A Critique of ‘Transformed’ 1

Whose stories?

Back in November, the Evangelical Alliance released a report called Transformed:  A brief biblical and pastoral introduction to understanding transgender in a changing culture; it is available for download from their website. The lead author was Peter Lynas, though others also contributed.[1]

I am going to argue across several posts that it is in various ways a bad report. And I will argue that not just because I disagree with its arguments and its conclusions (though I certainly do disagree with them), but because I judge that it fails on its own terms. That is: in various ways, this report tells you what to expect from a good answer to the questions it is tackling, and then it fails – quite dramatically – to give an answer that meets those expectations. It fails to do what it says on the tin.

That does mean that in most of what follows, I’ll be working with the report’s language and arguments, rather than using my own. Left to my own devices, I would want to approach the whole topic very differently.

‘We must start by listening to their stories’

The report begins with a quotation: ‘If you have met one transgender person you have met one transgender person. No two experiences are the same’ (p.5). (It’s a quotation from ‘a participant in a conversation conducted by the author with a transgender support group’). The introduction then stresses that readers should keep clearly in mind the people whose lives are being spoken about, and face them with love, compassion, and welcome. Later (p. 13), the need to offer trans people a pastorally sensitive welcome in church is stressed again; later still (p. 17), we are reminded of the need to meet the people involved ‘where they are at’. In the conclusion, we are told that ‘It is necessary for each of us as individuals and part of gathered communities to understand, love and relate to transgender people’, and that ‘If we want to understand those who are wrestling with gender dysphoria, we must start by listening to their stories’ (p. 29, emphasis mine).

I think we can, then, fairly ask whether this report lives up to this. Is it written in such a way that it will help readers understand some of the diverse stories of transgender people – to understand what it is like for them, what their journeys have been like, and why they have chosen the courses that they have followed? I think we can fairly – holding the report to the standard it sets for itself – expect it to be written in such a way that a wide range of transgender people might recognise themselves in its pages. I don’t mean that the report needs to come to conclusions that all trans readers would agree with, but that it should be a report that helps all its readers understand and relate lovingly and attentively to people with a wide range of transgender experience.

That, then, is the first and main lens with which I’m going to read this report – because it is a standard that the report sets for itself.[2]

Tim’s story

One story is told in detail, and it is told right at the start of the main body of the report. It is Tim’s story (pp. 6–7) – the story of how Tim reacted when his dad, who had previously been known as Stephen, transitioned to become Stephanie. Now, to get a rich picture of how people are affected by transgender experience, it is certainly important to hear a wide range of people’s stories, including the stories of family members of trans people, stories where some of the outcomes of transitioning for the transgender person involved are ambivalent or negative, and stories where the reactions of those around them are difficult. Those are amongst the pastoral realities to which churches will need to respond in attentive and compassionate ways. This, however, is the only story that we are told in detail in this report, and it is the story that gets to frame the whole argument. In emotionally powerful ways, it sets the tone and the terms for the whole of the rest of the discussion. It is worth asking, therefore, what kind of framing this story gives to the report’s argument.

The first and simplest thing to notice is that this is a relentlessly negative story. It is a story in which the transgender person’s transition breaks relationships: the relationship between Stephanie and her children has clearly been damaged; the relationship between Stephanie and her wife of many years is broken; we are told that Stephanie has lost touch with all her old friends. We are told that ‘Nothing has changed’ for Stephanie (p. 7) – meaning, I think, that transition has (in Tim’s view) resolved none of the problems that led Stephanie to it. We are told, in Tim’s words, that Stephanie’s transition was ‘self-harm at the highest level’. A story has been chosen to frame this report that paints a relentlessly bleak picture of trans experience – and in the absence of any other story, this gets to be the whole story.[3]

The second thing to notice is that Stephanie doesn’t get to appear in her own right. We are (as the title suggests) being told Tim’s story, and we are given fairly extensive quotations in Tim’s own words. We are given some of Tim’s mum’s own words. We don’t, however, get to hear Stephanie. There is not a single word of direct speech from Stephanie, and it is unclear whether the small amounts of reported speech that we get come from the authors’ conversations with her, or whether they are mediated through Tim. We don’t get to know in any serious way how Stephanie would tell her story; we only know how that story is told by other people. That is reinforced by other details, like the fact that it is Tim’s choice of pronouns for Stephanie (‘he’ and ‘him’) that are used throughout, not Stephanie’s. This is a story that leaves out the experience of the transgender person at the heart of it.

The third thing to notice is that the story is written in such a way as to foreground and approve Tim’s theological commentary, without opening it do discussion or critique. Tim is portrayed as someone with a strong, clear faith, who sometimes ‘has truth conversations’ with Stephanie, even if at other times he ‘leads with grace’ (so we are already being told that ‘truth’ runs counter to the path chosen by Stephanie, even if ‘grace’ will mean continuing to engage with her). And we are told, in Tim’s stark words, that gender reassignment is definitely against God’s plan, and that it is chosen mistakenly by people who should instead be finding their identity in Christ. The mix of direct and reported speech means that it is hard to tell where Tim’s voice stops and the authors’ voice starts: Tim’s perspective is implicitly endorsed and owned by the report. Before the report has given any theological arguments or discussion of its own, before it has given its readers any tools with which to make sense of trans experience, before it has introduced any nuance or complexity into its discussion, it has handed readers a stark theological condemnation.

Contrast the way in which the report distances itself from Stephanie’s theological perspective. We get (p.7) a brief description (again, with what is presumably Tim’s choice of pronouns rather than Stephanie’s): ‘Stephanie has a faith and says that he asked God to take being trans away and when that didn’t happen, he decided it must be for him. He has been involved in a number of faith communities and has engaged in different ways but has always struggled.’ To say that Stephanie has a faith – some kind of faith, something that should probably be called faith? – sets us up to question what she is reported as saying. We are told that Stephanie’s decision is made in the absence of guidance from God, rather than being a response to God’s guidance. We are left with the impression that she has struggled with church and with faith, and that her decisions have made full Christian participation difficult for her. And these brief sentences are followed immediately by Tim’s confident and articulate theological condemnation. The report does everything it can to insinuate that, in relation to Christian faith, Stephanie’s decision was as rootless as Tim’s faith was deep-rooted.

Remember: I am not for a moment denying that this is an attentive portrayal of Tim’s perspective on his experience. Nor am I denying that stories like Tim’s are important, and need to be heard and understood. The authors of this report have, however, made the decision that the only substantial story of trans experience in the report, the story that will frame their whole approach, should be one that unequivocally condemns transitioning as a theological error, that paints the consequences of transitioning in the worst possible light – and that does not allow the person who transitioned any space to speak for herself.

‘We must start by listening to their stories’, the report’s authors said – but they are not practicing what they preach.


Footnotes

[1] I am grateful to Susannah and Hope for their comments on an a draft of these posts.

[2] Note that I am not asking whether the authors talked to transgender people while preparing the report: they clearly did. I’m asking about what the report’s words communicate to its readers about the stories of trans people.

[3] There is also a quote from a trans person on p.14 (comparing their trans experience to cancer or schizophrenia), and a snippet of a story from ‘Sarah’ on p. 15 (who suggests that in transitioning she ‘may have sinned’). These are tiny in comparison to the telling of Tim’s story – and they also serve to frame trans experience negatively.


This is the first of six posts critiquing this report.

1. Whose stories?
2. The varieties of trans experience?
3. Listening to the Bible
4. Confused bodies
5. The rest of the report
6. Conclusion

3 Thoughts on “A Critique of ‘Transformed’ 1

  1. Mike, thanks for offering your perspective on this, which will be valuable.

    I think you make some good points here, but we need to put those in perspective. First, this claims to be a ‘brief’ account, not a definitive exploration. Second, I don’t think the author(s) are claiming to be in any way detached, or not coming from a particular position.

    Third, and perhaps the most important, the narrative here is one that is hardly ever heard in the public domain, and I think this is an important corrective. Amongst my friends and family this kind of narrative presents a pressing pastoral concern; the belief of an individual of the need to ‘transition’ is usually the voice focussed on, but it creates havoc in the lives of those around. A good example is the recent C of E guidance, where this kind of narrative simply did not feature at all, and I know of families who have felt utterly betrayed by the Church acknowledging one narrative and ignoring the others. And we need to be really honest here: the personal narratives which dominate the public debate make some very clear claims about ontology, anthropology and theology, and as ‘personal stories’ are very often put beyond criticism or question.

    So this might not be perfect–but it does contribute something important.

  2. Mike Higton on February 26, 2019 at 10:39 am said:

    It is brief, yes, and it doesn’t make a claim to be definitive. But neither does it claim to be simply a corrective to a wider process. Its main purpose (if we go by what the report itself says) is not simply to say, ‘Oh, by the way, as you respond to transgender people, please remember also to pay attention to their family members, for some of whom this proves very difficult – and whose stories are not often heard.’ The report presents itself, instead, as giving a brief framework to shape churches’ whole response to transgender people, and it insists – repeatedly – that in formulating such a response, we very much need to listen seriously to transgender people’s voices. And then it pretty much completely excludes those voices. That’s not simply an ‘imperfection’, that’s a serious failure to do what they have rightly said they should do.

  3. Pingback: Podcast: How should the church respond to Transgender – Confessions Of A YEC

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