This pride month I wanted to share my perspective on LGBT+ rights as a Christian. Alongside the support I receive, and the benefits of having someone in my corner it is the LGBT+ work that makes me so proud to be a part of Community – an organisation that understands my beliefs and also a union that proudly champions the rights of LGBT+ people.
I am the mother of a now adult transgender son and an ordained minister in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland. In large part, my journey to ordination was spurred on by a sense of calling to minister in this way and context. I also work as a volunteer for Focus: the Identity Trust. We represent transgender and intersex individuals and their families.
In the past decade, I have seen radical changes in the ways in which transgender identity is understood, but there is still a great deal of misunderstanding and prejudice.
Both before and since my ordination I have taken part many times in the Belfast Pride March. I have done so in the company of other ministers and lay Christians, representatives of my own and of many other denominations. At these marches, where I have been proud to march as an ally of the LGBT+ constituency of the wider community I have witnessed others turn their backs on the march as we pass and have heard amplified speeches in which we have been denounced.
In many respects, I understand the current debates about human sexuality and the church in a similar way to the reaction to the theory of evolution in the nineteenth century. I would even argue that, as our scientific and medical knowledge and understanding continue to develop, the current debates might be seen as a continuation of that very discourse.
For instance, with regard to the debate around whether there should be an intervention in the cases where a child is born intersex – with physical characteristics that are both male and female. Some believe that where a gender is not easily defined, medical professionals should make a therapeutic intervention.
At Focus: the Identity Trust, we disagree. Therapeutic intervention may be required, for instance to ensure a urinary tract that is fully functional, but interventions to ‘correct’ the gender identity of an intersex infant should in our opinion be disallowed. No decision should be taken until the person him or herself is ready for this. Inherent in this argument is the need to acknowledge that God created more than the binary distinction between male and female. This may present major challenges both social and, in some cases, theological.
Until a century ago, in some parts of Ireland little boys were still being dressed in skirts. The explanation often given for this is that it confused the ‘wee folk’ into thinking they were girls so that they would not be abducted by the fairies. However, the practice was much more widespread throughout all levels of society and was related to the practicalities of clothing infants. It suggests an attitude towards the gender identity of children that in the past was very different to our own. The message is a simple one, ‘things change’.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us ‘we can only be human together’. All of us, not some of us. He also remarks that we may be surprised at who we encounter in heaven. Perhaps even those who turn their backs on Christians marching for Pride. Or those on whom we ourselves may feel inclined to turn our own backs.
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