The Soul

Do human beings have souls? If not, does it matter?

Humans observe human capacity, and put it down to Gods or Devils, muses or spirits. Prometheus stole fire from the Gods, because humans could not make it or control it without Divine intervention. At one moment I am unconscious of a poem, and then it flows through my mind, apparently fully-formed, and that must come from Inspiration, something outside myself.

There’s a particularly stupid article in the NYT today, where Avi Shafran argues against materialism, which he diminishes to “electrical activity within our craniums”. If we humans are nothing more than our physical cells, and the innate human awareness of our souls and sense of free will are mere illusions, we have no ultimate value beyond that of any insect. And no compulsion, beyond an ultimately meaningless utilitarian social contract, to bind ourselves to any ethical or moral system. A society that denies the soul idea is, in fact, in the word’s deepest sense soulless.

Shafran makes a leap without an attempt to justify it: humans are capable of creation and destruction, so there must be something beyond the mammal that we see with our eyes, which he calls a soul. His only definition of it is “an entity which can be sublimated or polluted by the conscious exercise of free will”, but he implies it produces all our best and worst acts, and our spiritual value. If a devil possesses the traitor, as Dante imagined, we might hope he is a thing apart, and we are not capable of such wickedness.

Humans observe human capacity. We see the banality of evil and the heights of altruism, the acquisitiveness of a Charles Koch and the organisation for the common good in the Beveridge report. Shafran’s example is Yo Yo Ma playing a cello concerto, where we can see the technical ability and the emotional content, the power to move human beings and possibly to purify or ennoble us.

The ennobled human, the good they do and the beauty they create, are real whether or not evolution is capable of producing a brain with these capacities, or a multitude of brains capable of appreciating them. It might be terrifying that such capacity could age and die, that the creative power of, say, Leonard Cohen should simply be gone, a function of complexity which fails at last and dissolves into simpler molecules. Yet the creative power of Daniel Barenboim and others endures. We lose the person, yet keep the music; and there are more people, developing and extending the creative tradition.

And I too will die. My brain will submit to entropy and be burned or buried. The Earth will become too hot, so that its oceans evaporate long before it is absorbed into the red giant Sun.

It is not just a brain. It is a nervous system, capable of sensation from all over my skin, of moving my body and increasingly complex tools, of communicating with others so moving them to action and contemplation. That which is me is so bound up in the body and its physical needs, affected by tiredness, sickness and pain, that I cannot imagine a “me” without that body and those sensations, that physical way of achieving closeness. My words can move in your mind so that we become momentarily one, but those words relate to that physical reality, the mystery of what it is to be human.

The compulsion to be ethical comes from our humanity, from being one of a social species incapable of survival alone. Practices we call “spiritual” have value, and as humans we are drawn to them for what they achieve, individually and collectively.

The range of human possibility from transfiguration to depravity is hard to imagine, and so we use metaphors of spirits and Spirit. If there is no immortal Soul that does not make us worthless insects, but more precious, as evanescent. If not me, then who? If not now, when?

Safety, and proper boundaries

I wanted us to revise the book of discipline as soon as I heard of the possibility, because of this sentence: “The acceptance of homosexuality distresses some Friends.” I know it was 1987, but- not “PDAs during Meeting” or even “homosexual relationships” but the acceptance of “homosexuality” distressed some Friends. Some of them might have been elderly, and repressed gay themselves. Some might have thought their view integral to proper respect for the Bible, and seeing Quakers as Christian.

However brave 22.45 was in 1987, it is a bit clunky now. We recognise that many homosexual people play a full part in the life of the Society of Friends. Of course! Why should it need to be said? But it was against the culture of the time to recognise that some gay Quakers might consider themselves married, and ask their meeting to celebrate their commitment.

In 1994 we minuted, The Yearly Meeting has struggled to find unity on this [subject of sexuality], which comes so close to the personal identity and choices of each one of us. We are still struggling for the words which will help us, so that we may come to know the balance which allows us both to deal with the personal tensions of our own response to sexuality and also to see ourselves as all equal in the sight of God… we recognise, in love, the Friend whose experience is not our own. We pray for ourselves, that we may not divide but keep together in our hearts.

Attending encounter groups, I was most distressed by the person who said they wanted to “feel safe”, or, worse, that “people should be safe”- that is, they wanted to restrict other people’s shares, and they were claiming it was a principled stand for the good of all. But you cannot feel safe in this process. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Today at Meeting my Anglican Friend was wearing his clerical collar, as he had celebrated the Eucharist before coming. That’s the first time he has not changed his shirt. I felt this was disrespect (I am speaking as a fool) and more so when I saw the Book of Common Prayer on his seat in Meeting. This, even though I am former Anglican. The prayer book made me feel uncomfortable.

What do I mean by “speaking as a fool”? I am speaking from the ego, from a petty desire for safety in the sense of more or less being able to predict what is going to happen and knowing I will be comfortable until it is time to go home.

Meeting is not “safe” in this sense. Sometimes it is like a roller-coaster, where I see over the plunge and my stomach turns over. It is very rare that someone is hurt on a roller-coaster; but it is probably better not to ride one if you want to appear dignified.

I would definitely wonder what was going on if in Meeting I realised that someone was verminous.

I am angry. Excuse me while I go and chew the carpet for a moment. I may even scream at it.

Ah, that’s better.

My Friend’s clerical collar offended me. I could get righteous about it- what about the notional person who has been hurt by the Church and has been told we are somehow better? It’s the principle of the thing! (My law lecturer said principles are good, because they make money for lawyers.) There is the ego, or small self; and it is in me, and it reacts in that way. In this particular case, I can deal with it fairly easily: I spoke to him, sharing my love for particular Anglican prayers which I used to pray every week. I do not want to deny or suppress my reaction. It is me that objects. The Meeting itself gives me the way to deal with it, of emptying myself of the desire that the world be other than it is. Repeat as necessary. There is no harm- probably. All manner of thing shall be well. Any harm will be dealt with organically.

In another case I am angry, resentful, frustrated and frightened, and living with uncertainty. The uncertainty makes it harder to “respond in love”. Possibly a petty-self, or ego, desire assists me: I want my Meeting to be inclusive (even, possibly, that is a leading, something from my inner light). In the 1980s we might unobtrusively and without much fuss have sorted ourselves, so that in some meetings “homosexuals” felt unwelcome, and did not attend, and in others those “distressed by homosexuality” quietly left. I don’t know. If you were around at the time, were you aware of this happening? It might have felt safer, but it would not have been, really. It would have been a reduction in the Light available to those meetings, which is in our diversity. If we are all the same, we lose something.

So I keep telling myself, as I try to live with that anger.

I love what my Friend Rhiannon wrote: even the merest, softest touches of suggestion that in order to be a Proper Quaker one ought to [x]… sets me imagining ways in which I might find myself outside that boundary. I want my Meeting able to include trans folk, and those “distressed by trans” (or anxious sharing a toilet with me) but that might be uncomfortable. But then, it’s just possible that I will become homeless, in which case I might even get lice.

I thought, 22.45 is not so objectionable read as a whole, and it is good to show the history of our discernment. Chapter 16, last revised in 2015, shows where we are now, governing our marriage procedure. I wanted a beautiful quote from there to round this off. 16.03 is not really beautiful, but matter-of fact: “Friends understand marriage to be equally available to same-sex and opposite-sex couples.” But then I see 16.07, which refers to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act: “It is, therefore, expected that our registering officers, on appointment, understand that they will be required to officiate at all marriages authorised by that area meeting.” The homophobes may still be with us, mostly keeping quiet about it.

Are Quakers transphobic?

Are Quakers transphobic? No. I doubt we will escape allegations of it, though. There are things I want to say to Quakers in Britain, to other trans people, and to anyone else who will listen.

Quaker Life has produced a discussion document. That is, a committee which supports Quaker meetings in their pastoral role and the practical tasks for running a Quaker meeting has made an initial statement, and called for further discussion. It is quite a dense document, not easy to read if you are affected by it. I have faced rejection after rejection, I am attuned to rejection and expecting rejection, and extremely sensitive to potential rejection. At first I read the document as a rejection of me and of people like me. Reading it again with care I do not feel rejected. However, that in itself is an exercise of my love, care and forebearance, my willingness once more to seek community, my bravery in the face of fear.

The document is not a final position. Quakers will apply our love and care for those affected, seeking the truth. We will consider particular situations and underlying principles, what we could wish for and what we can do. We are no more transphobic than we are antisemitic. We may come to a statement discerned by more Quakers, and the process will include trans and gender diverse people. Separate Quaker groups have made statements particularly welcoming us.

Quakers and gender diversity

Introduction

This statement by Quaker Life Central Committee has emerged as a response to the shared experiences of Friends throughout Britain Yearly Meeting and the sense that it is our responsibility to lead on this. We commit to this being the start of a discussion for the comfort and discomfort of all Friends, with a focus on listening to where the words come from and upholding one another.

We accept that this is where we are now. There is much more to be done and more discussion to be had and this will be a process of careful thought and prayerfulness. We are aware of the pain and hardship around this topic and hold all Meetings in the Light and in our hearts during this exploration. It is essential to remember that we are Friends with each other and to treat ourselves and this sacred community with gentleness and love as we go forth.

My Friends who drafted this are aware of the pain and hardship. They include at least one gay man who as an adult experienced the casual and endemic homophobia of Britain in the 1970s, and some of them have heard my personal experiences. It is hard for me to trust and yet I trust these people. For now: I am watching them!

________
An Initial Statement on Gender Diversity by Quaker Life Central Committee

We condemn all forms of bigotry, oppression and discrimination and seek to do all we can to remove such experiences from our Quaker community. Where this is not humanly possible we trust that, with Divine help, we can move forward together in making our Society a truly welcoming place for all. We affirm the right of all to explore their own expressions, non-conformity and identity in matters of gender and sexuality and note that this may involve clarity, decisiveness, doubt and re-thinking in any individual’s life. We commit to providing places of worship and community that are welcoming of all on that journey. While we cannot hope to be perfect in attaining this, we seek to try what love can do.

Quakers have a record of opposing discrimination: of being among the first among the churches to welcome and destigmatise gay people; of supporting the original Gender Recognition Act, Civil Partnerships and equal marriage; of counting Equality as among our founding principles and most important values. I have been to a joyous lesbian wedding at a Quaker meeting house.

We note, with sadness, that the current expression of gender diversity across our society has been coloured by bad feeling and hurtful language. We denounce such language and action. We exhort all Friends to consider their every word and deed carefully and lovingly and commit our organisation to work with tenderness to all as we work through this new social territory.

I am not clear what they mean by “bad feeling and hurtful language”. I hope they do not mean any statement by trans people. Whatever, I support the desire to hear people, know where their words come from, value their experience and be careful to hear all that is good and true in the communication. Otherwise, we are driven further apart, and hurt again.

We affirm the right of women’s organisations to critique and explore the nature of gender identification and respect their right to freedom of speech. We recognise that some Friends will find such organisations supportive and of comfort and respect their right to make their case. We do not accept that the critique of transgender identities in the political sphere is necessarily transphobic. We affirm our welcome to such organisations to meet publicly or privately on Quaker premises. We will work with all such organisations to address any potential uses of hurtful language.

This is the paragraph which will most offend trans people. We feel attacked, by the barrage of hostile and prurient articles in the media, especially The Times, the hatred and mockery on twitter and Mumsnet among other places, and by organisations like Woman’s Place UK, which does not simply “explore the nature of gender identification” so much as spread fear against trans people.

My own feeling is that I hear the hurt expressed by such organisations, as well as the anger and self-righteousness. These particular organisations include marginalised people. We even may have things in common. Both sides accuse the other of being in league with the hard Right. I accept that both are on the Left, and so solidarity would be of benefit to both.

The sentence is quite careful. It says not all critique is necessarily transphobic, not that all criticism is acceptable. Some individuals may seek understanding and common space rather than to exclude and spread fear against us. But with WPUK now openly seeking to roll back the rights we already have, I don’t know who they are thinking of. We experience much “exploration” by others of our gender identities as excluding. They are talking of my life, my lived experience; I know who I am on a deep level, and do not take kindly to theorising about it.

If such organisations interact with Quakers or use our premises we can call them up on “hurtful language”. They might listen to Quakers hosting them more than to trans groups.

We affirm the right of organisations that support transgender individuals, and all exploring their gender identity, to all such activities in pursuit of this, and respect their right to freedom of speech. We recognise that some Friends will find such organisations supportive and of comfort and respect their right to make their case. We affirm our welcome to such organisations to meet publicly or privately on Quaker premises. We will work with all such organisations to address any potential uses of hurtful language.

Some will not like the words “exploring their gender identity”. Many people knew in early childhood they were really of their true sex. Yet many explore whether we can transition socially, and where we have to present in the birth gender at work or in families we need spaces where we can be our true selves.

I want to use hurtful language sometimes. I am hurt. The depth of my feelings, of my pain, is expressed in strong language- sometimes. Trans people might read Judith Green’s account of recovery from childhood sexual abuse: entirely female space “was the one space where we put our own needs first”. We may also resonate with her when she says this: “that I wasn’t alone, that it wasn’t my fault, that I was entitled to feel angry, that my boundaries were important, my truth and understanding of reality were important – not the lies imposed on me”. I found that with trans people. We have things in common, if we can hear each other. I do not condone her arguments for trans exclusion, but I hear her own experience.

As a Quaker community, we respect and uphold the self-expression of all members of and visitors to our community. We commit to using and respecting individuals’ current names and pronouns.

“Ze” and “hir” as well as “they”. I need Quakers to be clear on this. It is my right to specify how I should be imagined, or how I should not be imagined. I am not a man. I am vulnerable, and suggestions that I am a man can cut to my heart. And, being open is risky: sometimes I need a defensive carapace of Fuck You.

In all our work with children and young people in our community, we respect and uphold their self-expressions and seek to offer them nurturing spaces in which to continue to grow and develop. We recognise that such self-expressions may change over time and that exploration of identity and conformity or otherwise to gender norms is a normal part of youth and may continue throughout life. We commit to offering our children and young people affirming activities and spaces which are not gender stereotyped and allow each individual freedom of self-expression that is appropriate for them at that time.

This statement is not just about trans people, for others besides trans people are afflicted by gender norms. Many people find gender norms oppressive, and gender norms are part of the apparatus of Patriarchy, or pervasive sexism. Masculinity becomes toxic when people try to fit norms which do not fit them. Everyone balances being themselves with conforming to expectations, trying to find a comfortable or bearable space between. We experiment with expressing different parts of ourselves, ideally in our teens and if necessary later. We face the question “Who am I?” It does not say people question their gender identity- most people do not- but their identity.

In the Quaker meeting I can find who I am. It is a long journey: a Friend admired how I had “climbed a mountain”, and I felt that I had clambered out of a pit. I experience the nurturing spaces. Quakers have enabled me to be more myself.

We note that shared spaces such as toilets, changing and sleeping areas can cause anxieties and concerns for people. We believe that no-one should have to use shared spaces which do not feel comfortable to them. In a context of systemic male violence, particularly towards women, we are especially minded to examine the potential adverse impact of any policy on women and girls and to make efforts to remedy this. All Quaker premises and events ought to provide facilities which everyone feels safe and comfortable using. The usage of these facilities must be clearly defined and communicated and must offer choice for the individual.

Trans people will object to this. If it does not mean that I could be excluded from women’s toilets in a Quaker meeting house, I feel it could be clearer. Yet- “How can everyone feel safe and comfortable?” This is an initial discussion document. That is a useful question. The document does not give all the answers, but everyone feeling safe and comfortable is a worthwhile goal: and it includes me, as well as others.

And, treating trans issues in the context of male violence is objectionable. We are the victims of violence, generally, rather than perpetrators. Many of us have been assaulted, or sexually assaulted, because we are trans. Yet others are victims of violence too.

Throughout our history, Quakers have affirmed the equality of all before God. We profess that ‘each one of us is unique, precious, a child of God’ (Advices and Queries 22). We commit to continue our work in this matter, continually seeking new solutions to eradicate all forms of exclusion and to create safe space for all within Britain Yearly Meeting.

________

What next?

We invite Friends to reflect and discuss the topic together. We also invite Friends across Britain to send personal stories and think-pieces to us – contributions will help us learn, and to consider whether to draw together some form of publication. Notes or minutes of discussions in Quaker communities could also be sent, as this will help us understand more about this exploration, and whether further resources might be helpful.

We’re not inviting ‘dots and commas’ comments on the present text.

“Dots and commas” is Quaker jargon for quibbles about individual words and punctuation.

Please send any response, with your name, address, and the name of your Area Meeting (or other Quaker community)

That is, they want responses from Quakers. They may hear from others besides.

to us at…. This email address will not be monitored regularly and we do not expect to enter into correspondence with those making submissions, but you will be contacted if we wish to publish any response you send.

Quaker Life Central Committee, November 2018

This post is about Quakers in Britain, and not in the rest of the world.

Telling the truth for Quakers

We know this stuff. It is hard, but not complicated. It is part of our spiritual practice, and in our most precious writings:

Our diversity invites us both to speak what we know to be true in our lives and to learn from others. Friends are encouraged to listen to each other in humility and understanding, trusting in the Spirit that goes beyond our human effort and comprehension… Are you following Jesus’ example of love in action? …

Take time to learn about other people’s experiences of the Light. Remember the importance of the Bible, the writings of Friends and all writings which reveal the ways of God. As you learn from others, can you in turn give freely from what you have gained? While respecting the experiences and opinions of others, do not be afraid to say what you have found and what you value. Appreciate that doubt and questioning can also lead to spiritual growth and to a greater awareness of the Light that is in us all.

Receive the vocal ministry of others in a tender and creative spirit. Reach for the meaning deep within it, recognising that even if it is not God’s word for you, it may be so for others… Do you welcome the diversity of culture, language and expressions of faith in our yearly meeting and in the world community of Friends? Seek to increase your understanding and to gain from this rich heritage and wide range of spiritual insights…

Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern? Each of us has a particular experience of God and each must find the way to be true to it. When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people’s opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken.

Do you cherish your friendships, so that they grow in depth and understanding and mutual respect?

We know all this. Love is the heart of it. Listen in Love, speak the truth as best you can. I am very protective of my eye. I do not like things near it. It matters a lot. Yet I notice that the eye is a robust organ, not easy to damage, though it is sensitive and complex. In the same way without meeting for worship we would be impoverished, perhaps disabled, but it is robust.

We know what to do. Listen patiently and seek the truth. Reach for the meaning. Give freely, say what you have found and what you value. Recognise the beautiful humanity of the people around you. Do all this in Love and humility. Then we receive the blessings of our Friends.

Possibly we think it should be easier than it is. Possibly we do not realise how badly hurt we are or how threatened we feel. Possibly we do not realise the effect our words may have.

Possibly, the first time we hear an uncomfortable view it drops, like a bomb, into a conversation we found congenial until that moment. My buttons are pressed, and I withdraw. I want that sense of being with people like me which I can gain from denying their true strangeness or enforcing certain rules about what must not be said. So, one Meeting quotes the Bible all the time, another does not possess a copy, and members of one might be uncomfortable in the other.

Rhiannon Grant’s book “Telling the truth about God” addresses Quakers hearing each other specifically about the words we use for our spiritual experiences. Frameworks can be useful. We have meetings for learning. We take lots of time to hear why one Friend values one idea of God, or of what our spiritual experience is. We recognise the difficulties our ideas can cause, so we find ways in. I like her exercise placing words for God or spirit on a piece of paper, according to which we would always, sometimes or never use. Different people will put the same word in different places, then share why. Ideally that will unearth the hurt in a safe space, where others will take time to hear it and express sympathy. Then at least the hurt will not be renewed.

“We usually find ourselves richer for our differences,” said Baltimore YM, when the separate Orthodox and Hicksite YMs reunited. Yet the differences remain, and we fear that we will lose out. How can people respect my view, if they accept its opposite? And these views are mutually exclusive. That fear, and sense of difference, are the “seeds of war”. Can we calm our own fears, making sure we do not fear anything which is unlikely or would not really be harmful? Can we separate out our ego and desire for respect that is not due, or safety that is not possible? Can we trust the process?

My Friend said you did not always need the business method- not, in her usual example, for deciding the colour of the meeting house door. But if you can’t use it for that, you can’t use it for anything. Different people might have strong opinions. We listen to each other and follow God’s loving purposes- not because God wants a particular colour in the abstract, but a colour which fits our community.

In due humility I set aside my ego-desires, for a desire for the good of all. I use my judgment, but apply it for good, or God, not my own purposes. I am not hiding any part of myself for a quiet life, but present in my full humanity. I let go of demands that the world be other than it is. It’s not easy, but it is simple.

In our own difficult issue, a Friend suggested we get together to “share our hurts”. I don’t want to share my hurts. I have been to too many benefits tribunals, where some hapless claimant states how painful they find it to walk forty yards, and is challenged and often disbelieved. Quakers might feel good supporting the underdog, but I want my contribution recognised, not my hurt. I do not want your sympathy, I do not want a saviour, I want others to work with me for the common good, including my needs.

Threshing, I would rather share my hopes and fears. The reason I want particular action is because it will make the world a better place, as far as we can. Some will be reasonable predictions of likely outcomes and some will be paranoid.

My desires include the good of my Friends and the wider community. Sharing desires may show what we have in common, and bring us together; it may help each understand the differences between us and get a richer understanding of the Good.

My beliefs are the foundation on which these hopes, fears and desires are built. Exposing them can correct them. There is an understanding in me, wordless, which may be my Light; I want my verbal formulations to approximate to the truth it perceives, and together we find the best words.

My sympathies are with Friends even where I disagree. If our differences are magnified, the chances of hurt and disagreement increase. Sympathies bring out all we have in common. We show how we care for each other.

Dysphoria after transition

Transition to expressing myself female was what I had to do. It was liberating. After trying to make a man of myself, I was able to be me. And the work of liberation has continued, and been difficult, over the sixteen years since.

I grew up with definite ideas of what it meant to be a man. It meant fighting, if necessary. Being dominant, athletic, not expressing emotion- the concept fits, even fulfils, some folks.

I had possibly my first celebrity conversation recently. “I feel as if I know you,” she said. She had been on the tiered seats at Yearly Meeting, looking down on me as I spoke before hundreds of people, and then read my articles. Modestly, I pointed out the new outreach leaflets which have my words about me in them. Oh, wow.

I want more of that.

So I was telling a friend, and she observed that I am expressive when I am delighted by something: it is always quite clear. Same with dislike. This expressive self might not be 20th century British, with the “stiff upper lip” ideal, but we are all more expressive now. I am not sure it is “feminine”, particularly, more extreme extrovert, or perhaps for those more powerfully connected to feeling- it was a lot of work to suppress my feelings. Given that I am like that, I am glad to be able to express it without an internal censor. Even if it is no more “feminine” than “masculine”, I don’t think I could express it without having transitioned. I was too buttoned-up. Forty years after some teenagers find it, I finally realise I can be Fabulous! And my attempts are as in need of practice as theirs; and my trans woman’s self doubt and judgment are as strong on this as anything.

It is not just my femininity I have liberated, it is all of me. And yet the constraints on me, my own beliefs about what I must suppress in myself, continued to hurt after transition. It has been a long road, and is not over yet. My discomfort and embarrassment at who I am continued. It may be hard for anyone not trained into it to attain dignity, but self-acceptance is essential and transition was only the first step.

I was still embarrassed, and especially in the first year I faced a gauntlet of mockery, derision and hatred walking down the street. That will increase self-doubt unless, with tremendous strength, you ignore the opinions of the haters and decide to love yourself regardless.

Andrea Long Chu, writing in the NYT, says she is suicidal since transition. She is conscious of her appearance- she is a trans woman, so she looks like a trans woman, with some mannish characteristics. She picks on the length of her index fingers, and denies that she is beautiful. Hormones make her weep, and all the pent-up pain of having to present male for decades has exploded. She wanted to be a woman, and she gets to be a trans woman. Her vagina is a “wound”, not a human organ linked to a womb. “There are no good outcomes in transition,” she writes. We are not made well, just made better- it is a choice between two dark shades of grey. So psychiatrists and surgeons should recognise that incremental improvement, and be satisfied with it. It is what we want. It is the way they can “do no harm”.

My hips are narrow, my waist and shoulders relatively wide, and my face mannish. Facial feminisation may be more important and more beneficial than vaginoplasty. I am conscious of my mannishness; but also intensely conscious of being a body, a physical animal, loving to walk barefoot, to cycle, and to feel wind or sun on my bare limbs. Before, I was stuck in my head. And this increase of conscious feeling has involved intense emotional pain. If you want equanimity, not to be troubled by strong feeling, do not transition.

The doubting, blaming and hating of myself continued after transition, and to an extent still does. I am not the woman I wish to be. I am dysphoric. Yet I am more myself, I see myself and love myself better. Transition was what I had to do. I can’t be certain I would be alive without it.

With young Friends

I was privileged to join a Young Friends’ special interest gathering on affirming trans people. I saw these people being themselves, being real with each other, and feel hope for the Society: this is what Quakerism can do for people.

It is striking to spend time with a group of people a generation younger than I am. Of course there is the energy and brilliant intellect I find everywhere among Quakers: the PhD student, the person doing important work; and a wide range of different life-experiences, different from mine. “I have honestly never seen someone do that before,” said one, and I am delighted to have increased his options or perhaps moved him to investigate further. I am so glad that he said it. And I was self-conscious; I know that cultural references I would expect everyone of my generation to get are a bit nerdy twenty years later, and the Hufflepuff slippers show people deeply affected by something I found entertaining but no more. With another I shared my way into appreciating art, and found it was his way into appreciating music.

I saw one particular expression of beautiful masculinity, unselfconsciously expressed. He was serving us, and the leadership he gave was also service. It has led me to think anew of “toxic masculinity”: it is “toxic” when it is forced on people, or demanded of people whose gifts are different; or if someone thinks he must be dominant or a sissy, and lashes out. It is toxic to the man as well as his victims. Yet masculinity can be fitting. We just need to enlarge our concepts of what a “man” is, or can be: and the generation after me are doing just that.

They supported each other, and they supported me. I talked with each person, at least glimpsed them, shared something with them. In Meeting for Worship on Sunday, at Chester meeting where we had been sleeping on the floor without showering, I was thinking of the Kingdom, of the beauty of each person in their place, their gifts and strengths valued and used, their vulnerabilities protected.

We wrote a draft values statement about trans issues, which we hope will be adopted (perhaps with modifications) by Young Friends’ General Meeting. We spoke deeply of trans issues, and I am inhibited: even to say whether there were trans or non-binary people there might reveal specific things about specific people. I feel valued and affirmed by the draft. I spoke of my experience, it was why I was there, and one asked if I had internalised transphobia. Oh, yes, I am filled with it, it has constricted my life and scarred me deeply. I second-guess and judge myself, and people pick up on my own discomfort and reflect it back to me, so that I feel more uneasy in my skin. So seeing people who do not suffer in that way is liberating. I feel that I understand better, and that the disputes of my generation are finding creative new solutions in theirs. The law needs to get beyond its rigid insistance that everyone must be one sex or the other, as being non-binary is real, and liberates people from stultifying boxes.

Would that we older friends were more blessed with the presence of young friends. We need their leadership and their understanding. The George Gorman lecture is a good start, and Chris Alton’s Swarthmore lecture showed off a beautiful Quaker man.

Your silence will not protect you

When I did not see myself, I felt alone; but now I see myself, I see myself everywhere.

When they bully you, they cut out a part of you. They so mock and deride it that you think it shameful, and try to hide it. You deny it is you. But everyone sees through your pitiful attempts, and knows how to reduce you to a quivering wreck: they point out that part of you that shames you. We are told by healers to be “vulnerable”, but we are no less vulnerable hiding the part that shames us. Hiding it, we have the work of hiding it, and we carry it for all to see.

I face my terror. I will not hide my shameful part any more. It is frightening not to, but trying to hide myself does not work. When I stop trying, my failure ceases to matter. When I fight myself it is a burden, but when I accept myself I find strength in what I denied, hated, sought to expunge.

When I am seen and accepted, I am enabled to see myself, in my power and beauty. We are told by healers to be “vulnerable”, but they mean, come into our power.

I read Audre Lorde, and feel accepted. When she writes of herself, I see parts of me within her, and am enabled to see their beauty. As a child, she wrote poems which expressed what she felt. Poetry was her language, to communicate to others. She had difficulty comprehending how other people thought- it seemed to be in a logical progression, but for her non-verbal communication was more important. Her feelings were chaos and confusion, anchored in poetry.

The words were deceit, misleading her because they misled the speaker. Still the human communicated, beside or alongside the words. “I used to practise trying to think,” she says. She could not learn without a teacher she liked, to feel the truth of what was taught rather than pick up facts.

The white fathers told us, I think therefore I am; and the black mothers in each of us-the poet-whispers in our dreams, I feel therefore I can be free.

Without her mother, she felt alone and worthless because only her mother could see her and accept her. I do not generalise from what she says to people of colour here, now, as she was in America, growing up in the ‘forties, writing in the ‘eighties, but it echoes what I feel, now: “White people [others] feel, Black people [her critics and mine] do.” White people have the luxury of feeling, in her world, but Black people had to just get on with the drudgery of mere survival.

I feel stung by the allegation that I do not Do. I ought first to Do, to earn, to produce, to support myself, before I can take time out to feel, but my feelings cry out to be heard and give me no quarter, they will not be silent until I hear them and honour them.

I feel more stung. Black women could not hear or see or love or accept or nurture or honour one another because they saw themselves in the other, she says. I am suspicious of trans women: Audre writes of the struggle, the need for Black women to confront and wade through the racist constructs underlying our deprivation of each other. When I see a trans woman, I see all the things I ought not to be, and I turn away in shame. I see her through a haze of transphobia; I see myself mirrored in her, and all that has been stolen from me, called shameful, all that I attempt futilely to hide, I see in her and therefore in me, and feel that imposed shame.

I am myself. I can be no other.

We are ourselves. We are beautiful, and when we see our beauty, when the mists of transphobia and bullying disperse, we come into our power.

Audre’s mother loved her, and showed her that, accepting her, nurturing her to be herself, then teaching her how to be herself in white america which never wanted her to even be alive. My mother loved me, but seeing herself as worthless could not accept me; she sought to force me into a mould so I might survive (even if only as an automaton) not knowing the mould would kill me. And yet I survived.

I feel seen. I read Audre, and she explains myself to me, and she validates and values and thereby nourishes and enriches me. I feel and therefore I can be free.

It ceases to be vulnerability when I accept those parts of myself that I sought to hide, and becomes dignity.

Now, I see myself everywhere. I see myself in the deep rich authentic feeling of my beautiful friend, in stories and portraits and cultural artifacts valuing cherishing and honouring people just like me, even in God who made me in God’s image, in all people who are part of me as I am part of them.

I am not alone.
I feel seen.

Baltimore welcomes trans people!

Baltimore Yearly Meeting has issued a statement in support of the civil and human rights of trans and non-binary people. They mean well, that’s part of the problem; but when something written about trans seems off, try replacing with “people of colour” to see why it is objectionable:

Baltimore Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) rejoices in the presence of transgender people [people of colour] in our midst including non-binary [mixed race] people. Our transgender members enrich our community and deepen our worship. We believe that there is that of God in everyone [even people of colour and trans folk] and everyone has gifts to bring to the world. Whenever anyone is excluded, God’s ability to work in our midst is diminished.

It should not need to be said. It makes me wonder if some Friends balked at it. If Quakers feel the need to state that I am welcome in their meeting, it shows that could be doubted: at best because trans people are generally wary of transphobia, at worst because we have experienced it among Baltimore Quakers. They may know this, so have chosen the words “rejoices in” rather than “welcomes”. This is just saying the same problematic thing, more effusively.

We commit ourselves to support transgender people in our meetings

Ah. There’s the issue. I want everyone supported in our meetings, to learn the full beauty of the Meeting for Worship. We welcome enquirers. Why would we need specifically to commit to supporting transgender people? Perhaps because Friends are best at welcoming people who look like them, and sound like them- in Britain, mostly though not all white, educated, prosperous. Everyone needs support, to learn what centring down means, what being moved means, but trans people might need additional support, to show that those who are unwelcoming are balanced out by the particular welcome by some. That is, this others trans people.

and the civil and human rights of our transgender members and all transgender people.

Yes. Because our civil and human rights are not recognised by some, including the US President.

We also commit to enlarging our understanding of the experience of being transgender.

Um. Well. No two trans people are alike, and no two have the same experience. The risk is that we are classed in one type, the trans people, who have to be welcomed and managed in a particular way. The “trans expert” of the YM might be called in, when one of us becomes particularly problematic. Yes I’m being a bitch. You’ve admitted you have had problems welcoming us in the past, so I am suspicious of you. I will hold you to what you say, and point out where you fall short of a proper welcome: for there is that of God in me, and my leadings and service are as valuable as the next Quaker’s.

No one should face discrimination in employment, housing, health care, or otherwise, or have their dignity assaulted and their human rights curtailed because of their gender identity.

Indeed. What are you doing to do about it? “There is an injustice,” you say: will you oppose it actively, with your time and resources, or be satisfied with merely pointing it out?

What would I want instead? What I say is affected by my understanding, that there is not a single group of trans people, to be distinguished from cis people who have no problems with gender. I use the term “non-binary” as a permission rather than a description of a particular group: when it is too much trouble to attempt passing as a woman, I say I am being non-binary. Others see these things differently. Here is my attempt at an inclusion statement:

We recognise that gender stereotypes are oppressive to many people, and that people are damaged by that oppression.

I am traumatised. That will make me behave oddly occasionally. I want all of me welcome, not just when I pass as normal. I tried to make a man of myself. I suppressed my feelings. I don’t mean that I want to be some sort of parasite on the Quaker meeting, which becomes a support group for me; I have responsibilities as well as rights; but I want to be safe enough to show my hurt, and be valued for my gifts.

We recognise that gender stereotypes have no place in God’s Kingdom, nor among Quakers, but that Quakers are infected with worldly standards of what it means to be masculine or feminine. We pledge to search out whatever in our lives may contain the fruits of those stereotypes.

That’s a reference to Britain YM’s Advices and Queries paragraph 31: Search out whatever in your own way of life may contain the seeds of war. I like religious language, but would not insist on it- only on the underlying sentiment.

Our aim is to welcome each person as a unique, precious child of God, without judgment or stereotype.

A&Q 22. All this is generalisable. People of colour are affected by racism. Disabled people are stereotyped, and many of their difficulties arise from a society made for a stereotype normal/healthy.

We recognise the right of all to escape or subvert those stereotypes in any way they choose, using whatever theory or belief most works for them: we welcome transgender, non-binary and gender-critical people and pledge to learn from them, to grow in mutual understanding and acceptance. We recognise that they are part of our community, like any other Quaker.

Advices and Queries 18: How can we make the meeting a community in which each person is accepted and nurtured, and strangers are welcome? Seek to know one another in the things which are eternal, bear the burden of each other’s failings and pray for one another. As we enter with tender sympathy into the joys and sorrows of each other’s lives, ready to give help and to receive it, our meeting can be a channel for God’s love and forgiveness.

As part of my research writing this post, I came across BYM’s statement on spiritual unity. BYM split in the 19th century, as many US meetings did; and in 1964 they came together. I find that beautiful. They did not minimise the difficulties, but found value in them: We usually find ourselves richer for our differences… From the stimulus of dissimilarity, new insights often arise. That can be true of all human diversity, not just religious disagreement.

This is my 2,500th post.

Heaven, Hell and Reality

I wrote that I am in Heaven and Hell. The beauty of the world overwhelms me. The threats I face terrify me.

CS Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce, The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why…the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven, and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.’

Lewis related Heaven and Hell to the afterlife, but also to acts and experiences in life. I treat them as metaphor. Hell is the pain I cannot bear, Heaven the delight that seems incredible or impossible. Not my acts, but the world that surrounds me, other people doing their thing which I might not influence. For Lewis, my own acts, in Love or meanness create my place.

What is the name of the golden mean between selfishness and self-abnegation?

What would it mean to take responsibility for my brokenness? Not denying it. My complete loss of confidence just stops me acting. I should do this, I say to myself, it is a simple thing, and I find myself not doing it.

I do not see others for what I can get out of them. Instead, I see them generally as implacable, unsatisfiable. So I do not act, not out of fear of failure but fear of destruction.

I might find simple things to start on, I will take just this one step, but find myself not doing it. Or, having done it, I think, well, that was nothing, no-one would have had any problem with that. I have difficulty assessing how difficult any particular act will be for me, because I have imbibed others’ judgments of what should be easy or difficult and my own different judgments have been suppressed.

Marlowe’s Mephistopheles said, Why this is hell, nor am I out of it. But then he goes on,
Think’st thou that I who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being depriv’d of everlasting bliss?

After Heaven, everything else is Hell. Of course he is a deceiver and predator, seeking to destroy Faust, possibly incapable of truth even to himself. One wonders what his experience of Heavenly bliss was, if he left it, or thought there could be something more.

What is Heaven, for me, here, now? Standing in front of art and relating to it, especially with my dear friend as our feelings and words together reach critical mass and explode. And feeling my pain, knowing my pain, for it is me and I will not deny any part of myself.

Audre Lorde, in her conversation with Adrienne Rich: One thread in my life is the battle to preserve my perceptions- pleasant or unpleasant, painful or whatever…
AR: And however much they were denied.
AL: And however painful some of them were. When I think of the way I courted punishment [throughout my life], just swam into it: ‘if this is the only way you’re going to deal with me, you’re going to have to deal with me this way.’

Heaven is acknowledging the feeling self I denied. Heaven is being a whole human. Not just delight, but also pain fully felt and owned. Or Heaven is freedom and Hell oppression.

Having habitually denied my feeling self, and got on with it, whatever the it of the time was, I don’t know how to be my doing self and feeling self both at once. It’s like having to carry two large bags of groceries without handles. I can embrace one and carry it, but if I try to embrace both things fall out the top and the bags slip through my arms.

And, I am in Reality. Heaven and hell are not future states, or even metaphors for possibilities now, but an expression of the range of my experience, of delight and terror. This world now is bigger than both, containing things more Heavenly and more Hellish than I can imagine.

So I will release my feeling self. I will permit myself to feel, and to experience the feeling, whatever the feeling is. I practise this in the Quaker meeting and in the Silence in my own ritual space at home. I am carrying her, or needing to learn to walk again, in a new way- but it is getting easier.

Why I am a Christian

Christianity is wonderful and beautiful. At its heart is Sacrament: regularly we meet with God and are loved and accepted. And Story: we are told myths which enrich us, such as: We are created in the image of God. Therefore we are

Loving
Creative
Powerful
Beautiful

The root of Christianity is the person of Jesus: a human being who is God. We are followers of Christ- the anointed one, his brothers and sisters, who tells us to be our full selves in our power, and act in Love. The Spirit is in us, and when we are our full selves, self-actualised and self-defined, we can shed the small person we learned we were, and follow the guidance of this indwelling Spirit.

Christianity is a Way, of becoming our best selves. Albert Einstein: Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison [of ego] by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. We are part of all that is.

Christianity also provides community. We are followers together. We can bring up immature persons, who want a clear framework of rules to regulate their own behaviour in order to feel safe. More mature Christians can give guidance, but we are all followers, all on the Way.

Christian spiritual practices can facilitate universal human spiritual experiences. In contemplative prayer or in the Quaker meeting we enter immediate communication, through our senses rather than through words. Art can give us this too: if I sit with an art work it communicates directly to my feeling self. We know we are a part of the Whole. We are not alone. I can experience this in nature, seeing a tree or a wild animal- this is why some people hug trees- and there are stories separate from Christianity expounding this, as in William Blake’s

see the world in a grain of sand
and Heaven in a wild flower

-there are other spiritual Ways to full humanity- but Christianity is my Way, the Way I have walked since childhood.

Through art, nature and my Quaker meeting I can be Opened to reality. The world is magical, more beautiful and real, and I am myself as God created me.

Christianity must Change or Die, wrote John Shelby Spong, Episcopal Bishop of Newark, and though I have not read that book I agree. Christianity is infected with exclusivity, the thought that only Christianity will do as the Way to God, even that those outside the Christian community are damned. Partly this can be dealt with through translation. Jesus said,

I Am is the way, the truth and the life. No-one can come to the Father except through I Am.

That is, it is through being ourselves as created by God, not attempting to conform to some set of rules drafted by men (non-inclusive language intentional, “the white fathers” is Audre Lorde’s phrase) that we are able to relate to God.

For too many people, Christianity is a belief system, so what we believe is more important than what we do or how we relate to each other. It is how we relate that matters, not believing impossible things. If a virgin giving birth is impossible, that should not be a barrier to being Christian. We can be gentle with each other- because relating is more important than believing- hearing others’ beliefs in a gentle spirit. For scientific enquiry, rigorous clear explanation may work; for religious truth, mystery and paradox fit better. Even for scientific enquiry, mystery and paradox may be inescapable: light is a wave, and a particle.

And Christianity is disfigured by too close a relationship with the apparatus of State power, as with the Emperor Constantine, President Putin wooing Patriarch Kirill, or the Queen as the head of the Church of England. Christianity has been a State ideology, enforcing obedience on the subjects. It must free itself from all such temptations. “My kingdom is not of this world.” That has made it emphasise personal morality, especially sexual morality which prevents us from connecting with our deepest selves, who are Free and powerful and feared as a threat to rulers and the powers of the world. Part of the reason I assert I am a Christian (rather than simply “on a spiritual path”) is to stand in the face of those who say you cannot be trans, or LGBT, and Christian.

My power is not a threat to the powers of the world, for it is a power of love and service; but overweening State power may feel it as a threat because it is independent. Over two thousand years, Christianity has held so much darkness, from arguments for enslaving Africans and supporting colonialism to oppressive power structures within individual parish churches; and yet at its best it is a Way for humans to reach our full potential in loving relationship.

“In my Father’s house are many rooms,” said Jesus, and Christianity at its best expands to fit what humans need. The Sea of Faith movement includes as Christians, even as priests, those who think God is metaphor rather than reality, and churches have always welcomed those who doubted the core beliefs yet wanted to remain in the community.