Death, grief and a pilgrimage

“We are all just passing through. Our purpose here is to learn, grow and love. And then we return home.” Queen Elizabeth II

I wonder what we are learning at the moment now that the Queen who said these words is no longer with us. What has her death taught us?

I hope it has taught us that it is ok to talk about death and to take time to  grieve, to express our sadness. When my mother died thirty years ago, very suddenly in her late fifties I know people avoided me, not knowing what to say. I wasn’t sure how long I was ‘allowed’ to be sad. So I didn’t show my sadness, my loss. I had started a new course, a Masters at university and told no one what had happened on that first day of term, when I couldn’t come in. I couldn’t deal with my upset being triggered by the sympathy of strangers. The effort of containing or swallowing grief was exhausting. I am still paying for that today.

If nothing else I think the past week has shown us how much we human beings need rituals, community and a sense of belonging to something bigger than our individual selves. This is particularly acute at a time of great loss or disaster but I think it is true always.

In past times that something bigger was always God and religion  provided the rituals through which life’s great events from birth to death were mediated. Some people’s reaction when receiving news of the Queen’s death has been to go to a church. Last week lots of churches put on impromptu services and many people who were not regular church goers went, to be among others and to hear comforting words and music.  But it is no longer part of the fabric of most lives, nor is church an automatic go-to in times of difficulty as it used to be.

However we, as humans, haven’t changed nor have our emotions, and we still need to do something to acknowledge and process our loss.

The recognition of that at times like this, whether conscious or unconscious moves us to act. The language used by those interviewed who have queued for hours to either catch a glimpse of her coffin as it went on its journey, or to walk past her at the lying-in-state at Westminster Palace, conveys the compulsion many of us feel when someone important has died or a tragedy has occurred. It jolts us out of our everyday. “I had to do something.” “I felt compelled to come, I don’t know why.”

People will be mourning the late Queen or mourning the loss of a loved one through the Queen’s death. We are drawn to do something to help alleviate our loss. We want to expunge the shock, make sense of the loss, go on a journey, and be in the company of other mourners, to have a shared experience particularly if it involves some hardship.  I haven’t yet heard anyone or any commentator used the language of religion or spirituality to describe their or others feelings and thoughts. But the queuing to see the late Queen’s coffin is a pilgrimage.

The Queen’s amazing life, duty and service was driven by her faith. The erosion of that faith of this country, the Christian faith, has left a chasm in the nation’s understanding of life and death. Some people have complained that ten days of mourning is too much yet when Queen Victoria died it was one year. We have lost many of the rituals around death. We don’t talk about it much. In fact we avoid it. We try to fend it off as long as possible as if to succumb to death is a failure. Our Queen almost seemed to defy it. We then try to discard grief quickly as if it was a nasty cold. Our fast paced lives do not have much time for prolonged sadness and contemplation – we must not stop.

Mourning rituals allow this space. They are put in place in so many religions so that we don’t have to think, we just know what we must do. For many, given the opportunity to do so, they went on a pilgrimage to see our late Queen’s lying-in-state. Perhaps we have learned that feeling off kilter, out of sorts and unsettled is all part of the human condition, of grief and that death is very much a part of life.  

For Christians, and the Queen, death is not the end. She has returned home.

Queen Elizabeth’s death and our collective loss

It must be a difficult time for anti-monarchists in this country.  Apparently some anti-monarchists have been making unpleasant comments on social media. That is Twitter for you and there is no situation, however tragic, that some sad souls will not disrespect with up to 280 characters of venom.

There are also a good handful of well- known anti-monarchist Twitterati   i.e. those with many followers, feeling they have to say something on her death. This I assume is partly to differentiate themselves from the hateful bunch and condemn them and also because they tweet about most things and silence from them at this momentous time would be odd. Their pronouncements are respectful and usually start with the proviso “I’m not a monarchist but….” followed by “I’m still sad about her death because she was a ninety-six year old mother, grandmother and a widow” as if you can view her like you would your next door neighbour and her role as head of the country for seventy years and beloved global leader was of little relevance.  Another approach is “you don’t have to believe in the monarchy to realise this is sad for other people who do” which is a step further saying, ‘I do not feel sad.’

If only life was this simple. I think that the lens of republican or monarchist is actually pretty irrelevant when considering the loss of our Queen of seventy years. Regardless of your belief in the monarchy or not we are going through a seismic social shift, an upheaval and change,  the likes of which the vast majority of us have not seen in our lifetime. You may not feel sadness at her death but we are more complex creatures than our political identities can ever possibly express. This is a collective loss and will be felt by all in one way or another.   

It doesn’t matter whether your cupboard is full of mugs with royal memorabilia or you think the monarchy is outdated and a waste of public money. For every single person alive in Britain today the Queen will have been the backdrop of their lives regardless of whether they approved of her position or not. This country has been a monarchy for a thousand years and that has influenced its development and that of its people. It and she has shaped our national character and our collective psyche. We cannot opt out of that.

As humans we have some basic psychological needs which include a sense of belonging and community. As Queen of the United Kingdom and Head of the Commonwealth she reigned over hundreds of different types of people, providing a focus for belonging beyond class and race.  One unchangeable figure in our fast changing lives, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of this constancy both collectively and individually regardless of any belief in a monarchy.

 The words we are hearing from commentators all express her unfailing service, her discipline, duty and endurance and why she has been so pivotal in providing stability over the past seventy years …bedrock, rock, foundation, the best of the nation.  In psychoanalytic terms there is no doubt that her leadership provided what Winnicott called a ‘holding environment’ for all of us, particularly during times of crisis,  reassuring us that  ‘all shall be well’ to use one of her own favoured terms from Julian of Norwich. We may not have noticed it or acknowledged it during her life but we are feeling its loss now.

Indeed last night Mark Austin, BBC home affairs correspondent commented on how many people said they were feeling disorientated and insecure. And on social media there is a common tweet expressing surprise at feeling sad and lost, bewilderment as to why. Someone solid, stable, wise and constant has gone from our lives.   

I am so grateful to have lived in her reign and give thanks for all she gave to us. May she rest in peace.

Why I won’t be putting pronouns in my bio

Declaration of pronouns is a relatively new corporate practice in this country and one that has been embraced with surprisingly little debate. Not only has it become quite commonplace to put pronouns in email signatures and in bios on LinkedIn, and other social media, but it has been readily accepted as a sign of ‘inclusive’ language without any discussion as to what it really means. I have received many questions/queries about this, and so I have decided to explain why I will not be adding my pronouns to my bio on social media, email or anywhere else.

When you look at it objectively it is a rather odd practice. I have been working in the diversity space for a long time.  If we had seen a name with he/him/his next to it ten years ago we would have thought it strange. No one did it because we had not been asked to and no one would have known what it was for or what it meant. Back in 2016 I read about the furore surrounding Professor Jordan Peterson’s refusal to comply with the practice of using preferred pronouns at the University of Toronto saying it was compelled speech. I considered it pretty extreme and thought it would stay confined to North America, Canada and student campuses.  But here we are with the rather bizarre practice now being accepted by organisations as a  positive  sign of inclusion. But basic questions have been bypassed. So I am asking them.

Firstly are pronoun declarations in bios useful? Whether we are male or female shouldn’t really be very important and women often wish it wasn’t. But let’s assume it is considered important. With reference to bios, we may have both photos and names, even titles to guide us as to the sex of the person. Some names are neither male or female e.g. Robin, and these are often mistaken without a photo to guide us but that’s always been the case and it doesn’t cause offense. If you have one of those names you are used to it. Historically women have used male names so as to be taken more seriously and many women still don’t want to draw attention to their sex. For 99% of the population our sex is very clear so for the less than 1% of the population in the workforce who may want to identify as a different sex to the one they were born is it necessary for them to put pronouns after their name? Do they want to?  Perhaps if they have a male or gender neutral name and they are living as a woman they may like to. That’s fine although most men who transition adopt female names which helps others to identify them as women, and women adopt male names on transition.  

So the situations where the presence of she/her or he/his is really informative are very, very few. And declaring one’s pronouns has little practical purpose in most scenarios, given that we do not refer to individuals by their pronouns unless we are talking about them, rather than to them. So I think we can agree this isn’t about providing others with useful information.

What are the reasons then? There seem to be two groups of people  are doing so:  for one group it is personal choice to show support for trans people and the second group have been encouraged, eve compelled  to do so by their employer which also wants to show support for trans people. In this second situation it has become increasingly difficult to not abide by your employers’ suggested practice even though you are under absolutely no legal requirement to do so.

We have been told that the practice signals support for trans people, that it shows you are an ally and many believe that it is a harmless but kind and inclusive thing to do.  Some may have also seen others do it, people they respect and therefore they also believe it is the right thing to do. Fair enough. Employers have been told by certain lobby groups that in order to show they are an inclusive organisation their employees should put pronouns in bios and email signatures. Stonewall  recommends it as a policy which will earn its members marks in their LGBT workplace index scheme.  The case goes something like this “By adding pronouns to your signature it will show that you have thought about what it means to others, it opens you up as a safe and understanding person to anyone who is gender-non conforming in some way”. 

The certainty that one is being kind and inclusive to transitioning individuals has been challenged as some transitioned people have specifically said that the practice doesn’t help them at all, indeed it can put them on the spot if they haven’t yet reached a point of making their transition public. It can also highlight their transition when they may just want to blend in and not have the subject drawn attention to at every meeting (as is happening in some firms) or in every communication. 

And the wider question is why do we want to flag up an ‘allyship’ in this way in a public space like social media or our work emails.  We don’t flag up any other ‘allyship’ we may have. Men do not show they are women’s allies by putting a symbol in their bio nor do able-bodied people feel they need to announce that they are understanding of disabled people.  In fact we don’t signal any other aspect of ourselves to show other under-represented groups that we are an ally. So why this particularly small group?  And why do we show it by doing something that is a lot more than inserting a symbol, but actually changes the meaning of our language?

Pronouns are simply a linguistic tool to help people describe what they see. In English this means he for man, she for woman and they for plural of both and indeed sometimes they when the sex of the subject isn’t really important or we don’t know. The recent use of pronouns as declarations of identity changes our understanding of language – so that pronouns are used to tell us what we may not see, i.e. they describe subjective feelings rather than observable facts – and that changes the way we think. Which is why declaration of pronouns is not just a passive response, it is an active participation in an ideology. 

In fact the declaration of pronouns is a very specific vehicle to proclaim your belief in this ideology. This is gender identity ideology – the belief that all human beings are born with an innate sense of whether they are a man or a woman and that this feeling takes priority over biological sex. It is not an ideology I subscribe to.

 I see no reason why human beings as a species should throw out the categories of biological males and biological females in 2022. The foundation of feminism is the existence of a constant universalistic and ahistorical category of woman. This cannot include biological males or it isn’t feminism. Women everywhere are oppressed on the basis of their sex not their gender identity.

Changing the meaning of pronouns from an observable description to a subjective feeling has  consequences. Three years ago I came across an article with the dramatic title ‘Pronouns are Rohipnol’ by Barra Kerr that caught my attention and made me think. It is described as a thought -provoking article looking at the psychological impact of using preferred pronouns. The author argues that far from being harmless, the use of preferred pronouns, i.e. pronouns which indicate the opposite sex to the one you see before you does harm us. She likens it to memorising a colour the name of which is written down in another colour.

“Forcing our brains to ignore the evidence of our eyes, to ignore a conflict between what we see and know to be true, and what we are expected to say, affects us. USING preferred pronouns does the same. It alters your attention, your speed of processing, your automaticity. You may find it makes you anxious. You pay less heed to what you want to say, and more to what is expected of you. It slows you down, confuses you, makes you less reactive. That’s not a good thing.”

Essentially her argument is that since time began human beings have used their senses to distinguish between the sexes. Human beings learn to distinguish male from female at a very early age via face, gait and voice. Research shows that babies as young as three months can distinguish between the sexes and we ignore this inbuilt capability at our peril. This is most important of course for women and girls because men sometimes present a threat to our safety. Who hasn’t been walking down an empty road at midnight and seen the figure of someone walking towards them only to see that it was another woman and breathe a sigh of relief? Pronouns and gender identity here are irrelevant. Men commit almost all stranger violence not women. We are taught this from an early age and awareness of potential danger informs all our movements almost without conscious thought. Gender identity ideology that teaches girls that boys and men may be girls and women and  vice versa because their real sex is how they feel inside goes against nature and our deepest instincts. The obvious example of this is the media practice of using preferred pronouns for a male rapist who ‘identifies’ as a woman.

  I am certainly not advocating that people should never use people’s preferred pronouns in everyday interactions but as stated above we only really use them when talking about someone not talking to someone.  I do this as a common courtesy to those I know and if it was a situation in which I felt uncomfortable doing so I would get round it by referring to them by their name.

 The corporate practice of consistent declaration of everyone’s own pronouns in bios is different. It is a symbolic act. If you believe and support gender identity ideology then of course you are free to put pronouns in your bio. But I agree with Debbie Hayton, a trans woman who said “It is part of a campaign to change human society. It is not a neutral act, and it is not necessarily kind,” and as I do not want to be part of that campaign, I will not be doing so.

The inherent misogyny of pornography

Reading the reports in the news about the Tory MP, Neil Parish who watched pornography whilst in the House of Commons, people’s outrage is clear. But is this outrage because a public figure, an MP  watches porn, or just that he watches it at work? It is hard to tell. (He isn’t the first.  Damien Greene had to resign in 2017 after he was found to have lied about the presence of pornographic images on his computer, again it was a work computer in the House of Commons.)

 The Labour Party said it would be a “sackable offence” for MPs to watch pornography in the Commons chamber, which leads to the question when do people think is it acceptable to watch pornography? The fact that female MP’s were in the accused’s vicinity at the time has added to the sense of offense, and the incident indeed came to light because of a meeting of female MP’s and the 1922 Committee.  It is now being discussed in the context of the wider issue of misogyny and sexism in the House of Commons.  This surely reveals the fact that people know full well that pornography is in itself, wherever it is watched, disrespectful to women.  So has there been an acknowledgement that the consumption of pornography is itself misogynistic and sexist wherever it is consumed? Or, as is more likely, are people still holding on to the argument that it is ok to watch in the privacy of your own home but nowhere else? Surely it is either offensive material or it isn’t, wherever it is consumed?

We all know that a very high proportion of men, estimated at 50%  (and some women) consume pornography but no one wants to think that their colleague sitting next to them in the office does, let alone people in public office. But why?  It’s like we know it goes on but don’t want to hear about it. Yet we should be asking why don’t we, as a society condemn pornography outright? Our disapproval is only revealed, as now, when someone is caught watching it in public, someone perhaps that we think shouldn’t watch it at all.  It is a kind of hypocrisy.

Yet there remains a presumption that in the right circumstances the consumption of pornography is acceptable and harmless. That in itself is easily challenged. Even when confined to a mainly private activity the impact of it is felt throughout society. We do acknowledge that it is not appropriate for children to watch pornography as it normalises sexual violence and warps their views on relationships.

However discussion about what it does to sexual and wider relationships between adults is more muted. In February 2020 the Government Equalities Office published a research study which found that there was substantial evidence of an association between the use of pornography and harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours towards women.   “However,” the report states, “ it is clear that a relationship does exist and this is especially true for the use of violent pornography”.

The report stated that four clear themes from the literature emerged:

1. Viewing women as sex objects.

2. Shaping men’s sexual expectations of women.

 3. Acceptance of sexual aggression towards women

4. Perpetration of sexual aggression

Those of us who campaigned against pornography decades ago claiming it exploits and dehumanises women and distorts healthy relationships between men and women, were accused of being pro censorship, aligning ourselves to the religious right and just being downright prudes. Many on the liberal left including some feminists actually embraced pornography as being pro sexual liberation and argue that it could be empowering for women, in rather the same way they argue that prostitution is also empowering for women. What a smart patriarchal strategy! But then women have colluded with their own oppression throughout history. Back then we were discussing top shelf magazines in newsagents and sex shops. Then the internet arrived and thanks to that and the liberal laissez faire approach pornography is now one of the world’s biggest and most profitable industries. Sound healthy?

The explosion of online pornography means that it is now available to pretty much anyone who can use a smartphone. Even back in 2020 the popular site Pornhub, alone had 2.4 billion visits a month and we know lockdown led to a huge increase in the consumption of online porn.  Pornography saturates our culture, influences our values, how we view sex and relationships and particularly demeans the status of women and girls. Consumers demand and are fed more and more extreme imagery and a huge percentage of this depicts sexual violence. This isn’t selling sex, it is selling abuse. It is estimated that nearly 70% of all pornography depicts some kind of violence to women.

It is time that we started making the connection between the ubiquity of pornography and the increasing sexualisation, violence and abuse of women.

A Breath of Fresh Air. Review of the Power of Difference by Simon Fanshawe OBE

Simon Fanshawe OBE was a co-founder of Stonewall and is now co-founder of consultancy Diversity By Design so knows more than most about diversity and inclusion. He has written a cracker of a book, full of insight and compassion, that should stir up the diversity and inclusion pond and provoke thought.  It may make some feel uncomfortable because it challenges current thinking but for others it will feel like a breath of fresh air.

There are a lot of books written on how to do diversity and inclusion. And there are classics, core texts often authored by people of great experience in the field which are usually well written as well as full of knowledge. We all have our favourites.  Mine include, Why Women Mean Business by Avivah Wittenberg Cox and Alison Maitland, The Value of Difference by Binna Kandola, and the very practical guide, Inclusive Leadership by Charlotte Sweeney and Fleur Bothwick. A more recent addition is Rebecca Steele and Alison Maitland’s Indivisible. I have now added the Power of Difference to my list.

The book’s  strength is revealed in its subtitle – ‘where the complexities of diversity and inclusion meet practical solutions’ and its power and unique approach is Fanshawe’s ability to discuss the different debates, challenge some of the current trends, unearth the difficulties and discomfort of diversity and inclusion and suggest ways forward.

Human beings are still most comfortable surrounded by their own tribe – that may be family, village, or department at work. Over centuries, human beings have lived in small groups and developed their own ways of being, with common rituals and collective beliefs, a culture, rarely disrupted by outsiders. When resources are scarce any outsiders are a threat. It is only relatively recently that people have had to confront diversity in all its current forms. Movement of labour, our ability to travel, increased access to education, immigration and the emancipation of women and gay rights has resulted in huge social change.  Organisations are a part of wider society and reflect that change.

 Today in the UK we have a very diverse group of people living and working together and it is a challenge to shake off centuries old instincts and important to find enough common values to bring different identities together without threat. Fanshawe understands this even though these are my words not his. In addressing some of these challenges he does not shy away from some of the stickier issues that have surfaced – or in some cases been repressed – in the diversity world over recent years. The opposite in fact, he confronts them head on.

 Fanshawe introduces all the key themes in the first introductory chapter which gives you a flavour of the tone of the book: there are no ‘right’ ways, no mantras to recite, we are complex and flawed human beings and there will always be conflict among us, one wrong word or action doesn’t make us ‘bad’, we don’t always get on.  Read on!

Straight away the author provides examples of some topical conflicting views. Not everybody, whatever their colour or race subscribes to a BLM white privilege view of the world. In fact later in the book Fanshawe is critical of it himself. He argues that it doesn’t embrace the privilege of class – try telling a poor working class under educated white boy that he is privileged. He also says that the concept of privilege is static and therefore rules out possible change ‘It condemns any idea of solidarity between Black and White to the bin, in favour of unending division’.

In a similar vein he puts the extremely topical divisions over gender identity and sex on the table as it should be in every diversity seminar.  Not everyone believes that the concept of gender identity even exists let alone should be recognised as taking priority over biological sex. He notes that a number of corporates have embraced the idea of putting preferred pronouns at the bottom of their signatures with the best of motives – ‘to make people feel comfortable’. The problem is it doesn’t make everyone feel comfortable and employers need to recognise that. The whole rationale for pronouns is that your physical sex may not be actually your ‘real’ sex. We need pronouns to tell people who we really are. Many people do not ascribe to this belief or ideology and to make employees use pronouns is no more than coerced language.’

Sometimes in diversity one group’s interests are at the expense of another group’s. It is not a pretty mosaic.  It is crucial that we enable these tensions to surface and be debated even if we never agree on all of them. If we don’t, feelings go underground and resentment brews.  Fanshawe gives many practical pointers on how to manage in a way that allows individual expression and manages conflict well.

The author uses examples like the truth and reconciliation committee in South Africa and Northern Ireland where different views has resulted in loss of life which  show us that even in this extreme a way forward is possible. Forgiveness is not always possible but understanding is. In the same way in the less dramatic setting of a workplace we may disagree but it shouldn’t matter, we should listen and understand it.  Where it is the law of course it must be adhered to. But diversity in its broadest meaning is complex, it is managing difference types of people so they can all bring their best selves to work and be free to fulfil their potential and participate in the workplace.

Fanshawe frequently returns to the impact of identity politics on the diversity and inclusion industry and is well aware that there has been a growing tendency in this industry to have ‘right’ answers from which everyone must agree. ‘it is a peculiar feature of modern identity politics that the struggle for diversity is too often matched by a demand for rigid conformity.’ 

And what has happened he suggests is that  ‘the nobility of those causes has sometimes given rise to mantras that mask the complexity that needs to be understood to significantly improve those responses’. We are more than an identity and ‘If it is based entirely on rigid ideas of identity it produces little more than animosity and gridlock’. We need to have difficult discussions and we can live with  productive disagreement rather than agreement. The author also says that in many situations now disagreements are no longer about views but about the person… the offender of the prevailing view is ‘deligitimised’. Not agreeing with a prevailing view does not make someone a bad person.

The need for open and honest discussion brings us on to the need for psychological safety. In my own anecdotal survey of current topics that consultants are focusing on in diversity and inclusion, psychological safety came quite high up. Amy C Edmundson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard, describes psychological safety as being  ‘a climate in which raising a dissenting view is expected and welcomed. It’s all about creating an atmosphere in which you can speak out. Where making a mistake doesn’t lead to scorn or ridicule.’ This applies to diversity as much as it does to any other area of organisational life.

It is also very different from the concept of safe spaces which Fanshawe says is being dangerously misused. ‘Language that might offend is being confused with actions that actually do. Hurt feelings are equated with harm and demands with rights’ He says that diversity isn’t necessarily ‘safe’ but that safe spaces should offer safety for disagreement not safety from disagreement’.

He also is unimpressed with some organisation’s attempts at shutting down voices that may express a view not adhered to by the majority. If, Fanshawe writes, the response to a Twitter storm is to remove the offender this is stifling dissent and an alternative view. He is not advocating giving airtime to overt racism or sexist but says that ‘denying legitimate expression of different respectful views about social issues undermines trust rather than builds it’.

 As well as providing a timely critique of some of the ways in which the diversity and inclusion industry has gone off track, Fanshawe provides many examples and case studies on how to bring it back on the right path. At the end of each chapter is a box of the central points and many of these are practical tips like; reframing issues in terms of possibility rather than problems,  bringing together groups of people who have different values for a discussion, and how to design an interview to eliminate bias. There is so much more in this book than I have time or space for e.g. a critique of the use of acronyms for underrepresented groups and how unconscious bias training can cost millions but not change anything, how groupthink happens. Do go out and buy it. It is a classic.

Living in Love and Faith – Church of England’s confusion over sex, gender and gender identity

 ‘Living in Love and Faith: Christian teaching and learning about identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage.’

Introduction

The introduction of gender identity ideology into mainstream institutions has been a key strategy for global trans activists and to do so where possible avoiding democratic debate either in government or with the public. Bypassing individual country’s parliamentary systems the global lobby has articulated their demands within the framework of human rights and as such targeted the global human rights organisations e.g. Yokokarta Principles. Framing trans rights as human rights sounds reasonable until you understand exactly what these ‘rights’ are and how they may conflict with other social group’s rights – women’s rights.

In 2015 the UK’s successful LGB lobby group Stonewall added the T to LGB. Few objected at the time. Most people knew what transsexuals were and there were not very many of them. However what was less known was that trans had been redefined. Out went transsexual as ‘too medical’ and in came transgender, an altogether different concept based more on expression of gender, although the term gender identity was used. The trans lobby claims that these expressions are what signify that the person really is ‘the other sex’ regardless of whether they want to transition medically. This has been legitimised to some degree by the proclamation that we all have a ‘gender identity’ and that for some people it does not match their biological sex but for most it does.

Gender identity was not well known to the public until a few years ago when institutions began to use gender identity instead of sex in surveys and the word is now being used authoritatively although I have yet to hear a definition that doesn’t rely on gender stereotypes. It is a wholly subjective concept, relying on an inner feeling and as such is highly unsuitable to be a legal category. This however has been a key aim of the movement. See my post below

Once human rights organisations, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were persuaded of the necessity of including trans into the LGB rights movement it became much easier to introduce the concept as an already established human right and any opposition to trans demands looked regressive. Perhaps the fact that it is women and girls who are most affected by the implementation of this ideology meant that the male dominated leadership of institutions found little of concern. The small number of transexuals combined with a lack of understanding about the condition added to many institutions and governments ‘turning a blind eye’ to potential consequences on women’s and girls’ rights and allowed demands to be met without any any debate or public consultation. The control of language and discourse and the influence over key institutions like law, governments and education has been key to the trans lobby’s success so far.

This is a rather long preamble to my critique of the Church of England’s new teaching resource Living in Love and Faith. I have chosen the C of E because it is a good example of how one of the nation’s key institutions has been persuaded by a small powerful group to not only change language but adopt concepts that arguably have no scientific basis and are deeply controversial – without debate. Although the Church has lost considerable social influence in society it still has over 4,700 schools under its wing and education has been another key area for the trans lobby to target.

Living in Love and Faith

When the Archbishops announced this project in 2017, they spoke in terms of a ‘large scale teaching document around the subject of human sexuality. However, ‘It soon became apparent that a biblical, theological and inter-disciplinary exploration of sexuality and marriage would necessarily involve questions of identity,’ explained someone on the project team.

This resulted in renaming the project as ‘Living in Love and Faith: Christian teaching and learning about identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage.’

It was published at the end of 2020 without much fanfare as the pandemic was taking centre stage in most people’s lives. The resources are currently being rolled out in parishes, including my own, as a five session course. Nervous as to how the C of E would discuss identity following a number of conversations I have had with them over the past couple of years I have now read the booklet and it is even worse than I feared.

Session 2 Identity

‘There can be many different aspects identity including class, race and nationality. Our focus here is on sexual orientation and gender.’

We are off to a bad start. Sexual orientation is just that, an orientation, a sexuality, it is not an identity. The text goes on to say that there are disagreements in the church over these aspects of identity but doesn’t say what or why? The uncritical use of gender identity from the start is deeply worrying. It is this concept and its consequences about which there are indeed profound disagreements, with feminist opposing views being branded ‘transphobic’ and debate being silenced.

  • Identity, sexual orientation and gender

The subtitle immediately signals that this section is going to be a confusion of terms and concepts either ill-understood or deliberately obtuse. And it is. It is written in a style designed not to offend anyone, which results in a hesitant tone lacking in confidence. But as a Christian and a feminist it really offends me. I have spent the last three years writing to the Church about the error of walking down the Stonewall path and uncritically adopting all Stonewall definitions, without questioning any of it and then setting it out in a paper on bullying for Children in 2017 ( Valuing All God’s Children).  But to no avail. The addition of identity to the resources on Living in Love and Faith alerted me to the fact that another important Church resource was going to be preaching gender ideology. I continued my correspondence and warnings about adopting an uncritical approach. The language is careful not to preach instead using terms like ‘some people think’, but unfortunately concepts and language are used uncritically and the result is a couple of pages of absolute confusion.  Here I try to unpack it a bit.

The first sentence states that,

‘People are describing themselves as trans lesbian gay bisexual asexual intersex or even gender fluid.’  

This again confuses sexuality and identity. Lesbian, gay and bisexual are not identities they are sexualities, sexual orientations.

Trans is an identity for many, an ontological reality for others (transitioned transsexuals)

Intersex people are born with DSDs (disorders of sex development) – this is a medical condition – and they are fed up with being used to support ideologies like the gender ideologues’ ‘sex is on a spectrum’. They have a physical condition which makes it difficult to determine their sex at birth.  It is neither an identity nor necessarily how people describe themselves.

Gender fluidity has nothing to do with sexuality. I am not sure what it means and as it isn’t defined here I don’t think many people do know.  It may be that someone identifies as a man one day and a woman the next. However this refers to gender expression and if anything would fall into the category of identity.

The text continues with,

‘The word gender can be used to describe a person’s deeply rooted sense of themselves – that might itself have biological roots. This is typically called gender identity.’

There is no reference given or scientific justification for making this claim, nor are the two concepts used interchangeably in popular discourse. The word gender refers to social and cultural norms and expectations of how men and women live, behave and look in any society at any given time and as such is dynamic. It has been co-opted by trans activists and deliberately confused with gender identity in order to gain acceptance of the latter. Seemingly they have been quite successful. Sex is biological and a fact. Gender identity is a contested belief with no scientific foundation.

To avoid perhaps the very type of criticism that I am making now, the next paragraph does state that ‘language in this area is controversial’. Yes, indeed, it is not just controversial it is highly contested and I really wonder why the Church has felt the need to walk into this minefield?

In the next paragraph the term ‘assigned at birth’ is used. This is language only used with regard to intersex people, people with a DSD, when as mentioned above it is not clear which sex the baby may be from looking at its genitalia, and has been co opted by trans activists. Has anyone ever heard anyone say that a midwife or a doctor assigned a baby male? This is activist language being used by the Church of England. in fact only this weekend (March 27th) the BBC has been forced to changed its wording from ‘assigned female at birth’ to ‘women’ after a flood of complaints.

The text proceeds to refer to gender identity still without any definition of what it is and then states that those whose gender identity matches their sex may call themselves ‘cisgender’. ‘Cis’ is another example of activist language to which many women and men really object. What the label ‘cis’ does is make biological women a sub category of women and trans women are another sub category, so that we are all the same – women. This makes trans women feel better but 99.9% or more of the population have not been consulted. There is no consensus in adopting this language.  Again to cover all bases the text does say that some people might not accept this and that they may believe that biological sex cannot be separated from gender in this way. Again this is a confusing use of the words gender, gender identity and sex. It would have been better perhaps if the C of E had been very clear on its definitions at the beginning. As it is we are left with the impression that it doesn’t really understand the subject but feels that it ought to talk about it.

The next paragraph states that:

‘There are lots of words to describe different gender identities’.

We still have no definition of gender identity but the text proceeds with the assumption that the reader believes in gender identities. Are there different gender identities? Who says so? What on earth does this mean?  There are many ways of expressing ourselves and as men and women we can see how these differ throughout history. What does non-binary mean? Placing yourself on a continuum or not all is not an option for any animal or human being. We are all born male or female. Some may be gender non-conforming and express themselves in ways that do not match gender stereotypes. Feminism has always applauded that.  Instead of seeing a gender non-conforming girl as a tomboy gender identity ideology adopted here by the Church of England would suggest that she might not be  a girl, that she was either non binary or indeed a boy. In reality this is what is happening and why in the past seven years we have seen a huge increase in young girls being referred to gender clinics. Of the 5,500 children on the waiting list for GIDS ( its was 138 ten years ago,) over 70% are girls. Many of these girls are in fact lesbian, one third have autism and most have other mental health problems. Instead of being treated holistically their feelings are seen only through the funnel of transgenderism. It may be worth the Church looking at the interim report of the Cass Review which was published this week.   This affirmative approach to treating children is on its way out.

The booklet goes on to say,

‘we don’t know all the scientific reasons behind trans and non-binary identities yet, but research is beginning to suggest that gender identity may be affected by levels of hormones in the womb during key stages of pregnancy’.  Again this is quite an extraordinary and extremely controversial statement for the Church to make without any references to the actual research. in fact there is no data that confirms this presumption, quite the opposite.

“Data on genetic and hormone independent influence on gender identity are presently divergent and do not provide convincing information about the underlying etiology.”

The paragraph on dysphoria states that “responding to gender dysphoria among children is an especially complex area where there is much to learn”.  Yes there is, but sadly this is too late for many young people who have already been put on the road of medical transition. The interim Cass Report,(refs bove) as well as the government prohibition of  treating children under 16 with puberty blockers before that, are both  evidence that  the scandal of treating children medically is now being unearthed. GIDS itself is severely criticised in the report for taking an affirmative approach to children transitioning without addressing the other mental health and trauma issues that the majority of these kids have.

The booklet then defines sexual orientation as ‘tendency to feel sexual attraction to people of particular sexes or genders.’  This is again confusing/conflating sexualities with identities, saying people are ‘bisexual when attracted to both men and women and possibly other gender categories’. There are no other sex catogories, apart from male or female with which sexual attraction may occur.

What is the goal of the church by including gender identity under the broader auspices of identity?

It may have been helpful to give some numbers of transgender people in the country. You can expect the lobby groups, like Stonewall to put out the highest possible numbers to strengthen their cause but even they have an upper figure of approx. 500,000 i.e. fewer than 1% of the population. Even to get to this number the definition of transgender is much broader that the small group of transsexuals with which most members of the public are most familiar. In Stonewall’s glossary of definitions (which the C of E used in Valuing God’s Children) it states that

“Trans people may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms, including (but not limited to) transgender, transsexual, gender-queer (GQ), gender-fluid, non-binary, gender-variant, crossdresser, genderless, agender, nongender, third gender, bi-gender, trans man, trans woman,trans masculine, trans feminine and neutrois”…

Does the church really believe that there are lots of different gender identities rather than different ways of expressing ourselves? By not challenging some of this language and ideology, the Church is accepting and condoning it. There is no fence to sit on in this debate. The text refers to some people not using the language but it isn’t just language. It is the ideology of gender identity, a belief system that priorities gender identity over biological sex with all the consequences that has for women and girls’lives. There is no grounding in science or theology which is highly contested.

The project team and advisors included some of the great minds of Church leadership and and so it is extraordinary that this important teaching resource not only trots out concepts that belong to a questionable ideology but does so in a wholly incomprehensible way.

Police culture, men and misogyny

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) has issued a report which says it has found evidence of “disgraceful” bullying, misogyny, discrimination and sexual harassment in some ranks of the Met.

It has made 15 recommendations following “underlying cultural issues”, including officers joking about rape. The inquiry was launched in March 2018 into nine linked independent investigations concerning serving police officers from the Met.

The inquiry found evidence of messages exchanged between officers that were often highly sexualised, violent and discriminatory, and which were defended as “banter” by police officers

To those of us who have researched male attitudes to women in the workplace (Womens’s Work Men’s Cultures 2011) for quite a few years the findings of the IOPC report today are not in any way surprising.

There is a lot of talk now about police culture and how it needs to change.  Our understanding of culture often leads us to look to the top of an organisation ( e.g. all the current debate about Downing Street culture under the current PM) and yes, leadership sets the tone and has a huge influence on any organisation’s culture. But the makeup of the workforce, indeed the very work they do will also determine it too.

Male dominated organisations very often develop a ‘blokeish’ – for want of a better word –  culture. ‘It was only banter’ is frequently held up as an excuse for sexist language and humour.  Devaluing women is one way in which men bond, and sexual banter can alleviate stress if the work is dangerous, stressful or even boring. It can also act as a boundary, making it known to female colleagues that they are not wanted there. Sexual banter shores up a certain type of masculinity, often fragile and threatened. ( See In the Company of Men: Male dominance and sexual harassment  by James Gruber and Phoebe Morgan (2004)

None of this happens in a vacuum. Workers of all organisations walk into the workplace carrying a set of values picked up from wider society and these continue to influence behaviour. If a society and culture devalues women then it is not a surprise that a great many men (and women) will do so also.  Fortunately many organisations do expect better behaviour at work than may occur outside.   Organisations often want to introduce programmes to change their employee’s values but this is extremely hard to do. Ensuring they are employing those with the values they want  is the best way to create the desired culture.

Banter isn’t confined to a workplace, just walk into a crowded pub after a local football match and the language and humour will be the same.   Some might argue that we no longer have a society that devalues women, perhaps some may say we never had one. If that were true we would have had no need of a feminist movement which fought to get women the vote, equal rights and equal pay.  Whilst huge progress has been made in the levels of women in employment and particularly in managerial and professional positions over the past thirty years, there has been a backlash in other areas of women’s lives.

I would argue that the increasing sexualisation of women and girls is part of this backlash. Seeing women as sexual objects contributes to and maintains their lower status, dehumanising them and  making female authority and leadership hard to establish. There are unacceptably high levels of rape and sexual violence, and domestic abuse towards women in society. We also have a culture saturated with pornography. Pornography does not sit in a box away from the rest of culture, waiting for a few to peer at it when they feel the need and then move away. It is pervasive in its influence on sexual behaviour and attitudes, fashion, film and beauty standards.   It is the world’s biggest industry and thanks to the internet is readily available to anyone including children, who are increasingly getting their sex education from it.  Furthermore, a great deal of this easy to access, mainstream pornography depicts (to varying levels) sexual violence and female degradation. It has been claimed that porn sites get more visitors each month than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined.  In fact, 30 percent of all data transferred across the Internet is porn. So the ubiquity of pornography cannot but contribute to the overall cultural depiction of women.  It cannot be separated from prevailing male attitudes to women.

In February 2020, the Government Equalities Office published a report, a literature review, titled “The relationship between pornography use and harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours”. It aims to inform the Government in taking an evidence-based approach to dealing with the potential harms caused by pornography, following a recommendation from the Women and Equalities Select Committee (WESC) inquiry into the sexual harassment of women and girls in public places.

Four key themes emerged:

  1. Viewing women as sex objects
  2. Shaping men’s sexual expectations of women
  3. Acceptance of sexual aggression towards women
  4. Perpetration of sexual aggression

The review found evidence of an influential relationship between use of pornography and harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours towards women. If perhaps rightly, given their role in protecting us,  we want to hold our police force to higher standards than others, we should spell this out.  The misogyny and sexism found in this report and no doubt to be found  in the ongoing review of culture and standards within the Met Police  currently being carried out by Baroness Louise Casey, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-58833349  is not confined to the police force. We need to address the wider problem of misogyny endemic in our society (and this is not solved by making it a hate crime).

Faith restored

I haven’t been feeling particularly spiritual recently.  Certainly not Churchy spiritual.  During lockdown Zoom was a necessary stop gap and a bit of a novelty i.e.we didn’t have to get up and get out of the house but the impact of it on me was pretty muted. The closure of churches at a time of national crisis was I believe a massive failure of Church leadership.

 When I first became a Christian in my early thirties one of the phrases I often heard when weighing up what to do in any situation was ‘what would Jesus do?’  Well what would Jesus have done in 2020/21? Not served up Holy Communion from his kitchen, of that I am pretty sure. Jesus walked among lepers and the diseased of the mind and of the body and of the spirit. He had no fear. Yet our Church enjoined our government and preached fear into its body’s heart.

I have been one of those fairly vocal lockdown sceptics since May 2020, when I felt the logic for them fell apart.  I and many others forecast the massive human cost that locking people down in such an authoritarian way would entail. Apart from a sacred bond of democracy being broken, economic disaster, lost businesses, loneliness, depression, undiagnosed cancers, suicides, substance abuse and domestic abuse, child abuse were all collateral damage – it didn’t take much imagination to see this downside.  I felt the essence of the Christian faith, which is unworldly had got buried beneath layers of earthly rules and guidance. There was no space for debate, no place even  for a more spiritual take on the crisis, no challenge to the government on the impact of their policies. Clergy like Giles Fraser who have written critically of the Church’s over-compliance with government guidelines,  have kept my faith in the Church going… it’s not just me that sees an increasingly  watered down and secular Christianity ..

Eighteen months on from the initial lockdown I went to a concert held in our local church on Saturday night. This was during our ‘no restrictions’ period and there were three hundred people there, mostly unmasked. The following morning was Harvest festival and I attended the same church only to have to follow signs, wear a mask, sanitiser my hands and write down my name and phone number. There were no government decreed restrictions yet this church imposed its own. There were 26 people in church that morning, social distanced and masked. We were back to church in person yes but like this? Not for me. I hate masks. I find them dehumanising and psychologically distancing which makes real connection with people and therefore empathy pretty much impossible. Constant mask wearing is akin to treating each person as if they are diseased. If we are all hugger mugger on a train fair enough but twenty six people in a very large airy freezing cold church… come on!

The following month our Remembrance Sunday service was shortened to fifteen minutes and moved outside for our ‘safety’. At the end the vicar told us we had been invited to go for coffee and biscuits at the British Legion Club across the road which is probably one tenth of the size of the church so it was very crowded and we all mixed happily without masks.

 It kind of summed up the Church of England for me and had I not been a Christian nothing of the Church’s response during the pandemic would have converted me to being one.

However as Christians know, God works in mysterious ways. Having rather abandoned church going for the time being, I did go a couple of weeks ago to my husband’s goddaughter’s confirmation. I had low expectations until I realised who was taking the service-a  local bishop for whom I had a lot of time.  We were wearing masks, but even the local vicar moaned about it. This time we were in Plan B. This Bishop always spoke well… his sermons are like shared faith boosting confessions and personal stories which he relates to the teaching.  The service was moving in itself, seven wonderful girls, aged between 12 and 15, had each committed to following a life in Christ. They had studied their classes using what sounds like an amazing course based on film and their proud friends and godparents could see that their commitment was heartfelt.

In an increasingly secular culture this really was cause for celebration and the wonderful bishop made sure it was. He made what can sometimes be a conventional run of the mill ritual into an amazing event. These girls were going on the greatest adventure of their life, and he reminded us that it was our adventure as well. We too were called by God. We were caught up in his enthusiasm and the service and the hour and a half shot by. This was the living water we thirst for that Jesus promises the woman at the well. The Bishop reread one of Bible passages of the service and told us how it was particularly special to him as it was this verse that made him turn to Christianity when he was a troubled  sixteen year old.

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
    I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
    they will not sweep over you.”
Isaiah 43 1-2

It was a reminder no, more like a homecoming.

My husband waited in the car and I returned to the church to speak to the Bishop as he left, outside so no masks.  “Thank you”, I said, I really needed that.” He looked straight at me and smiled. “And so did I”.

Blue Eyes Brown Eyes

Many years ago I attended an organisation’s internal diversity workshop as part of a research project. The whole day was part of a long running programme and on this occasion the assembled group were shown the film Blue Eyes Brown Eyes followed by a discussion on the irrationality and cruelty of  prejudice and harmful stereotyping.

This film was made in 1967 by Jane Elliot, a primary school teacher as a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King. She wanted to show young children how discrimination felt.   It is very dated and I doubt whether such an experiment involving children would be allowed today. That is probably why it is still used in training as nothing as powerful has ever replaced it. Many of you who work in diversity, equality and inclusion will be very familiar with it.

Jane Elliot divided up her class into children with blue eyes and children with brown eyes… she then started listing all the negative characteristics that people with brown eyes had. At first there is incredulity but after a while some kids got the gist of it and started turning away from children with brown eyes even if they were close friends. Such an arbitrary division, yet it took only fifteen minutes for the bullying, name calling and playground fights to start.

I searched it out again recently and watched it through a slightly different lens. Yes, it is dated and yes, it deals specifically with race but I think that the underlining message of it is pertinent to all kinds of situations where we choose to emphasise difference rather than our common humanity and how that can lead to discrimination. Any study of war shows that in order to fight the enemy, first you need to ‘other’ them, even to dehumanise them, even if they are in most ways exactly like you.

 Blue Eyes Brown Eyes takes us down this road of difference and shows how dangerous it can be it imbue characteristics into a person because of a physical difference, or accident of birth, or let’s extend that to something closer to home here today… someone who has ideas that may be contrary to what we are told are acceptable.

I use the phrase ‘being told’ because for arbitrary discrimination to be effective it needs to be legitimised by those in power. In the film it is the class teacher, in societies it is more likely to be governments. There is usually an element of fear behind it. Authoritarianism  introduces and can exaggerate  fear and it is this that pushes a group to turn on another regardless of whether that fear is justified. There may be sanctions for the ‘out’ group which the ‘in’ group do not want so they emphasise their difference to the ‘out’ group even more.  

Psychologists call this ‘othering’ projection… we project all the bad bits into someone else, or another group. This is a useful shoring up our own sense of being ok, being right, perhaps even safe from being picked on by authorities.  We are not the ‘other’ – phew!

Returning to Blue Eyes Brown Eyes,  the speed with which these children ‘other’ their own classroom neighbours and friends on the spurious basis of eye colour is frightening.

 I would suggest that something like this is going on with the way the country is being divided over Covid vaccination status.

However much some people may not understand the reasons why someone in a high risk category would choose this, we must resist demonising them. But this is what is happening… blame and fear of illness stirred up by authority has been projected onto a minority. Someone to blame. There is not much evidence that unvaccinated people are likely to transmit illness more than vaccinated yet countries including ours have introduced vaccine passports. Now there is clear evidence that transmission is not be confined to the unvaccinated, they are instead being accused of taking up too many hospital beds. We have never done this with smokers or obese people even though those groups alone consume a vast percentage of the total health budget.  It is their health which may suffer not anyone else’s. And as a society we have chosen not to discriminate by health in this way.

 Statistics show that those in socially deprived areas, young people, black and ethnic minorities are more likely to choose not be vaccinated.  They will have their reasons. There is enough division and inequality in society – we should be very cautious about embedding  it further.  As we can see it happens very quickly and the end result is always ugly. 

Women’s rights here and there

Last Monday evening I attended a small dinner in London for a group of people with strong connections to Afghanistan to discuss the current situation. The plight of the whole country is dire, a humanitarian disaster unfolding before our eyes. Also of huge concern is the refusal of the Taliban to accept the full human rights of women and girls meaning that female students who saw a bright fulfilling future ahead of them have had that cruelly taken away from them. Independent women are perhaps the greatest threat to a patriarchal regime and I don’t think we can be in any doubt that the Taliban is an extreme example of that.  As a woman I feel a mixture of sadness and anger. Sadness for those women and girls who may now face a life of virtual imprisonment, and anger at the way it always seems to be women who are the first victims of so many extreme religions and ideologies.

Later in the week  here in the UK a media storm brews up around an article, “We’re being pressured into having sex by some transwomen” published by the BBC. The piece was written by  Caroline Lowbridge who immediately  had to close her twitter account. Challenging the orthodoxy of the gender identity movement comes at a cost… personal, financial, professional.

Lowbridge’s crime was to draw attention to the fact that some transwomen  put pressure on lesbians  to sleep with them even though this attraction is not reciprocated. I have been aware of this phenomenon for a few years. If you believe that gender identity – an inner feeling that cannot be observed – has priority over biological sex, then a transwoman who has retained her attraction to women wants to be recognised as a lesbian. This is one of the absurd consequences that taking the mantra ‘transwomen are women’ to its conclusion brings. As lesbians are same sex attracted they are not attracted to male bodies, even modified ones.  This reasonable fact has not prevented activist groups shouting in the media and accusing these lesbians of being transphobic!

The BBC article even contained a statement from Nancy Kelley, the CEO of LGBT lobby group Stonewall, in which Ms Kelley likened not wanting to date trans people to not wanting to date people of colour, fat people, or disabled people,”  telling us that “there is no ‘right’ way to be a lesbian.” She talks as if attraction to transwomen was something we could all perhaps learn in a Stonewall training seminar:

“But if you find that when dating, you are writing off entire groups of people, like people of colour, fat people, disabled people or trans people, then it’s worth considering how societal prejudices may have shaped your attractions.”

So there you have it. An organisation that was started many years ago to promote and protect the rights of lesbians and gay men is now telling those lesbians that they are prejudiced if they don’t want to sleep with biological males. You couldn’t make it up.

It is almost always feminist women who are the target of this narcissistic rage and it is unsurprising that many are lesbians.  These women are the most likely to challenge patriarchal restrictions and as lesbians they have absolutely no need of men, even men in dresses.

 I began this post writing about an evening discussing the disaster unfolding in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, particularly the concern for women and girls. If that seems a long way off from the arguably more trivial concerns of who should sleep with who, yes it is. But it served to remind me that feminism as a global movement feminism is still so needed and should be wrested from the linguistic mind games that postmodernism has cast it in. The end of the week’s debacle here was not a disaster of any magnitude but nevertheless a reminder that women’s rights, even here in the UK are never as secure as we think they are. When it comes to oppression men know exactly who women are.