Being an activist

Does being trans make you an activist? The time comes when you realise, it is OK to be me, just as I am. Then all the messages that it is not OK become toxic monstrosities, and you take up your sword against them. Or, perhaps, you transition, and carry on making your life.

The problem with being an activist is the people who aren’t. Here I am, the Truth hot within me to be proclaimed and defended, and there are they, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes bemused, sometimes wishing I would give it a rest. It does not stir their hearts as it does mine.

And I see other activists for other activisms. The woman tells me that by patriarchy men are to her like white people to black people, in a time when to say Black Lives Matter is to challenge, because for too many people black lives do not matter enough, if at all. She is oppressed. I could sympathise except she says that she is oppressed by me, and trans women are perverts who get sexually aroused by fooling others into imagining we are women. I cannot be an ally, only a persecutor. Then I see that activism may be wrong, rejecting allies and chasing irrelevancies, putting off the allies we need so making the struggle more difficult.

The Friend, the Quaker magazine, has an article this week enthusing about Greenbelt, and one by Symon Hill criticising it. If you expect the Guardian – or Greenbelt – to be a voice of the radical grassroots, to meaningfully include the excluded, or to be run as a workers’ cooperative, you’re going to be disappointed. They both broadly accept capitalist assumptions and are compromised by being large commercial institutions. They are liberal, not radical. He is glad that gay couples can hold hands there- queers are celebrated, where elsewhere in the church toleration is often too much to ask- but angry at the wickedness of the Government in cutting away support for disabled people and thereby making Britain a less civilised country, and angry that this was not highlighted at Greenbelt during the focus on disability. The Government deliberately undermines our social fabric, and Greenbelt should resist that. I sympathise- I fear the benefits snatchers. I have a personal stake.

He wrote a similar article for the Morning Star, removing references to Quakers and including references to Communists.

I was at the Greenbelt session when someone said the police should be abolished. They are always there to preserve the status quo, to prevent demonstrations changing anything, to protect property rights, to move on homeless people. I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting- why?” I don’t actually agree, because I think public order and its preservation are important, and that we can change things through democratic politics. People will see that selling arms to kill people in Yemen is criminal. We may by opposing end it. There were people there who strongly objected to such views being expressed there. I had not considered the idea before. I feel without the police, strong capitalist forces would find more brutal ways of defending themselves.

At the festival, there are a range of views. I am not dismissing the idea immediately. Someone who is angry that it even be voiced is still exposed to it. There is a mix of people, talking to each other. It’s a church festival. There might be someone there who thinks themselves wildly liberal for being willing to tolerate queers, but a bit uncomfortable seeing people holding hands. If you build coalitions and gain support, you have to have a place where activists can meet with people who have not really thought about it, might be open to some of our least radical ideas. Our choice is between ideological purity- being right, and being agreed with- or achieving change. Though it is restorative to spend time with activists, you have to work with others to make a difference.

Femme jealousy

Alicia’s jealousy was pure paranoia. Yes, I am quite sure of that. Of course I have interests in common with Liz, which Alicia does not seem to share, and in our first conversation round the fire toasting marshmallows we shared about them while Alicia was silent. I noted how Liz’s girlfriend was much younger, and very attractive, as a positive for Liz. I found her thought inspiring.

Next morning, I watched Alicia painstakingly groom her highlights.
-Are you laughing at me?
-How could someone as ridiculous as I am laugh at anyone? I asked. Sometimes my humility comes across as sarcasm. She did not know how to respond to that one.
-How long did you stay after we left? asked Liz.
-I had just said “I love you” to a man I had just met. I scarpered immediately!

He had apologised for his poor English, and I said, to reassure him, that I know no Persian. Say “دوستت دارم“, he said. I repeated it as best I could, then asked what it meant.

That night, round the fire again, Alicia talked with an American man about American cities they had both lived in, a subject giving me no entrée. I did not say I have not been West of Reykjavik. My last sight of them was them walking hand in hand down the quiet, peaceful path from the festival site. Liz smiled broadly and greeted me. Alicia didn’t- even though they will go back to New York at the weekend together.

I noted with interest that they live in different boroughs. Continue reading

The men’s sharing circle

I went to the Grove, where there are thick logs to sit on and drums to play. The man leading the group says this group is for Men, but I say my Y chromosome is as good as anyone’s, and he ceases to object. I am in my purple dress, pretty sandals, wig and make-up; I am not trying to fit in.

There are not enough drums, so I pick up a washing up bowl and try hitting it with the flat of my fingers. Not loud enough. I use a dry twig, which makes a more satisfying sound, and drum off beat, or attempt a slower beat so that my strokes sometimes are just after the others’ beats, sometimes just before. It is a way into the silence with others, just listening to the beats of all and making my own. Sometimes I am investigating different noises the bowl can make, sometimes thinking about my strokes, sometimes just in the group activity, mixing beats. The Grove is beautiful.

I cannot fit into roles defined by others. They imprison, squeeze, constrict, suffocate me. I have to carve my own role, breaking rules, being inconsistent, selfish- at best spontaneous and creative, at worst like a toddler screaming all the louder because he has just received what he was crying for a moment ago. I have to make a lot of mistakes to get one thing right.

The group leader, a big man with a strong baritone voice begins to speak, and I could almost lose what he was saying in the incantatory repetition of the word Men… Men… Men… Their group is based on the ideas of Richard Rohr, and leads Rites of Passage workshops.

We split into two groups, nine in each, and share. Our two questions are, why we are here, and what is our darkness. The rules are to speak from the heart, and listen from the heart- not to spend time while others are speaking planning what I will say, but to pay attention to the other Men in the circle; then to speak spontaneously. This gets easier as I age: I have practice, and I care less about how I appear and more about truth. I have space to observe others. Of course what they said is confidential.  I want to honour my femininity as a male way of being, to flit between the Man and Woman in myself, and unite them, and to expand my expression, my understanding, and my options. I don’t say all this there, I say it now.

What is your darkness? My darkness is a tiger, pacing angrily in a too small cage. The image came to me then, spontaneously as I spoke it. In the right places, letting go of the inner censor can produce wisdom. My darkness, the parts of myself I cannot permit, are power and strength which I can use if only I can open that cage. The tiger seems frightening, and is untrained, but holding the cage shut takes effort I could use elsewhere.

I do not want to disrupt this Men’s group, but to contribute to it. I come not to mock but to affirm, to speak truth as best I can, to state positive, good, opportunity, reality rather than the Bad. Rohr preaches on Noah’s Ark- God invited everything in, clean and unclean, predator and prey, male and female, and locked it in together. I used to think it was about balancing all the opposites within me, but slowly I have learned that it is actually “holding” things in their seemingly unreconciled state that widens and deepens the soul. And if I am here, listening and speaking, I am a threat and a promise to the group, just as I am in the Red Tent, just as every group member is.

The Red Tent

The Greenbelt women’s space is for all who identify as women. I asked permission to enter, and was welcomed, at least officially. For the opening session, they ask us what we want from women’s space. I say I want to explore the tension between the femininity I choose to express, and the womanhood of most people here.

The name “Red Tent” is not particularly welcoming for trans women. Of course it refers to menstruation; a woman asked if it were linked to the Red Hat, but that is separate, named from Jenny Joseph’s poem. The Red Tent creates a space for us to honor our blood cycles and womanhood journeys. Yet there is no objection to me here. That could be a legal thing, I cannot think it would be a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim” to exclude me. Others wanted to discuss The Handmaid’s Tale, and time is set aside. And given that reproductive physiology is such a huge part of most people’s experience, it is reasonable to make it a defining matter for women’s space.

We hear that some men object to there being a space solely for women. Ribald catcalling ensues. We can tell them there is a Men’s Journey group at 11am on Saturday, and 11pm on Sunday. Later, I saw notices up about this in the Red Tent: a feminine taking care of others’ feelings, while asserting their rights.

I went off to eat, and as I ate a woman sidled up to me. “It was brave of you to speak like that,” she said. I don’t think it brave, myself. I was participating. There is no point in being there otherwise. She said she knew someone who transitioned, and “he” said (I am fairly clear she means AMAB) “he had transitioned with a small T not a capital T”. I get what she means. There is no good way of asking that question, but this sidling round it is horrible. I don’t answer, but don’t ask if that should make a difference to the Red Tent. It’s not as if we were getting undressed. We ate together, then went for a drink, and talked more. I insisted on buying my own. I would not accept a drink from her.

After that, I had to go back to the Red Tent. I would not be chased away. We are in small groups discussing, and a younger woman talks of children learning of sex through porn, and sex education being solely biological, mechanical, rather than about relationships, or even about pleasure given and received. An older woman talks of being a minister, and having her leadership subtly disrespected. Where a male minister would be “charming” she is read as “flirtatious”. She wondered about mentoring younger women in similar roles. Two black women talked of more content here to attract black people. Then all my group but me left, and I was left sitting in the middle of the floor, with everyone else round the sides. I felt a bit exposed, but fed back to the larger group what they had talked about. A minister in another group gave her take on the matter, as clearly I had not understood.

-Oh, and we talked about sex. (laughter).
-Did any group not talk about sex?

It’s evening, and getting colder, so I put on my tights, then walk out.

Greenbelt glamping

I was on the stage at Greenbelt last Saturday night. It was the Hothouse debate: Is gender bendable or fixed forever? An intergenerational conversation hoping to dismantle the potential otherness of trans experience on a personal level; exploring how church communities can better welcome trans people; and wondering how trans experience might be more fully integrated into the church’s conversations on human sexuality, so obsessed with same sex relationships.

This isn’t the magnum opus, which will be published in Quaker Voices in November. Some day, I may get paid for writing.

Being an Artist, with a bright yellow Artist wristband, I put up my tent in the Artists’ Glamping. At the bottom end of the field there were pre-erected tents each with rugs, two beds with sheets rather than sleeping bags, and a lamp on a table. Clare and I went over to peek in then got embarrassed when we could not zip up the door again. There was a fence around, three slightly pleasanter portaloos, and a gateway-marquee with tables, chairs, mirrors, hairdryers and tongs, and women checking the wristbands. They did not know to let me in at first, but I phoned the programme manager who said it was OK. Then two volunteers, topless in the sun, helped me put my tent up. It has two rooms and I took a clothes rail. One of them assured me that young people are completely accepting of trans- it had come up, because I said what my talk was, but I wish it did not need saying.

Clare is with Stand-up Christology, which shows comedians and theologians talking of the same issues, and was in a panel discussion to push religion, politics and comedy to the absolute limits. She had her own tent too, but a “two person” one. As the sun bore down on Friday we sat in the coffee tent by the urn and the fridge, in the small amount of shade, chatting. A woman came round and said next year they might have some shaded space like that for socialising. Then I went off to help put up the Quaker stall in the groups fair. I tied balloons to string to make a frond across the top of the opening.

Paul, professor of engineering geology, apologised for his tent being so close to mine, put up by his teenage son, who sat in the entrance absorbed in video on his phone. He was doing a talk in the Grove on “what the Bible teaches about the role of soil in our lives”. That makes sense- he had an Evangelical feel, that careful precise intellectual understanding. “What information do you want your audience to take away?” he asked, and I felt a fool- er, dunno- only later I put it into words. It’s not information but feeling. I wanted them to see my humanity. He understood- he is not a robot- but his first way of being is in concepts and intellectual expression.

Music appreciation

Is classical music better than popular music?

Bach’s cello suites were almost forgotten when the teenage Pablo Casals found the score in a second hand music shop in the 1880s. I heard them as a teenager, when my father played a recording: I could not bear to listen to them. The repeating patterns put me into confused boredom. I begged him to turn it off, and he refused: he inculcated in me the idea that high culture might not be immediately accessible, but was worth the effort of engaging, and because of his effort I enjoy the Bartok string quartets. Who could not, after similar effort to understand their ways of communicating? Their range of emotion and animal energy is mesmerising.

It took a genius to recognise and communicate the wonder of those cello suites, and now millions know them. Here is Yo Yo Ma at the Proms- I paused the concert to write this post. Learning the Sonata in C Minor (Pathétique) was worth the time, more than a month, that it took me, and playing it in my teens helped me access emotional states I could access no other way. I cannot play it now.

This is a class issue. I am cultured and educated, and I like Opera, Greek tragedy, and classical music. I met a woman in the railway station waiting room who was going to the Duran Duran reunion concert. She had been to the opera, and enjoyed it, but felt more comfortable with Duran Duran. I loved the City of London Chamber Orchestra concert, it was in no sense me doing the conventional thing, and I needed to pay attention. It involved effort.

The only full set I heard at Greenbelt was Kiran Ahluwalia. The programme reinforces that this is Culture: rooted in Sufi mysticism, transcending her training in traditional ghazal. What I saw was a glorious stage presence supported by technically skilled yet mostly self-effacing musicians. She was utterly girly-feminine singing of ankle-bells- you must walk with modesty, or you will get envious glances and condemning remarks- dancing round the stage, communicating her delight instantly to me. There was a long Tabla solo, which I am sure connoisseurs would appreciate, though I only noticed it was fast. I loved her.

For so long I have held myself apart, and one of the ways we as a family held ourselves apart was a strong active disapproval of popular music, which has reduced my enjoyment and inhibited my communicating with other people. Better to see the value in it. Like this:

That was the song which showed me that a pop song could be made around one brilliant line- who is she, what is her situation? Does she delude herself?- and a great deal of padding. Now, I could expatiate on the contrast between the rigid structure of the beat, simple harmony, bubble-gum pop vocal style, and the yearning in it. Very British to have emotion so held. Yet I do not need much, this week, to move me to tears.

Bouguereau, the Birth of Venus


roll up screenWe got into the tent on Thursday, before almost everyone, and had a choice of where we would have our stall. We chose to have it by the main entrance: the first thing you would see would be us. We had thousands of leaflets in lots of boxes, far more than we could possibly need, which filled all the space below the table and were heavy to shift. At the end, we took most of them back.

We had two roll-up screens, like the one illustrated, about 7′ high. We put them up, to see what they would look like and get an idea of where to place them. At that moment, a freak gust of wind blew in, blowing them over, twisting the bases and bending the feet. They still work but don’t look as good.

I said this to Andrew, whose instant response was “Why were they erected?” Well, for good reason which you insult me by doubting. I don’t answer to you. “To see what they looked like and where they should go,” I said.

I awoke at 5am, and this became intensely important to me. We must move the stand, or the wind could be a constant problem. I needed to agree this with the organisers, then I needed help to shift all those boxes. I could not bear to speak to Andrew about this, either to get him to see that it was necessary and possible- he would not trust my judgment, and would question pointlessly. I spoke to Jess, and we had a few people shifting the stuff later that morning.

I had not known it was a freak gust of wind at the time, but there was no wind remotely like it, at the entrance or at the back where we ended up- by the open fire exit.

It did mean that I often took a short-cut marked “authorised persons only”. I do so love being an “authorised person”!

So much Wangst, resulting in faffing! Everything would have been fine without all the worry and Action.

Andrew had produced information packs for all our volunteers including a rubber wristband inscribed “Live adventurously”. (This is the best slogan from Advices and Queries: A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength is equally Wise, but less memorable.) His screed began, “After you’ve attached your wristband please take a moment to read the following information”. My instant response was, I’m not wearing that! I am quite happy to wear it until I am instructed to. DON’T FUCKING TELL ME WHAT TO DO!! The same envelope held an A5 sheet of “Conversation hints”, including that one might ask, “What’s your name?” or “Where are you from?” DON’T FUCKING PATRONISE ME!! I was particularly irritated that he should produce these without consulting us: we were organising our volunteers, after all. Our response was to bury the information packs below other useless, heavy stuff. I brought one home, so I could quote it in complaints to you. He included the false information that we could shower daily without queueing, whereas the queues were up to 90 minutes.

It was alright in the end. Most of the worry had no effect whatsoever apart from increasing the work. This may be a useful lesson.


At Greenbelt, I met an angel. That is the only way I have to describe her.

She is ordained as an Anglican priest, and is without a parish, working as a prison chaplain. She is a channel for the love of God to the men in her care. We agreed how there is spiritual reality, but the words we use to describe it often just get in the way: the church quarrels and faffs about the precise words used, but the things described circle but do not touch the spiritual reality beyond. So we shed our illusions, and see reality for ourselves, and might be able to share our experience with others who have had them too; but it is so difficult with those yet to have them.

The other prison chaplain gives clear guidance, which a man who has suffered a chaotic lifestyle may value. One of their parishioners became a Born-Again Christian, clear that the Bible might be known and give a clear understanding of God’s will for human living. One of the easiest ways of reaching a state of mindfulness or presence is to be submerged in beauty- Heaven in a wild flower, as Blake saw. However there is little immediately recognisable beauty in a prison. You may see beauty in a rusting table-leg, but it helps to see it in a tree first.

She gave him a copy of Brian Cox’s book Wonders of the Universe. Then she saw him again, and he had got it: he had seen the beauty in that book. Writing, now, I am aware that my words give a facile, misleading account of the experience. She was sharing with me one of her delights, one of her successes, in a job where she must have great dollops of yuck; slow progress or apparent sterile stasis for damaged men. I believe this man has a more complex understanding of how reality is, beyond the certainties of the conservative Evangelical. I have the advantage of having looked into her face as she told of it.

I felt her love as she told me, and showed my love to her. We hugged. Before, I had given her Advices and Queries, and declaimed from it.

I was outside the tent around 11.30 when a thick cloud, moving fast across the sky, which had been between us and the moon suddenly wasn’t, leaving a patch of clearness. It was as if the light had suddenly been switched on. I saw Terry clearly, and his clear shadow.

Luca Giordano, Youth tempted by the Vices

The bishop

Bishops seem to like to talk to me. As is my duty, I am walking back to the field, quite exhausted, wishing I was a simpler life-form in a simpler world- though nothing has it easy. I want to mitigate my misery. It is not exactly a state of Presence I desire: I want, rather, to be Open to the beauty around me and forget my feelings. Block them out.

At the point where you see the water stretching far ahead, I catch the eye of the bishop. I might have looked needy, or interesting- I don’t know why we stopped. I note his purple shirt. “You’re a bishop,” I say, and he admits it.

I tell him I loved his stall. Just before we opened, I had a shoulder and hand massage there. All weekend, he has not been able to have a shoulder massage: always, when he has wanted one, someone else has come to the stall. I thought he should have pulled rank.

I’m with the Quakers. I crack my Gilbert and Sullivan joke: Bow, Bow, to the Area Meeting Clerk. He does not like people showing undue respect. There is very little ring-kissing, thank God, but some people seem to like bowing and scraping to The Bishop. I suppose they are associating with The Bishop, and to make themselves more important in this they must big him up. He does not like hierarchy.

Particularly he hates the order of precedence. Debrett’s would tell you that, I think. He thinks some people are sad enough to be able to tell you.

Bishops process into church in a particular order. First come the foreign bishops: so according to the order of precedence, they are all more junior than the most junior English bishop. The Archbishop of Cape Town processes in before the most junior Suffragan- which may, at one time, have been John Holbrook. Then after the most senior Suffragan comes the most junior diocesan bishop: so a man who has been Suffragan for ten years might be followed by the man who got the job he wanted, heaping burning coals upon his head.

He does not know why the Bishop brings up the rear in the procession. I think it has something to do with ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ This cheers him slightly.

I have had some wonderful conversations on the stall. I met a woman of 23 who had in the past idolised her pastor, but now was questioning: she judged the pastor, and judged for herself. I thought that meant she was meeting her development milestones. John Holbrook thought she might be a little backward- though I was not at that mature stage aged 23. I wanted a guide, not equality.

I loved this encounter with him. I am so glad that we were open to stopping. Greenbelt has opened me, opened us.

Luca Giordano, Diana and Endymion