Note: This article contains spoilers for episodes of Steven Universe right up to the end of season 2. All kinds of plot and character details are discussed, so proceed with caution. I’m also going to talk a lot about the Bible and Christianity, so if that’s not your thing, now you know.
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In many respects I appear to be, as O am, highly privileged. I’m white, cisgendered, privately educated, and I’m in a stable mixed-gender relationship. But there are two ways I’m not privileged. I’m bisexual, which is awesome but frustrating. And then there’s the subject of this post: I have a chronic debilitating illness. I’ve had it all my adult life, and I still don’t know what it is. It’s been classed as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which is a diagnosis of exclusion – in other words, they’ve ruled out lots of things, and slapped a descriptive label on what’s left. No-one has proposed any sort of causal mechanism for my symptoms, which are now mostly worse than ever. I discovered the most effective drug for symptomatic relief myself, quite by accident.
The symptoms are invisible and unpleasant: wildly variable gut function and dysfunction, shooting muscle pains, and near-perpetual exhaustion. The gut trouble is extremely uncomfortable, socially embarassing, and makes me very worried about my attractiveness. (As far as I know it’s very rarely even noticeable to others, but I can’t escape the self-consciousness.) The tiredness hampers me in my professional work and my domestic tasks including childcare. It’s much more debilitating, day by day, than my intermittent poor mental health. And it never gets any better.
My previous employer sent me to see Occupational Health, just as my current employers are about to. This is supposed to be a form of support, but it serves mainly to make one feel guilty for being ill, as though being incapacitated was a matter of volition. The previous Occupational Health doctor required me to trek up to Harley Street to be told that it wasn’t IBS (without any tests to check this). He also flatly informed me that my condition could not be regarded as a disability in law, despite the Disability Discrimination Act (now the Equalities Act) saying so in black and white. That meant his official advice to my employers was that they didn’t have to do a damn thing to help me manage my condition. I’m very much afraid the same is about to happen again.
I’m a union member, which has helped me in the past. I’d recommend union membership to almost anyone. The simple fact of being a prominent trades unionist was excellent leverage for getting small adjustments made. But my current employer does not recognise any unions. It has a ridiculous sockpuppet entity that it calls a staff consultation group, but it’s independent of management in the same way the Press Complaints Commission is independent of newspaper editors. And my illness means I can’t muster the energy to organise a union branch from scratch myself. And thanks to legal aid cuts, I couldn’t afford to take my employers to an employment tribunal if I needed to.
The side-effects suck too. I have a fairly substantial appetite, but eating only barely keeps me going. I find it a tremendous struggle to keep my weight above ‘underweight’ for my height. One day a fortnight ago I was so hungry I ate five meals, and still suffered a fainting fit that evening. Anyone who thinks it’s wonderful that I can eat what I want and not gain weight will be lucky to escape as the recipient of merely a hard stare. Similarly, the effects of my illness on my private life and inhibitions are at least as profound as the effect of five years of Catholic high school.
Next month I go to see a gastroenterologist to try and refine my diagnosis. (Thanks, NHS!) But knowledge won’t make me less disabled, just as passing that knowledge on to others won’t automatically make them stop making my life difficult. Having an invisible disability sucks, and there’s no support charity for diseases that have no name. I’m lucky that my many forms of privilege give me opportunities to fight back, but they don’t make it OK. It may very well never be OK.
A very short word is causing controversy in the Twittersphere. No, not YOLO; shorter than that. The word is cis, and it attracts pedants and bigots (and many who are both) with unfailing efficiency. Some of you may have seen me tangling with various people on Twitter on this subject, so I thought it might be worth collecting all the key points in one place.
A lot of the arguments I’ll be discussing are wildly irrelevant to any issues of real substance, so let’s establish how people are actually using the word. In short, cis parallels the use of trans as a short form of transgender; cisgender is an adjective describing a person whose gender identity matches the sex/gender assigned to them at birth; cis is short for this. That means that I am cis, and so are most other people. It’s a useful term, and it’s short. And the reason that there are discussions drawing attention the difference between cis and trans people is that trans people continue to get a hellishly raw deal in our society, even in legislation allegedly designed to address LGBTQ issues. (The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, for example, actually makes life harder for people who are married and then begin to transition.) Trans people started using cis in this way in order to make these discussions a little easier. After all, it’s hard to have a sensible discussion when the other party thinks they can define their own status as ‘normal’ without question. Clear terminology that actually relates to the subject in hand, and doesn’t transmit such assumptions, makes a difference.
So let’s dispense with a few of the most spurious objections. Firstly, the term is not, and was never intended to be, derogatory. It’s occasionally used to circumscribe groups like ‘white middle-class cisgendered straight men’ as being likely to be clueless and privileged. But honestly, if the meanest thing people are doing to you is observing that you’re unaware of your own extreme good fortune, you have it pretty easy. No, cis is technical language, clinical in the same way that transgender can sometimes be, but with the advantage that if it applies to you, you don’t have to go to an actual clinic to be taken seriously about it.
Secondly, it has absolutely no connection whatever to sissy. Sissy comes from sister, and has a very obvious derogatory meaning of ‘effeminate man’. (Of course, the idea that it’s bad for a man to display feminine traits is both sexist and transphobic.) Although English-speakers universally pronounce cis the same as the first syllable of sister, it’s originally a Latin word pronounced almost exactly like the English word kiss. Sissy was already well-established by the time that any of the modern uses of cis took off.
Thirdly, some people object to being labelled. Frankly, if you’re happy to apply labels like ‘gay’ or ‘transgender’ to others, you shouldn’t flinch from accepting labels like ‘straight’ or ‘cisgender’ yourself. To argue otherwise is simply self-indulgent. If you expect to have such an argument taken seriously, you must have a pretty cushy life. I personally think it’s flat out wrong to suggest that the commonest position is ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ in a way that others aren’t; but even if you don’t, it’s harmless to apply clear, functional labels to commonplace positions.
On to the more substantial (though still tangential) points. Cis has not been dragged kicking and screaming into the English language by neologism-toting lefty gender activists. It has a well-established use in chemistry: Organic molecules are essentially strings of carbon atoms with bits tacked on. They’re generally pretty floppy, and the tacked-on bits rotate freely. But if you have a double-bonded pair of carbon atoms (as in the raw materials for polythene, PVC or Teflon) the structure is rigid, and the extra bits are in fixed orientations relative to each other. A molecule is called a trans isomer if the bits point away from the double bond in opposite directions, and a cis isomer if they point the same way. No organic chemist would see anything remarkable in this usage.
So why is cis the opposite of trans? Because that’s the exact meaning it has in Latin. In Latin, cis and trans are prepositions, meaning ‘on the near side of’ and ‘across, on the far side of’. Used as prefixes, they turn up in placenames quite a lot. The ancient Roman Republic had provinces of Gallia Cisalpina and Gallia Transalpina. Rendered into English as Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul, the names literally mean Gaul on this side, and on that side, of the Alps. Similarly, ancient Germany was thought of as Cisrhenane (on the near, i.e. Roman-occupied, side of the Rhine) or Transrhenane (pretty much the whole of Germany). “Transylvania” is another example of this naming convention – it means ‘beyond the forest’ – but as far as I know there was never a *Cisylvania. As late as 1867, when the Austrian Empire was divided into quasi-independent ‘Austria’ and ‘Hungary’ sections, the western part was known as Cisleithania and the eastern part as Transleithania, after the otherwise insignificant river Leitha. It’s not a coincidence that in all these examples, the ‘cis’ side is the side aligned with the imperial capital, and the ‘trans’ side the more troublesome side, requiring pacification or appeasement.
I’ve seen it objected that the Latin cis and trans are thus prefixes and cannot be standalone words. This is self-evident bunk. Practical examples can be found throughout Caesar’s Gallic War. For instance, book 4, paragraph 4, includes “et cis Rhenum dispositis praesidiis Germanos transire prohibebant” – “and [the Menapii], having placed guards on this side of the Rhine, hindered the Germans from crossing”. Other examples are easy to find. It might be countered that these words are prepositions, and in the modern English usage they are being employed as adjectives. Well, language change happens. We are not speaking Classical Latin, or even Vulgar Latin. The chemists got there first, and did what speakers of dominant languages generally do – they adapted bits of another language to their own purposes. It may jar with an English speaker than in French parking, smoking and camping are nouns and not participles, but so what? They’d make for terrible English, but they’re acceptable French. Similarly cis and trans make for perfectly satisfactory English adjectives.
But in the end, the most important thing I’d say to my fellow cis people who object to this usage is this: if it bothers you more that people describe you as ‘cis’ than that trans people suffer so much terrible discrimination, if that’s what you’re dedicating your time and energy to fighting – adjectives, rather than assault and exclusion – you need to take a good hard look at yourself in the mirror. You are not born with the automatic right to apply labels to others and not receive them yourself. You don’t get to choose how other people experience their own gender, and you don’t get to tell them how to feel about it. So if someone else applies an entirely functional and innocuous label to you, don’t react as though it burns you to accept it. Don’t waste the campaigning energies of trans activists on nonsense about parts of speech; they have better things to do, and it’s a safe bet that you do too.
(I talk about the law quite a lot here, and not as much as I might about my anger on behalf of LGBT Christians; another of whom has written a fine post of her own on the topic.)
These aren’t fun times for left-leaning Anglicans like myself. The women bishops measure may not have been kicked into the long grass, but the ball has definitely stopped moving for a bit. I wrote recently on the dismal contrast between the sexist exclusion ingrained in our modern church and the breadth and inclusiveness of the early church shown in the Acts of the Apostles. And then, just for a moment, things started looking better.
Next Friday, the House of Laity (which had failed to reach the necessary 2/3 majority on women bishops) will convene in an extraordinary session to consider a motion of no confidence in its chair, Dr Philip Giddings. Dr Giddings, who teaches politics at the University of Reading, is also Chairman of the Church’s Council for Mission and Public Affairs, a member of the Archbishops’ Council – and most significantly, convener of Anglican Mainstream. This extremist pressure-group emerged when Archbishop Rowan Williams attempted to appoint Dr Jeffrey John, then Canon Theologian at Southwark Cathedral, as suffragan (assistant) Bishop of Reading, in the Diocese of Oxford. Dr Williams bowed to conservative pressure and withdrew the nomination; Dr John went to be Dean of St Albans instead. The hideously mis-named Anglican Mainstream has subsequently aimed to stand in the way of all inclusion and diversity in the Church of England; it also has links to the schismatic ‘GAFCON’ faction in the wider Anglican Communion, and supports harmful ‘ex-gay’ therapies. So having Dr Giddings as chair of the House of Laity is pretty much like having the Speaker of the House of Commons being an active member of UKIP. I sincerely pray that the motion of no confidence succeeds.
At the same time that this motion was announced, the Prime Minister announced that he had changed his mind, and would now support religious as well as secular equal marriage. This came as very cheering news, and liberals and libertarians across the political parties rejoiced. (I noticed Louise Mensch, for example, praising the move – she’s also been arguing that the Church of England should lose its representation in the House of Lords if it will not admit women as bishops.) It seems probable that the change was prompted by the women bishops vote: it gives the Conservatives a way to look more progressive than the Church at the drop of a mitre. The nay-sayers within the Conservative Party were predictable. Foremost among them was backbench tub-thumper Peter Bone, MP for Wellingborough, who along with his sidekick Philip Hollobone recently lent his support to a failed move to repeal the Human Rights Act. Let’s not forget that the Human Rights Act is one of the main pieces of legislation in the UK which protects religions from unwarranted interference by the government. But Bone and Hollobone have so far proved to be altogether hollow; they clearly annoy the Prime Minister and the Speaker as much as they annoy those on the Opposition benches. So things were looking up.
Then came today’s thunderclap.
Maria Miller, who as Culture Secretary will have responsibility for putting the equal marriage legislation through parliament, announced in the House of Commons that although religious equal marriage would indeed be in the Bill, the Church of England and the Church in Wales would be specifically banned from conducting same-sex weddings. This is a staggeringly unjust move (which Stonewall completely ignore in their fawning response). For one thing, the Church in Wales is not established by law, and has not been since 1920. It therefore seems very peculiar for the government to restrict its freedom of action like this (and the Archbishop of Wales thinks so too). For the established Church of England, the situation is no less baffling. Under the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919 and the Synodical Government Measure 1969, the acts of the General Synod have the force and effect of acts of parliament, and may touch on any issue relating to the Church. It’s already apparent from the equal marriage proposals for other churches that the churches themselves will have to make their own specific provisions if they wish to conduct same-sex weddings; no religious group will be obliged by law to do so. So given that the Church of England would have to pass a legally-binding measure in order to introduce its own equal marriage provision anyway, and that an existing act of parliament could not generally stop it doing so, it seems utterly needless to include an extra ban in the equal marriage bill. It is folly.
Sir Tony Baldry MP, who as Second Church Estates Commissioner represents the Church of England in the House of Commons (when not working as an MP, a lawyer, or director and shareholder of several oil companies, or driving into lots of street furniture), tried to defend the move. He did so in bafflingly essentialist terms, arguing for distinctive and complementary roles for men and women, and that “removing from the definition of marriage this complementarity is to lose any social institution where sexual difference is explicitly acknowledged.” Sir Tony may wish to look again both at British society and the Church in particular, before he suggests again that unequal marriage is the sole bastion of gender difference in our society. I’d love to think it was, and that this was the last barrier before the destruction of the patriarchy! He might also like to look again at Galatians 3:28 before he next waves his order paper to defend sex discrimination: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
There’s a lot of disingenuous claptrap, espeically from the likes of Peter Bone, about ‘redefining marriage’. This is, fundamentally, a big fat lie. Civil marriage in England and Wales has existed since 1837, and in the run up to the change in the law the previous year there was a great deal of fulmination in the press from clergy and self-appointed experts as to the wrongness of taking marriage away from the Church. The Church had only had it since 1754, when the Church of England (and perhaps Jews and Quakers) were collectively given total control of marriages in England and Wales; prior to Lord Hardwicke’s Act of the previous year, there had been a thriving trade in clandestine, but nonetheless valid, marriages in places such as the Fleet Prison. But since 1837, it has been entirely legal for consenting adults to be married by a registrar, who will almost certainly be a member of the laity, and has stood a good chance of being female for much longer than Anglican priests have. So it very much appears that in the law of the land, marriage is whatever parliament says it is, rather than what a dictionary-thumping bigot on the government back-benches claims it is. Similarly, no change in the law has been proposed which will compel any religious group to do anything, nor will it restrict the use of terms like ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, nor will it compel faith schools to misrepresent their own faith in teaching. Those interested in the history of the Church of England may take note that the man who commissioned its Authorized Version of the Bible, King James I & VI, Supreme Governor of the Church, addressed his male lover, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, as ‘husband‘, and appears to have planned some kind of marriage to him.
It’s been suggested that the reason to shore up unequal marriage in the Church of England (which was unlikely to disappear promptly anyway) is to prevent legal challenges from same-sex couples who would, if they were instead of opposite sexes, be entitled as of right to get married in their local parish churches. However, there is a precedent for working around this problem: the Matrimonial Causes Act 1965 allows a parish priest who does not wish to marry divorcees to decline to do so [link opens Word file], and to rule that their church may not be used for this purpose. Whatever one may think of the ethics of this provision, allowing an individual opt-out would surely be more inclusive than banning two whole denominations from doing what any other religious group may freely choose to do. As an aside – the current GOV.UK page on arranging a wedding instructs anyone wanting an Anglican church wedding to contact their vicar – even though many people live in parishes that never have a vicar because they have rectors instead, or which currently have a priest-in-charge, or no parish priest at all. So don’t trust everything the government or the civil service tell you about marriage or the Church of England.
So, in short, we have the secular parliament putting its boot into the business of churches, established and disestablished, and telling them what services they may or may not hold. There’s plenty of precedent for this; in 1928, despite the 1919 Act mentioned earlier, the House of Commons stopped the Church of England from adopting a new Prayer Book that the Church Assembly (precursor to the General Synod) had approved. It didn’t get approval until 1966, and in the intervening years any priest who used the 1928 Prayer Book (which had been issued as a sort of consultation document) was breaking the law. A similar, though more bitterly partisan, clash had occurred in 1874 with the passage of the Public Worship Regulation Act. This Act strictly regulated what service books, clothing, ornaments and rituals could be used in the Church of England. Benjamin Disraeli’s Conservatives, having somewhat unexpectedly won their first absolute Commons majority since the 1841 election, rushed through a piece of legislation which appealed to the Protestant tendencies of the Queen and the Prime Minister. William Ewart Gladstone, Leader of the Opposition, was high-church himself, and was revolted by the politicisation of worship. Five priests were imprisoned for worshipping God in ways contrary to the Act. Ritualism was a hot topic in Victorian times; in 1898 the founder of the Protestant Truth Society, John Kensit, started an anti-ritualist riot in Kensington on Good Friday, in protest at what he regarded as unacceptable Catholic practices in the Church of England. Action ceased to be taken under the 1874 Act in 1906, but it stayed on the statue books until 1965.
So what does all this mean for me, as a queer Anglican? For one thing, it means I would get married in a register office, not a church. Just as Gladstone feared, the worship of the Church of England has again become a political football, and I don’t wish to make my own marriage a part of that. For another thing, like many queer Anglicans, I also am a ritualist. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the campness of a world in which men wear dresses and sing, and everything is settled by arch remarks over port or gin, has long appealed to the other-than-straight members of our faith, and I am no exception. I experience the divine through music, artistic imagery, philosophical exploration, drama, and formalised worship. I do not rely on the dry reading of a single version of scripture, and the interpretation of a single minister, in order to learn about the ancient world from which my faith derives. I find the ‘beauty of holiness’ to be a compelling element of worship. And I regard John Kensit as an odious bigot. (It should be noted that Kensit died a slow, unpleasant death from a head wound caused by a thrown chisel during one of his speeches; I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, nor blame him for it, but a dead bigot is still a bigot.) While there is much to admire about Disraeli, including his own camp sensibilities, pride in his Jewish heritage, and championing of romantic friendship, nevertheless his legislative programmes were bad news in many ways, and my spiritual forebears became political prisoners as a result. Others, among them many Christian Socialists such as Percy Dearmer, were prevented from practising their religion as their consciences dictated.
But beyond all this, I am a believer in the validity of the Church of England as a church. I know full well that it separated from the Western (Catholic) Church over a marriage dispute; but it has its spiritual roots in the Reformation, and the desire of many who, like Martin Luther, started out as faithful Catholics, to see the Church better itself rather than pretend to be perfect already. I believe that our bishops are bishops in exactly the same way as Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bishops. I also believe that the Presiding Bishop of the Anglican Church in America (who is a straight woman) and the (established) Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm (who is a lesbian) are just as much bishops as the Pope himself is, and frankly, they both do a rather better job of it. Moreover, both wish to remain in communion with the Church of England, which the Pope scarcely recognises as a church. And so the Church of England should not have to bow to Rome to ask whom it may ordain and consecrate to ministry, and it should not have to nod to Westminster to agree whom it may and may not marry. If (as it appears) the UK Government will not respect Synodical Government, this is yet another compelling argument for the full independence and disestablishment of the Church of England.
Let’s have a church – or possibly more than one – that can reflect the diversity of this country, and not be used as a punchbag by ideologues of all stripes. I want to see a church that consecrates women as bishops, marries same sex couples, and can put on a show with bells and smells if it wants to. But I want to see a church that is free to do that – not a church that is forced by law to do, or not do, any of it.
Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance. Separately from anything else I say in this post, I want you to remember the brutality and injustice suffered by trans people around the world, educate yourself about trans issues, and if you can, do something positive to help.
Today was also day two of the winter session of the General Synod of the Church of England. This fantastically bureaucratic, partly democratic body is the main governing organ of the mother church of the Anglican Communion, and one of the largest Christian churches in Britain. And today, that church quite frankly shot itself in a foot which hadn’t fully healed from the last blast; it voted against the latest proposed code to introduce women bishops.
That’s a slightly unfair characterisation – in fact, the measure received the required 2/3 majority from the Houses of Bishops and Clergy, and only just missed it in the House of Laity. And the introduction of women bishops has already been agreed; the debate is about when, and how to do it without alienating people whose views on the priesthood are closer to Rome than to Canterbury (or Uppsala).
What bothers me, as a relatively agnostic member of this church, and a queer feminist, is how far we’ve come, in a negative sense, since the days of the early church. I think St Luke, in particular, is fairly clear who’s welcome, and who can lead.
Luke is the probable author of the Acts of the Apostles, which was the only one of the many books of ‘Acts’ kicking around the Hellenistic Near East to be taken up by the church at large. The book continues the same story, in the same style, as the Gospel attributed to Luke. And the way the story unfolds appears to me to say something quite specific about how the early church saw itself.
Firstly, in Acts 2, we’re reminded that Judaism in those days was a diverse and complex community of faith; those celebrating Pentecost in Jerusalem include Jews from all over the region, including modern-day Turkey, and Egypt. (The Jewish community in Alexandria produced the Greek version of the Tanakh which was adopted by the Roman church as its Old Testament.)
But it’s the wider picture of the early Christian church that especially interests me. After Jesus’ death, the community in Jerusalem was led by his brother James, whose murder is described in Acts 12:2. James, known as ‘the Just’, and latterly as ‘the Brother of God’, was a rabbi, as Jesus had been – a faithful Jew, and a member of the local (but not national) religious establishment. And like his brother, he was from Galilee, beyond Samaria – a far northerner, and a stranger in the eyes of national leaders. In many ways, he was very much the sort of person one might expect to find leading a splinter group of Pharisaical Judaism in those days.
But the church was spreading out beyond Jerusalem, and far more unlikely people came to be involved. The first specifically identified African person to become a Christian shows up in Acts 8. We never learn this person’s name; but they are identified as a eunuch, a senior civil servant in the Treasury of the sovereign queen of Ethiopia. This makes it highly likely the eunuch was what we would regard as a black African; the kingdom of Ethiopia was beyond Greek-dominated Egypt, and continued to be ruled by an indigenous dynasty. The eunuch’s devotion to Hebrew scripture, and Philip’s willingness to accept him into the community, are particularly significant: the Torah (Leviticus 21:16-24) forbade the priests of Israel from having any contact with eunuchs, which it declared to be a defiling influence. The later prophets had taken a different view: the book of Isaiah depicts God promising the Temple – seat of the priesthood – and an everlasting name, to faithful eunuchs. Philip’s actions can definitely be seen as following the prophet’s challenge to the Law.
The movement to spread the faith more widely became the pet project of a Hellenistic Jewish travelling salesman – Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known as St Paul. As a Syrian, Paul was a Roman citizen and not a Judaean subject; and he had previously been a fierce opponent of the new sect. But his new zeal brought him into contact with a wide range of people, and took him further afield than ever. His first European convert was a Hellenistic Jew like him – and she became the leader of the first church in Europe. Her name was Lydia of Thyatira, and she was a seller of purple cloth. Excuses are sometimes made about how this must have been her husband’s or father’s business, but the text doesn’t mention them – just Lydia, and her profession. It’s ironic that the trade in purple supplied the Roman aristocracy with the formal robes which gave rise to the attire of modern bishops in the western Church. Yet in most of the churches which follow from Lydia’s beginning, women can’t even be priests, and even in those where they can, they often can’t become bishops.
So the picture Luke gives of the early church is of an institution that, in just three people, spans three continents, three careers (religion, public service, and business), three ethnic groups, and three distinct gender expressions. It’s a damnable shame to us all that the institution they founded now excludes, discriminates and harms people because of who they are, what they do, and how they express their identities. And I, at least, am not going to leave, or to shut up about this.