Sunday, 14 December 2014

Gaudete Sunday - A Sermon From Two Years Ago

Today is the third Sunday of Advent - Gaudete Sunday.  What follows is a the roughish text of a sermon I preached on this Sunday two years ago.  So much has happened since then and perhaps the sermon I'd write now would be very different.  But this is where I was two years ago.  Don't feel obliged to read it - it was much complimented on at the time and I still think there's plenty of good things here but there are also elements worth cringing at with some embarrassment!  And you'll have to imagine it in my style of delivery else something is lost.

Allow me to take you back to December 13th 1973. I understand that this will be more difficult for some of us than others. Some of you hadn't been born and I was only two years old so I can't remember it.

So there you were – or you weren't, but imagine that you were – sitting in front of your posh new 15 inch black and white television in 1973. You wanted to watch Top of the Pops and hoped to catch a glimpse of Marc Bolan and his new hit single. But on this occasion you were disappointed. Yes, Bolan wasn't on. The Children of the Revolution had been thwarted by tax evasion. Disappointing.

Instead, who did Tony Blackburn introduce? Cozy Powell from Black Sabbath performed “Dance with The Devil” and in a zealous moment you wondered if a Christian should be listening to such things. And then there was bunch of strange looking English folk singers, all men apart from one woman in the middle and none of them with so much as a musical instrument. This isn't T. Rex, this isn't even Slade – though they'll be on later with a song that still haunts us forty years later. What's going on? Can things possibly get any worse?

And then the men start to sing. In folk singer voices. In Latin. Good grief, why on earth would anyone buy this? And then the woman pipes up, several octaves higher than anyone else.

Yes, this was Steeleye Span, and this was one of their two hits and though I've seemed to insult them, I confess that by my teenage years I'd bought quite a few of their albums at car boot sales.

Here's what they sang, with only one wrong pronunciation that I won't repeat here:

Gaudete, gaudete, Christus est Natus, ex Maria, virgine, Gaudete...

So, why on earth am I singing you a sixteenth century Scandinavian song in Latin that was a surprise hit 40 years ago?

Today, as the liturgical experts among you will know, is Gaudete Sunday. (sing again)

Gaudete is a word we translate as rejoiceand the day is named, not for that song but for the first word of the reading from Philippians that we've heard. That verse traditionally was also the entrance antiphon in the Catholic mass and in higher church Anglican eucharistic services – the verse spoken or sung right at the start of the service even before the priest had a chance to say hello.

It's advent. You might have noticed that. It's a time of penance. A time of preparation. A time of great meditation on the first coming of Jesus and a growing expectation of him coming again – both into our lives in new ways and at the end of time when he returns in glory. Which I predict will not happen on the 21stthis year.

I know that most of us (myself included) do not make any big changes to life for advent. But it was and is and actually should be a time of fasting, without which the great feast of Christmas loses some of its meaning. And that's hard work.

So here we are half way through and the church says to us, well done people you're doing well, not long to go now and you can have a big party. But we think you could do with a bit of encouragement today.

So we arrive at our nice traditional service, having been doing all the traditional Adventy disciplines. We are tired, cold, a bit hungry and on our knees seeking God with an earnestness that we didn't have halfway through November.

And suddenly a voice cries out “Rejoice always in the Lord and again I say rejoice”. Here is our encouragement. Rejoice. The Lord has come. The Lord is here. The Lord is coming. He who loves you says to rejoice and to do it in him and through him and with him. It's not only something you can do, it's something that you are commanded to so.

So we've come to our text for the sermon “Rejoice always.” It's taken a while and I feel like a mild version of a preacher I was listening to recently who, 20 minutes into his talk said the words, “and so to the sermon” and began from there.

Now there's quite a lot to say about these two words. I thought I'd have an easy job with this one. Preach on two words and it will be quick. But I can pretty much guarantee that nobody has slaved over a sermon in this place quite as much as I've slaved over this one. What is a short sermon is turning into a book on the meaning and practical application of these words. I'm actually quite shocked at how much there is to say and at some of the directions my thoughts and writing have gone. “Rejoice always”. Seems pretty simple. But it is rich and deep and when you start thinking about all the reasons why we don't rejoice, all the reasons why we should rejoice, how to learn to rejoice always and the benefits of rejoicing – among other things – there's far too much for a little sermon. Hence my slaving on a book that perhaps nobody will ever read but me. So here I can only say two or three things about rejoicing – and those only briefly. Here we go: The sermon proper, in three very quick and incomplete points...

Point One– Don't get guilty

There's just a possibility that you may not be rejoicing at this moment. Please, please do not feel bad about that or think that because you're in effect breaking a command from God that you are a terrible person. You're not.

For years I suffered periodically with bad depression and sometimes Christians were the worst people to have around me. They would pile on guilt and just make me feel worse. “God loves you, why aren't you joyful?” “You need to repent of your depression”

In Morning prayer before advent one of the regular readings is from Psalm 42 and every time, the last verse sent involuntary shudders through me. We read “Why are you downcast O my soul … hope in God.” That's fair – and hoping in God can and does in time ease a lot. But people would tell me that I had no right or reason to be depressed and thought that just telling me to hope in God would solve everything. When it didn't I was often made to feel like I was a bad person. Or “I was depressed and I prayed about it and God took it away -so I don't see what your problem is.”

And then I'd want to make these people happy with me and also to make them shut up. So I'd put on a false joy. I'd act my way through life with false smiles and a forced joy that in the end only made things worse because I was living a lie.

So, don't get guilty if you're not a bundle of rejoicing now. And don't feel guilt if you are currently mourning or grieving or want to be weeping – that's part of a balanced Christian life too, just not the subject of this particular talk.

Yes, sometimes people pray and a miracle happens – they are given the gift of joy. But more usually that doesn't happen and while they may be given seeds, it takes time and a lot of effort to prepare the ground so that God may grow the fruit of joy in us. That's far more common – rejoicing always is a command but it's a command to grow into as the fruit is grown within us.

Point two– the seeds

There are lots of seeds that lead to a life of joy. There are worldly seeds – all the blessings we enjoy, all the positive things in our life. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters (and others) sang the song You've got to accentuate the positive....

Accentuating the positive is good. Focusing in on the good things of life. Family, friends, home, food, health, and so on and so on. Practising finding the positives is a good habit and practising thankfulness for those positives is even better. No matter what you are going through there will be positives in this worldly life.

I've looked back at my own life. Five years ago I wrote a list of positives in a few minutes and I found that list recently. A page filled with them. Twelve years ago I was in a mental health support group and we all used to write lists of positives. On some days my list struggled, with an hour's work over it, to contain one thing. Yet as I look at the list from five years ago, many or most of those positive things were true twelve years ago but at the time I was in such a state that I couldn't see them. Take from that what you will.

Finding those positives is good. But these earthly blessings are not actually the major basis of our joy and our rejoicing as Christians. (Joy, from this reading, by the way is the Greek word Chairo which isn't a joy of bounding about everywhere in a manic glee but rather a quiet calm within, an inner peace and warm fire that suffuses from a deep root within us into every corner and crevice of our lives, into all the nice things that happen and into our greatest suffering too so that we rejoice even in our deep pain – which we all have and mourning and grief have their place too.)

No, the earthly blessings are not the main basis of Christian joy. For the simple reason that they are transient. If our joy is based solely on friendship, a nice house, having tasty food for tea, our marriage or anything else – and these things are very good – what are we going to do if we lose these things. If our spouse dies and we end up homeless eating other people's leftovers, can we rejoice then? The gospel of true Christian joy says that we can.

We need a more permanent cause for our joy, a cause that cannot and will not fail us. And that cause is God and that cause is what he has revealed to us in Scripture. There are lots of Scriptures about “rejoice” - nearly 200 of them, and loads more about “joy” and studying and praying with these verses can be an excellent way of filling our hours.

Vine's dictionary gives a nice list of reasons for believers rejoicing (chairo). Here's part of it. Believers rejoice: in the Lord; His incarnation, His power, His presence with the Father, His presence with them, His ultimate triumph, hearing the gospel, their salvation,receiving the Lord, their enrolment in Heaven, their liberty in Christ, their hope, their prospect of reward, the obedience and godly conduct of fellow believers, the proclamation of Christ, the gospel harvest, suffering with Christ, suffering in the cause of the gospel, in persecutions, trials and afflictions, the manifestation of grace, meeting with fellow believers …

lots of reasons but the only one I'll mention now is the one sung by Steeleye Span.

Gaudete: “Rejoice, rejoice, Christ is born of the Virgin Mary”

I don't need to say anything about it either – you'll be hearing lots more about it in the next fortnight. Christ is born. God is with us and will never leave us. Salvation is here. Hope is here. True life is here. Forgiveness is here. Rejoice.

Wonderful. There is so much to say about the vast riches of the gospel and why this will – with much prayer, meditation and sharing together – become firmly rooted as the foundation of our life, welling up into a life of calm, unshakeable joy. I'm not there yet myself – but I am resolved to keep moving in the right direction.

Point three – the work.

Some of you won't like this bit. The hard work. Just two verses for you from the New Testament:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:1-2 KJV)

Joy was set before Jesus.

A simple question: How did Jesus reach that place of joy?

A simple answer: He endured the cross. Another verse:

Then Jesus told his disciples,"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Mt16:24ff)

Joy is set before us. Jesus has it and we (hopefully) want to come after him and have it to. So how do we do it? Jesus himself tells us “"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
I know that's a tough end to a sermon. But we have to take the words of Jesus seriously. If we want to come after him into that place of joy and ultimately to be seated, reigning with him as co-heirs, then we have to seek to do what he says. Deny ourselves. Take up the cross. And then, and only then, can we truly follow him.

Joy will not come to us by seeking the experience of being joyful. True, deep, permanent, all embracing Christian joy will only come to us as a consequence of living a Christian life in imitation and love of Christ. That's the only way – and any preacher who gives you any other way, some easy way out is telling you fibs. Joy is not to be pursued as the end in itself – it is the by-product of a relationship with each other and with the living God. Without that relationship there can be no true Christian joy. Without self-denial, serving others, generosity to others and living to serve one another true Christian joy cannot blossom into the beautiful thing it is.

And so back to Advent for the next week. Back from this wonderful call to rejoice and into the season of advent. The fast, the self denial, the cross bearing. The path to the great joy that we will all, god-willing, experience when we celebrate the first coming of Jesus in just a few days and all the staggering, amazing things that means for us.

Let us pray:

Love is the heartbeat of God listen to the rhythm
Joy is its gift, catch the rhythm
Peace is its result, Live the rhythm
Be drawn into the kingdom of God .

Lord whose light shines in the darkness, Have mercy upon us,
Christ whose birth gives hope to all creation Have mercy upon us,
Lord whose advent brings us joy and love Grant us peace.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

18 Months - The Best of My Life

Eighteen months ago tonight I came out to myself as transgender, as a woman, in a way which left no possible room for denying the truth about who I am.  That night was the end of a process of finding space, of allowing myself to explore my thoughts and feelings with an honesty which had not been possible before.  On that night I stood in front of the mirror in a skirt and blouse, for the first time able to dress in such clothes without feeling great shame.  And I recognised myself for who I am.  I spent much time talking with myself as I stood at the mirror, and welcomed Clare into her existence - I already knew my name through dreams.  Until that night I could, had I so chosen, locked everything away again and gone back to the way things were, put the recent thoughts and experiments down to an aberration, a mistake.  After that night there was no possibility of going back.

That was the end of a process of experimenting with self-honesty but it set the course for the rest of my life.  Eighteen months on I look back and can say that it has been the best time of my life.  The best.

Here are just some of the things that have happened:

  • My mother died of cancer.
  • My father became seriously ill with dementia.  He's now in a care home having spent several months in hospital.  He broke one hip while in a different care home.  He broke the other hip while in the hospital.  And being hundreds of miles away I've been able to do nothing to help him and have had to leave everything to other family members.
  • My cherished Christian faith died, very painfully, over the course of a year.
  • We've had all the usual sort of family problems here - plus a few more.  But I don't talk of those online.
  • I have been sexually assaulted.  The police couldn't find the assailant.
  • I have received much verbal abuse in the street for dressing as I dress.  Thankfully that's pretty rare now but to being with it happened pretty much every time I left the house.
  • I've spent sixteen of the eighteen months waiting for medical treatment.  That treatment has only just begun.

Yes, plenty of horrible things have happened.  Most people would say that the year in which they basically lose both their parents, their faith, and undergo abuse and assault would be among the worst in their lives.  Circumstances have indeed been pretty poor in many respects.

So how can I say that the last eighteen months have been the best of my life?  How bad must the experience of my first forty years have been if so much can have happened and it still be my best time?

It's simple.  I have lived these months as myself, free.  I have learned to love myself.  I have learned that the truth of who I am does not to be utterly crushed, despised.  I have learned that I am not a thing of shame.

And I've remembered and healed a lot of my past.  All the clues and thoughts and acts that I'd suppressed for so long.  Many painful memories and many confusing memories.  They're still coming to light now.  Just this week I remembered things from my childhood.  Words said to me by my parents - who were of course doing their best but in the 1970s couldn't see past their little boy.  But words that led me further into Hell and the long attempt at self-annihilation.  Remembering them hurt.  A lot.  But now they can be left behind and peace can be found.  Some of that language may sound over dramatic.  I promise you that it isn't.

It's been the best eighteen months of my life.  And that brings my past into sharp relief.  I knew it was bad.  For thirty years even the best of days contained the shadow of depression, ever felt.  So many episodes of mental illness.  So many years of not knowing if I'd be alive by Christmas.  So many years in which others had to suffer through that uncertainty.  Looking at photographs from my life is hard as there are very few in which I cannot see signs of that shadow.  Even on the days of many smiles those photos display pain, if you know what to look for.  Comparing my present with my past shows me just how awful my inner life was for all those years.

There are a lot of challenges involved with being transgender.  But the chance to be who I really am outweighs pretty much any rubbish that life could throw my way.  Because, accepting myself and being Clare took away the cause of that shadow of depression

I've lost friends.  But I've gained more friends.  And my wife and child stand by me giving full support for me being who I truly am.  I am truly fortunate.
I've lost that faith.  But I've gained a better faith.  And have written much about that wild journey.
I've cried many tears in the difficulties.  Many more tears for my parents.  Many more tears as the past has come to light and been grieved for and healed.  But I've also learned the meaning of crying tears of joy.
I've suffered transphobic abuse.  But I've grown stronger through battling onwards regardless.  And I've been fortunate.  The abuse has only been verbal.  I know others who have been less fortunate.
I've been sexually assaulted.  There aren't many "buts" to that.  But it could have been a lot worse than it was.  Many women are sexually assaulted.  I don't want to belittle what happened to me but so many women have suffered far worse assaults, or repeated assaults, or rape.  I count myself fortunate.
I've experienced fear as I never felt it before.  But I've overcome that fear in walking into freedom.
I've lost my mother.  But that last year was precious, to be able to share just that short time with her, knowing she was proud of her daughter.
I've lost my father - though he is of course still living.  I must admit that the silver lining is harder to find when I think of him and the sadness we all have for everything that his illness has brought to him.
I've remembered much pain from my past.  But I've been able to clean those events and words, repair wounds, and leave them behind so the future can be better.
I've waited so long for treatment - for the physical help in being who I am, having transitioned mentally and socially last year.  But the treatment has begun, just about.  I'm now on the lowest dose of oestrogen and waiting for my next appointment which should lead to increased hormonal treatment.  Waiting impatiently - as every timeline I've been given in the last eighteen months turned out to be a false expectation.  That next appointment, from what I was told, should have been this week.  It will be next year.

I know who I am.  And I accept who I am, embrace myself in love.  That in turn enables me better to receive love from others and to show love too.  The changes are immense.  I find myself doing things, frequently, that the old me wouldn't have done.  I'd either not have conceived of being able to do them or felt great shame that I couldn't do them.

I know that there is still quite a way to go.  The healing is not complete.  And without too much trouble I could make a long list of things I don't do but would be better for doing.  And a list of things I do and say that would be better left undone or unsaid.  A long way to go but the difference between now and then is to me nothing short of a miracle.

Yes.  The past year and a half has been full of the most difficult things I've ever faced.  Full of pain.  Full of challenge.

Yes.  Those months have also been the very best of my life so far.  The very best.  By a very, very long way.  Simply because they have been lived free.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Honest Thoughts About My Father - His Dementia, His Care, His Being So Far Away

This is the day my dad finally leaves hospital for a new care home - the same one that was looked at in the summer before social services moved him to a completely different one without anyone's permission or consultation.  That was awful.  My cousin (why my cousin?) was phoned and asked if he could collect my dad the next day and take him to a different home.  None of that had even been mentioned to my mother and moving my dad wasn't discussed with anyone.  It was a done deal before any family member knew anything about it.  My mother hated the fact that she wasn't consulted, that she had no say whatsoever in the care of her own husband.  That was pretty heart breaking for her.  Yes.  Social services broke the heart of a woman who was dying of cancer.  It's as simple as that.

My dad has been in hospital for very nearly 3 months having broken one hip in the care home and then broken the other in the hospital.  For legal reasons I cannot write about the circumstances of the falls that led to either broken hip.  The new home looks pretty good - certainly better than the old one.  I can safely say that much, based on Care Quality Commission reports.  The report on the old one talked a lot about under staffing, people left very unsupervised.  Including the inspectors finding one person left alone, naked, hanging over a bath.  To think of people paying £800 a week for that to happen is shocking.  The report on the new home has lots of nice green ticks and none of the red crosses in the report on the other home.  Reading the report on the old home was so worrying.  I never passed the report to my mother.  That would have broken her heart even more to think of my dad being there.

It's a relief that he'll not be in a hospital room all day every day but be somewhere where specialist care - nursing and activities and so on - are offered.  And it's a great relief that the CQC reports I've read are not scary but say that residents are well looked after.  It's still annoying though.  My brother visited the new home back in the summer and it was thought that when my dad was moved from the first home he was in it would be to that one.  We thought it was basically arranged.  Four months on he's going there, recovering from two broken hips he doesn't know were broken and with various extra health issues picked up along the way.

It would be so good to be there in Sussex and be of some use.  It would have been so good to be able to have been there for him through the months.  So frustrating to be so far away and to be basically useless in any of this.  Family there have had to pull all the strings and be the visitors and they've been marvellous in finding the care home, liaising with social services and in sorting the finances.  They deserve so much credit and thanks for all they've done.  Shame I couldn't be there but for a number of reasons (which haven't been mentioned online or have just been hinted at) it's not been a possibility.  Hard not to feel deep guilt even though life had to be as it has been.  If only I could be in two places at once - supporting him there and supporting those non-online things here.   And we can all say 'if only', so many times.

I have considered the possibility of moving him to a care home up here - definitely not the local one though.  But up here there's only me and down there is a wide family and in theory friends too - though the latter are invisible.  Had that support network not been there I'd have definitely sorted that somehow.  Though I don't know quite how you move someone from a hospital in Surrey, under the care of Sussex social services, to a care home or hospital in Tyne and Wear.  In the end it may be better if he moves here if there's a decent enough home that can be got to regularly.  That might end up being better for him - certainly better for me because I could be of some use and keep up the visits - but that's not a decision for now.  Have to see how things pan out into next year.

I may have to cancel the essentials at some point soon and go down and quickly clear and sell a house - depending on what the rules are about paying for the care that will either be urgent or not.  I look at those essentials and wonder how or when.  It depends whether care is dependent on the money being in the bank of if there will be an account to be paid once the house is sold.  I should know about that soon.

And then thinking about those essentials, all that needs doing, and grieving for many things, my brain fries - it's very fragile at the moment.  I've put a little of that online but only a little - I'd prefer to focus on the good things most of the time if I can rather than focusing on just how close I came a few days ago to using a knife in a less than productive manner. Years after self-harm the memories and mental scars remain and the knowledge that in the very short term it helped get me through a hundred inner crises.

Nobody knows, or can know, the prognosis for my dad.  Two years ago nobody could have known any of this, or known that my mum wouldn't be there.  Less than 13 months ago they were here.  He was ill of course but we were still able to do so much.  This illness rather ignores the words of Terry Pratchett that a person with dementia can still write several novels.  His deterioration has been rapid.  That may continue or he may plateau.  Impossible to say.  I just hope that in the time and health that remains he will be reasonably content in the new home, will be well looked after and that if he eventually ends up here the local care home would be just as good.

Of course most of us are at the stage where we have to be honest and say that, for his own sake, we'd prefer him not to stay alive for too long.  It goes against my old Catholic instinct of saying that life is God's gift to be cherished in whatever form it takes.  But it's how most people come to feel about any close friend or relation with dementia.  For him to die while he still has something, while he can still find an enjoyment is a far better image than thinking of him utterly helpless, unresponsive, unfunctioning in the corner of a room for year after year.  It is an awful feeling to almost wish your own father would die.  But it's a common one when we witness so much suffering, so much emptying out of the person who used to be there, so much damage to the brain.  It's hard not to feel deep guilt about it all even when you know that it's entirely a matter of mercy not malice.  It's clear to me that life should not be prolonged at any cost, that life is not just the beating of a heart.  And even in the hospital, at a time when he was pretty sick, there was a DNR order for him.  That was decided upon by the family there but I was in full agreement.  If he goes, let him.  Don't save him for a continuation of the decline.

It would be so good to get there this year to see my dad (and to sort that house some more).  But looking at things as they stand I'm guessing that probably won't happen - I guess at February.  And possibly by then he won't know who I am - he just managed it during the summer but of course could only know me as he not she.  Which was fine.  He's the only person on the planet I'm happy to have refer to me as he.  Because it's not his fault.  I wish he could have got to know me as she before getting ill, but this is life and we so often can't have what we wish for.  We'd all wish for many different things if it would ease the suffering of ourselves, our loved ones and seven billion strangers.

I just hope that in the new care home, with proper care, he will be reasonably content and find things to be able to smile at, while smiling is a possible.  I hope he settles there and is encouraged to be as active as possible.  I hope that, whatever the illness continues to do to him, he is more or less at peace whether living in a real world or a world that is only real to him.  I hope so.  And I will see him again, when that can happen.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Renewing My Baptismal Vows - As Clare, With Brand New Faith

Something good happened at church last night.  Next Sunday I will officially become a member of Northern Lights Metropolitan Community Church.  Before doing that I felt it necessary to publicly renew my faith in some manner, a break with so much of the past and a cleansing - even if just symbolic - in readiness for the new and for whatever my future brings.

I discussed this with our pastor who suggested renewing my baptismal vows, and she designed a short liturgy for this.  There were the traditional vows you take at baptism, more vows relating to the faith and practice of the local church, and between the two a symbolic hand washing to wipe away the past in a sacramental fashion and through the prayer prayed as my hands were dried.

As part of this I was asked to write something brief about the reasons for the renewal.  I don't do brief!  An edited version was in the church newsletter and I read the full version at church last night.  What was read is roughly what follows - though just as when I used to preach I don't stick to the script no matter how hard I try!  I was very well behaved last night, so the changes were minor.

Mentally I've been having a rough time recently.  Some quite major struggles.  My wife says that whenever I'm doing good things I get clobbered.  And there have been so many things recently, so much of a move to becoming a better functioning human, in the places where I am meant to be.  Saturday night was the worst I've had in years - but it led into a Sunday that was excellent.  I realised yesterday morning that among other things I was grieving, mourning greatly - for my mother, for my father, and also for the years that I could not live as who I am.  All those mourning processes are needed but piling it all up together isn't easy.  On Sunday as I was on the way to another church in the morning I opened my Bible to the next chapter.  Happened to be Matthew 5, the start of the Sermon on the Mount.  So I read, "Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted."  And then the first song at that church had lines, also drawn from the Bible, about mourning being replaced by joy.  Sometimes God knows what God is doing!

Truly, this weekend contained very low points, mourning, sorrow.  And it contained high points of commitment, friendship, and joy.  Life can be so amazing in its variety.


Last night, during the service at Northern Lights MCC I publicly renewed my baptismal vows. For me this is a needful step before formally becoming a member of the church. I know that's not the case for most people so wanted to publicly explain why I am renewing those vows.

Firstly it's because I was baptised under another name, another gender, and was a very different person then. I'd love to be re-baptised as Clare but of course that's not a theological option. Baptism is a one time event – and I've already gone through it three times as an adult. I cannot be baptised again but I need to publicly express that, as Clare, those vows I made as “him” still stand and that they stand more firmly than they ever did in the past.

That's the obvious reason: My present,living as the woman I am, is such a changed life from my past, forcing myself to live as the man I never was.

But there is a second reason. It's even more important to me than the first. Many people in the church will know some of my story of faith over the last eighteen months. As I sat at MCC my Christian faith died a slow death, a painful death. Every service was a kind of torture for me. And some in the church put up with my many words, my complaints, my deep pain through that process. I cannot thank the church enough for supporting me through the death of my faith and through everything I said, and felt, and did.

My faith deserved to die. It really did. Good riddance to it! Not because of any doctrines or dogmas that were or weren't attached to it. But because the root of my faith was self-hatred, self-denial, self-rejection – arising from a firm belief that I was no good. Much of that came from received beliefs about my gender and consequently my near-constant urges to self-destruct. My faith helped to destroy me, helped me to eradicate myself, for twenty-three years. It was immensely important to me but it crushed me.

Eventually I was able to leave that faith behind, and rest secure in a faith that excluded any personal God. The plan was to leave MCC and never look back. That was the only future I could see. But throughout the whole journey I still believed in MCC, her vision, her people, and the place of healing that the church is. And, solely because of certain of the people, I stayed.

Many of you will have noticed a not so subtle change in me since the start of October. At church one evening everything suddenly clicked. I could sing the songs, pray the prayers and knew it was OK to receive communion again for the first time in a long while. And I was extremely surprised that night to find myself on my knees, hands in the air, lost in worship and thankfulness to the God I didn't believe in. The “God of Surprises” entered again and renewed my world, my heart.

Faith returned. It's a new faith. Brand new. It's a far healthier faith, one that accepts the love of God, and one that can honestly say with the Psalmist;
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.

As I renew my baptismal vows it is my freedom to be Clare, to be authentic, that I celebrate. But more than that I celebrate my return to faith. A purer faith. A very different faith than that I had before. Based on self-love rather than self-condemnation, on authenticity rather than self-squashing, on freedom, on love, on grace, on hope, on acceptance, on inclusivity, on joy, on light and life and on so much more.

As I publicly vow myself to God and to the centrality of Jesus in my life, I do so based on the solid conviction that God is love, and his love is for me and for all of us. And I do so based on a response of love that seeks the beauty and life of Abba, Jesus, and Spirit.  At this point I do not know exactly what I believe down to the x, y and z of doctrine.  But I know in whom I have believed.  In God, who is my parent and source.  In Jesus, saviour, who is my example and who died.  In Christ who lives, and lives in me and in all of you.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

A Day to Remember

Let us remember:

The British troops who died in war.  According to some things I've read that's all this day, Remembrance Sunday, is about.  Yes.  Remember them.  So many brave men and women standing for causes they believed in.  So many other brave men and women forced to stand for causes someone else believed in.

But let us remember not only them.  Not only our British troops.

Let us remember those of all nations who fought and died with the British in war.  Those of all continents and many countries.  The Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims and people of other faiths who fought with the British and are so often forgotten, sidelined in the commonly told histories.

But let us remember not only them.

Let us remember those of all nations who fought and died on any side in war.  Those we called enemies.  Those who called us enemies.  For the nominal enemies weren't any more bad or good than the troops who fought on "our" side.  And those who fought in wars our nation had no connection with.

But let us remember not only them.

Those of all nations - whether armed or civilians - who died in any war.  Those who chose to fight.  Those who were forced to fight.  Those who chose not to fight.  Those who served their societies and died without entering the fight.  Those who we pass off as "collateral damage".

But not only them.

Let us remember ALL who suffer and have suffered because of the hell that is war.  In so many wars that is almost the entire population.  And even for us - most of whom do not experience war on a daily or yearly basis - we will know people who have been affected and have suffered as a result of war.

Let us remember all those who refused to fight.  The conscientious objectors, the pacifists, the humanists and religious people who stood against the killing.  Let us remember their bravery and their own sacrifices..

Let us remember the innocents caught up in the hell.  Those who will die, be wounded, lose family members, be forced from their homes, go without food, because of the wars taking place right at this moment.  Those who have been exiled because of war.  Those who have to flee their countries only to be demonised by the British media if they have to flee to here.

In 1919 we said "Never again".  When will we mean it?

If we just remember the dead soldiers but don't live and work for the peace they sought then their deaths will ultimately be without meaning.

Yes, today is a day to remember, to mourn the wars of the past, to celebrate the good men and women who lived, suffered or died in those wars.  Most of us know stories - or know people - who have fought and sometimes in their service done much good.  There is a song by Robb Johnson that I cannot find online.  It begins as an anti-war song addressed to the artist's father.  How could daddy have held a gun and fired it at his fellow human being?  So the question is asked repeatedly and angrily:  "What did you do in the war, daddy?"  The answer came back eventually:  "I liberated Belsen.  Me and my mates, we liberated Belsen."  Let us remember the past and the people who lived through it.

Let us remember the stories.  The triumphs.  The despair.  I will think today of the German prisoner of war who drew a picture of my mother and her parents one Christmas.  I wonder what happened to him after he returned to Germany.  I wonder if he had children and grandchildren who would be amazed to know that he is remembered here through his pictures.

But this is also a day to look forward.  A day to live in hope.  A day to proclaim "Let there be peace.  Let us learn to love one another.  Let us learn to embrace the differences we allow to divide us."  For me this is never a day to give any glory to the concept of war or to a past and present in which nations have felt such a need to go to war so often.  This is a day when I look for a time that the red poppy - the blood, the long reality of warfare - is a memory and the white poppy - the call for peace, for the unity of humanity - is a present reality.

To close with famous words of John Lennon;

"You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you will join us
And the world will be as one"

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

One Year Ago - My Parents Visited Newcastle For the Last Time

A year ago my parents came to visit us for what turned out to be the last time.

We knew my dad was ill of course.  His symptoms had got worse since we had visited Sussex in the Summer.  But he was still driving everywhere and got on with everything we did when my parents were here.  Nobody knew how quickly his health would deteriorate or that barely six months later he would be living in a care home.

But my mother was still full of life and the excitement of finding new things to do, to experience, to photograph.  We had a packed few days and she had so much zest for everything we saw.  Nobody would have guessed then that her cancer would return so aggressively, that just ten months after arriving to visit us, full of life, she would be dead.

I will treasure those days for the rest of my life.  My dad never got to meet Clare when he was healthy - even in the summer his health problems (and I suspect his upbringing too) meant he couldn't fully deal with his son becoming his daughter.

But my mother got to meet Clare when she was healthy.  Last summer when Kit and I were in Sussex for a few weeks I was in the early days still, experimenting and finding my way and lacking in confidence.  Everyone knew I was Clare, but it was very scary for me - as it turned out more scary than it needed to be.  Even so, she could see the changes in me - the new light, the new joy, the release from so much of the past.  And the difference in the less than two months between then and my parents' visit was quite astounding.

So the visit a year ago was the only time my mother got to experience not just her daughter, but her confident daughter.  I treasure those days.  And I know she treasured them too.

My mother wrote a lot about that visit.  I'm not going to say much more - just link to her blog posts.  There are short ones she wrote when here and then posts with lots of photos that she wrote after the visit.  Sometimes it is good to look back.

To be honest I'm putting my mother's posts here for my own benefit so I can find them all easily in one place.  If you want to take a look - and there are great photos of family and the local area - then do.  Regular readers of my mother's blog will know that they did all sorts of things and the blog, before the sad endings, is filled with descriptions of lives well lived.

People who have only met me in the last eighteen months should be warned against scrolling back in the blog.  I know many actively don't want to learn my old name.  And there are some photos that are quite scary.  There are some relatively decent photos of me - but not many.  Yes, I know I'm biased in my opinions of pictures of me!  But I can see the darkness, the sadness in my eyes, behind even the best of the smiles I gave when living as a man.

First the diary posts during the visit:

It's a good thing they didn't take Isaac given how things developed.  And Isaac himself got ill and died during the summer when I was in Sussex.

And then the posts after the visit with lots of photos.  The posts between these ones make for much sadder reading - many of them deal with stress and anxiety about my dad.  Even on days out to places they loved such as Nymans Gardens or the Bluebell Railway there is still the anxiety in evidence.

Newcastle residents may enjoy the pictures in some of these, especially of our walk through Jesmond Dene, Armstrong Park, Heaton Park, and Jesmond Vale and then to the Biscuit Factory.  That was a great day.  To think that a year ago my parents were both up to doing so much.  My dad needed encouragement but he could still do it all.

No photos of the fourth and final day.  On that day we went to Tynemouth Market, satisfying the urge to buy things for my mother's antiques dealing.  And then to North Shields for the market there and for lunch at one of the cheap pizza places on the fish quay - three courses for £3.95.  Many photos taken of the boats and the river with interesting lighting effects thanks to the weather.

Such wonderful days.  There will be more wonderful days.  I feel joy that we had those days together.  And still much sadness because we cannot have more days together.  I'm still grieving for my mother and unfortunately am not able to help my dad at this time in all his problems which have been far worse than anyone could have expected.

But for today.  Looking back to better times.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Surprise! A Reconciliation with God and with Church.

Some of you may have noticed that in much of what I've written in the last year I've had lots of bad things to say about traditional views of God and about much of what goes on in churches.  I've not been shy about being outspoken in my rejection of a personal God and my embracing of a nontheistic belief.  I've not been shy in talking about how painful attending church services has been and about the causes of that pain.

Things in my life seemed to be sorting themselves out.  I was coming to know where I stood with my non-personal god of being, god of wonder.  I was settling into worship with the Quakers, The Religious Society of Friends.  And I was settling into worship in a very different service style with the Unitarians.  And I was actively planning my departure from Northern Lights MCC - the only place I've attended recently in the last year where the majority of people have some kind of traditional notion of a theistic god.  In fact I knew I was leaving.  Every service was painful no matter how hard I tried to ignore it.  I was only staying for the sake of a particular friend who I knew would be upset if I went.  She's moving away from the area soon so I'd done a deal with myself to stick around at MCC until she goes and then leave the place.  I'd miss the people.  That's true.  But I'd be glad to get away from the pain, from the parts of the service that stung my wounds and the parts I just couldn't participate in at all.

That was the plan.  Leave MCC.  And then possibly join the Unitarians.  Or stick with the Quakers and consider joining them in the future - Quakers don't just take anyone into full membership on a whim so it would have to be the future.  And the plan included going elsewhere too, seeking spiritual light wherever I thought it could be found and wherever my nontheism would fit into whatever was going on there.

That was the plan as a confirmed nontheist.  No personal God.  Just wonder and awe in being.  Which is an exciting, massive thing in itself.

Yes, that was the plan.

Plans sometimes change.

There has been a lot going on recently in my spirituality and spiritual practice.  Much of it - the meditation, the writing, the listening, the work with chakras, and so on - I'm not going to write about here.  So much going on that I can't just write off and blame on a bit of oestrogen.  Minor transgender update: I've officially started the HRT treatment.  Hey, this is me.  Gotta get the gender issues in somewhere!

But of God I write ...

Imagine my surprise to notice that my meditation language was becoming firmly Biblical - from that book I hadn't picked up at home for a year because just the idea hurt too much.

Imagine my surprise when some of what I "listened to" pointed out verses from the Bible and said they applied to me.

Imagine that surprise when messages from that "listening" told me that Christ is still my way, my path, and that in reality I never stopped loving God.  I'd blog all that I've written down but I think that would remove any doubts people may have as to my sanity.

Imagine how I felt when I sat down at church two weeks ago and everything suddenly clicked inside.  I knew I could sing the songs.  I knew I could pray (most of) the prayers.  I knew I could receive communion for the first time this year.

And imagine what a shock it was to me, committed nontheist, to find myself later that evening at the back of the church (I'm not keen on pews for these things!) falling to my knees, lifting my hands, singing words of thankfulness and being very lost in worship of a personal God.

There had been many surprises that week.  That one out surprised them all.

Yes, me and God have had something of a reconciliation.

I won't say much more now.  There is a lot to say.  I've watched myself recently and seen someone doing, saying, thinking things that she would never have said before.  It's been very nice to observe her.  And it's been very nice to be her and break out of some old ways.

The strange thing is that I am still a nontheist.  I am just a nontheist who happens to worship and sing and pray to a personal God.  I know full well that this is some kind of contradiction.  But I'm fine with that.  The Real is often beyond contradictions.

Much more to say.  People have seen the changes.  I know this.  They've commented.

Oh, and those church plans?  I am leaving one of the churches I thought I might be joining.  I'm staying with the other at least for now, because it is good for me.  And the church I was leaving in the near future?

I am officially becoming a member in the near future.  And I find that I am very pleased about that.  That place, those people can do me good.  And I believe I'll be able to do good there if I allow myself to become the person who is becoming free.  I've deliberately kept myself on the outskirts of that community because I believed I wasn't staying in it.  Now is the time to being to pack up and move into the church's city centre.

It's all good.  It's where I'm meant to be.  And as our pastor pointed out once, through all the trials and pain and spiritual problems and doubts and fears and struggling to find a healthy spirituality, through all of that I never stopped believing in Northern Lights MCC and her reasons for seeking to do what she does.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Responding to "The Toll of Our Christian Theology on the LGBT Community"

Last night I found a link to a Christian blog post about the way LGBT people have suffered at the hands of Christians.  That's not news to me but the blog post touched me greatly.  I wept about it last night.  I wept about it again this morning.

It's worth reading.  I urge you to read it. 

John Pavlovitz hadn't expected to write this post - it's a direct response to the hundreds of people who wrote to him following another post, hundreds of people each with direct experience of suffering at the hands of Christians for their sexuality.  If I'd written the original post I wouldn't have expected that outpouring either.  But sometimes these things just happen - such as with a post elsewhere on "Post Traumatic Church Disorder".

The biggest of my tears this morning were when I read again the sentence "It certainly doesn’t look like love to the sweet, 12-year old middle school girl in your church whose been repeatedly told she’s an abomination; that God already despises her."

Now I've been told by a church minister that I am an abomination.  But I was 42.  I was totally sure of myself as a transgender woman.  I was totally sure that being transgender was not any kind of a problem for God - whether a "God of the Bible" (I'd already gone through the "relevant" verses) or any other God.  But I thought of this girl.  She was 12 not 42.  She didn't have all the adult experience or two theology degrees and the ability to research more theology.  She didn't have the wonderful support of a church like Northern Lights MCC here in Newcastle.  So I thought of her and what this perfectly "Biblical" treatment would have done to her.  And I wept.  I wept over other stories too.  I am very close to tears again now.

John Pavlovitz's post from two weeks previously is also worth reading.  It's about what he would do if he found that his son or daughter was gay.  To sum that up in a few words: He would love them.  That's what caused the outpouring of response.  Just that.  That a father would love his child.

I posted a link to the blog on a friend's facebook status asking whether she had seen it.  Part of my response to a speech by a Catholic Archbishop who said that "Homosexual relationships are destroying our human identity."

The report about the speech was posted by a good woman.  A Catholic who posts things from either side of the moral arguments currently raging in the Catholic church and expects responses and discussion - from both sides.  And she's good enough to put up with a lot of non-Catholic words from me which to be honest is quite impressive at times as I'm not exactly toeing the party line!  She's doing her best in life and seeks to walk in love of people and in devotion to her God.

Someone responded as follows:  "Hang on a second, acting on being gay and physically attacking others, are both sins in Christian Theology. So because others sin by attacking, it must be the fault of the Theology? That reasoning is beyond moronic..."

You can always tell a loving, rational person by the way they descend to calling someone's intelligent writing "moronic" within three sentences!

I responded to that.  Because yes, I believe it is the fault of the Theology.  It's a theology I once promoted too - much to my shame.  One day I'll write about that.  A post along the lines of Mea Maxima Culpa!


Sorry - this is long.  A length borne of passion.  A length borne of seeing people hurt, again, again, again by Christians and so-called Biblical views and of Christians turning away again and again and saying "It's not OUR fault, our ways wouldn't hurt anyone."  I am so utterly sick of seeing LGBT people destroyed and then being blamed for their own destruction by the Christians who killed their spirits.

Acting on being gay is NOT a sin in Christian theology.  It is a sin in SOME Christian theology.  Get that right.  "Christian theology" is not a blanket term.  It's certainly not a sin in my theology.  Nor in the theology of a local minister who leads Bible studies on the subject covering every possibly connected verse in great detail, solely relying on the works of highly respected scholars.  Nor in the theology of a great many Christians and a great many skilled theologians and Biblical scholars too.

When the theology is that a dignified human being, made in the image of God, beautifully and wonderfully made is also an abomination merely because of who God has made them to be, then yes the theology is at fault.  Or to be more exact, the people who have such a theology and refuse to look beyond the preconceptions of the centuries of homophobic abuse into a more enlightened age where human beings are accepted for being who they are.

I have so many friends who know what the effects of homophobic theology are.  It's not just a matter of people attacking them but also a matter of the beliefs guiding that action.

So many scholars now have accepted that the anti-homosexual clobber verses don't in reality have anything to do with Christian homosexuals.  More will follow.  And in the end the churches will accept that this is a normal, and completely healthy, part of the range that makes up human beings (and many other species too - if like the Archbishop we want to bring in what is "natural").  

That day cannot come too soon.

A day when I as a transsexual married lesbian will never risk encountering a church where I am rejected, told to repent of being who I am, told that it is impossible even to be Christian unless I at least want to repent, told I'm abomination, told that the God of mercy will make me burn in pain for eternity if I don't stop being who I am.  I will never again encounter a Church where my very existence is said to be anti-God (such as the Catholic Church and the certain articles written on major Catholic websites as a perfectly logical result of the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI)

Jesus accepts me.  He accepts LGBTQIA people.  He loves us as we are and has called us to be who we are.  He made us this way.  Yes, God created gay people to be gay people.  He created transsexuals to be transsexuals.

It's just a shame that Christians turned the love of God for gay people into a sham.  The love they show is not love.  No matter how many flowery words are used.  No matter how much Christians try to justify themselves.  It's not love.  It's closed-minded, bigoted, hatred justified by years of doing the same thing.

And yes, I am a Christian.  And I firmly believe God called me to live the life I lead - as a happily married transsexual lesbian.  My wife would agree with that.  And I know the hell it was to believe what other Christians taught - that all these things were evil, disordered, unnatural.  That I should be someone else - and indeed I tried to do it for decades.  Misery.  And to my shame I believed the lies that my gender and sexuality were disordered, evil.  And I believed the same thing about the gender and sexuality of others.

The theology needs changing.  Precisely because the theology leads to the attacks.  The theology directly leads to a hell on earth for innocent people.

The theology needs changing.  Precisely because the theology leads to thousands and thousands of wounded, crushed lives, and not uncommonly even to suicide.

The theology needs changing.  Precisely because the theology forces people to run from Jesus because the Jesus of the theology does welcome people with open arms.

The theology needs changing.  Precisely because the theology gives a church that is not a place of safety but instead a place of death for people against whom other people have a prejudice that has no basis whatsoever in reality.

I see the results of the theology.  Regularly.  It is heart breaking.  I am so thankful for a better theology.  One taught by some of the churches here.  And I am so thankful for the MCC congregation here and for the way crushed people are healed there and enabled to find peace and fall in love with Jesus again after the pain caused by well-meaning Christians.  So, so thankful for the light and love in that place.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Something Wisely Removed From The Funeral Address For My Mother

A while ago I posted the address I wrote for the funeral of my mother.

I'd written the first draft four days before she died.  Thoughts had been circling my head while sitting with her in the hospice.  That morning the plan had been to go to the local church but people going in looked too happy and they had a big baptism in the service so I decided I couldn't face being there so walked back to my parents' house and found myself writing, getting some of these thoughts into a written form.

In the two weeks between that day and my mother's funeral I edited and amended what I'd written frequently.  And I lost the whole section that I'd initially written to begin the address.  It just didn't seem to fit or to flow and I couldn't find a conclusion for that section which seemed good enough or real enough or in any way wise enough.  So I just deleted the whole thing from the address and began where I began.

I think that's a good thing and the final article was improved greatly by not including the original starting section.  Those thoughts had come to me first and were almost written before beginning to type but I felt they had to go.

What follows is that section and it still lacks any coherent conclusion and still wouldn't lead into the address as it was spoken.

But it's here anyway and the question of "What is good and what is bad?" is a valid one even if I couldn't find the words to ask it about the death of my mother.  I still can't find those words.  I know it's not a grand global tragedy for a seventy year old to die and I know it is a source of joy that she didn't die twenty years ago when death was the most probable result.  But I find, a month after her death, that I still can't really contemplate the question in relation to her passing.

Anyway, here's what was lost from the funeral address, still in the form it was written on that Sunday morning when writing the first draft.

I'd like to begin with a story told by a Taoist teacher.

Many years ago a man lived with his family on a mountain road in China. It was a hard life and the man had to work long hours growing enough food for his family.

One year the roof of the house was leaking. This was a bad thing.

The man gathered the tools to repair the roof and climbed up to do the job.

The job proved easier than expected. This was a good thing.

But that meant the man relaxed too much.

He fell from the roof and broke his leg. This was a bad thing. The family would struggle to hire someone to harvest the crops.

The man and his family spent the night fretting about everything.

The next day a contingent came from the Emperor. Every able-bodied man in the area was to be conscripted to fight as cannon fodder in the latest pointless war. Probably nearly all of them would be killed by the enemy.

The man, with his broken leg, was left.

Suddenly his accident – the bad thing – became a good thing.

What is good? What is bad? Can we tell. There are hundreds of stories like this from Taoist teachers and all ask the same questions. What is good? What is bad?

Today as we remember Paula we can only feel it is a bad day. We feel the pain of our loss.

Paula and her family have felt that pain before. My nan died young, also of cancer. She didn't get the chance to see her grandchildren grow. I never met her as she died several years before I was born.

At that time Paula, her brother Roger and her family could look and say it was a bad thing. Indeed their sorrow was very real and an early death is always tragic.

But looking at things today, 45 years later, we can see the good that came out of the bad.

My granddad, Harry, remarried. Jenny is here today. And they had children who in turn have children of their own. Of course I can't say what would have happened had not my nan died young but I can say that had she not died Matt and Ruth would not now exist and the world would not have been given all the things they have brought to it. Certainly the childhood of myself and my brother would have been poorer had not Jenny, Matt and Ruth been a part of it.

The last months of Paula's life would have been very different too had not her mother died young. I'd like to publicly thank Jenny and Ruth at this time. They are busy people but have been able to give so much time, energy, comfort and practical help to Paula in her illness. I know they take it for granted that this is just what you do for someone you care for, but that in itself is an amazing thing. Without Jenny and Ruth the last months of Paula's life would have been much harder. Thank you Jenny. Thank you Ruth. 

So what is good? What is bad?

At this time of grieving and loss it's hard to look at Paula's death in the same way as we can look at her mother's death. We are in pain. It's right that we should know that we have lost someone important, who brought light and love into our lives. And it's hard to see that any good may eventually come.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Pressures on Women. The Extra Pressures on Transgender Women.

I am blogging this for my own benefit.  Don't any of you feel under pressure to read it.  This was a post on facebook and I decided to post it here so I don't lose it.  It's a picture of some of my thoughts as they are at this time and I find I can look back at these posts and see the developments and changes in my life, generally as related to transgender issues or to spirituality.

There are things here that I could not have written a year ago or even six months ago - things about my own body and the physicality of a "real" woman.  To be challenging the narrative of "I was born in the wrong body" has consequences, not least in that it allows greater freedom and changes the reasons why I choose to do the things I do.  What follows is not the complete picture.  And it's a view that's still in development.  Bear with me but feel free to constructively criticise if there are massive errors.

A couple of days ago I posted this on Facebook:

Laser treatment today for the first time in ages.
So it's a no make-up day, something that can add extra idiot encounters to life followed by an obvious burnt-black stubble ten days which can also add to the level of idiocy encountered in the streets.
Being transgender in public is only easy if you don't look transgender - if you've spent loads of money and time in order to conform to what society says a woman should look like.
And don't any of you say the same pressure is there for all women. It really, really, really isn't. But someone usually says it anyway.

Perhaps that was an over-negative and irrational post.  A post that came from a view that what happened in the past would inevitably happen again.  A throwback to the events of last year and the memories of common abuse.  But last year was different in part because I was different.  I didn't have the confidence and self assurance that I have now and that changes how I walk in the streets and so changes how people react to me.

Of course there were responses from friends.  All of them came from women and they're all women who support me and completely affirm me as Clare.  But the responses were mainly saying the same thing:  "I have to wax/shave/laser too because there is pressure." See, I was right.  Someone says it anyway even though it isn't the same thing.

And so I accidentally wrote this response on the pressures women face in our society and the pressures transwomen face in the same society:

Oh God forgive me! This is long. It was meant to be short. If I didn't need to find food it might have got even longer. You don't need to read it. Nobody needs to read it. Writing these things helps me greatly in working out more of what I think and feel and how I want to live or need to live. It might not help anybody else in the slightest. But at least it ends positively. And all because this isn't just about facial hair. It's about the question "What is a woman?" It's very tempting to delete it all or just stick it as a document only on this machine. Tempting to blog it too in some form and annoy even more people. I wish people would challenge some of the things I've written on that blog - some of them are quite radical if not outrageous. And some may even be ludicrous.

Here it is anyway:

Yes. I agree. Of course I agree. Society pressures women to wax/shave/laser and do much more besides and presents a view of women that everyone knows is illogical and unrealistic but which most women below a certain age and many women above it follow anyway because it's a heck of a lot easier than experiencing the consequences of rebellion. Yes, we live in a society where to be a natural woman with natural hair, skin, fat, wrinkles is portrayed as being some kind of disgusting, horrific freak rather than as being a wonder to be celebrated. "40 year old star has cellulite. The shame! The shame!" We live in a world where every other advert encourages women to eradicate their so called "imperfections" and "blemishes" and where every other photo is photo-shopped into an image of a near impossible creature. A world in which we are told to make that image our aspiration and dream. Is that over-stating the extent of the lunacy?

It's awful really and I hope that one day we'll all wake up and crush this insane system rather than going the other way and starting to incorporate men more and more into the same madness. And I say that as someone whose armpits were lasered this morning which in a way shows the level of my own conformity - although due to a printing error it made the morning cheaper than just having my face zapped and that's my genuine excuse.

But all of that is not the same thing as the pressure on a transgender person.

If you don't wax/shave you don't get people telling you every day that you've forgotten to bring your trousers or get called a tranny bastard or get jeered at as the cissy in a frock. I know what my life was like when, pre-laser and without make up, I began to wear the clothes I like and head out alone dressed pretty much as I still dress. I got abuse pretty much every single time I left the house on my own and wondered how the hell I'd ever be able to get through it all. At no point was I tempted to give up being who I am but the obstacles seemed vast. Thankfully there was much support around me.

The abuse only lessens if you're cis-normative or perhaps if you develop a thick skin, massive self belief, and a far from average style. This is 2014 - such admiration for those who walked this path in previous years when it was so much harder and the abuse more frequent. But we still have that dialogue - in the media, in the NHS, elsewhere - where the transgender person gains social validity and Brownie points by striving to appear cisgender and by how much success they achieve in that quest. Rebels against that inspire me. I'm not such a rebel - but mainly perhaps because I happen to like embracing this look. It's part of who I am - but I've not deeply analysed why.

With or without a bit of facial hair you all still look like what society says is a woman and society treats you accordingly. As a woman. Perhaps as a woman suffering from frequent societal pressure to be hair-free, but still as a woman. My life isn't about being treated as a hairy/non-hairy woman. Me, I'm not wanting to be treated as Kate Moss, not even as a woman of "average" appearance, just as a woman. To never be insulted for not looking like a "real" woman. And never to be congratulated - by friends and allies - for looking like a "real" woman, with the not so friendly implication that I'm not real. To never be called out if I let my genitals hang naturally instead of forcing them into unnatural positions. To never have been told in different ways for 42 years and so come to deeply but erroneously believe not that I have too much facial hair but that I'm in entirely the "wrong" body. Because objectively my body (and of course yours) is not wrong. It's the society that is wrong.

Of course there are pressures in being a woman - that we can either succumb to or ignore depending on how we want to live our lives - but it really, really isn't the same pressure. In the transgender world we call it cisprivilege - something most people only notice when they lose it, and which too many people argue doesn't exist. One day we'll all move beyond that - and much progress has obviously come already - but the day is most definitely not here yet. And I have it much easier than some because I'm so comfortable in one of the binary camps. Much harder for those who don't happen to fit in what is really just an artificial box.

Help! At this rate I'll turn into some kind of gender theorist/activist which has never been the plan for someone who just wants to get on with life as best she can. I never thought I'd be typing anything along the lines of any of the above but then I realised, at least intellectually, that I am not a woman stuck in a man's body. I am a woman in my body, which is thus a woman's body. On other levels I haven't grasped that and perhaps never will because the effects of the last 42 years run so deeply.

But enough moaning - most days now are fine. Such a massive contrast to a year ago. Today was fine.

Actually today was good. And I didn't even have to spend hours repeatedly slapping on the aloe vera post laser. And a possibility of some good laser news for the future. And someone was very apologetic for not stopping for a chat when they passed me on Saturday. No need - I hadn't even spotted them! And a 90p cheese and onion toastie was enough for lunch in town. I've even had a visitor, which is almost an annual occurrence.

Tomorrow will probably be good too. And if there is abuse that's normally fine. Most days I just ignore it now. It's verbal not physical so unless I'm having a bad day it doesn't really wound. Yes, tomorrow will be good.

If you've read all that and are wondering, the next day was good.  Time spent with a friend.  And zero incidents of transphobic idiocy in the three miles walking to and from her house.  Stubble is more obvious today but intellectually I know that I notice it far more than anyone else does.  And I'd forgotten just how sore it can be to shave in the days after a laser treatment and how black the burnt hair under the skin looks.  Ouch. But it's worth it.