but to themselves.