Gender identity and life's pilgrimage.

Revd. David Horton

Gender Trust Associate, Chaplain to Gender Trust.
Gendys Conference, 1994


One of the basic beliefs of economics is that wants are infinite. In other words when we have got what we wanted we suddenly discover something else to desire. This doesn't just apply to economics, though. At the basic level we look for food, drink and shelter. It is only when those needs are met that other wants begin to surface. Companionship is a major need we all have, and so on. The need to find ourselves is more subtle and tends to come to the fore either when other needs are met, of when the existing stability is threatened. It is unlikely to be in the forefront of people's minds in Ruanda, or in the front line of combat, for example.

The means by which that need to find ourselves is met can also vary. One approach identifies three ways of doing this: by reference to others, by identifying with a cause, or by creating our own inner value system. All of us use all three, but my guess would be that those who are mainly following others, or a cause, are less likely to seek to do something about identity problems, and to push them aside instead.

My understanding is that gender identity is built up in the same way by everyone, but that in a few cases that process leads to different results. In other words it is not that some people have a wrong gender identity, with its implication that something needs to be corrected. Rather, such people are simply a variation. That variation may be very obvious or latent, but it is not in itself wrong.

From this it seems to me that it then becomes a question of acting for the best for those involved. If there is nothing wrong, then don't fix it! On the other hand if there are problems that can be resolved then why not? What does seem dangerous is to assume a solution will apply to everyone. I believe in the God of the snowflake, who enjoys our individuality for itself. I also believe in a God who wants and respects our choices, despite the problems. Our society seems to want to pigeonhole people, with its progress towards a world culture. Our nature is to be ourselves, and so we seek ways to be different through our lifestyle, hobbies, and the like.

Thus I come to pilgrimage, and John Bunyan's hymn:

"Who would true valour see, let him come hither

One here will constant be, come wind, come weather.

There's no discouragement shall make him once relent

His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim."

I think that the idea of making a pilgrimage through life offers much to us all. Firstly it avoids the trap of thinking that we have somehow `arrived.' We are continually changing: oar bodies age, we learn and experience, our understanding changes. We are not the same person as we were just a few weeks ago. No situation is so bad that it cannot change for the better. No pinnacle of achievement will allow us to avoid further change and development. Indeed particular achievements may not cause us satisfaction in the long run: beware of what you ask for - you may get it! In effect we are reminded that nothing can keep us from our journey indefinitely.

Secondly it is a solitary action, although often carried out in the company of others. It is our choice, our responsibility. Others may guide and encourage, or be there as an opportunity for us to help. The final decision is ours. Throughout our journey of life we can learn to be individuals and not clones of some other person or persons.

Thirdly, it requires us to hold lightly to things. The pilgrim travels light, and in circumstances where the little he has can easily be lost or used for others. There is a great difference between owning things and being owned by things. The same is true of our bodies and minds. We need to respect them, not indulge them!

Finally it looks beyond itself. If nothing in life can satisfy then we look beyond this life to God. If we lack the maturity and wisdom to act wisely, then we ask for help. If we are tempted to give up then we can take advantage of the example of others.

Our gender identity is uniquely ours. Our journey through life is also unique. We should not therefore be afraid of being ourselves. Arguably this is our reason for existence. In any case we have no choice.

Pilgrimage is also the response to a fallen world. St. Paul speaks of the whole creation groaning. We face challenges to our integrity from within, and from our circumstances: the world, the flesh and the devil. The word used by Jesus for repentance is metanoia and it implies we are moving. In fact that we are on the wrong road and choose to return to the fork where we went wrong and head off in the right direction. Similarly in the Bible, salvation can be in one of three ways: we have made the change, we are making the change, and one day the change will be complete. Again a process is implied.

Yet we cannot return to our beginnings. In gender terms there is evidence that that would not be far enough back anyway. "Are we to return to the womb and be born a second time?" asked Nicodemus of Jesus. No - what Jesus required was that we move in the right direction in our life: towards openness and love to ourselves, others, and God. He also promised help to those who wanted it, by God's own activity in our lives through the Comforter, the Advocate, the one like Jesus. A comforter is the one who strengthens; an advocate speaks on behalf of his client.

Is gender an area of our pilgrimage that has special problems? It seems unlikely that God regards it as so special. Paradoxically the Bible (and most other faiths) concentrates on the small things, as the best indication and builder of character. On the other hand the sheer cultural pressure of being different makes it difficult to come to terms with a variant gender identity, just as similar pressures exist for the very intelligent, or the blind, or any group that stands out. Those who take their cue from others, or who follow a narrow or selfish view of life, may make life difficult out of fear.

In essence pilgrimage is a narrow way. As such many may not find the courage to embrace it. But if it is a narrow and uphill way, it is nonetheless a way that leads to a high and open view of life. At least that is what I have found from those I know who follow such a path the most firmly.


Several of those attending this seminar started obviously feeling under pressure. The first few minutes of the time available was thus spent remembering the personal significance and importance of each person present. We are people, not clients, or labels, or numbers. I then introduced the concept of pilgrimage as a useful way of looking at our lives. A handout was available and used in summary.

When the seminar was opened a number of people shared both where they felt they had reached on their journey, and importantly, how their view had changed as they had moved along the years. One made the point about the spiritual help she had felt about the way, not in a formal or christian sense. Many agreed with her that the path they were treading would be so very hand without the ability to reach beyond for help.

We then had a period of silence for personal reflection. This was ended by the reading of the first verse of John Bunyan's hymn.

It is an unique discipline to bring people into inner calm. I am enormously grateful to all who helped end the session in such a way that many of those present left feeling refreshed, encouraged, and valued. The atmosphere of peace and harmony was very valuable.

Citation: Horton, D.,(1994), Gender identity and life's pilgrimage, GENDYS '94, The Third International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester England.
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