Sunday, 6 August 2017

Our world today is entirely foreign to older generations - my Catholic Universe column

A few days ago I was talking with an old acquaintance who told me of a story that had recently happened to him.

My old friend had offered to take an elderly relative on a shopping trip to a town that his octogenarian aunt hadn’t visited in many years. The old lady seemed to be enjoying her trip around the gleaming shopping centre; she stopped in a lovely little coffee shop for lunch and searched out bargains in the large department store located at one end of the mall.

On the way home my acquaintance asked his aunt “Have you had a nice day?” her response took him back a little.

“Oh yes, I’ve had a lovely day. The assistants were so friendly and there was so much to see in the shops…and of course there were far fewer black people than where I normally shop.”

As he told me the story I am fairly certain my mouth opened slack-jawed. I’ve met the relative he was telling me about and she is the most generous, kind-hearted, God fearing woman you could ever hope to meet; and here she was coming out with one of the most overtly racist comments I have heard in many years.

My friend’s story started me asking myself was his relative a racist or was she simply a product of her time? Did she have a deep seated hatred of people from other ethnic backgrounds or had she essentially stayed still in a time warp of Love Thy Neighbour and other light entertainment ignorance? Or could it be possible that as she had gotten older she has regressed into a world and longed for surroundings where she felt more comfortable?

My acquaintance maintained that his aunt does not have a single malicious bone in her body, indeed over the years some of her greatest friends had come from other ethnicities, but he couldn’t forget this comment which to his 2017 sensibilities seemed so offensive.

I am now in my mid-forties, I have grown up in a world so different from my friend’s elderly aunt that in many ways it is unrecognisable. I live in a modern multicultural society and I am part of a faith that if not yet wholly embracing is certainly coming to terms with homosexuality.

I am very proud to say that within my lifetime as a church and as congregants we have largely moved away from regularly castigating lesbian and gay Catholics and become a faith that welcomes warmly; cares and accepts for our brothers and sisters regardless of their sexuality.

It hasn’t always been easy for us to adapt but we are getting there.

It is said that even in the face of evidence many if not most of the people who believed in a flat earth were never convinced that, in fact, our world was spherical; in the end those who believed that if they travelled far enough they would simply fall of the edge of the world just died out.

I am sure that the same will happen eventually to those harking back to a long passed youth of mono ethnicity and at lease superficial heterosexuality. Inevitably there will come a time when the vast majority if not all of us celebrates the diverse community in which we live.

But, here is the key point, it isn’t easy for any of us.

I grew up in a world where being different from the norm was accepted; whether you were a part of an ethnic minority in an otherwise entirely white town or a gay man or woman living openly for the first time in history. But I have realised that as I get older and as the world moves on sometimes I am taken aback by how quickly it is changing.

Last week you will recall a major furore in the news ensued when President Donald Trump tweeted that ‘After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.’

Now, to my knowledge and of course I could be wrong, I think in my lifetime I have met just one transgender person which was when a representative of an LGBT group was speaking alongside me on a political platform. I have no idea if there were other transgender people in the room at the time; which of course got me asking how big an issue transgender soldiers is in the US military?

I did some research and according to a report commissioned by the US Defence department at any one time there are around 7,000 people who identify as a different gender from the one they were born as. I have literally no idea whether that number includes or excludes people who identify as gender-fluid; that is not seeing themselves as having a ‘fixed’ gender.

It struck me that in a military of 1.4 million servicemen and women 7,000; half of one percent is still quite a big number. Around one in every two hundred US servicemen and women identify as transgender.

Conveniently President Trump’s tweets came at around the same time as our Conservative government floated their own political weather balloon suggesting changes to gender identity laws.

Equalities secretary Justine Greening will, it is reported, shortly be undertaking a consultation which would seek to allow people to change the gender on their birth certificates, without any sort of doctors diagnosis, to a different one. It could be that someone being born female formally identifies as male; it could be someone born male having their birth certificate gender changed to ‘X’ or some other non-binary mark.

I am sure that if you happen to be transgender you will have faced all sorts of abuse and the Government is right to try and limit it; equally I’m sure that there will be sick individuals who try to take advantage of changes to legislation for their own duplicitous purposes.

But I must admit that I am having some difficulty in accepting the entire premise. I simply don’t get how it is possible to be non-binary in a variable where there is literally only two options; I don’t see hundreds of transgender people around me; I don’t understand how so many people could have possibly be born into the wrong bodies.

Last week the Gender Identity Development Service produced a report commissioned by NHS England. The report revealed that last year alone 1,986 children, some as young as three, were referred to specialist help for problems with gender identity. Less than 10 years ago, in 2009-10, that figure was 94.

Are we living in a time of great enlightenment or a time when changing genders is just the latest fad following high profile role models such as Caitlyn Jenner or Laverne Cox? Is it possible that being transgender is just the latest medical condition or lifestyle choice du jour?

My point is that I don’t know and that frankly, to me at least, it all feels a bit wrong.

There is very little doubt that we are at the start of the mainstream story of transgender issues; for example we really have little idea about what proportion of transgender people seek to revert to their birth gender somewhere down the line. So much more will become known in the years to come.

Today’s column in actual fact isn’t really about whether you choose to identify with another gender or not, it’s about the millions of us for whom that choice is alien.

Like my friend’s aunt I am struggling with a concept we find difficult. It doesn’t mean that she or I or many, many others are bad people; it means that as times change we all sometimes struggle to keep up.

Thinking about that old lady or my own foibles I am reminded of the words of Pope Francis when he said ‘If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge’.

We may struggle but it is incumbent upon us all to embrace those issues with which we have difficulty.

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