The Quaker “National Gathering on Diversity and Inclusion” weekend started with a talk from Heather Brunskell-Evans, “philosopher and social theorist”, “Gender concerned” Quaker, campaigner who claims the greatest threat to women’s human rights comes from trans inclusion and “trans ideology”. Edwina Peart, organiser, phoned me up beforehand to warn me about it, saying when we carefully and with boundaries open this conversation we begin to see some similarities between what have been seen as diametrically opposed positions- I don’t believe they are. I applauded the bravery, and felt it might be too much for me personally to bear. I frightened my friend, who emailed, Be just another woman, don’t be the ambassador for trans, let others wrestle with the issues.
The programme, sent to participants on Monday 13 January, said something different. Other arranged speakers were introduced as keynote speakers, but not Heather. Edwina Peart wrote, It is one of my goals as diversity and inclusion coordinator that Quakers sit with issues around gender diversity and trans inclusion and ultimately reach a position. I feel that momentum is building through the strands of work that are occurring under this theme. However, this cannot develop into an active standpoint without the inclusion of the Gender Concerned group. This is an opportunity for deep examination of their position and an analysis of its base. It will encourage us to consider how we can be inclusive and welcoming of trans Friends living their gender truthfully. I do not think a position will be achieved without acknowledging, laying bare and ultimately allaying the fears of some cis gendered women and men.
I found that disrespectful. One “allays” fears that are groundless. Meeting with and hearing anti-trans campaigners, I do not hear fears. Yes, they talk of individual trans women who have committed crimes as if we should all be judged by the worst acts of the worst of us, but what I hear is righteous anger. They think it is part of the systematic disrespect the Patriarchy shows women that they should have to share spaces with trans women, and women’s spaces are valueless if trans women might be there. I am aware Heather in particular finds the thought of chest masculinisation surgery, which she would call double mastectomy, revolting.
As far as I understand it, she finds gender stereotypes oppressive, and finds that oppression only gets worse when we are driven to surgery to alter our bodies in order to escape them. Whereas, in the imperfect community we find ourselves in, I find surgery a completely reasonable thing for someone to choose. She thinks we will find freedom from gender norms by rejecting the norms but valuing our beautiful bodies. I think freedom from the norms is harder to achieve than that, and any tool- even surgery- should be permitted. This is different from the usual trans view, that trans people need surgery to cope with gender incongruence.
This is my disagreement with Heather. While she sees denial of trans subjectivity as essential to empower women to fight patriarchy and cast off their oppression, I see trans expression as a reasonable way in an imperfect world to cope with gender variance, and a way of publicly resisting and subverting gender norms. Use of the pronoun “they” rather than “she” or “he” is an act of resistance. As I understand it we agree that gender norms of masculinity as well as femininity can be oppressive. I consider that if trans expression becomes more difficult, it will be more rather than less difficult to reject and subvert gender norms. I believe she shares my goal of subverting gender norms.
Edwina also alluded to “white feminism”, a “feminism” which centres campaigns and theory on white experience, ignoring the different BAME experience where the norms imposed by patriarchy or kyriarchy can be entirely different. White feminism can be an imperial or colonial project where, for example, Muslim women are assumed as passive, oppressed, and in need of being saved by feminists. Male violence against women may be seen as “cultural” if it is by an Asian-heritage or Muslim man.
I was not sure I could listen to Heather speak. I find doctrinaire intolerance spoken as reasonable obvious truth hard to bear. My Friend thought her stridency might put people off, but, knowing her, I feared she would charm them. I hoped I could notice I was being triggered before it was too late, and get out, and decided to listen out for anything I could agree with. I call this the Agreement challenge. And- could our spirituality, our seeking to express the leadings of the Holy Spirit, find unity and see “that of God in every one”, save us?
I arrived early to settle in and become present. On the train, I talked to Louise, who works in a care home with elderly residents, encouraging them to take up activities, doing art or bingo with them, bringing in dogs and children to engage their interest. Some she just talks to: some frankly tell of their desire to die. I was going to publish this on Saturday afternoon, but there was a request not to share on social media until after the weekend was complete, so will not.
I met lovely people. I chatted to them. I can’t remember it now, Friday evening. Over dinner a woman said she could not understand the “gender critical” position, and I had to breathe it in. There is so much acceptance here. I must not exaggerate the importance of the anti-trans position; but when I perceive a threat it consumes my attention, as I have suffered so much rejection before. I met a trans woman, and our first conversation included our feelings about genital operations.
There was more acceptance in the Welcome, of every group, all named, and starting with All genders women men trans genderqueer and others. It included all languages and nationalities, activists and not-activists, survivors, and ended with a welcome to the Spirit of truth, unity and love.
Introducing: we are socialised into a culture, and we filter our new experience through our past. It is an effort to set that aside to encounter each person anew. We are racialised, sexed and labelled. There are fault lines in the wider community, and among Quakers.
Heather’s gender critical talk was horrible. She talked of the pain of “gender concerned” Friends who felt unheard and ignored, and of women who felt that their need for women’s spaces was ignored. She talked of the humiliation and pain of women in prisons, hostels, hospitals and toilets forced to share their spaces with “men who identify as women”: women needed single sex spaces which ceased to exist if trans women were included. She said trans men do not expect to be in men’s spaces, and I understand that is not true. She said that was a matter of women’s socialisation. The RSoF had faced conflict before, but we had to discern including all people. Gender concerned Friends were distraught that Friends House appeared to have taken a trans-inclusive position. Quaker lesbians say they are attracted to women’s bodies and they were entitled to define their own orientation and material reality. Men cannot become women.
This weekend had asked people to read inclusion statements but not South London AM’s minute on “single sex spaces”. She was called a hater, but she was concerned for rights. I noted that as their demands got more extreme, that we be expelled from women’s toilets now, their names for themselves got more innocuous. “Gender concerned,” indeed.
And there were bits I agreed with. Gender stereotyping oppresses us, and oppressed people organise. Edwina said that all of us here agreed that gender stereotypes constrict all of us and they need let go. No-one demurred.
I asked a question. I wanted to use her expertise. Are there any other feminist issues in the wider society or among Quakers we should campaign on? She said that Quakers are a good example of sex equality, and transgenderism is deeply problematic, excluding women. Children are not safeguarded, and Mermaids should not be teaching about children. Gender freedom for children would mean no stereotypes.
I am supported. I go and have hot chocolate with Friends, and talk of trans inclusion. They are in favour. I have to trust the process. And, we come up with several feminist issues. It is our feeling that though there are more women Quakers, men talk more and more men are heard in business meetings. There is gender violence even among Quakers.
With a bi woman I agreed that our task was to get rid of all stereotypes- class and race as well as sex, because they get in the way of equality, and of the I-thou encounter, seeing that of God in the other rather than ones own cultural preconceptions. But that is full on, and difficult. We could start by recognising when we stepped on each other’s corns. We could tell each other when assumptions hurt. We could notice our own. And she noticed her own internalised biphobia. She feels “less queer” than lesbians.
On Saturday morning we have worship sharing entitled, “on the faithful inclusion of trans Friends”. Over breakfast, I asked a woman if she thought all women are oppressed by feminine gender stereotypes, and she was clear. All. No exceptions. Another said she heard “bitterness” in Heather’s talk.
I disobeyed my Friend. I stood in the early worship, 9-9.30, and said, I want to hear the hurt, even if I share my hurt I may be dismissed as an emotional woman. And, rather than telling my own, I told of when I had hurt another, and how she had reacted. So I was pontificating, rather than ministering; or if that is too harsh on myself, not getting there.
I want to hear the joys as well. I want to hear the personal statement of hurt. Someone came over and said I looked well. I do. I look confident, serene, forceful; and I am desperate to get a loving Unity including all. Including Heather and the campaigners she represents here.
In worship sharing we are told to Reach as Deeply as you can into the sacred centre of your life, your experience, feelings and changes. I want to share my share, and allude to positions.
One man said prejudice against trans echoed prejudice against gays in the 1980s, including saving children from us. A lesbian said she had wondered if she was a boy, and had deep compassion for teenage confusion, but does not believe teenagers can understand who they will be. A Quaker chaplain said she was atheist in her head but in her heart had a relationship with God, whom she thought was a social construct. At this point, I think that we are not getting anywhere, and we won’t, today. I thought I might tell the facts of my rejection.
A man said it was a matter of equality and a woman said it was a matter of vulnerable women’s need for single sex spaces. A woman said being called cis made her feel physically sick.
A man said that when he began to have a sense of self, and expressed his self, he experienced physical violence. So he hid himself to avoid the violence.
A trans woman said she had to make her outside like her inside.
A man said we needed a big tent to accommodate everyone.
I confessed that I peak-transed someone, and explained what that meant. See her comments here. I do not define womanhood for anyone else. I see oppressed people set against each other.
At the end of the session I found myself wanting to rage and weep like a toddler, and to be cuddled and coddled and made to feel better, like a toddler. Then suddenly I am holding all my pain, and I can bear it. Edwina offered me a hug, and I declined. I want to hold my feeling. I do not want to be consoled.
And then we moved on. We started talking about racism and oppression of Black people. At the end of Anthony Reddie’s session, Heather Brunskell Evans lurched to her feet again and started spouting the same stuff as before. I took notes for a moment: Almost total agreement [with Reddie]. Conundrum: from last year’s gathering. Why talk of Q mobilising power inadvertently and desire to be inclusive unreflective and excluding. Patriarchy. With issue of transgenderism I can’t use word patriarchy. Impulsivity of transgenderism mobilised ideological
Then I walked out. I could not bear it any more. Leasa, an elder, followed me, and offered a hug, and again I declined. This time I wanted to scream at the floor in rage and frustration. The sense of needing to scream communicated to my conscious mind the depth of my feeling, and I was able to hold it.
Over lunch, Nim said to me, “All the time you have been spot on”. I need to record his support.
I wanted to talk to M, who is “gender concerned”. I loved the motto on her bag: “Behave Badly ♀“. We agreed to walk together after lunch, and there were moments of delight. We sat in the garden by the lake, and looked at leaf buds on apparently bare shrubs, and incipient shoots from bulbs. We shared our love of the psalms and of Quaker business method, and talked without dislike; and yet we were both unyielding. She needs single sex spaces. She had some difficulty talking of “trans women”, and I said she could call me a “trans identified male” if she must. At the end, I thought of saying I did not think she was a “hater”, but when people call her that they are expressing a necessary truth: if she gets her way their way of being authentically themselves will become impossible, and she will gain nothing of any value. I did not say this. We agreed there were questions theoretically open to research, whether anyone was not particularly oppressed by gender stereotypes, and how many trans people there were.
Both of us have fear of great loss if the other’s position is confirmed. That is tragic. I would rather campaign together against male violence than become a symbol of it.
I nodded a greeting at Heather when I first saw her over dinner, and at one point happened to be walking to my room finding myself just behind her, and very glad her way to her room was completely different. I wondered if I could say something, if we could agree on anything, or have any friendly terms together; yet I don’t know what I could want of her and ask of her, and I do know that she is most unlikely to give it; and yet I mourn the loss of our friendship. There is so much loss and hurt. One woman heard Heather’s talk as abuse personally directed at me, though I did not. Later I saw her, the consummate speaker, holding forth to a spellbound audience round a table.
On Saturday afternoon I saw four women, “gender concerned Friends” or trans excluders, sitting talking together. I think they gained comfort from each others’ support, and do not begrudge them it. In the evening I felt like crying with misery at something that happened years ago, took that as information about how deeply sad I felt, and did not cry. So I feel I am making progress with the emotional regulation which I never learned before: I just suppressed feeling because I had to make a man of myself. And I do not have to, any more.
Also on Saturday afternoon, we shared about where our Quaker communities were on diversity and inclusion, and how we might move them on. One woman who had spoken of the “need for single sex spaces” (No Transwomen!) told of the pain of her concern being not considered by central discernment, and I found myself voicing that in the whole group: and saying I neither want to put them (meaning him or her) on the spot or put words in their mouth. And I don’t. I just don’t think excluding all trans women will do it any good.