Losing my Religion

I can pinpoint with precision the moment when I lost my faith. It was at an Evangelical event in Skegness when I was about 17. It had been organised by my local Church of England (Anglican) church. And I went to a discussion event on sexuality, and it really wasn’t a discussion at all. The leaders of the session were quite clear that there was no place for homosexual or queer identity. Unless I was prepared to enter into a heterosexual marriage, I was being “called” to celibacy. They based that on the fact that in Genesis, God creates Eve for Adam.

I am quite, quite sure that I am not being called to celibacy. In Genesis, before heterosexuality is created, the statement is made that it is not good for man to be alone. That is not to say that I believe that being single isn’t a valid choice, nor that all relationships must be permanent, marriage-modelled two-person arrangements. My point is that it is dishonest and cruel to suggest that gay, lesbian, bi and queer people who want to be in a relationship are being called to celibacy.

Now, all right, I wasn’t brought up in an Evangelical tradition. My dad was always pretty sceptical about Evangelicals, my mum liked some of what they had to say, but not other parts. So one option might have been for me to just decide Evangelism wasn’t for me, but stay Church of England. The trouble is, the liberal, “mainstream” of the Church of England wasn’t (and still isn’t) taking a coherent and pricipled stance. Oh, there are plenty of C of E churches which welcome gay congregants (but their relationships can’t be blessed by the clergy). There are some gay clergy (but officially they have to be celibate even though I’m pretty sure the real state of affairs is “don’t ask, don’t tell”). The anti-gay stance of many Evangelical churches may be hurtful and rejecting, but at least it does have integrity, and some kind of internal logic. The Church of England official stance is plain hypocrisy.

My mum is a Church of England vicar. Each year she holds a pet service in her parish church, and blesses dogs and cats and gerbils and guinea pigs and goldfish (even if they’ve been really bad goldfish!). She can say “Bless this food that we eat” over a meal. She has blessed houses for people newly moving into them. She even once blessed someone’s prized vintage car. I’ve been with my partner for six years. My mum is very supportive of the relationship. But she is categorically forbidden by the Church of England to bless our relationship within her official capacity. Nor can she bless the relationship of another longstanding parishioner of hers, someone whose faith hasn’t lapsed, and who genuinely and honestly believes in the Church of England’s ministry.

I’m glad the Archbishop of Canterbury accepts that this is hurtful. But I don’t accept his apology. One of the Christian principles I was raised in is that it’s not a real apology if you don’t make some effort to change. And doing something you think is wrong, for the sake of an easy life and not upsetting people, is immoral.

I suspect I probably won’t go back to religion, whatever happens. And it’s certainly not all about sexuality. There are plenty of other ways in which Christianity doesn’t give me satisfactory answers to my questions. But I cannot even respect the Church of England as a moral and ethical institution while its leaders continue to take a stance which I think even they believe to be wrong.

Gender Recognition

In the UK, it is possible for many trans people to have their gender legally recognised, without necessarily requiring us to have surgery. And of course, that’s a huge privilege, and there are many people, in many countries who are nowhere near so lucky.

Our legislation came into force in 2004. At the time, it was pretty progressive. And I know there was a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiation which was necessary to make sure something went through which would help a lot of people. I was one of those who benefitted, and I’m grateful for that.

But eleven years on, the legislation’s looking dated, and frankly unfair. It allows for the recognition of people as either male or female, if they can prove they have been living in their new gender for at least two years by submitting document, and make a legal declaration to say they intend to live as that gender for the rest of their life, and can provide letters from two doctors (one an “expert”) to verify the situation. You don’t need to have had medical treatment, but if you haven’t you need to provide a good reason why not.

The process can be expensive. There’s a fee of £140 to have your application considered (it may be reduced for those on low incomes). Doctors can charge for medical reports, and if you haven’t kept documents like old bank statements or utility bills, you may have to pay to get copies or wait till you have those things before you apply. The statutory declaration has a set legal fee of £10. If you’re in well-paid work, these charges are irritating but manageable, but for someone on a low income, it’s a lot of money.

The final decision about the gender is taken by a panel under the Courts and Tribunal Service. You never meet any of the panel members, you don’t sit in on their deliberation, and as far as I know, the names of the panel members are not readily available. So even after submitting all this evidence, the final decision is taken by strangers who have never met me and know very little about my life, other than having seen a few old gas bills. They have the right to overrule both my legal oath, and the opinion of doctors who do know me and take a decision on my gender. That seems intrinsically wrong.

A legal system which allows recognition as only male and female, and requires an oath that you have no intention to change that, is unfair on non-binary people. At the moment, they are less protected under other UK equality legislation too, and the whole issue is in need of urgent review. There is also still ambiguity around the medical requirements – if you have a trans identity, wish to be recognised in a different gender, but don’t want medical treatment, the onus is on you to justify that. Unfortunately, I’ve heard some bad stories about that.

The passing of same-sex marriage legislation in the UK was fantastic, but there are still problems for trans people who are married or in civil partnerships. They have to get their spouse to agree to the change. Which is fine if they’re with a spouse they want to stay with. But what if they’re in the middle of a messy divorce, or their former partner has disappeared? Their estranged partner can now hold over them a refusal to consent to their new gender.

The irony of it all is that gender is increasingly irrelevant in legislation anyway. Pensions will be equal in the next few years, we have same-sex marriage, and it’s no longer to discriminate regarding gender on issues such as insurance. For someone my age, there are virtually no situations where it is legally relevant what gender I am.

The simple fact is, gender should not be a matter for state control. If I want to call myself a man on Monday, a woman on Tuesday, and non-binary on Wednesday, that is nobody’s business but my own. After all, the government does not maintain a register of my other identity characteristics (they may be monitored for equality reasons, but that’s optional and up to me how I describe myself). Over the course of a few years, I went from Christian to agnostic to atheist – but I didn’t have to get my passport reissued, or swear an oath in front of a lawyer promising I would never again enter a church. I still frequently waver between calling myself gay or bisexual – but no-one requires me to get a doctor’s letter, or submit photos of who I’ve slept with over the last two years every time I change my mind. Even my ethnicity, although it certainly has a biological dimension and is fairly externally obvious, is not something that is recorded on my birth certificate nor regulated by the government. Gender seems to be the one thing where there is an absolute requirement to stick to a single category, and we must seek special permission to change that.

But as I say, the world has moved on since 2004. Ireland, Argentina, Malta, Italy and Denmark now allow trans people to simply declare what gender they are. The UK should be joining them