This is my body: Hearing the theology of transgender Christians edited by Christina Beardsley and Michelle O’Brien is a collection of contributions by people connected with the Christian trans group Sibyls.
The introduction to the book acknowledges the lack of voices from trans men and younger people. I think the lack of a voice from cis partners of trans people is also a loss in a book like this which is not exclusively trans, containing the voices of allies as well.
The book is a hybrid of academic articles and personal stories. This works to some extent, as does the decision to include all contributions to the stories, however brief. However, I do think that the disjuncture between academic or pseudo-academic articles and many of the stories is such that a book and a pamphlet would have been more helpful. Additionally a couple of the contributions are so brief one does wonder if it would have been more helpful not to include them if something more could not have been coaxed out of the writers.
The first main chapter by the editors talking about The Sybils Gender, Sexuality and Spirituality workshop was particularly strong. Within it there was interesting use of labelling theory and it’s bringing into focus of intersectionality.
The next chapter; Acting like a man-playing the woman: gender in performance which is solely authored by Beardsley uses historical analysis of theatre and performance in order to rebuff some of the assertions made by Oliver O’Donovan (a theologian whose work has put forward a range of unhelpful and incorrect notions regarding gender). This was one of the parts of the book which appealed to the social historian within me.
Jasmine Wooley put together a chapter on the social construct of gender which was useful in the way it explained the way that people’s understanding of being trans is often linked to their role as social actors. This is not to suggest that being trans is a choice, rather it highlights as the symbolic interactionists do the way in which we “perform” in relation to the “other” and form our identities around what is expected of us and the fears of what will happen if we deviate from that. Whilst the discussion around legislation was helpful and positive I was disappointed that the discussion of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act (2013) did not acknowledge the negative aspect of that legislation for trans people and their partners who are within a civil partnership. There was a really interesting short section towards the end of this chapter on the challenges presented by the medical model, I was disappointed this had not been slightly longer. However, the chapter covered a lot of ground.
Michelle O’Brien’s chapter on Intersex was particularly interesting and moving. It wove together personal testimony with research. This was the chapter I learnt most from.
This first part of the book for me was the strongest. The chapters became more academic as they moved onto the Theology and Trans chapters. Mercia McMahon sought to reflect on the way in which queer and feminist theologies can help in developing a trans theology.
Beardsley put together a second solely authored chapter which engaged with the Church of England document “Some Issues in Human Sexuality”. It was a useful update of an earlier article and was interesting in that it gave some of the background to where the current discussions are coming from. This was followed by a chapter looking at a group discussion on the issues within the paper on Issues in Human Sexuality. It ended with some useful recommendations for churches.
Section Three was Scientific and Other Perspectives. This part of the book was the one which I found most difficult to engage with, particularly as a non-scientist. The first chapter by Terry Reed of GIRES was interesting and I was able to follow it. It dealt particularly well with non-binary identity.
Then came Chris Dowd’s chapter Five things cis folk don’t know about Trans folk because it isn’t on trashy TV – my right of reply. Now, I have to admit a lot of my reaction to this chapter came from the persistent use of the word “folk” which annoys me.
Susan Gilchrist’s paper sought to mix history, science and theology in what was essentially a psychology paper. As a non-scientist I found it overly academic and the least helpful chapter within the first part of this book.
The second part of the book, as I say contained personal stories. The historical ones of these were enjoyable and informative. It was interesting reading these to reflect upon how they were from a particular generation and I did wonder how they would contrast with younger people’s stories had they been in there.
Cross dressing was discussed and I think the most interesting and useful was a self-interview with Elaine Sommers.
The saddest chapter came from well-known trans activist Helen Belcher whose story told of her move to atheism, in part as a result of the awful treatment she had received from the church.
These stories were the most important part of the book to me in many ways because they highlighted what bad practice in the church can look like, as well as what better practice is like. The stories of partners were also touched upon, although as I say I think it would be useful for them to have been told by the partners themselves.
So would I recommend the book? Yes, if you want to understand more about the experience about older trans people or if you want to explore some of the historical or theological issues involved. If you want a quicker and easier read that just tells you about somebody’s experience of being trans and Christian I would recommend Rachel Mann’s Dazzling Darkness.
This is my body: Hearing the theology of transgender Christians, (2016), Edited by Christina Beardsley and Michelle O’Brien is published by Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd.