On not throwing stones at the late Revd Carol Stone

On not throwing stones at the late Revd Carol Stone

Christina Beardsley, a transgender Christian advocate and co-editor of ‘This is My Body: hearing the theology of transgender people’ is producing a transgender pastoral care manual with Chris Dowd due to be published by DLT in 2018.    

Like many trans people I am shocked by Dame Jenni Murray’s Sunday Times’ article ‘Be Trans, Be Proud – but don’t call yourself a “Real Woman”’ (Sunday 5th March 2016). It’s not simply that the content shows such poor insight into trans people’s actual experience. This is the work of a respected journalist, and the presenter of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, one of our national institutions. That someone of such eminence should purvey the views she holds – of which I and many others were unaware until this weekend – and in this particular format, is both unexpected and disturbing.

As the article reveals, over the years the author has interviewed various trans people. Perhaps she has interviewed trans men as well as trans women, but her focus is entirely on the latter, and on the basis of what she writes she seems to have learned very little about their lives. As often in the British media she concentrates on the point of transition. Her total lack of insight into gender variance is apparent in her sentence about a man claiming ‘to have become a woman’, a description that ignores the trans person’s experience of variance with their presumed gender. This particular remark is made with reference to the anger Dame Jenni felt when she learned of the late Revd Carol Stone’s transition, and this is where I find her article particularly reprehensible.

Carol died at the end of 2014, so she is unable to reply to Dame Jenni’s paragraphs about her, which portray her as frivolous – preoccupied with finding the right dress and whether she should wear make-up – and lacking in knowledge and awareness of the feminist agenda, particularly the political struggle that led to the ordination of women in the Church of England, of which Carol, as a trans woman was, by this point, in 2000, able to take advantage. Now it may be that Dame Jenni expressed the basis of her anger to Carol at the time or subsequently, but I for one feel uncomfortable about its post-mortem exposure, given that Carol is unable to respond to her interpretation.

Being interviewed on Woman’s Hour is hardly bound by the seal of the confessional, but there is a contract between an interviewer and their subject. Often they are people like Carol who would no doubt have preferred not to be interviewed about her transition, which, at the time at least, was presumably, though debatably, considered to be in the public interest. The person interviewed, especially if they are transitioning in the public eye, is usually under tremendous stress and pressure. Even though she knew that her job was safe, Carol was still concerned about how she would manage her return to the parish because, somewhat unusually, and contrary to the ‘real life experience’ protocol, the Church decided that she should briefly leave her parish to transition, leaving her with the prospect of returning to it as Carol. No wonder she was concerned about how she would present to her parishioners.

Carol and I were ordinands at the same theological college in the mid-1970s. Neither of us knew that the other was transgender at that time, but when we transitioned, and I followed the next year, in 2001, it created a bond between us. I didn’t know Carol well. I do know though that, unlike me, she was relatively a-political when it came to transgender inclusion, but who can blame her when one considers the high profile nature of her transition. Carol’s concern about appearing her best for her parishioners is entirely understandable when one considers that she was (and is so far the only) parish priest in the Church of England to have transitioned in post. She had almost a hundred per cent support from her congregation, and it is no surprise that she was so concerned to put her parishioners first. She also died in post.

There is also something unpleasant about Dame Jenni’s attempt to drive a wedge between Carol – so guilty, it is claimed, of exercising male privilege prior to her transition – and ordained women, when I know from Carol herself that her desire to remain a-political in relation to trans people was linked to her gratitude to the women of her diocese for the manner in which they had welcomed her into their networks. Of course they did: they were pastors, and empathised with Carol’s gender variance which had led to her transition. They would also have appreciated the difficulties Carol must have experienced as a gender variant person growing up and ministering in a religious institution that can be not only conservative but misogynistic. The lack of sympathy for Carol’s journey in Dame Jenni’s piece is concerning.

It is also very troubling that Dame Jenni uses Carol’s former name, usually referred to as dead naming. A key aspect of transition is changing one’s name to another that better matches one’s gender identity. The legal document entails the renunciation of one’s previous name. Continuing to use the former name is undermining of one’s transition, but many articles about Carol do this, perhaps because her transition took place before press guidance on transgender people was put in place, but that is no excuse for repeating what is now considered malpractice. Furthermore, and it may be that Dame Jenni had no control over this, these paragraphs are illustrated by ‘before and after’ photographs of Carol, with the extremely disrespectful caption ‘Goodbye from Hymn’. It is extraordinary to find such faux jokiness, which serves to make trans women a figure of fun, in a leading Sunday newspaper, post Leveson.

I don’t have a problem with Dame Jenni’s point that trans women’s experience can be different from that of many other women, or that male socialisation can still affect their attitudes, just as female socialisation can influence trans men’s outlooks. What I do object to is her claim that trans women are somehow lesser women, or worse, less than other women, especially as I have always believed that the main point of feminism was that we are to be judged, not according to our gender, but on our merits. If the problem is patriarchy, why lump trans women with it, when other women have certainly bought into it at times, and trans women are just as likely to have suffered from it as their sisters, albeit in different ways? If feminism is the quest for gender equality, why insist there is a female hierarchy of ‘real’, ‘not so real’ or even ‘unreal’ women?

My main objection to this article, however, its lack of understanding of trans people’s experience. Prior to undertaking his research on trans people’s spirituality, my friend and collaborator, the Revd Dr Chris Dowd, had assumed that some trans people must have lived in two genders, pre- and post- transition, as Dame Jenni appears to do. The evidence he found was rather different: prior to transition, trans people don’t actually experience their pre-transition gender in the ways those who are not gender variant do. That’s the fundamental difference between those who are transgender and those who are not. Many people get that, but sadly some, regardless of their impeccable feminist credentials, do not.