Loss and gain amid the fragility of life

In December 2019, J.K. Rowling was the subject of a heavy backlash after tweeting support for a transphobic researcher named Dr Maya Forstater. Forestater was fired from her job in September 2018 after strongly opposing the Gender Recognition Act. She views gender as strictly binary and expressed that “men cannot change into women.” Her former employer, the Centre for Global Development, condemned her language as “offensive and exclusionary.”

When Forestater appealed against her dismissal, Judge James Tayler ruled that Forestater’s “absolutist beliefs” warranted her termination. Rowling disagreed with the ruling and tweeted her support for Dr Forestater.

CLAIRE JENKINS writes: “Brendon Walsh, editor of The Tablet, asked me to write a response to the issues stirred by J K Rowling’s support for Dr Forstater. I thought, wow, what a challenge, David-v-Goliath.  When I thought deeper, I reflected on what Our Lord would do when challenged by the Jewish powers of his time. I followed his example and decided to respond to Rowling using a story/parable; hence the dragon* which I imagined as a mythical creature which reflected some of the creatures in Rowling’s Potter stories.

“A recent judgement that a tax expert who had tweeted that men cannot change their biological sex had not been unfairly dismissed stirred up sometimes angry debate. For one Catholic transgender woman, however, it evoked a story of sadness and loss being transformed into joy.”

Forty years ago, Janice Raymond, a former woman religious and doc­toral student of the radical-feminist theologian Mary Daly, published The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, based on her thesis. The UK edition was published by The Women’s Press. Raymond, now professor emerita of women’s studies and medical ethics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, argued that “the male who undergoes sex conversion surgery is not female”.

Her book was widely admired and respected at the time; now it is seen by many gays and lesbians and liberal feminists as constituting hate-speech against transsexual men and women. Raymond, a lesbian and radical fem­inist and activist who works on prostitution and sex trafficking, now often finds herself de-platformed.

Raymond’s claim was aired again at a London employment tribunal on 18 December 2019. Maya Forstater lost her case that it had been unfair that her contract with the Centre for Global Development (CGD) had not been renewed in March. The judge ruled that Forstater’s view expressed in a series of tweets that “men cannot change into women” violates trans people’s dignity and could create an intimidating, hostile, degrad­ing, humiliating or offensive work environment.

I would argue that the bio­logical determinant of sex is not scientifically understood. Rather than engage in what I regard as a futile debate I offer a story for discernment. I wrote it after I had attended a meeting run by Stand Alone, a charity that supports adults who have become estranged from their family.

I was born in Wales, where dragons live, red fiery dragons who breathe fire when their emotions are roused. The image of a playful little sand dragon is special to me because it recalls my childhood and memories of my own children playing on the beach, just like the little sand dragon, cheerful and carefree.

The sand dragon* enjoyed dancing and hop­ping in the surf as the tide came in twice a day and it was exceedingly happy. However, one day the tide never came back on to the sandy beach and the dragon was puzzled as to why the waves and surf never came to visit him that day. The same thing happened the next day, and the next … The little dragon became sad. He sat lonely and dejected on a big rock on the sandy shore. However hard he tried to understand and wished for it to change, the tide never came back.

Then, after a while, a tear dropped from the sand dragon’s eye on to a crack in the rock and where it landed a drooping little red flower popped up. The little flower was parched and thirsty and its petals drooped – there was no water to drink. The kind sand dragon took pity and decided to look for some fresh water to quench the flower’s thirst. After a long search he returned with a can full of clear, fresh water. As he gently poured water over the parched flower other flowers also popped up and eventually a beautiful little oasis was formed in the middle of the dry beach. The dragon was delighted, and the tears of sadness turned into joy as he built a little garden pond on the dry beach where he could play and be happy once more.

This story of sadness and loss turning into a new joyful experience reminds me of my own life and my faith. I am a Catholic, and it occurs to me that my story has followed the Christian trope of birth, death and res­urrection. I am a trans woman and the parent of four children who I have not seen since I transitioned 20 years ago. All I have are the fading memories of when they were little, which now fill me with sadness for what is lost. Their images and voices have almost melted away in my dreams and memories. First, there is my little Simon, who ran towards me on the canal towpath, arms open wide as he came closer to me, hopeful but vulnerable – oh, how my tears fall – that’s him. Second, there is grumpy Edward, lonely and angry, a diabetic from two years old – so loved – that’s him. Third, my fiery daughter Tina, with a temper like a big red dragon, she reflects me, my energy, my determination, my achievement that’s her. Lastly, is my joy, my difference, my delightful Henry, the agile skateboarder the body I am not – that’s him. My four little sand dragons almost lost in the mists and leg­ends of my aching heart – that’s me.

If you are different, perhaps like me a trans woman estranged from your kin, then friends become especially important. My close friends have become my new family, the family I allow to replace my memories, and that helps to reduce the pain of loss in my heart. My pas­sion, my delight and my fiery love will not be consumed by grief. I have adopted new chil­dren; they are not replacements, but they are my joy and my happiness now the pain fades a little as new delight and new love grows.

First, there’s Thana, my new adopted daughter from war-torn Libya, who has delighted me with grandchildren, just like the natural ones that I might or might not have, I don’t know. Her children are my bor­rowed grandchildren, my new little sand dragons: Nesreen, sensitive, intelligent and thoughtful – that’s her; Muna, funny, delightful that’s her; then the unexpected ones, Fadil and Omani, mischievous and exhausting twins that’s them.

My new second daughter is Zona, estranged from the whole of Gambia from where she fled. She is damaged and needs love, care and nurturing if she is to survive ­that’s her. And then there is Desiree from France, who has divorced her parents, she too is one of the different ones, a lesbian, deep but loyal and loving – that’s her. We are a mot­ley crew of a family, just like everyone else’s family, but biology is strong and embedded, intertwined with the vagrancy of life and the ebbs and flow of the passion – that’s me.

Despair sometimes haunts me because I do not know my adult children yet other strangers do. The immediacy of Simon, Edward, Tina and Henry is now lost but not forgotten and beyond hope. But can I trust that they still love me?

Nine months after writing this I woke up from a dream thinking about my children. I was drawn on to Facebook. After a few searches I found my daughter Tina’s page which revealed that she was married and that I had a grandson of 18 months.

I cried on and off until early morning real­ising that every life is fragile:

the box was opened

the pain flew out

Facebook revealed my unknown grandson

I want to cuddle him – not allowed

estrangement continues

loneliness ensues

please shut the box

The original article was first published in The Tablet, the International Catholic Weekly, 11th January 2020. This unedited version is published here with the permission of the author and Brendan Walsh, Editor of The Tablet. http://www.thetablet.co.uk

Dr Claire Jenkins was awarded a PhD from the University of Sheffield for her research into the effect of transitioning on the family members of transsexual people. The names of her children have been changed.