Yes folks, it is another Academia Lunare project. This one is called Follow Me: Religion in Fantasy and Science Fiction. I have an essay in it about queer gods. There’s lots of other excellent content too. For full details and to pre-order, click here.
Or Happy Saint Dwynwen’s Day to you English speakers.
But who is Saint Dwynwen, and why should we be happy on her day? Well, she is the Welsh patron saint of lovers, so today is the Welsh version of Valentine’s Day. These days it is associated with almost as much ritual consumerism as the better known love festival.
Valentine was an early Christian martyr, executed for trying to convert the Emperor to his beliefs. He died on February 14th, 269 (according to Catholic Online). It is unclear how he came to be associated with being in love. Dwynwen has a much better claim to the job.
Dwynwen was one of the 24 daughters of King Brychan Brycheiniog, whose territory is the region we now call the Brecon Beacons. She was, naturally, the prettiest of them, and there was competition for her hand. A young man called Maelon Dafodrill was particularly smitten with her. What happened next varies a lot from one story to the next.
Some say that Dwynwen rejected Maelon’s advances and he became furious with her, perhaps even raped her. Others say that she loved him in return but she had been promised to someone else by her father. Whatever happened, she prayed to God for help and he proved remarkably willing to get involved.
There may have been a potion of forgetfulness, provided by an angel, which either erased the pain of the rape, or the pain of losing her love. Also the unfortunate Maelon was turned into a pillar of ice. And finally God granted Dwynwen three wishes.
For the first wish she asked that Maelon be unfrozen forthwith, which shows that she had a rather better understanding of compassion and forgiveness than God.
For the second wish she asked that God take good care of all true lovers, that their lives might prove happier than hers, which is where she got the patron saint job from.
And finally she asked that she be allowed to never marry. She lived out her life in a nunnery, and founded a small church on a little island near Anglesey.
So what are we to make of all this? Was Dwynwen a broken-hearted lover? If so, why did she not just ask God to allow her to marry Maelon? Was she put off men by Maelon’s bad behaviour? Perhaps, but she seemed willig to forgive him. Or maybe she just wasn’t interested in men at all.
What we do know is that she was a kind-hearted girl who wanted the best for others. (She is also the patron saint of sick animals.) And I rather like the idea that the Welsh patron saint of lovers might be lesbian or asexual.
On December 5th the London Met Archives will be holding their 18th Annual LGBTQ+ Conference. There will be a lot of great content, including a panel discussion on queering museums led by the inimitable Dan Vo. And there will be me.
One of the themes of the conference is, “In what way faith, religion, and belief intersect with sexuality, transition(ing), identity and dissent?” In view of this I have offered a talk titled, “What Gender is God?” This will look at a range of religions, mainly around the ancient world, and how they have queered gender. Will there be Loki? Of course there will. And lots more besides. It should be fun.
To see the whole programme, and reserve a ticket for the entire event (£10), click here.
The image, by the way, is from volume #2 of Vei, the wonderful graphic novel in which Sara B Elfgren and Karl Johnsson give a new take on their traditional mythology.
Every so often White Media discovers ancient Black civilisations. (Don’t worry, Black folks, they will forget you again soon.) Today it is the turn of The Smithsonian Magazine, which has allowed a Sudanese-American journalist to tell the story of the African kingdoms to the south of Egypt. The tale includes Taharqa and Amanirenas, whom I have probably talked quite a bit about here already. It also includes an interesting piece of queer history.
In the New Testament the Acts of the Apostles includes a story about how St. Philip met a foreign dignatory on the road south of Jerusalem. The man was a treasury official from the court of the Kandake of Meroë, probably Queen Amantitere given the dates. This fellow, named as Simeon Bachos by the 2nd Century writer, St. Irenaeus, had an interest in Jewish religion, and had been to Jerusalem to learn more. He had obtained a copy of the Book of Isaiah which he was reading on his way home. He asked Philip for help interpreting the words of the prophet, and by the time the Apostle had finished Simeon was eager to convert to Christianity.
One obvious point here is that as a foreigner it seems unlikely that Simeon would have been welcome to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish elders of the time were a stuffy lot. The New Testament also describes him as a eunuch, which would also have counted against him. Philip may have been reminded of the time, reported in Matthew 19:12, when Jesus spoke of how eunuchs were welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven.
But what exactly does “eunuch” mean in this context. Jesus describes three types. There are those who are made eunuchs by others. Simeon might have been an ex-slave who won his freedom thanks to his skill at accountancy. There are those who make themselves eunuchs for religious purposes, such as the Roman transfeminine priestesses of Cybele, but this seems an unlikely explanation given our man’s interest in Judaic religion. Finally there are those who were deemed “natural eunuchs”; that is, men who have no desire to have sex with women. This has lead some people to claim our African accountant as the first gay Christian.
Whatever the explanation, as a eunuch Simeon would have been regarded as neither male nor female by the cultural traditions of his time. Even if he didn’t identify as queer in some way himself, he would have been seen as such by others.
To the best of my knowledge, the people of Meroë were still following Egyptian religion at the time. It would be interesting to know what the Kandake thought of Simeon’s conversion. But there has been a thriving Christian church in Ethiopia since at least 333 CE, so presumably our man made some converts among his people.
There is a painting of the baptism in the Amgueddfa Cymru, the National Museum of Wales. I believe that it is part of the LGBT history tour that Dan Vo put together for the Museum. I know Dan and I talked about it as a possible inclusion, but I missed my Guide training session thanks to COVID.
For my contribution to #MuseumFromHome I decided to talk about a particularly wonderful museum object that I travelled all the way to Vienna to see. It looks small and uninteresting, but it has a huge amount to say about Roman religion. My apologies for the crappy video. I am an audio person at heart and totally useless when it comes to pictures.
With apologies for the delay, here’s a look back on some of the things that I heard about during the Gendered Voices conference last week. This post is about the first day’s papers. I’ll do one for the second day later.
The first session was all about stereotypes, and began with Sauleha talking about Muslim women in Frankenstein. I had entirely forgotten about this. There is a character in Mary Shelly’s book called Safie who is initially presented as a veiled, cowed Eastern woman, but who throws off her patriarchal shackles and becomes a character with a fair amount of agency and something of a happy ending. It is revealed that her mother was a Good Christian woman who was kidnapped by a Vile Oriental, and intimated that her ability to escape her situation is only because of her Christian blood.
One the one hand, headdesk, Mary, what were you thinking? On the other there are apparently signs of progressive thinking. One of the dafter things that 18th Century Britons believed is the idea that in Islamic theology women have no souls. Goodness only knows where they got this idea from. Apparently Mum (Mary Wollstonecraft) had swallowed this one whole, but Mary Jr. wasn’t so sure. She was, after all, writing about an artificial being, the Monster, whose claim to having a soul was far more dodgy than Safie’s.
Gender and theology and science fiction: I could not have asked for a more interesting start to the day.
Paper two from Leonie was about Vita Sackville-West and the book review program that she had on BBC radio, complete with actual audio from one of the shows. My goodness, that woman had a cut-glass accent. I can quite see where the idea of the Sackville-Bagginses came from. On the other hand, I ended up quite liking her. Vita shared her reviewing duties with a male colleague (whose name I have shamefully forgotten), each doing a show every other week. She listed the books she was going to cover in the Radio Times in advance, and encouraged readers to write in with their own views. She also managed close to a 50:50 gender split on authors. He just turned up for his shows and talked at his audience.
Finally in that session, Sam told us all about her research into gendered attitudes towards pain relief. I am going to be one of her test subjects in early June. Work like this is badly needed because there is very little understanding of how the various aspects of health care are different for women.
On then to session two which was all about religion, kicking off with our first male presenter, Alun, who was talking about the Song of Songs. This is a particularly intriguing part of the Old Testament, because it is basically about sex. Alun is interested in it because of the possibilities for sex-positive theology, which some parts of Christianity could badly do with. I’m interested in the possible origin of these verses.
Other parts of the Old Testament, specifically the tale of Jezebel, suggest that some people in ancient Israel worshiped other gods, including Baal and Asherah, who are of Mesopotamian origin. In Mesopotamia kings have a tendency to legitimize themselves by describing themselves as the Beloved of Ishtar (or some other version of the goddess). It is possible that the Song of Songs was originally a religious rite in which the goddess, in the form of the High Priestess, confirms the king’s right to rule because of his sexual appeal to her and the Daughters of Israel.
Next up was Jade who was talking about female divinity in Catholicism. Specifically she was discussing the figure of Lady Poverty, who features in stories about Saint Francis. She is depicted as someone at least as old as Adam and Eve, and therefore a semi-divine figure of sorts. Of course this being Catholicism her femaleness has to be controlled by marrying her to Francis. Personally I am deeply suspicious of the idea of a man marrying a personification of poverty; it has way too many sexist jokes about it. Interesting paper nonetheless.
Our final religious paper was Chiara who is studying the works of the experimental novelist, Kathy Acker. Acker has a complicated relationship with just about everything, and religion is no exception. Chiara was looking specifically at Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula and My Mother: Demonology, both of which have strong religious elements. Personally I want to read Pussy, King of the Pirates because, well I think that should be obvious.
After lunch we began with a session on fertility. One speaker had to cancel so we were down to two papers, starting with Claire on the subject of pregnancy and childbirth in mediaeval letter. She focused on the famous Paston letters from Norfolk, and in particular the matriarch, Margaret Paston. It is lovely to see sane discussion of pregnancy between a mediaeval husband and wife, though I suspect that the idea that all men through history have been uninterested in “women’s issues” is yet another of those 19th Century lies. If anyone knows why the Paston women were obsessed with eating (presumably very expensive) dates while pregnant, Claire would probably love to talk.
Maria told us all about a fascinating French novel, Constance et la Cinquantaine (Constance in Her Fifties), which is all about a group of feminist friends who panic when going through menopause because their men are deserting them for younger women. Apparently the only thing that results in a happy ending is becoming a lesbian.
The final session was on various expressions of gender. It began with Di explaining the complex history of the image of Medusa from a scary, quite masculine version in Bronze Age Greece to a much more feminine version in later times. The Romans, bless them, used both. I’m particularly fascinated by the image on the pediment of the temple in Bath, which shows the snake hair on the head of a male Celt.
James entertained us with images of gendered behavior from Sparta, which is a fascinating place (and which got very bad press from the Athenians). He didn’t specifically mention non-binary gendered presentation, but we chatted a bit and I do have a few clues to follow up. He did mention the possibility that songs written to be sung by a girl’s chorus celebrated same-sex attraction between women.
The last paper of the day was from Lucy, a fellow fan of Romosexuality, who introduced us to an amazing mosaic from a villa in Spain. On the one hand it is a stunningly beautiful piece of art. On the other it is obvious that it depicts only people (female and male) whom Zeus is said to have raped, and is intended to imply that the man of the house is just as powerful and rapey as old Thunderbolts himself.
That’s it for day one. More later. And if you think the owner of that Roman villa reminds you of Trump, just wait for the next Roman paper.
The Bristol University folks have been very efficient in getting the audio from the Ruth Hunt lecture online. You can listen to it here (MP3).
Today, tomorrow and Friday I am doing training in Bristol. I have to be up in the middle of the night all three days to catch early trains. They are morning only gigs, so it would have been nice to come home this afternoon, but I wanted to stay in town to attend a lecture by Ruth Hunt. Sucker for punishment, me.
The event in question was the Anne Spencer Memorial Lecture at the University of Bristol. This is an annual lecture put on by the University Chaplaincy. Each year it addresses issues of faith from a different angle. Ruth is unusual in being both the CEO of the largest LGBT+ rights organisation in Europe and a practicing Catholic. Her talk was about her personal journey, in which coming out as a Catholic proved much harder than coming out as a lesbian, and how her faith informs her activism.
Given my involvement in the Twilight People project, I have an interest in the intersection of LGBT+ activism and faith. I also wanted to know what this person who had instigated such a dramatic change in policy at Stonewall — from firmly trans-exclusionary to enthusiastically trans-inclusive — was like.
The evening got off to a somewhat iffy start as the University Chaplain, in introducing Ruth, did a near perfect job of trans erasure. Sure he talked about LGBT a lot, but whenever he said more than that is was always in the context of sexuality only, never gender identity. Ruth, on the other hand, got it all right. She knew exactly when she needed to mention gender identity as well as sexuality, and she dropped in a number of examples of Stonewall’s trans work when she could easily have told her story without them. That was very encouraging.
Indeed, I was impressed by the whole approach that Ruth is taking with regard to leading Stonewall. She talked about how the organisation had to practice what it preached, and that meant being inclusive in who it employed as well as who it supported. Classes for Muslim teachers are given by a Muslim lesbian; the trans manifesto was written by a group of trans people recruited for that purpose. Stonewall’s job, Ruth said, was to empower, and hand over power, to members of the minority groups it is advocating for.
As to the faith stuff, it was all pretty much as you would expect. Ruth began the talk by extolling the virtues of Jesus as a social revolutionary. You can’t got far wrong with a theology based on love for your fellow humans. Even the Old Testament has plenty of good stuff in it if you know where to look. The only major problem, at least from my perspective, is St. Paul, not just because he was awful a lot of the time, but he was so consistent and articulate in his awfulness.
If you base your activism on a philosophy of love and inclusion, and in putting power in the hands of those who have little, you end up with an organisation very much devoted to equality. Interestingly, much of what Ruth was saying sounded a lot like the Women’s Equality Party. Indeed, when she was talking about being out at work she mentioned that it was often OK to have one odd thing about you, but having two (e.g. lesbian and Catholic) made you a problem; but all too often being a woman was counted as something odd as well, because it meant you were different from the default employee.
I’m firmly of the opinion that LGBT+ equality has to start with gender equality, because so many of the stereotypes on which bigotry about sexuality and gender identity are based spring from a foundation of sexism. I rather suspect that Ruth might share this view.
Anyway, it was a long day, but well worth it. Ruth’s vision for Stonewall sounds very much like the sort of organisation I would like to work with. Over the next few weeks I’ll get to see it in action. Here’s hoping my positive impression continues.
Today is the international Trans Day of Visibility. I’m spending the day in London at a Trans*Code hackathon, kindly hosted at the offices of CapGemini (whom I used to work for many decades ago). I’ve spent the day working on an app for the Twilight People project. This is something I started at last year’s Trans*Code, and an initial version of the app went live in the Google Play store today. You can find it here.
The first release of the app is very simple because I needed something I could guarantee worked. I plan to add features to it given a bit of time. Also if there are any trans people of faith out there who would like they stories featured in it, we’d love to hear from you. Currently the app is only available for Android. I have a working Windows version which hopefully we can release soon. Thanks to my new pal, Tom Parker of Oliver Wyman (who is here as a mentor), I have been testing the iOS version today. It works fine on a simulator on Tom’s Mac, but Apple charge a lot more for developer accounts than Google or Microsoft so it will be down to the nice people at Liberal Judaism as to whether we can afford to ship that version.
Photo by Colin Moody
We got an excellent crowd at the vigil in Bristol this evening. I’m pretty sure it was over 1000. In fact we got so many people that the event rather outgrew the organization. The sound system that we’d been able to get hold of simply wasn’t powerful enough to reach the whole crowd. That’s one of the problems of trying to arrange things in a tearing hurry.
What we did have was great civic support: from the mayors (elected and Lord), the police, the Church of England and local Muslim leaders. That’s both good and bad. It is good to know we have the support, but of course it meant that most of the early speeches were made by people who have no connection to the LGBT+ community. Daryn Carter, the Director of Bristol Pride, was the only community member in the first round of speeches.
The media also turned out in force. We were the top story on the early evening edition of Points West (that’s only on iPlayer until tomorrow evening). I’m expecting more coverage in the late evening news. I think ITV were there too, as were the community TV station, Made in Bristol. Luckily for you, none of this will cover my part. The media were only interested in the great and good, in white gay men, and in Muslim clerics. Their knew what narrative they wanted to push.
The fine people of Shout Out Radio were also there, and are planning to broadcast much of the material in their show on Thursday. You can listen to that online, and on a podcast after the show.
So what did I say? Fortunately it is all written down because I needed top give the sign language interpreter some idea of what I was going to say. I may have deviated slightly in the delivery, but this is more or less what I said:
The atrocity in Orlando is unusual because of the number of people killed in one go. But homophobic, biphobic and transphobic murders are not rare. Every year over 200 trans people are murdered just because of who they are. The majority of victims every year are Latina women. It is therefore particularly disturbing that the attack on the Pulse club should have taken place on Latin night. Our thoughts are with Latinx LGBT+ people everywhere.
Our thoughts are also with Muslim LGBT+ people who are facing an additional dose of hatred because of this incident.
But I want to talk about religion more generally. Over the past couple of days I have seen young trans people talking on social media about how they have been disowned by their families, and how religion has been used as an excuse for abandoning them. I have also heard Christian preachers in the USA calling for violence against trans women who dare to use public toilets. It doesn’t have to be like that.
Last week on my show on Ujima Radio I interviewed a Jewish Trans Man, Surat Shaan Knan, who heads a project called Twilight People that highlights the lives of trans people of faith. The project is funded by Liberal Judiaism as well as by the Heritage Lottery Fund. There are Muslim, Christian and Pagan trans people involved in the project as well as Jews.
Things have got better, of course. In the 1950s life was much more difficult for trans people than it is now. The pioneering trans people, Michael Dillon and Roberta Cowell, both have Bristol connections. Dillon lived here, and began his transition here, during the second world war. Cowell didn’t live here, but she did visit Bristol because she and Dillon had a friend in the city, a man of the cloth who saw in them people in special need of God’s love because of the difficulties they faced in their lives. That man was Arthur Russell Millbourn. He was Canon of Bristol Cathedral.
It is great to see Christian and Muslim church leaders here today. I hope that faith leaders all over Bristol will follow Canon Millbourn’s example and embrace the LGBT+ people within their communities.
God is love. It’s man that kills.
I had a number of things in mind when writing this. First I wanted to emphasize that Orlando was an attack, not just on LGBT+ people, but specifically an attack on Latinx LGBT+ people, a group that already bears an unfair proportion of the violence against our community. Second I wanted to acknowledge that, although the attack did not target Muslim LGBT+ people, they have suffered disproportionately because of it, in particular from many people who claim to be supporting the LGBT+ community.
Mostly, however, that speech was for two young trans friends of mine — one Muslim and one Jewish — whose tweets over the past two days have been particularly heartbreaking. I wanted to make it clear to the religious leaders in attendance that it is not enough to offer sympathy; it is not enough to open their doors only when a tragedy happens. They need to reach out to LGBT+ people and set and example to their congregations, many of whom are still full of hate for us.
It isn’t hard. All you have to do is open your heart to God’s love. She’s waiting for you.
Thanks are due to Alex Raikes, Daryn Carter, Leighton Deburca and Berkeley Wilde for their hard work in making the vigil happen. Thanks also to the lovely people of BGEN who brought the flowers and placards from their Bath vigil last night to pretty up our event. Special thanks to Des and Heather of BristolCon and their fabulously stylish friend for looking after my stuff while I was on stage, and to Lexi for looking after my trans flag.
FYI, you can see Bristol Cathedral through the trees to the right of the photo above. Nothing like centering your narrative in the landscape.
Yesterday’s show on Ujima began with a celebration of Carer’s Week. Caring for relatives or friends who are unable to look after themselves is an activity that falls disproportionately on women. With the current fashion for austerity politics, social service safety nets and support for carers are both being cut back. I talked to Jan from the Carer’s Support Service and Fadumo, one of her clients.
From 12:30 Frances and I took a look at some of the issues surrounding the recent campaigns to combat internet harassment. It is a sad commentary on how politics is done these days that the main political parties (Conservatives, Labour and LibDems) have to run their own campaign separate from that run by the minor parties (Women’s Equality Party, Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru), but that’s where we are.
Then again, I don’t think that the major parties would have done anything had WEP not come up with the idea. That makes it an example of how having WEP around forces the bigger parties to pay attention to women’s issues. Of course the big party campaign has Twitter, Facebook and Google as partners. That pretty much ensures that they won’t come up with any meaningful action, and of course the PR disaster of the Demos report they used has pretty much derailed their campaign.
Anyway, congratulations to the LibDems who have decided to back both horses and who on Monday are putting forward some amendments to the Policing and Crime Bill that will specifically tackle the issue of revenge porn. See here for how you can pester your MP to support this.
Ultimately, of course, what we need is a change in social attitudes, and that can only come about through education. Later in the year I will be doing a more in-depth show focusing on the campaign for compulsory personal, social, health and economic education in UK schools. That’s something that even Teresa May supports, so how lefty and progressive can it possibly be?
You can listen to the first hour of the show here.
Finally from 13:30 I was joined by Surat Shaan Knan of Liberal Judaism. Shaan is a good friend of mine and the person behind the Twilight People project. Obviously we talked about trans people and faith. Many thanks to Shaan for coming all the way from London to be on the show.
You can listen to the second hour of the show here.
The playlist for the show starts with a Muhammad Ali tribute and then goes into a funk festival:
- R Kelly – The Greatest
- James Brown – Make it Funky
- Patti LaBelle – Lady Marmalade
- AWB – Pick up the Pieces
- Parliament – Children of Productions
- Prince – Alphabet Street
- Janelle Monáe – Dorothy Dandridge Eyes
- Chic – I Want Your Love
Because of Finncon I won’t be on air again until mid-July, but hey, that is a good excuse.
Because I need to get it out of my system, I’m going to do a post about all of the other things that were wrong with the talk I walked out of at the trans history conference. Think of this as a follow-up to this post.
So what else was wrong? History, for a start. Modern gender medicine did not begin with Lili Elbe, or even Dorchen Richter who preceded her. Trans men have been having surgery a lot longer. They didn’t get phalloplasty until the late 1940s when Sir Harold Gillies and Ralph Millard invented the techniques they used on Michael Dillon. But trans men could and did have hysterectomies and mastectomies. CN Lester tells me that such operations were performed on a man in Germany in 1912, and there’s a suggestion of a similar operation in the 1890s. I wouldn’t necessarily expect people to know that, but anyone with an interest in trans history should know about Alan Hart.
Hart lived in Portland Oregon and underwent surgery in 1917 and 1918. He’s pretty famous in trans history circles, through I see that his Wikipedia entry now contains reference to earlier operations in Germany. I can, however, think of a reason why the presenter of this talk might want to ignore Hart. You see, Hart was a doctor himself. He wasn’t persuaded into surgery by sexologists, he prevailed upon his medical friends to do the job for him. There’s no way that Hart can be painted as an innocent victim of the medical establishment, because he prescribed his own treatment. If the point you are trying to make is that medical transition is something forced on trans people by doctors then you’ll want to bury any knowledge of Hart.
The talk very much painted Lili as a victim of doctors. It did get right that she died as a result of an operation intended to allow her to have children but she was not, as far as I know, badgered into it. She’d got herself a boyfriend and wanted to marry him and have kids. She was 49 at the time, which seems rather ambitious, but the operation wasn’t doomed because allowing trans women to get pregnant is a daft thing to do, it was doomed because no one at the time knew much about organ transplants and the problems of tissue rejection. Had the surgeons known, there’s no way they would have tried it.
In any case, the idea of trans women wanting children is not ridiculous and unnecessary. It is certainly true that you don’t need to get pregnant to make you a “real” woman, but that doesn’t mean some of us might not want to do it. If womb transplants had been on offer when I was in my teens I’d have been very keen on the possibility.
Then there is science. Most people agree that the pink brain / blue brain thing is nonsensical. Certainly it is true that, as was claimed, if you put a man’s brain and a woman’s brain side by side on a table, a trained neurologist won’t be able to tell the difference by looking at them. But then if you put two lumps of coal, one made of Carbon-12 and one of Carbon-14, on a table together a chemist won’t be able to tell the difference by looking at them either.
The vast majority of gendered brain nonsense arises from people comparing the averages of two heavily overlapping distributions, which is bad science. That doesn’t mean that subtle differences cannot exist, nor that those differences might, in certain specialist functions, make a world of difference.
It is also true that there is no proof that differences in the way that embryos develop result in a trans identity. There is, however, good evidence that the embryo goes through a variety of different growth spurts, and the time during which the brain develops is quite separate from the time during which the gendered differentiation of the body happens, so there is a possibility.
There’s also a possibility of a genetic factor, in that a large number of trans women (including myself) have a preponderance of maternal aunts (that is, a maternal grandmother who had difficulty conceiving male babies). Such apparent coincidences are often clues to a genetic explanation.
In any case, if you poo-poo the whole idea of differences in embryo development then you are effectively erasing intersex people, because they very clearly develop differently from other humans when in the womb.
I’ll certainly agree that there is no evidence of a scientific cause of trans identities. I’d also speculate the any cause that we find will be complex, and quite possibly very different depending on whether the person in question is trans-masculine, trans-feminine or non-binary. Until such time as we know more, the right thing to do is to accept people as they are, not to insist that there absolutely is or is not a scientific explanation.
On to religion now. There are people of faith who believe that God (or Satan), deliberately or accidentally had some hand in making them trans. If that works for them, all well and good. Right now it is no better than any other explanation we have. I’m not going to descend to Dawkins-esque mockery of straw man theological positions to try to discredit them. Theologians have, after all, spent an awful lot of time pondering the meaning of evil and why it exists in the world. It is rather ironic that for an illustration the presenter chose William Blake’s “The Ancient of Days”, which is not actually of God, but of Urizen, a figure who was part of Blake’s Gnostic-tinged theological explanation for the fact that God doesn’t make everything right for us.
And finally stargazy pie is not made from fish guts. I’ll admit that the heads and tails are put on the crust in part to freak out the emmets, but they are for decoration. Even if you cook whole fish into the pie, you fillet them first. It is, of course, rather delicious (and probably very good for you, being traditionally made from those oily fish that nutritionists keep badgering us to eat).
I’m perfectly happy for people to come up with whatever explanation for being trans works for them. It is a very difficult life in many ways. What I won’t tolerate is people who feel the need to delegitimize and mock everyone else’s coping strategy in order to prove that theirs is valid. And at an academic conference I won’t tolerate someone using bad history, bad science and bad theology to make such a point.
Today was a day to do more trans awareness training. I do this in collaboration with Berkeley Wilde of The Diversity Trust, a non-profit company specializing in diversity issues (and of which I got asked to be a director on Saturday). Berkeley does the LGB part of the training, and I do the T.
Normally I don’t worry too much about these things. I’m used to standing up in front of an audience talking about being trans. Today was different, because our client was the Bristol office of the Salvation Army.
Yeah, these people.
Well, not exactly. The people we were training were staff from the organization’s social work division. Specifically they operate a shelter for the homeless. Legally they can’t discriminate against LGB people. Trans folk using such services are another matter because the Equality Act is crap, but I’ll spare you that rant again.
All of the people in the course were very respectful. Some of them were openly supportive. The feedback forms were unanimously positive. And they talked about trying to change the attitudes of some of their clients and colleagues. A couple of the class mentioned that they were committed Christians; one was a pastor.
Most surprisingly of all, given that Pink News article that I linked to above, they told us that their hiring processes anonymized applications so as to avoid bias. They were horrified when we told them that many companies check applicants’ social media profiles for evidence of “undesirable” traits.
Which just goes to show that you never can tell. Some of the most supportive people in the group were older women. I came away feeling quite good about humanity.
Every November Schools Out, the charity which founded LGBT History Month, has a showcase event to launch the following year. I’m not entirely sure why it is so far in advance of February, but I’m guessing that in January people are busy with preparation and the weather is bad, while in December everyone is tied up with Christmas, so late November is about the earliest they can do it.
This is my first year attending the event. It took place at Queens’ College in Cambridge, which is very nice. During the afternoon there was a marketplace where various LGBT-friendly organizations had stalls. Then in the evening there was entertainment. Being a hopeless party girl, I was mainly there for the latter. The theme of this year’s event was religion, belief and philosophy.
The evening was bookended by Rev. Razia Aziz. While her family background is Muslim, she’s a non-denominational minister, making her an ideal person to do the blessings. She’s also a singer and voice coach, which was very obvious from her performance. Sufi mystics have produced some of the best poetry ever.
There was a fair amount of civic stuff to get through. The university, city and county had all signed up to the following Equality Pledge:
We believe in the dignity of all people and their right to respect and equality of opportunity. We value the strength that comes with difference and the positive contribution that diversity brings to our community. Our aspiration is for Cambridge and the wider region to be safe, welcoming and inclusive.
There was a variety of speakers on religious and philosophical issues. Robert Brown (proudly wearing his King’s Cross Steelers rugby shirt) talked about equality in Nichiren Buddhism. My friend Surat Knan gave a great talk about being trans and Jewish. Terry Weldon took on the near impossible task of representing Catholicism to LGBT people, which he did best by regaling us with scandalous tales of gay popes. Dr. Lucy Walker played us some of Benjamin Britten’s church music. Dr. Alison Ainley, from Anglia Ruskin’s philosophy department, talked about some of her favorite LGBT-friendly philosophers.
We had a little bit of film, in the form of two really great animations produced by Bobby Tiwana. They don’t appear to be online anywhere, so if you do see Bobby advertised for an event locally go along and see his films.
Another South Asian contributor was Manjinder Singh Sidhu who became an internet celebrity all over the subcontinent thanks to this amazing YouTube video in which he talks to his mum about how parents should deal with a child who comes out to them as LGB or T.
Music was provided by Mark Jennett who sang “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”, a Rogers & Hammerstein song from South Pacific. Take a look at the lyrics. It is rather depressing that people could write such things in 1949 and we don’t seem to have learned anything from it.
Topping the bill was Labi Siffre, who performed his massive hit, “So Strong”. It is as much about being gay as it is about other types of civil rights. Labi also gave a short talk from a rationalist point of view, asking religious leaders who condemn LGBT people to provide evidence that we should believe in their invisible friends, and that they speak for such beings.
What a trooper too. When I was chatting with Sue on email earlier in the week she told me that Labi was unwell and had needed to go into hospital. She wasn’t expecting him to be able to make the event. And yet there he was.
Thanks are due to Sue Sanders, Tony Fenwick and the rest of the Schools Out team who put on the evening. Thanks also to Tony for starting off the evening by stressing the importance of intersectionality to LGBT rights. As he said, if you suffer from intersecting oppressions, difficult choices do have to be made. I have some sympathy with Terry Weldon, because there are times when I have to defend feminism to trans people. I can’t not be a feminist, but sometimes what is done in the name of feminism by others is utterly abhorrent.
After the event a bunch of us headed back to the hotel where the Schools Out crew were staying for a drink. And that’s how I ended up in a hotel bar chatting to Labi Siffre about science fiction. It turns out that he was a huge fan as a kid, and read just about everything that was going. These days he’s more into song writing and poetry, and doesn’t have much patience for long, rambling novels, but I shall hit him up with some recommendations anyway.
To finish up, here’s Labi, doing pretty much what I saw him do last night (except that I think last night was better).
Earlier today on Twitter I passed on a news article being shared by the Irish drag queen, Panti Bliss. It was a story about how the Catholic Church has made a ruling that transsexuals cannot be godparents because they “do not meet the moral requirement”. This has caused a lot of confusion in social media because people today equate being “moral” with being “good”. The Church, of course, does nothing of the sort. It equates being “moral” with “not committing sin”, and sadly what constitutes “sin” has not been updated in quite a while.
To some extent this is all Aristotle’s fault. He taught that the human seed is contained solely within the male semen. Women are simply the fertile soil in which men plant their seeds in order for them to grow. If you think about that for a minute, perhaps with your Evangelical Fundamentalist hat on, you’ll see one can conclude that if a man ejaculates without placing his semen inside a woman then he is effectively aborting that seed. You can see where things will go from there, can’t you?
In fact Clement of Alexandria went one step further. In his view, in order to have sex morally, one had to do so with the intention of creating legitimate offspring. So not only was it sinful to masturbate, to have oral sex, or and sort of gay relationship, it was also sinful to have sex with any woman other than your wife. Oh, and it was sinful to have sex with your wife if she was pregnant, because again a legitimate child could not result. He wasn’t very keen on sex, was our Clement.
These days we tend to think of “sodomy” as having gay sex, possibly only as having anal sex, but throughout most of Christian history the definition has been much wider than that. The 16th Century Spanish theologian and pioneering economist, Martín de Azpilcueta Navarro, defined sodomy thus: “as when a man sins with a man, a woman with a woman, or a man with a woman outside of the natural vessel”. The latter was the case even if the man and woman in question were married. He was quite liberal, though. The 15th Century Diccionario de los inquisidores describes sodomy as “incomparably more serious than having sex with your own mother”, presumably on the grounds that getting one’s mother pregnant was preferable to “wasting” one’s seed.
My guess is that almost everyone reading this will classify as a sodomite in one way or another. Sorry about that, folks. Though you may find it useful to remember that when Mr. Wrong fulminates against “filthy sodomites” he doesn’t just mean Hal Duncan, he means you as well. (Mr. Wrong prides himself in being a classical scholar, I’m sure he knows all this stuff.)
But to get back to transsexuals, the thing isn’t that we are not just having sex in unapproved ways; we have modified our bodies in such a way that we can’t have sex in the approved way. For the folks in the Vatican, that is sin right up the wazoo and back again. Which is why they see us as “immoral”.
I spent Friday in Exeter at an event billed as a Variant Sex and Gender, Religion and Wellbeing Workshop. It was run primarily by academics who study intersex people, but there was plenty of trans involvement as well. The event was hosted by Exeter University’s Centre for Ethics and Practical Theology. I do like the sound of “practical theology”. More on that later.
Obviously most of the people involved were Christians. There was one Buddhist and one Jew amongst the speakers. Some of the audience may have had other religious allegiances, but I don’t recall anyone other than me mentioning that.
The day opened with a presentation online from Dr. Stephen Kerry of Charles Darwin University in Darwin, Australia, who identifies as genderqueer. His paper was mainly about the difficulties of engaging the intersex community, though he talked a bit about Buddhism as well. More on that later. He also confessed to being a science fiction fan, so I guess he and I will be talking a lot in future.
Next up was the Reverend Dr. Christina (Tina) Beardsley who is a trans woman and head of the Multifaith Chaplaincy at Chelsea & Westminster Hospital NHS Trust. She talked mainly about how evangelicals have poisoned the Church of England’s attitude towards trans people, and her hopes for improvement.
After an excellent lunch, we were treated to a superb presentation on being a religious transgender Jew from Max Zachs (whom some of you may remember from My Transsexual Summer). Max was really good. More on that in a little while too.
Finally Maria Morris, the Clinical Team Leader from The Laurels, Exeter’s Gender Identity Clinic, gave the cis folks in the audience an update on the current state of treatment protocols. I knew all of that anyway, but it was so good to see it officially confirmed. The treatment of trans people by the NHS has come a very long way since I transitioned.
So what was the importance of this event? Obviously I have an historical interest in the involvement of trans people in religion, but the key is in that term “practical theology”. Whether you like it or not, large numbers of human beings have religious beliefs. Most of them belong to faiths that are currently strongly transphobic. While I was at the conference, my Twitter feed lit up with discussion of the latest pronouncements on trans folk by the Pope. There’s some push back from devout Catholics that he’s being misrepresented (he does, after all, only issue pronouncements in Latin), but it is still very worrying. Given this, I think it is absolutely essential for trans activists to engage with people of faith. There are those who support us, and from a practical point of view I think we are far more likely to convert some to our cause than we are to end religion.
Also, as Tina pointed out, trans people are often in need of a great deal of emotional support. If they are religious themselves, and can get help from supportive people with spiritual authority, that has to be a good thing. Sadly they are unlikely to get it from anyone else. One of the points that Max made in their presentation was that their left-wing friends had provided no support for Max’s attempts to become a rabbi, partly because many of them felt that all religion was the enemy, and partly because some were anti-Jewish on principle.
The reason I loved Max’s presentation so much is that they made such a good argument for using theology to make the case for trans people. They started off by emphasizing the importance of ritual and tradition in Judaism, and noting that the penalty for desecrating Shabbat is death. Nevertheless, Judaism exists in the real world, and rules adopted thousands of years ago may not work so well these days. Max noted that there are now many exceptions to the rules for Shabbat that allow Jews to do things like phone an ambulance if a family member has a heart attack. The point is that theological arguments can and have been made to change religious laws, and trans Jews have been busily working away to make their faith more welcoming to gender variant people.
This, by the way, is not new. Max provided examples from the Talmud giving advice to mothers of obviously intersex children. We’ve been discussing other things about the original Hebrew version of the Old Testament as well. Some of this may find its way into my history talks.
Stephen’s comments on Buddhism highlighted the importance of context and translation when discussing historical attitudes towards gender variant people. Some Buddhist texts contain prohibitions against “hermaphrodites”. As someone who studies intersex people, Stephen is naturally concerned about this. However, he’s aware that the word “hermaphrodites” may have been used to mean something quite different. My research suggests that, prior to the 19th Century, it could be used to mean trans people, and even gay people. In a Buddhist context, any prohibitions could be a response to the widespread use of eunuchs in China and Vietnam, or it could be in reaction to Hindu faith groups that were accepting of trans people.
Finally I want to talk a bit about the term “intersex”. As I noted earlier, several of the academics at the conference (including Stephen Kerry) study intersex people. There was some debate as to the acceptability of intersex as a term. I’m not intersex-identified myself, so it is very important to me to use terms acceptable to the intersex community when I’m talking abut them.
Given that I keep using “intersex”, you will have guessed that I think it is still the preferred term. That’s because activist organizations such as UKIA and OII use it. Nevertheless, Stephen and his colleagues are being told that the term is offensive. The alternative term is DSD. That normally stands for Disorders of Sexual Development, and I know that any mention of “disorder” tends to be greeted with fury by activists. Some people apparently claim that the first D stands for “differences”. That sounds a little weasely to me, but I am open to being corrected by intersex activists.
Having made a few inquiries, it appears that the people pushing for the use of DSD rather than intersex are medical professionals and support groups run by the parents of intersex children.
I spent part of Sunday morning catching up on the final episode of Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s three-part BBC2 documentary series, Sex and the Church. It is a history of the increasingly fraught relationship between Christianity and sex. Part I is all about Jesus and the early church; Part II about the Medieval church and the Reformation, and Part III about how in the last few hundred years the church has lost control of sexuality in Western society.
As you might guess, the early programs were of more interest to me. Here are a few highlights of things most people probably don’t know (and which fly in the face of what modern Christian conservatives want us to believe have “always” been true).
Aristotle taught that the entire human seed was present in male semen. The female body was simply fertile ground in which this seed could be planted and grown.
On the back of this (and other, similar, more ancient beliefs), the early theologian, Clement of Alexandria taught that all sex that could not result in a legitimate child was sinful. Adultery, concubinage and sex with prostitutes were all sinful because any child resulting would not be legitimate, and sex with your wife was sinful if she was already pregnant as she clearly could not get pregnant again.
Saint Augustine, of course, was a raging misogynist loon who taught that all sex was sinful, even within marriage.
Marriage was an important civil contract in the Roman Empire (hence Clement obsessing over legitimacy), but for more than half of its history the Christian church wanted nothing to do with anything so salacious. Marriage did not become an official sacrament until the Council of Verona in 1184. Even then marriages had to take place in the church porch, because a couple who were planning to have sex were deemed too sinful to be allowed into a church until their lust had been safely contained by marriage.
The third program is relatively free of such gems, but it does have some interesting correspondences with Amanda Vickery’s series on the history of feminism. It also has some rare footage of Sir John Wolfenden being interviewed on the BBC about his new (in 1957) report on the decriminalization of male homosexuality. And there’s a great section on missionaries trying to explain to Africans why it was OK for Abraham and Solomon to be polygamous but not OK for them.
MacCulloch talks a lot about the role of women in the church, but doesn’t talk much about gender. He glosses over Origen’s supposed self-castration as merely an extreme form of celibacy, doesn’t mention the prevalence of eunuchs in the Byzantine church, and ignores the idea of celibacy as symbolic castration. On the other hand, what he does say is often a lot of fun. He has mastered an almost Kenneth Williams-like salacious pout that he uses to discuss particular naughtiness, and he clearly has no truck with the pomposity of conservative Christian moralists. Overall, the series is a lot of fun, and has some good (for a TV documentary) history too.
Very briefly as I’m on the road in Oxford and have a work conference to attend tomorrow.
First half hour: Caroline Symcox talking about God, being a trainee vicar, her book and being married to Paul Cornell.
Second half hour: The Bristol Cable on their plans for independent local media.
Listen to those here.
Third half hour: Students from UWE protesting against having arms fairs held on their campus.
Listen to those here.
Over at The Independent they have been looking at the results of the recent UK census, in particular the religion data. It appears that the largest concentration of Satanists in the UK can be found in Bristol. There’s a claim to fame.
Of course it isn’t much of a concentration: 34 people out of a national total of 1,893. That’s less than 2%. But at least there are enough of them to have a decent Black Mass, and now our local writers have an excuse to go all Dennis Wheatley for a while.
Personally I would have expected most of the Satanists to be in London. After all, Satanism is very much a “what’s in it for me” religion. It is the sort of thing that ought to appeal to investment bankers, commodity traders and politicians. But maybe they all registered their address as their country homes when completing the census, or perhaps they refused to waste time filling it in if they didn’t get paid for doing so.
In other news, the UK’s population of Jedi Knights has dropped from around 330,000 in 2001 to only 176,500 in 2011. Clearly Yoda needs to come out against same-sex marriage or something to get his religion some more column inches.
The British Science Fiction Community was thrown into disarray this week after two undercover Guardian journalists, Alison Flood and Damien Walter, claimed to have obtained footage of a juror for the Arthur C. Clarke Award agreeing to fix the results of the short list in return for a substantial bribe. The affair is believe to be connected to a betting scam based on the popular Guess the Clarke Short List game run by the online gambling company, Vector. Flood and Walter say they have sent a copy of their evidence to the Metropolitan Police.
Mr. Tom Hunter, the Chief Executive of the Clarke Award, dismissed the allegations as nonsense. “This is just two desperate journalists making up a story for the muck-raking media”, he commented. “Flood and Walter have been camped outside my flat for weeks hoping to get a scoop on the short list before it was announced. Once I even caught Walter going through my waste bin, but I think that’s because journalists are so badly paid these days. I had just thrown away half a hot Cornish pasty. There will be more detailed allegations of misconduct in my forthcoming submission to the Leveson Inquiry.”
Political and religious figures have been quick to weigh in on the controversy. In Pakistan Imran Khan said he was not surprised about the allegations. “What can you expect from a country that gives literary awards to Salman Rushdie?”, he asked. Britain’s Prime Minister, Call-Me-Dave Cameron, hit back angrily. “It’s clearly not enough for Mr. Khan for his cricket team to have thrashed us 3-0 in the recent test series, now he has to rub it in by being rude about our science fiction awards too. I was so upset by his comments that I had to whip Clegg for almost half an hour before I could calm down. There is a word for this, and that word is ‘bullying’. I will be asking the United Nations to consider an emergency motion on the subject of cyber-bullying by politicians from foreign countries. And if Mr. Khan doesn’t apologize immediately I shall tell Mr. Obama on him and we’ll carpet-bomb a small Muslim nation into oblivion. So there!”
Newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Rev. and Rt. Hon. Paul Cornell, placed emphasis on the morality of gambling. “It seems that someone may have been very naughty here”, he said, “and in the Anglican Church, as of policy adopted at our last synod, we frown on naughtiness. People shouldn’t do it. I don’t have the eyebrows to frown as well as my illustrious predecessor, but frowning I am.”
Other religious leaders were less restrained. One such was Rev. Christopher Islander, the High Priest of the Wessex Baptist Church, a small fundamentalist sect whose tenets include the belief that the Israeli philosopher, Lavie Tidhar, is the new messiah. Islander’s church is quite popular amongst the London arts community where members are often known as “lavies” in recognition of their faith. Islander fulminated at length on the evils of the Clarke Award in his sermon this morning, calling for the jury to be burned at the stake and their remains thrown into a pit of boiling lava. He described the authors of the short-listed books as “demon-spawn”, “sons and daughters of Satan”, “avatars of Evil”, “a stinking pile of foetid LOLcat feces” and, more unusually, as “Internet puppies”. Members of the Wessex Church are now picketing the Clarke Award offices in St. Johns Wood waving placards that read “God Hates Dogs”.
Not everyone is impressed with Islander’s statements. Damien Walter claims to have a fresh scoop. “I paid a cat burglar to raid the offices of Rev. Islander’s psychiatrist”, he said. “I can now exclusively reveal that Islander is a frustrated science fiction writer. He’s been worried about declining membership of his church and thinks he will do better if he could emulate his idol, L. Ron Hubbard, and write blockbuster SF as well as found a religion.”
The Clarke Award jury has been largely silent on the matter, though Juliet McKenna did generously offer to meet Rev. Islander as discuss the matter with him privately over an Aikido mat.
The authors attacked by Islander have been more forthcoming. Sheri Tepper released a statement that was read to journalists for her by her secretary, a horse named Ed. The text was as follows:
“As I have often written, patriarchal religions of the sort led by Rev. Islander are a scourge upon the planet. For the good of all the species of Earth we should cull all male religious leaders like the pestilence they are. There can be no leniency, no exceptions.”
Charles Stross made no comment, but did let his tongue hang out and panted enthusiastically. His partner, Feòrag, commented happily, “this has done wonders for Charlie’s training. I lined his litter tray with photographs of Rev. Islander, and now his poop is on target every time.”
Speaking from his Seattle home, Greg “Killer B” Bear said, “I am so happy to have another excuse to go to Merrie Olde London. I love that city. It is so great to visit somewhere that hasn’t changed since the days of Dickens, Austen and Shakespeare. I’m really looking forward to seeing those great London landmarks such as Big Ben, Bucking Ham Palace, Stone Hinge and the Eiffel Tower. And if I meet that Islander guy there I’ll happily give him a bloody nose.”
The scandal has come to the attention of worldwide literary bodies. Speaking for the International Awards Association, Mr. Kevin Standlee called for a full and frank inquiry to be carried out by the England & Wales Science Fiction Board. “Corruption in literary awards will not be tolerated”, said Standlee. If the England & Wales Board cannot clear up this matter to our satisfaction then we may be forced to impose sanctions, up to and including denying their request to host the World Science Fiction Contest in London in 2014. If necessary we will relocate the event to Glasgow, a nearby city that has a distinguished record of hosting the event.
British fandom has also been discussing the scandal enthusiastically. Mr. Richard Bheerbhelly, who describes himself as a life-long BSFA member and someone who has attended every Eastercon since it was founded in 1833, was scathing in his condemnation of the Clarke. “I am delighted that this has been exposed at last”, he said. “I have suspected for some time that the Clarke was corrupt. Nothing else could explain the fact that fine science novels such as The Eye of Argon, March of the Robots, Battlefield Earth, Atlanta Nights and the Wheel of Time series have failed to win the Clarke. None of these jurors have any idea what true hard science fiction is.”
Another British fan, Mr. Jonathan Agnew, blamed America. “Our finest writers are being lured abroad to write in the American Premier Literary League for silly money. Everyone knows that the juries for the Hugos, Nebulas and Locus Awards are on the make. You only have to look at the luxurious, jet-setting lifestyle they lead to realize that they must be raking it in. No wonder our British lads and lasses are tempted.”
The UK publishing industry has been quick to cash in on the crisis. Noted science fiction satirist, A.R.R.R.R.R.R. Roberts, has been contracted to write a series of darkly humorous thrillers set in the high finance world of science fiction awards. The Clarke Inheritance is already written and in production, with The Clarke Legacy due to follow next week and several more sequels planned. The dashing young hero of the books, Tim Huntsman, fights an increasingly bizarre series of foreign plots against British science fiction while investigating the possibility that he is the secret son of Sir Arthur C. Clarke. A Hollywood studio has already taken out an option on the first book, though it is understood that the story will be changed for the movie so that it can be set in Los Angeles and feature the Hugo Awards instead of the Clarke.
Author Norman Nobbish, whose self-published novel, Cyber-Wolf Pirates of the Death Galaxy, was overlooked for this year’s Clarke, will be challenging the Award results in the courts. On his blog he said:
“Corruption in the Clarke has cost me million’s in unpayed royalty’s. I demand to be constipated not only for this but for the billon’s I wood have received from the movie that wood have been made from my book had I one as I deserved!!!”
Meanwhile Hunter is becoming increasingly frustrated with the affair. Speaking from in front of his office, and struggling to make himself heard above the constant chanting of “God Hates Dogs”, he said, “all of the work on this award is done by volunteers, and in this climate of fear no one is willing to help out. I have to go to my day job now, so I can’t talk to you any more. I need help. Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”
[My apologies to non-UK readers who might not be 100% up on such urgent matters of British politics as betting scandals in cricket and PastyGate. I have tried to provide informative links where possible so as to establish the veracity of this story.]