This is probably going to annoy people, but over the next couple of weeks I’m going to be talking quite a lot about Dazzling Darkness again. (‘Did you ever stop?’ I hear my brother Andy chirp.) For, to my amazement, it’s now a year old. And – given how big its publication has been for me – it seemed a good moment to reflect on its impact and what it’s meant for me.
This time last year was an extraordinarily stressful time. In addition to worries about how Dazzling Darkness might be received in the sometimes febrile world of the Church of England, I was dealing with the usual stresses of being a vicar and the many other commitments I had and have. However, looking back, I can now see that the fact DD was about to drop weighed very heavily on my mind.
As I’ve said to anyone who’ll listen (usually some poor chap minding his own business on the bus), Dazzling Darkness is the only book I’m ever likely to write that really feels like it matters. I know that’s pretentious guff, but if everyone has got a book in them, it feels like, for me, DD was the one. What I mean by this inflated rhetoric is that it’s the book that totally laid and lays me on the line. I’ve recently sent a new book manuscript off to my publishers (entitled ‘The Risen Dust’) and I think it’s a good offering. I think it’ll be a striking book about passion and resurrection. But it’s not a confessional book. If it exposes me to censure or praise it is at one remove. Because The Risen Dust is made up of stories and poems about passion and resurrection, the book feels slightly less personal. Dazzling Darkness - by trying to tell key parts of my life as a trans woman, as a lesbian and as a chronically ill person - could not be more personal if I tried.
Dazzling Darkness has been life-changing, but perhaps not in the way some people might imagine. Like all writers I wanted DD to sell lots of copies and, within its narrow and quite specialist area of interest, it’s done pretty damn well. I’ve also enjoyed taking the opportunities to speak which have arisen as a result of DD. The showy part of my personality has had a lot of fun. But neither of those things has been really that significant. The most important aspects have been two fold – firstly, the personal sense of liberation and, secondly, the unexpected opportunity to hear and share in other people’s extraordinary stories.
Anyone who is like me – that is, who is different from a perceived ‘norm’ and who occupies (even in my own lowly way) a public role like a vicar – is at risk of a ‘monstering’ from papers like The Daily Mail. Even in this age where the media has become ever more obsessed with ‘slebs and politicians, there is sufficient transphobia around that trans-based stories still take up news space from time to time. Ever since I’d been recommended for ordination training, I’d occasionally have cold sweats thinking about the phone call from a tabloid threatening a cheap exposé. When DD came out I don’t think anyone could quite be sure what would happen. My instinct was that given it was being published by a small theological publisher the level of press interest would be minimal, but no one knew for sure. Prior to the official launch, I remember chatting with a colleague at the cathedral about whether we needed to ensure we had stewards in case we had protests!
I’d be lying if I said I haven’t experienced some pretty cheap transphobia over the past year. Most of it has come via the internet. This is hardly surprising. I guess people enjoy the internet’s capacity to create the effects of both proximity and distance. When someone is pilloried or insulted, the perpetrator relies on the medium’s immediacy for effect, but also feels safely at a distance. However, transphobia aside, I’m stunned by how liberating DD has been for me. While I still know only too well how some journalist might write a nasty story about me, I feel congruent with the world. When someone calls me a ‘tranny’ I can (whilst acknowledging the nastiness) say, ‘Yeah. I know. It’s in the book.’ If someone tried to do a ‘sex change exposé’ I can say, ‘I got there first.’ There is a real power about disclosure on one’s own terms.
Perhaps I was naive, but I was genuinely surprised when – a few weeks after DD came out – people started getting in touch with me about their experiences of being gender-variant or gay or, well, just being different in the church. With hindsight I can see that that was not entirely beyond possibility. I guess for someone who’s supposed to be reasonably smart I can be very thick sometimes. I have to say almost all of the conversations I’ve had with people off the back of DD have been a privilege. But I am stunned by how the book has opened up a space for people to share the most remarkable and often painful things.
The simple fact is that, even if I feel I’m in a more spacious place as a result of being out in the church, the church remains a terribly difficult place for trans* and queer folk to be. I sense we are very slowly getting there as an institution, and Manchester has felt in a kind of vanguard, but there is a terribly long way to go. If my conversations with those who’ve got in touch with me via email, phone & in person have been mind-blowing and sometimes heartbreaking they have inspired me to not give up. At a personal level, I know my decision to go public might have future implications for stuff like my employment in the church. I am currently in a place where I feel well supported, but I could see how DD might be held against me should I wish to move parish. But as I see it, it’s better to be congruent than hiding something I’m proud of. like it was an ugly secret.
As ever I want to thank my family for being heroically and amazingly supportive. And to everyone who’s read or bought a copy of DD – even if you hated it – thank you! The support and love I’ve experienced over the past year – in the church and without – has been mindblowing. Ta. xx