Edited transcript of panel discussion recorded on 10 July 2020. You can view the discussion on YouTube.
I’m Chris Whitney-Cooper and I’m Chair of Gathering Voices.
Probably many people are wondering what on earth Gathering Voices is, because it’s new. It is a developing organization, and I suppose in a nutshell we are a group of LGBTQIA+ people and organizations that have come together in a collaboration, and that includes Open Table, Open Expression, Accepting Evangelicals, and the Evangelical Fellowship of Lesbian and Gay Christians.
Now that’s the core of us but actually we have joined with other groups quite a lot so we worked with Stonewall, we’re working hopefully with OneBodyOneFaith, and all of us are one wanting to support LGBTQIA+ Christians in a kind of safe space that provides an open conference where we can explore our faith as LGBTQIA+ Christians and that is really important. We’re all in a new unusual place at the moment. We’re all in our own environments which makes it difficult for us to put on a large gathering, so we cannot have our usual conference where we invite people to speak and everybody to meet together because of COVID and social distancing, so as a steering group we have decided to have this pre-conference discussion, and then we are going to have a half-day conference on the 17th of October: all being virtual so it is all new for us and a very different way of behaving, but hopefully that will be a safe space.
We will do something on YouTube that will be pre-recorded, and something on Zoom so that we can actually have an opportunity for people to meet and talk and share in that safe space.
The virtual conference is called ‘2020 Vision: Seeing more queerly – Breaking false binaries in gender and sexuality‘. A huge amount packed into a very small title.
I have a number of people with me who are going to help us unpack what some of that means and help us to think about it in preparation for the conference.
So I have with me Alex Clare-Young, Jide Macaulay, and Rachel Mann.
Really pleased that you are all here and really thank you for your time with us, but before we start exploring anything I would like you to just to say who you, are and something about where you come from in your own words.
So shall we start with Alex? Would you like to just come in and just say who you are and why you’re here?
I am Alex, my pronouns are they/them. I’m a trans masculine person, so I began to transition from female towards male around 10 years ago. I identify somewhere slightly masculine of centre and I’m a minister in the United Reformed Church. I minister mainly to an online church called Churspacious but I also work under the banner Transgender. Christian. Human. and in that work I offer pastoral support to trans people and their loved ones, and I provide some education and advocacy to schools and churches and communities as well, because lots of people want to know more and just don’t know where to start. I’m also doing some doctoral study into the theologies of trans Christians so if I get lots of different things about what different trans people think.
I’m married to Jo who’s also a minister. We live by the seaside. We love spending time in the water so that’s a bit of the other side of me.
Thank you, that is really appreciated.
Jide, could you tell us something about yourself?
Absolutely, thanks for having me on this discussion and programme. My name is Jide McCauley. I am the founder and CEO at House of Rainbow. House of Rainbow started 13 years ago because we found out that there was a gap in providing a theological need: a reflection of black African or black people who are LGBT and Christians. Our work has evolved beyond just that, so people of diverse faiths use our services and we’ve expanded those services to other areas of people’s needs. We continue with the work of reconciling faith and sexuality.
I’m also a deacon in the Anglican Church and by God’s grace I will be ordained priest this year.
And I’m also chaplain at the Mildmay Mission Hospital in central London. So there are a lot of hats that I wear, but I think that the reality is that there is still a lot of gaps in bridging sexuality and religion, particularly within the Christian community, and that is a big part of my work.
Thank you, I’m really pleased you’re here.
Rachel, would you like to talk to us about about your background?
Thank you Chris. Hello I’m Rachel Mann. I’m Church of England parish priest, an Area Dean. I’m a writer and poet, a theologian and broadcaster. I think I’m here because I’m really interested in queer theology.
I guess I’m a queer theologian, a feminist theologian. I’m a trans woman and I’m really passionate, not simply about the church making available inclusive space for queer people, but actually excited about how queer people, LGBTQIA+ people can be transformative presences within the church. So there is a sense in which reformation and re-creation happens, rather than simply us being tolerated or included, or even simply belonging; that we are people who, as bearers of the image of God and growing into the likeness of Christ, offer a transformative place where the church can be set free to be more in God’s image.
Thank you, that is really helpful.
I suppose I should declare my background a little bit. In my normal day job I am an academic. I work in a University and I’m a head of school managing nursing and midwifery. I am a lesbian woman and I’m married to Jane, and we’ve been married for as long as 16 years. I know that’s not as long as marriage has been about, but we were upgraded a few years ago.
I’m hoping all people here who have joined us to listen to the conversation will enjoy the discussion that we have. I’ve put together a couple of questions. They’re not meant to be constraining but to give us a basis to start, for each person to take a lead on on those. That doesn’t stop any of us providing some clarification or information that we think will help the conversation and help us to move on.
So the first question – the first part of the conference title is about ‘2020 Vision: Seeing more queerly’, and really the question we need to ask, and I’d like to ask Alex to start us off, is ‘Why do we need to see more queerly?‘ and I suppose another question is ‘Does visibility matter?‘. I don’t know whether whether you want to do those both together or one at a time, and I’ll leave that to you.
Those two questions kind of fit together to me. There’s a lot of debate about the word queer in the LGBTQIA+ community, but I really identify with the word queer, and if I’m talking about my sexuality that is the word I use. I don’t expect everyone to claim it for themselves – there are as many ways of being LGBTQIA+ as there are people. There are so many different ways of embodying and living out these identities. But I think that in a lot of places, equality is just about getting to the point where it’s okay to be in a same-sex relationship, or it’s okay to be trans, as long as you’re willing to act ‘normal’ and that for me is why queer visibility and being able to ‘see queerly’ is really important.
For some LGBTQIA+ people, being seen as ‘normal’ is really important, and perhaps is the central thing in equality. But for others, actually being different is really important – and being able to be seen as being different, and being able to be ourselves in religious spaces, and that’s where we haven’t quite got to yet.
So as a minister when I say I’m trans, churches usually say ‘So? it’s none of our business, we’re happy to have a trans person’, because they assume it’s a journey that I’ve finished. They don’t understand that actually it’s a part of who I am, and it’s going to continue to be a part of who I am and something that I want to talk about. If I show up in church wearing nail varnish, people are shocked because, ‘but you wanted to be a man. Don’t you just want to be a normal man?’
Actually, being queer is about questioning and challenging being normal. It’s about saying, ‘You know what? This word was used as a slur when being normal was seen as the way you had to be, and now we’re starting to say it’s okay to be different and that’s really important.’ And it’s not just important for LGBTQIA+ people, and I think that’s why visibility is really important.
I want all people in the world to be able to own that part of themselves that’s just a bit different from the norm, and to see that we can see God in that space. Actually, God is not normal – God reaches out to beyond the centre. God perhaps even has a special heart for the margins. God wants us to question things, God wants transformation. God is this big grace space that can’t just be held in the middle and for me that’s why seeing queerly is really important.
Some really interesting ideas there. I like the idea of us owning a name that’s been used as a slur, and to rethink it so that it becomes an important badge of honour, rather than a slur. That’s really exciting. I just want to ask Rachel or Jide did you want to come in and add to that? Yes, Rachel.
Just a very brief comment really, just to acknowledge that Alex’s words go to something reasonably deep within me. I belong to a generation of trans people, someone who transitioned when I was very early twenties back thirty years ago. In some ways we’ve had to learn, or I’ve had to learn – I’ll own that – new ways of talking about ourselves, because I think that the world in which I transitioned was one about ‘there is a destination and things stop, and all one wants to do is disappear or be “normal”‘ (in inverted commas), and it’s been a huge learning curve for me actually in the last ten years, and there’s a sense in which I’ve had to achieve a level of humility which isn’t natural for me, just in terms of understanding the confidence of the trans community, of the queer community. I just find it incredibly exciting, whereas I know some trans people of my generation panic I think in the face of the kind of richness of trans discourse now.
Yeah, for me I think it’s very important, and I think, Alex, when you started to talk about heteronormativity being seen as ‘normal’, I think this is one thing that I believe that has been forced on us in many places. As a black gay man of Nigerian descent, the idea of being gay has been said to me ‘un-African’ and ‘un-Christian’ at the same time. So we have to ask the question then what is ‘normal’ for me? I feel that we need to actually interrogate, we need to scrutinize the sacred texts and the sacred conversation, because too often people will say ‘But the Bible condemns it’. In that conversation, we need to challenge that conversation, because obviously for the past number of years, and particularly during this lockdown ,we’ve had a number of seminars where we are examining what the Bible says in favour of same-sex relationships. We want people to sit down and have that conversation: we want to look at the sacred text together, so that there is no misunderstanding about what is being said. And as many of you know, the favorite one is the God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of homosexuality.
So queering the Bible for myself, and for the community that I serve is very important. So we’re definitely moving that goal, and we’re trying to make sure that people within our own community, the people that we serve within our own faith communities, are also enriched by that understanding.
There’s also one thing I want to say before I pass back to Christine. I think that the reality is that with visibility also comes responsibility, and that is why we have to do well as queer theologians to make sure that we present the theology also accurately to the people listening to us. Otherwise we are not going to be able to take the word back, as dearly we want to.
Thank you. I must be honest, I agree. I think the word ‘normal’ comes with it some sort of grey colour, as opposed to the diversity, the colourful way, because even people who identify as being (and I use inverted commas) ‘normal’ often have a variety of identities and experiences that are not captured.
So I think it’s really great that we can open up the discussion, that we can talk about what it means to be, but what it means to be is not static. I love this idea of being on a journey, and I’d own that as well. My own faith journey, my own coming-out journey is still opening out, and I think that’s really exciting, and I think that’s what God’s about. God is about taking you on a journey, He’s not taking you to a destination – He’s taking you on a way to be who you are.
So Alex I think I think it’s kicked off really nicely. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we move on?
Just, I think perhaps accidentally we’ve kind of come with this binary between normal and queer people almost. I think I almost set that up accidentally, and some of what Rachel said really resonated to me. In my research interviews, I’m talking to all sorts of trans people, and quite a few trans people who would definitely identify as having transitioned and ‘that’s done’, and they are fully female or fully male. And the way I talk about my identity is initially quite threatening or difficult for them, but I think as we’ve had conversations they have found it helpful to be able to think about their identities in lots of different ways, and I think if we can find ways to love each other better and to be more open with each other, and to challenge each other without threatening each other, then the idea of seeing more queerly can help everyone – even those people who have had to build this identity as being very ‘normal’ or very normative, because we can help everyone to be able to explore bits of themselves and talk about bits of themselves that they’ve been forced to keep hidden. And that ‘forced hiddenness’ has really been hurtful for some people, and I think that’s something that the LGBTQIA+ community is having to wrestle with and having to help people to overcome that forced ‘normal’.
Thank you for that.
I’m just thinking that there’s so much we could talk about, we could stay here really but I’d like to move the conversation on a little bit.
The second part of our title is ‘Breaking false binaries’, which in itself is a challenging statement, so can I ask you, Rachel, what does ‘breaking false binaries‘ mean, and why is it important?
Thank you Chris. In one sense I feel that Alex has really taken us to the significance of why breaking false binaries matters. But I want to begin in a particular theological point because I think the theological point will help us see why breaking false binaries is not just a moment in an academic theology, but it’s about our very being as the people of God.
The theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid suggests that ‘queering theology is the path of God’s own liberation‘, and I think what she’s getting at there is that when we start to do something active – use ‘queer’ in the verb mode – that it’s something that’s undergoing, that we’re undergoing, that we are engaged in – both individually and in this community – what begins to happen is a breaking open of a whole set of binaries that – let’s be clear here – can seem fixed, are presented as if they are inscribed in tablets of stone brought down from the mountain, and actually I don’t think that there’s grounds for that level of absolutism.
It matters that we put pressure on binaries, because if we don’t then, as Alex has already beautifully brought out, we lose sight of the nuance of actual human experience. I’m yet to meet anyone who fulfills a kind of absolute extreme of one binary. I met people who claim that they do, but then actually when we unfold, we discover the nuance, the complexity, actually the riches and sometimes, horrifically, the shame that people feel because they can’t fit that binary because they think ‘Oh God, I should be this super straight guy, you know. This is what a Christian is: a super straight guy, super straight woman’, and actually discovering the riches and nuance, and it makes them feel afraid.
But this is about God actually, for me. If we are made in the image of God, called into the likeness of Christ, which I absolutely believe is at the heart of the Christian faith, then liberating God from false binaries is a recipe, is an opportunity, a place where we can discover the true riches of ourselves.
I’m going to finish by making what some people think is a very cheap point, but actually I think it’s a very quick way of getting to the point here. One of the extraordinary things about the Christian faith is the queerness of our God. This is a God who’s three, yet one. Queerness is inscribed in our God, and yet how often is he/she/they presented as this most reductionist version, and this plays into all sorts of discourses. This isn’t just about sexuality or gender identity: this is about the whiteness of God, or the classed nature of God, the middle-class-ness of God – so this breaking of the binary is not mere politics, though politics matters, this is about our deepest human realities.
Thank you very much Rachel. It really felt that I was in a Bible study class during a theological moment. I also totally agree with you. There is a culture that I’m familiar with within the black community. When a parent, a mother, is pregnant, there’s this tradition called ‘revealing the gender’ and this is when they have this coming together where they reveal the gender of the child. I think that has created a lot of conversation and debate within the queer community because when we reveal one gender, when the child then comes to know who they are and they say ‘I am NOT the gender that you revealed, I am a different gender’, that creates a lot of confusion.
I think that the other thing ( I’ll say this is within the black community especially), gender in a child is very part of the culture. I’m from the Yoruba culture, the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria, and having a male child is seen as the best thing even if you have ten female children, and that is very problematic.
Again when you look at the theology of gender, we then see that it is so unimportant that there’s a male or female gender – those binaries must constrain the child.
I’ve had to work with many families in Africa. There was one time in South Africa where I met with a group of mothers – we call them ‘queer mothers’ of Benoni (east of Soweto in South Africa) – and I think that is important to let the parents know that they’ve got children. They’ve got a gift from God, and the way that I often describe it is that God gives you a gift – these children are gifts, they come gift-wrapped – so when you open those gifts, those are the gifts of God.
I’ll close on this – there is the power of toxic masculinity at play, there is sexism at play, there is gender hierarchy at play, and I think these are the things that we need to try to work against, because they’re not helpful for the communities that we serve.
Thank you Jide. Alex, do you want to come in on that?
I think I might be echoing some of what’s being said, although I think that’s part of ‘seeing more queerly’ isn’t it, that we can actually take each other’s views and have a slightly different perspective and be able to play with those.
Like Rachel said, God’s done it, God’s done it over and over again. Our Bible is full of breaking false binaries, and if we can’t see that we’re struggling to be biblical at all. That’s something I have really struggled with in Christianity, that there seems to be this desire to see God as being one thing, who says and does one set of things, and that’s not what I see in the Bible.
I once had a spiritual director who said, ‘If people are harming you with the Bible, just stop reading it’. I did for a little while, because I thought that was quite important, and I needed a break frankly. I couldn’t read the Bible queerly because it had been hurting me.
So I put it in a drawer for a little while, and then I took it back out again and I read it. And what I was reading wasn’t what I’d been told it said, because I’d been told that God was male, that God set down a list of rules, and that the rest of the Bible explained how people follow them. And that’s actually just not what happens in the Bible. People keep trying to work out who God is, and trying to follow the rules that they think God set, and then it changes all over again. Jesus is the perfect example of that. They’ve got these rules about God being very far away and very distant, and God ‘transitions’ almost, into being human, to break that false binary between God and humanity. That happens over and over again, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t keep happening. But breaking false binaries should never just be about other people; it should never be about saying well those people are thinking in false binaries and I need to change their minds. It’s about each of us internally as well.
Rachel will know, because she knew me when I was very first starting to transition, but I had a very binary view of myself. I was very determined to be a man, and be a ‘normal’ man, which makes a lot of what I say today quite ironic. I was very determined, I was going to have all the surgeries, and no-one was ever going to know that I’d been trans. And almost the opposite has happened: I haven’t had all the surgeries, and I don’t identify as male, and I’m somewhere in the middle, and I love talking about being trans – and that’s because God, I think, has been able to break down some of the false binaries that I had in myself. And I think those false binaries are a protection against pain: when we are hurt we put these binaries in place, and perhaps that was what people were doing the Bible. They just escaped from Egypt’s oppression, for goodness sake. It’s not that surprising that they had to build a few walls, but I think God constantly works to break down those walls in us, and then uses us to help break down those walls in others as well. And I hope that those walls keep being broken down in me for my whole life. I don’t want to say I’m right now or I’ve got to where I need to go, because God’s bigger than me ,and I need to be open to God changing me even more.
Thank you Alex. Rachel, did you want to say anything in response to what you’ve heard, or shall we move on?
I think we can move on. I think I’m just really delighted by the nuance which Jide and Alex have brought to what I said. It’s amazing.
Yes, I’m feeling… I’m not sure what I’m feeling actually. I’m hearing some really interesting and challenging things which is going to make me go away and think about them differently, and hopefully will move me on in my own journey, so I hope for that.
But that aside, Jide, if we see more clearly and we think about breaking false binaries, how will this have an impact on our Christian experiences and Christian faith?
I’ve pondered over that question and I think that ‘seeing more queerly’ is about knowing the truth, and when you know the truth, the truth will set you free. A lot of the things that many of us have been taught were actually quite wrong, and I’ve always said this, every time I come to my Bible study class, ‘Queering the Bible’, I always say that if I have a 25 year old gay man that has been told all his life that he is an ‘abomination’, how many years will it take me, or anyone, to reverse the abuse over that person? And I would think, maybe another 25 years, because you have to unlearn the things that you’ve learned. And then I came up with a phrase: ‘We have to unwire to rewire’. I think that for me personally, I’ve been through this very journey myself. The Bible has always been there for me as a guide. When Alex was talking about the Bible – my professor, Mary Tolbert, at the end of my training at the Pacific School of Religion in California (the class of 2005), she said: ‘I present you with a Bible – you can now train or kill’. So the Bible was actually seen as a weapon, and is also seen as a source of liberation for many. But I think that to see more queerly is actually to come to a place of reconciliation, to begin to drop the scale of abuse and begin to put on the mantle of joy for who you are. One of my favorite psalms is ‘When the deer pants for the water my soul longs after you’. I love that psalm, because there’s something about it, because when you find the peace that you need, as a queer person you can’t wait to tell other people about it. And that’s one of the things that led me back to Nigeria to start House of Rainbow in a country that has colonial laws, that has punitive laws, that punish same-sex behaviour. Don’t ask me what I was thinking when I went to Nigeria, but I just know that the Holy Spirit was at work in that moment.
And I think that another thing, when you also think about seeing more queerly, when you look at, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement that we’ve seen in recent times, we’re also saying to the black community that black queer lives matter too. Because we are all facing the same issues: we’re facing racism, we’re facing homophobia, even within the black community. So there has to be a moment of awareness; there has to be this moment of enlightening of God’s grace over us. And to be quite honest, I have been criticized many times for saying that ‘G-A-Y’ means ‘God adores you’. I couldn’t think of anything more true, because God adores God’s queer children. God adores those who are suffering. God is always there. Romans chapter 9 verse 25 and 26 is one of those verses I love so much, because it starts by saying that ‘those who were not loved I call beloved’ and concludes by saying that ‘in the very place where it is said to them you are not my people, there they shall be called children of the Living God’. And when we talk about what queer people have been going through, this is very important for us to be able to examine and bring that message to the people. There is something also very interesting about this, and I think that we need to really hear God, we need to hear what the Holy Spirit is telling us today, and we also need a world that is more queerly accepting, particularly self-accepting, and I think this is the time – this conversation is timely for me and for many people, indeed for all of us.
Can I just say Jide, I love your passion, and I’ve loved what I’ve heard. We’re all smiling, so if any of us want to add anything, Rachel, Alex? That brings it quite well together actually, but is there anything you feel that we should just finish with?
I just want to say thank you, Jide. That was extraordinary, genuinely extraordinary, and I just I want things to rest there, really.
I absolutely agree. Can I just say thank you to all of you? You’ve given us a lot to think about. I love the things that you’ve said. I love the way it’s challenged me. I can only speak for myself, I’m hoping that it will bring that challenge to the people who watch this, and maybe start thinking about what that might look like in a conference setting, because we’ve only just touched on this at the moment, but there’s an opportunity to start thinking about that a little more deeply.
The only trouble with the conference, I suspect – at the end of it we’ll still want more. But that’s great – Leave us wanting more.
So for those people who are going to be watching this – if you’ve enjoyed this, I certainly have enjoyed this, the conference is going to be on the 17th of October, perhaps put that date in your diary. It’s going to be a half-day conference. This is new for us, but we’re going to do partial recording and partial Zoom so there’s going to be an opportunity for safe conversations so people can come together.
So I think you’ve got the conference title by now, but I’ll just remind you: ‘2020 Vision: Seeing more queerly – Breaking false binaries in gender and sexuality‘. The details of that are underneath the YouTube recording.
So that just leaves me to say goodbye to Alex, bye Alex nice to have seen you, bye to Rachel, and goodbye to Jide, and really thank you for all that you’ve talked about today, I’ve really enjoyed that. So I’ll just say goodbye to you, and goodbye from all of us, and we hope you can join us for the conference.
Thank you, goodbye.