The text of Tina Beardsleys speech
A personal journey as a trans woman priest – the making of an equality champion
Thank you so much for inviting me to Rainbow Church. It’s wonderful to be with you!And for the opportunity to talk about myself (hoping that it might shed light on the broad topics of gender identity, sexuality and religion). As I noted in my chapter ‘A Vicar’s story’ in the anthology Trans Britain – quoting the 1960s student & second-wave feminist slogan – ‘the personal is political’. Let’s begin with my signature song:‘Getting to know you!’
‘When did you know that you were trans?’ A friend, who has known me for over thirty years (in fact, she ran our Sunday School and youth work when I was a parish priest), asked me that very question only recently. Much more is heard and known about trans children now, and I suppose she was curious to know whether my childhood experiences were similar to those of the children she had seen on television or read about.
I replied that as a child, as far as I can recall, I was conscious simply of being me – to begin with. In retrospect it’s obvious that my play, behaviours and possibly speech patterns, didn’t conform to gender norms. And I was verbally abused by my dad for that from a relatively young age – five or six. I’d really no idea what he was talking about.
I wasn’t a sickly child, but the damp Yorkshire climate made me prone to colds and bad throats. SoI had to wear a liberty bodice, a fleecy under garment, resembling a corset, with ribbed panels and curious rubber buttons, presumably to keep me warm in winter. I liked it as it was gender neutral if not downright girly. Underwear was a problem later, as my mum insisted on buying me thick cotton underpants with the front openings I detested without knowing exactly why.
Children then loved playing Cowboys and Indians. I identified with the Indian men because they wore their hair in plats like many of the girls I knew. Since I engaged in girly play mydad tried several interventions in an attempt to make me more masculine (by the northern working-class standards of the 1950s and early 1960s). For example,he taught me to box, which I hated (Sandra Bullock’s role in Miss Congeniality still being decades away; how cool photos of young women boxing can look nowadays).
On one occasion, and one occasion only, in my early twenties, I had to use those pugilistic skills. Stepping out of a telephone booth I found myself surrounded by a gang of youths. When one of them started to punch me and was clearly not going to stop, I jabbed with my left and swung with my right; and they all scattered, allowing me to make my escape.
Aged about 11, I think, I overheard my dad say to my maternal grandmother that I was ‘so effeminate’. Again, that came as a surprise. Whatever my dad had perceived as gender nonconforming seemed entirely natural to me, and I couldn’t understand the problem. My grandma replied that I would, quote, ‘grow out of it’ but, in fact, what I did, eventually, (after learning not to hide who I was), was to ‘grow into it’. Years later, in therapy, I learned to accept that what my dad considered effeminate was simply feminine – and that there’s nothing wrong with that.
I’d experienced a call to ordained ministry when I was about twelve years old – in a woodland setting near the church I attended. I also had a strong sense that I should teach, and it was unclear which of the two would have priority – today I realise that one could do both!There was a gendered aspect too. Priests were male, yet many seemed androgynous. They didn’t go ‘out to work’ for example, their hands were soft compared to the working-class men in my family; some even had high-pitched fluting voices. Perhaps I could ‘blend in’. The discernment process, as it’s now called, took a while and I would be in full-time education for eight years in total: a wonderful excuse to avoid my body by living mainly in my head.
In my teenage years, in the mid 1960s, I began to hear about people who had – in the possibly crude and inaccurate language (one is confirming one’s gender) of those days – ‘changed’ sex and wondered whether they were my tribe. The Sunday tabloids told mainly sensational stories about them, and it seemed something of a twilight world.
Aged 15 a friend’s sister lent me (because I asked her to) the 1966 novel, I Want What I Want, about someone in transition.I hoped to discover the way forward in its pages, but the book made me fearful of expressing my female gender identity as it opens in a mental hospital where the protagonist, Roy/Wendy, has been sent for stealing women’s clothes from washing lines. At this time a boy from my school was arrested in Leeds for cross-dressing (the charge was soliciting). To fully become who I was seemed fraught with danger.
In the novel, Wendypasses well as a female, but her encounter with the sexologist, at the end of the book, is a disaster. He tells her that she can’t really change sex, that it would all be very expensive anyway, and suggests instead that she adopts the coping strategy of becoming a drag performer.
If that was the situation for trans people (or trans women anyway) then – and naively I assumed that it was (I went on thinking I’d have to perform in cabaret to save the money to go to Casablanca for ‘the operation’) it was just about to improve with the opening of the Gender Identity Clinic at Charing Cross, which enabled more people to access hormonal and surgical treatments.The film version of the novel, made in the early 1970s, reflects that more positive narrative– it ends with a post-op Wendy sitting happily in her north London flat with a passport in her female name – but I didn’t catch up with it until much later.
How did I cope with this disjunction between who I knew myself to be and who I was expected to be? One image is a clue. I still havethe Knowledge magazine bought when I was about 10 which contains an article on commedia dell’arte. The male performers all wear masks. Very soon I’d have to assume a masculine mask – there’s more than one to choose from. In my teens the type of masculinity that most approximated to my gender identity was that of feminine gay men like Julian and Sandy, portrayed by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams every Sunday afternoon on the radio programme Round the Horne.
The word ‘gay’ was emerging as an umbrella term that included drag, feminine men, masculine women, and a whole range of people who today would identity as trans. When the gay magazine Lunch was first published in the early 1970s, various Queer celebrities were invited to comment, among them Quinten Crisp, who asked: ‘What would a gay magazine contain? Tips on how to shave one’s legs over the bath?’ Well, I certainly wanted to do that, so this seemed to be my tribe at that point.
It looks (from my collaborator Chris Dowd’s research), that my coping strategy was fairly typical for a trans person of my age. Many in my age group, and perhaps a little older, married someone of the opposite sex. People of my age and a little younger, tended to identity as gay or lesbian first and then come out as trans. Many young people today simply come out as trans without going through either of those stages. But the three approaches aren’t restricted to historical eras. Plenty of people of my generation came out straight away as trans. Some younger trans women – e.g. Juno Dawson and Munroe Bergdorf – first identified as gay, i.e. accepted their sexuality, their attraction to males, prior to attending to their gender identity, and that was my experience too. (Many trans men too, I understand, have gone through this two-stage process of coming out).
Here’s another coping strategy. Like many people who’re not understood within their family I found an escape in study, and aged 19 I went to Sussex University in Brighton, a city that has always had a liberal, even naughty reputation. That was 1970-73 and there I met the man who became my partner and, much later, my husband, Rob, who’s here with me today. We meet at CHE, the Campaign for Homosexual Equality – Rob being secretary of the Brighton branch.
In my mid-teens I’d begun to realise that I was attracted to males but there was also ‘something else’ going on – cross dressing – which I wasn’t able to talk about, and which I associated with the childhood shame of being ‘effeminate’. I was very fortunate that Rob preferred feminine men and told me that was one reason that he found me attractive. One of my fantasies at that time was joining a drag collective, and maybe not changing back into male clothes. I also assumed that joining a drag collective was incompatible with being at university – nowadays I’m sure people would do both!
I was receiving a wonderful education in the study of religion, mediaeval philosophy and church history, and on graduation had the opportunity to go to Cambridge to do doctoral research on the Victorian preacher, Robertson of Brightonwho, it turned out was obsessed with gender (but we don’t have time for that this afternoon!) The research kept me fully occupied for the next three years, and even though I was vaguely aware of another student who was in transition, and intrigued, I think my self-awareness was poor and my emotional intelligence limited.
I then moved on to theological college at Westcott House. The principal, the bishop who ordained me, my training vicar and the parish leadership were all aware that Rob was my partner and very affirming of us both, but I was also very discrete. It wasn’t something one could speak openly about then. The report, Homosexual Relationships – a good titleby the way – published in 1979, the year I was priested, showed how conflicted the Church of England was.
I also seemed to keep missing people. Trans man and academic lawyer Stephen Whittlestudied at Sussex University as I did, but after I’d left. Dr Rachel Padman and I were both research students at St John’s College, Cambridge, but she arrived as my three years ended and our paths never crossed. While Rachel was seeing Dr John Randell, at Charing Cross, who administered oestrogen, I was at theological college, where my contemporary was the late Revd Carol Stone, the first (and so far the only) Church of England parish priest to transition in post (was there something in the water at our college? No!).
Carol and I transitioned one year apart, she in 2000, and me in 2001. But as students in the late 70s neither of us realised that the other was trans (there was another student who I suspected might be trans, but who turned out not to be) and it would have been impossible to be open then.
It was only in 1979 and 1980 that I heard of – and heard the voice of – Dr Randall in the landmark BBC television programmes that followed the transition of Julia Grant, who died quite recently. Now I knew what the route was, and that I ought to take it, straight to my GP, but I feared the consequences. Julia lost her job as an NHS catering manager, and I was newly ordained as a Church of England priest – then, and for another fourteen years, a male only priesthood.
The way to transition seemed barred, until on Sunday 5th November 1989 I came out in a sermon – the actual words, which I experienced as ‘given’ in the night, were ‘God loves me including the fact that I’m gay.’ (Not a great career move!) But a few days later, when someone said to me, ‘it was great you came out – such a good role model to see a gay man in a caring profession’, I had a light bulb moment, and said to myself ‘But I never said I was a man’. So, I learnt by experience and by publicly coming outthat sexual orientation and gender identity are different!
That was when I acknowledged who I was, and however I might look on the outside – and by this time testosterone had begun to masculinise my features – I was, as I told a friend at the time, ‘90% to 100% female on the inside.’ I can appreciate that might sound strange to some people, nor was I clear what it would mean for me at that stage.
I was 38 years old at this point. In a 2011 update on the number of UK trans people, the Gender Identity Research and Education Society (GIRES) reported the median age of transition as 42. I was in my mid-forties when I seriously began to contemplate transition, making me fairly average at that time.
I was comfortable now talking to trusted friends and colleagues about my female gender identity, though I didn’t transition for another decade, during which women were ordained as priests. Meanwhile I attended many dance and movement classes, which connected me with my body and with other women.
In terms of gender awareness, I’d always been intellectually committed to the ordination of women, eventually becoming a member of Priests for the Ordination of Women. The inclusion of women in ordained ministry proved a much longer struggle than any of us had anticipated, but once it finally happened I was less elated than I’d expected.
When I was ordained in 1978 Church of England priests had all been male, and later, in therapy, one of my dreams suggested that this dynamic had been going on in my mind: ‘priests are male; I am a priest; therefore, I am male.’ Once women were ordained though this stasis was undermined and I was being challenged to reframe it: ‘priests are male and female, I am a priest, therefore I am … female’. I hadn’t precisely thought that I might transition post-ordination, but rather that it was something that would ‘go away’.
And yes, I did pray that God would take it away permanently – on one memorable occasion I was driving along a dual carriage with this as my earnest prayer, and one of the tyres punctured! It was a dramatic sign, but what did it mean? It took time to sink in, but it looked as if God was not going to magically remove this part of me, and that, just like my sexuality, this aspect of me was also loved by God, and one that I would have to learn to love too.
You see, those words about God’s love that had formed during the night had come out of considerable pain, following the death of my training vicar. A friend had commented that I had obviously been facing my own demons; I certainly felt as if I had experienced death and resurrection, and I knew, just knew, that Paul’s words were true, and that nothing, nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God. This gave greater depth to my work as a priest and prepared me for the intensely pastoral role I would begin a few years later as a hospital chaplain.
In 1997 I was due a sabbatical and assumed it would be dance related, but the places I wanted to visit couldn’t take me on my chosen dates. Nearly twenty years earlier my doctoral dissertation had been returned with the instruction to undertake a minor change of emphasis, yet I’d been unable to do it. But in the early hours I woke knowing that my sabbatical would address two unfinished items of business: I would revise my dissertation and examine my gender identity.
The sabbatical began at Chisenhale Dance Space with the five-day intensive workshop ‘Gender in Performance’ led by New York based Drag King, the late Diane Torr. Judith Butler’sGender Trouble: Feminism & the Subversion of Identity had been published seven years earlier in 1990. Positive about drag and insistent that gender is performative, an infinite series of actions, rather than innate, Butler’s theories influenced both the title and content of Diane’s workshop. But the workshop’s focus was not ideas in the head, rather the embodiment of theory.
Diane’s ‘Man for a day’ workshops have enabled women to experience how men inhabit physical space. The workshop I attended wasn’t about entertainment or theatre, though it could apply to both, and most participants were performers. It was about how gender is performed and it was amazing; and when it ended, I knew that I didn’t want to alternate between man and woman like Diane – ‘the best of both worlds’ in her words – and that I needed to transition.
But how was I to do that and remain a vicar? Maybe I had to stop being a vicar and become a healthcare chaplain. At least I’d have better boundaries between work and home. I carried on doing workshops. At one we were invited to bring a significant object and I brought my sari which I used as a prop (rather than to wear) when dancing. I must have opened up about feeling stuck, without explaining why, and the person I was paired with me asked me to hand her my sari and my ring. She then proceeded to pull the entire length and breadth of the sari through the ring. ‘There’s so much creativity in your life, just waiting to burst through’ she explained, ‘All you need to do is open up the tiniest little chink, like this ring, and all that energy will come pouring through.’
Transition, which I began a year or so later, helped to open me up to my full potential – the ‘me’ I’d hidden, or that had been denied permission to be for so long. Mine was not an easy transition due to the reactions of my bishop and NHS employer, but I could cope. I just had to be strong and it would be alright. Not so much, ‘I want what I want’ but ‘I know who I am’. There’s power and energy in that: spiritual energy and power.
This was in 2000/2001, when I co-founded the Clare Project, a support group for trans people in Brighton and Hove. I’d found my dream job – chaplaincy in a hospital just ten minutes’ drive from our home in Sussex, and part-time – only twelve hours a week – to give me space to deal with what transgender specialist Dr Russell Reid has referred to as the ‘rigours of transition’.
I’d not reckoned, however, on the problems I would face. In the late 1990s I’d joined the Sibyls’, a Christian spirituality group for trans people. I’m still a member and have valued its support greatly. The Sibyls only has one rule – members commit to observe complete confidentiality. The rule has been broken just once, when I was outed, but it was not at all the disaster that it at first appeared.
I’d met with my manager to raise the possibility of transition at work and was on the point of discussing this with the acting bishop when the press began to track me down. The late Christopher Morgan (who later committed suicide), a friend of Lord Williams, was convinced that the Sibyls was mainly clergy about to transition. It wasn’t, being mostly lay. But under pressure, one, or possibly two Sibyls’ members, said they believed a hospital chaplain was about to transition. We’re a small profession so it didn’t take long to find me.
I wasn’t named in the press at that stage, but it made my discussions with the bishop extremely strained, as there were fears of press exposure – and he was gay. I fantasise that the bishop would have been more understanding were it not for that fraught context, but his opinion was that he could not support me and that I should surrender my licence, which I needed to continue as a chaplain in that particular hospital. This was one of the most painful episodes of my life, but transgender people were not well understood at that date; with the support of the human rights organisation Liberty I held my ground, but I also began to look for work elsewhere.
Now presenting as female all the time I had three job interviews in a row and was appointed to the hospital where I worked for fifteen years and from which I retired in 2016. My new bishop was cautious to begin with, but I was under his direct supervision and after three or four years it was very obvious to him that there had been no ‘issues’ and that I was in my element as a chaplain – well, of course, because I was now at last able to be myself. I’d been given permission to officiate at the hospital, but my ministry was restricted to that setting. In 2005 the bishop lifted that restriction by licensing me.
Prior to taking up my new post the press did try to ‘expose’ me, but my old hospital press officer was proactive, and my story in my own words sent to the Press Association to prevent the newspaper concerned claiming an exclusive. Prior to transition at work I wrote to friends, former parishioners, and the priest who had succeed me, explaining what I was about to do.
In 2000, while I was working towards transition my clinician informed me that another priest was transitioning. He couldn’t tell me who it was of course. It turned out to be Carol Stone.Carol was supported by her bishop and her parishioners, remaining as parish priest until her untimely death in 2014. Carol chose not to campaign, whereas I became increasingly drawn into campaigning, so I’d like to end with a quick sketch of my equalities work.
I attended General Synod as advisor to the Revd Chris Newlands, proposer of the Blackburn Motion on the Welcome and Affirmation of trans people. There’s so much we could discuss this afternoon about how that went – if we want to!
In 2006 Colin Coward MBE, another fellow student from Westcott, invited me to become the first transgender Trustee of Changing Attitude, England, (of which he was founder and director), recently merged with LGCM to form OneBodyOneFaith. Hitherto, Changing Attitude, England had worked for the full inclusion of LGB people in the church, but Colin was keen to add trans to the list by including trans trustees in the organisation – at one stage there were three of us.
One simple task the CAE trans trustees undertook was to check that all our literature, including blog posts, were trans inclusive. It’s so habitual for gay activists to write about sexual orientation and forget to add gender identity, but gradually we changed the culture.And we didn’t just work for trans inclusion!
I used my platform with Changing Attitude, and later with the LGBTI Anglican Coalition, of which it was a constituent member, to progress trans advocacy on behalf of the Sibyls as well because I inherited that brief when the Sibyls founder, Jay Walmsley, handed over its running to a committee.
Working in healthcare has also made me an equality champion, my proudest achievement being the provision of a designated Muslim prayer space in the hospital.
Working shifts gave me time to write. I wrote up my dissertation on Robertson as a biography, attending to Romantic constructions of sex and gender, writing lots of blog posts for CAE, and studying for a masters’ degree in healthcare chaplaincy. It certainly felt as if that pent-up energy had found its outlet at last!
Since its publication in 2000, the Sibyls had been keen to issue a repost to the Evangelical Alliance’s report, Transsexuality, and collated various contributions. When the co-editors were unable to complete the project, I took it on with my then collaborator, Mish – Michelle O’Brien. We’d already produced pastoral guideline for churches, published by the Gender Trust – Mish wrote the appendix on intersex people. By this date Mish had moved to New Zealand which proved very convenient, enabling us to work round the clock on the book’s finishing stages, one of us rising as the other went to bed.
Published in 2016, This is my body: hearing the theology of transgender Christiansincludes a chapter by my current collaborator, Chris Dowd. Chris generously asked me to join him in writing up his dissertation for publication, and which came out a year ago:Transfaith: a transgender pastoral resource. While we were editing TransfaithJessica Kingsley invited me to write a practical guidebook to help churches to become more inclusive of trans people which Chris and I are currently preparing for submission.
My engagement since retirement with an international research project on prayer in hospitals – here we are at a Think Tank in Vancouver in September 2017 – has made me conscious of the ‘deep equality’ (a concept identified by Canadian academic Laurie Beaman) that often exists on the ground,in contrast to media representations only of conflict between various groups. Many churches practise this deep equality, which is so very different from ‘official church teaching’ – that’s one of my criticisms of, and a reason why I have recently left the Church of England’s Living in Love & Faith project Coordinating Group of which I’ve been a consultant for the past fifteen months. And again, we can talk about that if you like.
Thankfully, my priestly ministrywas not taken from me back in 2001 – though it came very near to that. Itcontinues and part of its focus is toremind people what I learnt back in 1989, and which it’s a delight to repeat to you this afternoon:that God loves you in your sexuality and in your gender identity, and to the very core of your being.
Let’s sing again! ‘Climb every Mountain.’