Thursday, 19 June 2014

Interview with Rachel Mann

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Rachel Mann, the Church of England priest in charge of St. Nicholas’ Church Burnage in Manchester, and Minor Canon of Manchester Cathedral. She is a broadcaster, published poet, theologian, and music journalist specializing in metal, prog, and folk. Her memoir of being trans, lesbian, and Christian, “Dazzling Darkness” (2012) was a Church Times bestseller. Hello Rachel!
Rachel: Hi there, Monika. Lovely to chat with you.
Monika: I must say you are one of the most charismatic women I have ever interviewed. Heavy metal, priesthood, feminism, lesbianism, and poetry. Quite a mix!
Rachel: You mean not everyone shares my passions? ;-) I guess I’ve always been incurably curious. I suspect this means I can be a bit exhausting to be around – a bit like a two-year-old toddler. I feel sorry for my friends and family sometimes. They’ve really had to put up with my endless interest in knowing and thinking about new stuff. I guess ‘religious people’ often get stereotyped as a bit dumb, but I’ve always been driven on by a desire for knowledge and the creative.

Rachel speaking at the launch of The Risen
Dust, Manchester Cathedral.

Monika: One of my favorite quotations of yours is ‘Christians could learn a lot about life from Heavy Metal’…
Rachel: Oh my. That got me into a lot of hot water a few years ago. A fair few conservative Christians didn’t like me saying that at all. I guess I was saying that I’d found metal, among other music sub-cultures, a place of energy and welcome.
There’s a massive theatrical element to metal that appeals to me and I love its willingness to be playful with the concept of ‘darkness’. I wish more Christians would be less afraid of the dark.
Monika: Your poetry is full of references to such monsters as Satan, Joe Stalin, Eva Braun, and the Bogey Man. Where does this fascination come from?
Rachel: I think I’d want to say that my poetry explores many themes and ideas, not least issues around loss and identity. You’ve probably not seen any of my trans poems.
But I guess the interest in monsters, real and imagined, in my poems comes from my fascination with ‘the other’ and the way human culture typically represses the different. Growing up I always felt my trans-ness was this ‘monster within’ that had to be repressed. Thankfully I found a way to embrace who I am and was.
Monika: Why is God so merciless towards transgender people, placing their minds in the opposite gender bodies?
Rachel: I don’t quite see things in those terms. God is not in the business of punishing people, no matter what some fundamentalists might claim. The way you frame things makes it sound like we have ‘minds’ that are separated from our ‘bodies’ which act as a vessel or container.
However, who we are, whether we’re cis or trans, is always an embodied matter. Identity emerges out of an extraordinarily complex set of social, cultural, and embodied relationships. I sense that God is intimately caught up in lived experience and reality rather than being some kind of Wizard of Oz pulling levers from the outside. If my hunch is right that means that God is as much trans as s/he is cis. In time society and religion are going to come to terms with this: that there is no normative reality.
Monika: In your book “Dazzling Darkness” you write that Jesus didn't come for the respectable folk but society's outcasts, the “freaks, the half-mad, the second-rate yet glorious bunch that we are”. Where do transgender people fit there?
Rachel: That quote is primarily directed towards people in the church who might like to see themselves as respectable, saved people. It’s intended as a kind of corrective to the thought that church is for ‘nice’, straight people. My reading of Jesus is very much developed from a queer theological perspective.
On this view, Jesus is not just for the outcast – and we all know that trans people are so often unfairly treated as ‘freaks’ – but makes the ‘outcast’ the very starting point for a re-reading of who God is. God - on this picture - isn’t about making the outsider into nice, safe, ‘goody-two-shoes’, but exposing how the so-called outsider is the position occupied by God.

Rachel at the ‘Mapping My Journey’ Exhibition,
which celebrated trans life.

Monika: In one of my previous interviews, Lisa Salazar indicated that transgender persons are said to be some of the least likely to become involved in religious institutions (like church) since most have been rejected and judged by their Christian families, friends, and faith communities. Would you agree?
Rachel: It would be interesting to see if there are any stats on this. I suspect quite a lot depends on the variety of Christianity/religion involved and on the social context.
I came to faith post-transition and I remember my psychiatrist – an American – telling me that all the trans people he’d known who’d ever become Christians had de-transitioned. I think that says more about American religion than the Church of England. Nonetheless, the very many people who’ve got in touch with me after reading Dazzling Darkness to tell me about their experience of rejection in church tell me that the church is so often failing trans people.
At the same time, I want to flag up that I’ve met a lot of very committed trans Christians over the years who have been welcomed and supported by their churches. But the horror stories are still far too common.
Monika: At the time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Rachel: I transitioned over twenty years ago and the world felt very different back then. One of the extraordinary things about 2014 in comparison to 1993 is how confident and complex the trans* community is becoming. It’s amazing to see the emergence of trans icons in recent years. Back in the day, being trans was very much treated through a tabloid lens.
However, I will never forget reading about Jan Morris, April Ashley, and Caroline Cossey as a small child. The simple fact that I knew they were there was like a lungful of oxygen when I was sure I was going to drown.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Rachel: Oh wow. I’m not sure if I can narrow it down to one thing. I have had an incredibly supportive family, which I know can be rare, but those first few months and years were a tough period of adjustment for all of us. The one thing I simply wouldn’t have the energy for now, is the experience of being seen as ‘in-between’, as androgynous. That might sound like an odd thing to say, especially as I’m quite playful with my image these days. But twenty years ago I needed to be seen very clearly as a woman. I guess it’s probably a common experience.

Laughter in Manchester after being
filmed for training film.

Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in British society?
Rachel: In one sense things have improved immensely. The Gender Recognition Act was a powerful statement of intent and it meant an enormous amount to me to be able to change my birth certificate. Equally, the representation of trans characters on TV shows like Coronation Street, even when played by cis women, has shifted society’s perceptions in important ways. There is a confidence among trans people that wasn’t there even ten years ago.
However, in other ways, progress is always patchy. The Equal Marriage Act in England has perniciously affected trans people in existing marriages and this does need reform. Equally, the conversations I’ve had with trans people over the past few years indicate how dangerous it still is in many parts of the UK for trans people. Women are disproportionately affected by violence and trans women are subject to mockery, belittlement, and verbal, psychological, and physical abuse.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Rachel: I know there’s been some talk about this in light of Laverne Cox’s recent appearance on the front cover of Time. One thing I’m clear on is that our concepts of gender identity are in a place of revolution and reformation. In my own area of professional interest, the church and faith, we are only just beginning to explore a radically reworked theology of gender.
Monika: A few weeks ago Jared Leto received his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "Dallas Buyers Club" as transgender Rayon. What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far? 
Rachel: I haven’t seen Dallas Buyers’ Club, but I always find it very difficult to take Jared Leto seriously because his band, Thirty Seconds to Mars, are a bit crap. I’m disappointed that, in 2014, straight, cis actors are taking trans* roles. It’s not like there’s a lack of trans talent out there. I was recently pleased to read that a trans woman has been cast in a trans role for Russell T. Davies’ new Manchester-set drama. I just pray that she has a fleshed-out, intelligent character rather than being forced to play a trans stereotype. There is, still, too often a sensationalist undercurrent to trans characters.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Rachel: I know some trans people are uncomfortable about either being seen as an adjunct to LGB stuff or are inclined to separate the ‘T’ element out entirely. I think I ‘get’ that complexity and I know that there’s been a history of suspicion between different elements of the ‘LGBT* Community’.
Yet, despite the challenges and the question marks about whether we’re a community at all, I still sense we’re stronger together. What I mean is that, despite the apparent progress in many countries for lesbians and gay men, all LGBT people are dealing with prejudices and exclusions. For political reasons as much as anything else, I want to encourage us to work together to challenge exclusionary structures and laws.

In addition to being a priest, Rachel is a prolific writer.

Monika: Is there anyone in the British transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for gay activism?
Rachel: There are all sorts of voices, from many different political perspectives, engaged in trans activism and visibility. I’d like to flag up the work of Gender Matters in the West Midlands of England for an honorable mention. 
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Rachel: Depends on what you mean by ‘politics’. As a priest and a person of faith, I believe I’m called to be intimately and actively involved in the affairs of what the ancient Greeks called the ‘polis’. In my parish setting and in my work as a writer I try to be both an agent of change for the excluded, especially people living in poverty, etc, and also be part of a community of character.
I’ve been called a trans and lesbian activist, but I’m not sure I’m worthy of that label. I feel especially called to challenge the church to be faithful to God’s unconditional love and welcome. This means standing up and speaking out for trans people, but I often think I’m a pretty feeble voice.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Rachel: You asking me that makes me think of the line by the band Warpaint – ‘Love is to die, love is to not die’! The older I get, the less impressed I am by what’s usually called ‘romantic love’. I think there’s a whole load of bull that attaches to that concept whose main function is to spur humans on in search of impossible relationships.
Then again, maybe I’m just saying that because I’m a loveless old crone ;-). I’m more interested in how ‘love’ calls us out of ourselves into something transformative and potentially sacrificial. Love in this sense is less about the individual and more about a community in which there is space for the other and the different. Oh, dear. I sound like a miserable old bag, don’t I?
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Rachel: Well, that’s exactly what Dazzling Darkness is – a spiritual autobiography or theological memoir. Unlike many memoirs, however, I’m less interested in ‘telling my story’ than in looking at how theology and academic philosophy dynamically relate to my own story. I hope it’s an entertaining read – people tell me it’s quite funny – but I’m trying also to examine what it might mean to be trans and lesbian and disabled (I have a very complex case of Crohn’s Disease) and yet believe in a God of Love.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Rachel: I recently signed a contract to write a follow-up to my second book, The Risen Dust. The Risen Dust comprises stories and poems looking at passion and resurrection. The new book will do the same through the prism of Christmas stories. I always have too many projects on the go. One day I plan to find the space to simply do nothing.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Rachel: I suck at giving advice! I’m not sure I have any that might apply to all trans women. However, I’d like to flag up how there is simply no way, if you’re trans, of avoiding pain and distress: Stay in the closet and it is a recipe for anguish; come out and it will never, ever be simple or easy. But – and it’s a big but – the only long-term hope lies in being honest with oneself. I have never regretted being real about who I am in the world, despite the challenges. Be real and there is hope.
Monika: Rachel, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Rachel Mann.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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