The Spirit speaks in meeting through human beings, and our individuality affects the message like the wood or metal of a flute or trombone affects music. It is a paradox: self-abnegation of the petty self or ego, self-actualisation of the true self created in the image of God. I am most fully myself when giving true ministry.
The self I have found in Meeting is filled with paradoxes. I feared meditation, because I fear I will encounter my pain, and when I brought myself to it I felt the pain fully and it did not matter. Possibly it is that life is painful. I am always confused, always wanting, and acceptance is a constant discipline not a single act. And my harsh judgment of myself makes a setback into a failure, a mistake into proof of idiocy, and my sensitivity heightens my own pain, and I have habitually suppressed my pain in order to function, and sometimes it just bursts out of me. I feel, strongly; I try to suppress; so when I start to weep it is the way my pain communicates to my conscious self that it is so strong. If I accepted it I might hold it within.
Anger and pain are close. Anger is sad’s bodyguard, I read on facebook: but pain, expressed, seeks help, and anger demands a solution, often a particular solution, immediately. Yet anger can be an expression of pain, where the pain is too great and confusing, and it bursts out, and is a more acceptable response from a man, inculcated into us in childhood. Big boys don’t cry. Though in competitive situations, nor should women.
What of Quakers? I feel it is incumbent on us to process our pain and anger before speaking them in Meeting. Sometimes, I just can’t. I think it better to express pain in Meeting than to suppress it, where our conflicts are brushed under the carpet, but both are failures of the Quaker process.
That suppression. I realised that I feared my anger, pain and fear, and in fear tried to suppress them. But that gives energy to the feeling. I suppress, and it seeks to burst out, and it becomes more unbearable, more painful. And now I fear my feelings less. My journey over the last two years in Quaker meeting has been towards openness and acceptance. It is hard to explain, and I am not sure I understand it. I found in Meeting in Wellingborough I would, several times each meeting, withdraw into myself. I would cross my arms and legs and curl myself up as small as possible, head bowed, just self-protecting, against- I don’t know what, the world and my experience, or the pain I felt because of it. All of that, I think. And then, I would open out again. I would be open to feeling and sensation, and even perhaps being moved by the Spirit. My feelings would be too much, I would curl up and self-protect, and then the feeling would pass and I would open again.
Over the last year, I felt no need to curl up in this way. Instead, I would feel the pain. I was more or less silent in the silent meeting. I would gasp, or sigh, or start to rock. I have noticed others’ hands tense slightly, clasped in their lap, and my whole body would go rigid. I conceived of it as a discipline, bringing myself closer to acceptance and clear perception of my world. I felt it was a process of healing. I was growing stronger. That curling up was a trauma-response, and I needed the trauma response less. Then, before the 6th January business meeting I was sitting in the corner looking at Heather two yards away, and I found myself curling up again.
I was enraged at Heather- I don’t think that is too strong a word- because of her article that I had only just seen. It was for a hard-right website, funded by the Koch brothers, who are American oil billionaires who give vast amounts of money to hard-right causes. It is ludicrous. She complained that trans rights restrict free speech, but lots of platforms will say Trans is Bad- the Times, the Daily Mail, Standpoint, the Spectator, the Guardian, to name a few. I agree with Julie Bindel, to whom Heather once offered to introduce me, that feminists should not associate with the hard-right. I agree with the hard-right calculation, that making life more difficult for trans people will not result in people being openly gender non-conforming without transition, but rather in gender stereotypes being more oppressive and more enforced.
I emailed that website, copy to Heather, complaining that her statement ‘trans women’ (as opposed to transsexuals) have penises was false. Many transsexuals have a penis, as they have not yet had the operation. Most of us self-identify as trans women, even post-op, objecting to the use of “transsexual” as a noun. Much of the scaremongering about trans people is around penises. Having a penis does not make a trans woman or a trans girl a threat. Heather responded by emailing to say our friendship was at an end.
I first met Heather four years ago when I saw her across a crowded Meeting room. I thought, Wow. We have gone out for a drink together fairly regularly since, and I have made periodic declarations of love which have been kindly rebuffed. In the autumn I had thought that I would not invite her again. Her campaigning against trans rights, and my disagreement with her, had come between us.
In the meeting for worship before business meeting I was thinking of what can be said in a meeting, in love. When gender came up in the business meeting, following up on Heather’s recognised Concern, I was expostulating. This is who I am. The elder wanted me to sit down. The clerk wanted to hear what I had to say. His minute said, “We have heard-” clerkly code for one person said, when it is not that which we unite behind.
I have not processed my hurt. It is an open wound. I wanted the operation more than anything else in the world, and now I regret it. Two women have said to me, this bluntly, “I could find a man like you attractive, but- no penis!” So fearmongering about penises really gets to me.
My anger deserves your sympathy. Trans women are almost all completely harmless, often quite badly hurt. There is a campaign to drive us out of the women’s spaces where we have been for decades, without harming anyone, on the pretext of gender recognition reform. Gender recognition reform will mean no more trans women in women’s spaces any more than a change to blue passports will mean more foreign travel. The campaign fearmongers, pretending we are dangerous. Of course I am angry.
I came to Quakers in April 2001, and joined in February 2002. I am afraid I have always been the Needy Friend. I am trans. I had a difficult childhood. I had a difficult time at work, and have been unemployed since March 2011. My confidence is very low, and my ability to accept who I am and how the world is is limited. I like to think I am healing, making spiritual progress, but sometimes it seems I am just going round in circles. I am isolated, and the Labour Party and the Quaker meeting are my only social outlet, apart from things like facebook.
Quakers are nice people, and like to help. In Central Manchester meeting once, shortly after I started going there, an Evangelical came in and took advantage of the ability to stand and speak into our silence to preach a long sermon about Biblical inerrancy or suchlike Evangelical stuff. I interrupted, got upset, and went out to the library with two people holding me as I raged and wept. Someone who listens to my woes gains something from the encounter, a feeling of having done something worthwhile. That places obligations on the needy person, me, not to exploit the good will of my Friends.
Clare, who supported me in Manchester, saw my transition male to female from a year before changing my name formally to a year after, and said “You have climbed a mountain”. I had. Transition is hard to do. Her Testimony, and her husband’s, came out last year. She gave me a lot of support.
I came to Wellingborough meeting again terribly hurt. Well, I am sensitive. L. again gave me a great deal of support, with weekly piano duet sessions for months. I am proud of what I achieved as AM clerk, giving space for the Spirit to move us- I was contributing too- but I took a lot of support. There were tensions in the meeting, such as, there was one regularly-worshipping member with whom I only had one conversation. I approached her in my capacity as member of AM nominations committee, and got no farther than saying “Would you consider” before she said “NO!” A small meeting should be closer than that.
I demanded more support than the meeting could well give, especially after someone moved to the South-west. L. organised my 50th birthday celebration. I saw her outside meeting often. Twice during Meeting (with a year interval between them) I stood and shared my desolate misery, swearing at the horror of it. Too much. I sensitised people to myself. You can’t centre down easily if you are worrying what Abigail will do next. I was told to leave Wellingborough meeting after a man who used the homelessness service came into the meeting house just before coffee, and became abusive and physically threatening when I asked him to leave. I was not going to back down. It is a tragedy that the meeting could give no more support at the moment that I was most entitled to it. I could not get beyond that for over a year- I would have been entitled to support in that moment, but for the history leading up to it.
So I went to Kettering. I am not the only vulnerable, fragile or hurt individual in any meeting, and all of us are vulnerable in particular ways. I am better able to hold my own hurt now, but not perhaps when the meeting considers Heather has a properly Quaker “concern” about “freedom of speech” rather than being the dupe and tool of right-wingers, and for the “care of children”, though that means denying them the care they seek, and denying that they can know themselves. Generally, trans people know who we are and what we want. Some revert, but generally we are happier and more centred when we can express our true selves, and often that means hormones and surgery, however much that surgery may revolt some people.
I went to the Inclusion weekend at Woodbrooke, and after I was shouting angrily at Heather during the Sunday morning worship I have been told not to attend meeting in my Area. My heart sank a week before when I learned she was going. In worship, she stood and rather than giving ministry stated she was an expert. She stated, falsely, that gender recognition reform, “self-ID”, will affect women’s rights, and that there is no biological basis for trans, which is irrelevant, as trans people exist. I stood to say worship had ended at the point she stood up, but I was angry.
I am writing this because one wise and well-regarded Friend told me he is “appalled at the injustice” of me being excluded. It is not quite that simple. Another said he “pray[s] love and truth will prevail”, at which I thought, well, that would be me completely screwed. (Joking.) I think love and truth will; and it may take some time.
I have also been told not to represent the AM, which may also be a good thing. I love prolonged periods with Quakers. Possibly they get me over-excited, like a child on a sugar rush. I have not mastered Quakerly reserve, yet I dare to hope I contribute. Sometimes, if I try to assess intellectually, or when my words come particularly close to my own vulnerabilities, I doubt the value of what I say, but I feel I get it right most of the time. I liked what I said at YM, and mention Deborah Rowlands hugging me as I left more to convince myself that it had value than to convince you. I have been twice to the Quaker Life Rep Council, and think I contributed there, too, though too many of us stood in the final Meeting for Worship.
If ministry speaks to people it will have an effect, and if not it will be forgotten, unless it is spectacularly bad, sufficient to disrupt worship. I speak from my heart, from my love, my creativity and my desire for good, apart from those two times in Wellingborough when I spoke from my misery and negativity and disrupted worship. Yet I think “Where I am at the moment” ministry, if not overdone, helps bring a meeting together, to know each other in the things that are eternal and the things that are quotidian. One that has been much on my mind since it was given in July was Heather’s. As I remember it she spoke of how as a child she had wanted to be confirmed into the Church of England, and had gone to confirmation classes. In part she wanted the white first communion dress. She was not confirmed, because her commitment to truth prevented her from believing some of the things that church demanded she believe. And now she felt she may be forced out of the Society of Friends, because of her commitment to Truth. My heart went out to her, even though I knew what she thought of as the falsehood driving her out was the Society’s acceptance of trans people and our transitions.
I may have made this impossible, but I would still like to be part of a Quaker decision making process on trans and gender issues. I see people in favour of trans rights in the society, and people with a strongly gender-critical view (they call the term “trans-excluding radical feminist” a slur) and it seems to me that the pain of the gender non-conforming or gender critical, and the gender dysphoria of the trans people, is the same pain at gender stereotypes blocking us from being ourselves. So Quakers should actively oppose gender stereotypes as part of our testimony to Equality, and help us see each others’ pain. The tragedy is that we are in conflict, as if others’ way of subverting the stereotypes somehow invalidates our own. If only we could see, we would be on the same side.
I am forbidden to attend Quaker meetings at the moment, yet I hope the video designed to make us attractive to enquirers, and featuring me, will remain on the website. I was not sure the outreach leaflets should all feature the same four people, because I thought I was quite weak on Quaker work, but I stand by what I wrote:
My work in the world, my witness to others, is learning to know and accept myself as God made me, moving from suppressing my feelings to owning them… I know the truth is setting me free.
So I will carry on with that, and perhaps be readmitted at some point. Coming across this Karl Barth quote this week seems a synchronicity- It is not that you have been called to bear the suffering of the present time, it is that you have been idiots. Yet contrary to some evidence I feel that this organism, this creature, conscious and unconscious, soul and body, has value. I am a Quaker; and at the moment I have irked too many people.
If you have got this far: this is what I want of Quakers. Gender stereotypes do not fit people. They are an engine of oppression. Therefore the Quaker testimony to Equality should lead us to oppose the stereotypes, and search out what in ourselves seeks to enforce them on others. And we should trust and support each person to oppose those stereotypes and deal with them in their own way, including by transition.