In April the Chaplaincy welcomed Jessica Lynn, a world-renowned transgender advocate and activist. Over the last several years she has crisscrossed the globe sharing the story of her journey, and is now internationally considered one of the foremost transgender speakers. She is noted for her dynamic, refreshingly honest speaking style and signature ask-me-anything Q&A sessions. Her expertise is increasingly recognised by educational and health institutions such as the University of Oxford, the National Institute for Health Research, the Kinsey Institute, Stonewall and the medical profession.
Jessica visited USW last year as part of LGBT+ History Month, and told the very moving and at times heart-breaking story of her experience as a trans woman and parent.
As a Chaplaincy, we are firmly committed to being partners with others in building a community in which gender and sexuality differences are welcomed as a normal feature of our common humanity and of society as a whole. We see this as part of the wonderful variety of God’s creation. Embracing diversity is a way in which we live out God’s care for all people, especially those who are marginalised. We felt that Jessica had something important to say, so we invited her to make a return visit.
Jessica gave a lunch-time workshop for staff on ways of increasing trans awareness in the University community, and at an open meeting in the evening she told her story. Once again, those who heard her were deeply impressed by her down-to-earth honesty and her open willingness to answer whatever questions were fired at her.
Jessica touched on many important issues but two things in particular struck a chord with me. She talked about how transgender people have a life like anyone else – they have their personal likes and dislikes, their relationships, hobbies and concerns. We need to see the whole person and not just someone who represents an issue. People can be too easily identified with their issue – so much so that their whole being is perceived as an issue. Our relationships with people who are transgender should be as broad and rich as they are with others. Indeed, embracing transgender people as part of the potpourri of human relationships and interactions, the significant and the mundane, is in the end the test of our inclusivity.
The second point that struck a chord with me was her concern, which she exemplifies so admirably in her own approach, that trans people need to be patient, and at times forgiving, with those who are ignorant of the whole trans agenda and process but curious about it. Of course a distinction needs to be made between those who have a natural curiosity and interest and those who use curiosity and ignorance as a cloak to inflict hurt and harm. However if curiosity can be harnessed as an opportunity for explanation and education then it may well be an important key to help unlock ignorance and the bigotry that often goes with it. For many people, understanding the complexity of the emerging gender identity phenomenon along with its plethora of definitions is challenging. To help meet this challenge the secret may well be in finding ways to encourage the curious in their curiosity while guarding against the purposefully offensive. This is easier said than done. Knowingly meeting a trans person, and perhaps even more so a non-binary person, is something quite outside many people’s experience. With the best will in the world, they may use the wrong vocabulary or ask inappropriate questions – or (which is more likely) they may avoid talking with them at all for fear of saying the wrong thing.
For trans or non-binary people, prickly contempt may well be justified as a response. After all why should we be understanding or generous in spirit when dealing with constant scrutiny and what can often can feel like intrusion? However, it may also be a counterproductive response. Quite apart from the case that could be made with regard to self-interest, there is also the self-evident issue that societies are constructed from complex relationships of customs and behaviours that must serve the whole as well as the individual. This means that we all, without exception, have to find ways of negotiating our place in the society of which we are a part. Of course there need to be safeguards for the most vulnerable and the marginalised and they must be protected from the tyranny of the majority held view. However, being prepared and willing to make our case in a way in which it can be heard and embraced by others is a responsibility that the marginalised share with everyone else.
This is true of all kinds of situations where there is discrimination. Gay men, lesbians, black people or people with disabilities can also be at the receiving end of inappropriate remarks or questions. We have to recognise that they sometimes come from hostility, but they can also come from ignorance or inexperience in otherwise well-meaning people. One of the key contributions minorities can make to the creation of an open and inclusive society is to take the risk of being vulnerable and open and patiently helping others to understand.
The Chaplaincy is committed to being an active participant in building a society that can live comfortably with difference and utilise it as its key resource. This principle is built into the ethos and policies of the University. However, there is a danger of being complacent. We can fall into the trap of thinking we understand the issues better than we actually do – this is why those of us who think we are most aware can still benefit from awareness training. We can also begin to assume that everybody thinks as we do. Either we associate only with like minded people, or those who do not agree feel they must stay silent for fear of being shot down. It is easy to be inclusive of people who are reasonable and tolerant people ‘like ourselves’. The real challenge is to include the excluders, but unless we find a way of doing this, or at least of relating constructively to them, there can never be a really inclusive society.
I hope these few thoughts will help to open up more opportunities for thoughtful and constructive conversation about the realities of living with differences and turning hurting into healing.