I'm currently on my way to World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland. We've been travelling for 6 hours or so now and are currently in the ferry queue at Dover. The delays haven't affected us too much so far, but the queue for security checks here is pretty slow. Understandably they've heightened security following the recent attacks.
However, I've realised that this journey will be a very long time to be wearing a binder and I will need to find some occasions to take it off. I'm currently very unsure how I'm going to do this, as we'll be sleeping on the minibus and I really don't want to be around other people if I'm not binding.
So what is WYD?
It's an international Catholic event bringing together young Catholics from around the world. It takes place every three years in different countries, with the last one taking place in Rio de Janeiro in 2013.
I've wanted to go since I was around 13 or 14, but have always been prevented due to cost. This year due to having Polish members of our Catholic chaplaincy we have managed to get a really good deal on travel and accommodation which has enabled me to go. I'm very excited to experience Krakow, to spend time with members of my chaplaincy as well as gathering with thousands of other young Catholics.
I'm very lucky to be travelling with such a lovely supportive group of people and I'm hopeful that this will further strengthen our friendships. We'll have the chance to visit some historic places and attend different talks and workshops, with the week ending in an overnight vigil with Pope Francis followed by Mass.
We have a blog which may be updated more often with news from our group: http://sheffieldwyd.wordpress.com.
I'm Catholic, trans and bisexual, but becoming comfortable with all of these parts of my identity didn't happen overnight. It's been a long process, with many bumps and difficulties along the way including many times where I've wanted to give up completely on at least one aspect. There have even been times where I have given up, but God means so much to me that I always seem to find my way back to them.
I was brought up Catholic, having been baptised when I was just over a year old. We attended church pretty regularly on sundays. For almost my entire school life, aside from 3 primary school years, I went to Catholic school. It was pretty normal to me, and I don't really remember questioning whether I actually believed it or not until I was around 11 or 12.
I started to dislike church at this age because I found it boring, and I was also forced to be an altar server, which I hated because it meant I had to sit up at the front and remember what to do at the right times. I remember trying to find excuses not to attend, or not to have to serve.
However, I then began to become more engaged with my faith. I started following the mass more closely, reading some of the Bible, and learning more about what the Church taught. I began to read books and articles and listen to podcasts with a Catholic or Christian theme. I started almost exclusively listening to Christian music, and soaked up a lot of the views of American purity culture. I found some kind of comfort in all the rules I think, and to my shame now, became fairly judgemental of others' behaviour. I also held myself to a very high standard.
I still believe that it was only through prayer and my relationship with God that I was able to get through some of the toughest periods of my life. With God's help, I gained the courage to reach out again to find new friendships after being bullied for years. My faith provided solace to me, and I believe it kept me alive at this time, if only because I was too scared of going to hell to kill myself.
I continued to attend church regularly, even when the rest of my family stopped going so regularly. I was confirmed when I was 15; it was a lovely service which I got a lot out, but this was to be one of the last times for a while that I would feel this close to, and at peace with, God.
Everything I knew came crashing down when a few months later I finally admitted to myself that I liked girls and watched porn properly for the first time. I couldn't see how my faith and my sexuality could coexist and I felt so immensely guilty.
I went to church to ask God for forgiveness and I remember walking home feeling lighter. However, it soon happened again, and the guilt was back. It led to me self harming and sinking down into a dark place. According to everything I had believed up to this point, I was disordered, and could never have a healthy relationship with a girl.
For a short while I nearly lost my faith entirely, and questioned whether I was even a Christian anymore. However, I only briefly stopped believing in God I think, because I felt that they were a large part of my life and I couldn't imagine doing life without them there, supporting me. I was self harming regularly by this point, and continually struggling with questions of how God could make me like this, and what they wanted me to do with it.
I began to really pray in earnest, seeking an honest answer from God, rather than parroting the book knowledge I had gained. I realised I had a lot of the head knowledge about religion and God, but I was lacking a deeper connection with them. I spent a lot of time in tears, begging God to reveal to me what they wanted me to do, and a lot of time shouting angrily at God.
Then things slowly started to change, I began to get messages of love, in my private prayer times, and through other people. It took quite a while for them to begin to get through to me and make a difference to me. I found it hard to comprehend, but I felt God really wanted me to know that they would always love me, and that there was nothing I could do to make them love me more or less.
Knowing I was loved was incredibly powerful, it gave me a foundation to stand on to ask the more complicated questions, about what to do next. It had never crossed my mind to ask for my identity to be changed, I think I always knew that this was a part of me that I somehow had to live with. The question was always how.
The sticking point was I didn't know whether it would be okay for me to have a relationship. Eventually I found I could break this issue down into three possibilities. Either:
- God is a dick and had created me attracted to girls and also didn't want me to have a relationship with them, thus putting me through a lot of pain and suffering deliberately.
- God didn't create me attracted to girls, and I was wrong and/or something had happened to make me this way and thus I should try to resist it because it was a sinful part of me.
- God created me attracted to girls and there was nothing wrong with this. My desire for relationships was the same as any heterosexual person, and the Church was wrong in its teaching.
I dismissed the first, because I continued to believe in God's love. They had supported and got me through some of the hardest times in my life up to this point, and I couldn't believe that They could be so cruel. So I was left with trying to figure out whether I was wrong about my sexuality, or whether the Church was wrong.
I knew what I wanted my answer to be - that it was okay, and that I could have relationships. However, I didn't know whether this was what God was telling me or whether I was just projecting my own thoughts onto them. I spent a long time exploring this with the school chaplain, and it was so helpful having someone to talk about it with.
Eventually, I came to the conclusion that God had created me this way and so I decided to pursue relationships for a while, ignoring the remaining uncertainty I still felt about my sexuality and gender.
Several months later, I came back to discussing sexuality, and I spoke for the first time about how I'd been feeling that I wasn't female, and how I wanted to transition to present as male at school. I spent a lot of time with the school chaplain exploring gender, talking about things like whether the soul has a gender, and whether transitioning is against God's creation or plan for me.
I couldn't find a great deal of teaching on this, but through prayer I began to form my own view on how this fit into my faith. Now, I believe that the soul, the very essence of our being, may have a gender. For most people this aligns with their physical appearance, but for some people like me who are trans, it does not. To begin with my view on this was very binary, because Christian teaching tends to be, but I can't see why it has to be.
I came to realise as well, that even if God created us male and female, that does not mean that we are all completely one or the other. We all have a mixture of typically masculine and feminine characteristics, and gender is far more complicated than a some of the simple definitions provided by parts of mainstream Christianity.
I became very angry with God again over this, however. I couldn't see how if they 'knit me together in my mother’s womb' (Psalm 139:13) they had managed to make such a fundamental mistake. Again, it took a lot of prayer and talking to people to reach a conclusion. I realised that there are many things in this world, that people can be born with that I do not believe are God causing them, or the result of God being neglectful, and so this is similar. It's the result of the fallen, imperfect world that we live in.
The conclusion to this is that I can pursue the medical intervention I need with a clear conscience. I feel safe in the knowledge that God does not want me to suffer, and they helped us to create medicine so that we could alleviate suffering.
My identity is in God, and I know that they see me for who I truly am.
At my catholic school we had this lay chaplain, he wasn't a priest but just a fairly ordinary catholic guy who was there to organise religious services and events and also, to some extent, to provide spiritual support to students.
I ended up coming out to him after he walked in on me crying in the chapel one day. I'd been struggling quite a bit with reconciling my sexuality with my faith, as well as with my mood generally, and by lower 6th (age 17) the chapel had become the place where I would go to hide away when school got too much. It was basically just a tiny room with an altar and a couple of pews in it, but hardly anyone ever used it, so you were usually guaranteed a private space.
I don't remember all that much about the specific day in question, except that I was sitting in there in tears talking to God about what He wanted me to do in terms of relationships. At this point I was exclusively attracted to girls, and I wanted to know whether it would be okay for me to consider pursuing a relationship, or whether I should remain celibate, but I kept going round in circles without getting anywhere and getting quite upset.
When the chaplain walked in to the chapel it was quite awkward; there I was in floods of tears, not exactly expecting to have to talk to anyone. He sat with me for a few moments and then said that if I wanted to talk then I could come find him in his office. This gave me some time to collect myself and decide whether or not I wanted to go to see him.
I had struggled over the past year and a half with finding someone to talk to about my sexuality who also could see where I was coming from with my struggle to reconcile it with my faith. Nonreligious support workers or mental health professionals I had spoken to could not quite understand the specific religious conflicts I was having and religious people often seemed judgemental.
I found it quite hard to actually talk to people about topics that were important to me so I wasn't sure that I would be able to say what I wanted to say to the chaplain if I did meet with him. However, when it came to it I found him one of the easiest people to talk to and I managed to come out to him almost straight away. He was the first person who had really seemed to understand why I was struggling.
Over the next few months we discussed and explored sexuality and faith. It was a really open and honest discussion, and I think it helped that it was one of the first times the chaplain had fully considered homosexuality in a faith context so we were able to explore it together.
We also started speaking about gender and I realised that that was something I wanted to discuss. A year previously I had come to the conclusion that I wasn't a girl, but that realisation terrified me so much that I didn't feel I could do anything about it, so I promptly squashed it. Over the year that followed I continued to learn more about being trans from the internet, but I was still too scared to say anything to anyone.
When my discussion with the chaplain turned to gender, I finally felt able to express how I'd been feeling. After I'd told him that I thought I was a guy, he simply told me that it would be possible for me to transition in school, if that was what I wanted. For the first time I started to consider that I could, that it didn't have to be that scary and that the school wouldn't have a problem with it. I suddenly felt empowered and confident and knew that I at least had to give living as a guy a go. He helped me talk through some of the practical aspects and it became so much less scary. He didn't know very much about being trans but still managed to provide a space for me to talk about it, and was so understanding and receptive.
Within about a week I had gone in to see my headmaster and spoken to him about transitioning at school. He was somewhat surprised, but immediately supportive. He spoke to other members of staff and we agreed that I could come back to school after the half term holiday as Zac.
The only issue I had was over which toilets I was supposed to use, as they originally thought I should use the disabled toilet. I didn't think this was appropriate so they suggested I use the staff toilets, which I reluctantly agreed to. They didn't want me using the boys toilets because they had this idea other students might complain that there was a 'girl' in there. I ignored their directive however and used the boys toilets, and as far as I'm aware there were never any complaints.
I continued to meet with the chaplain weekly for the remainder of my time at the school, and he was one of my biggest supporters. I really don't know how I'd have got through school without him.
I was 15 when I first came out. I was on MSN with my best friend at the time, and I typed the words 'I think I'm gay... or bi'. I anxiously hit send, hoping her reply wasn't laced with any of the thinly veiled homophobia I'd grown up with.
I grew up in a Catholic family, and the word gay wasn't mentioned very much at all. If it was, it was never positively and left behind it a rather oppressive atmosphere. I never questioned my sexuality until I was 15. I had assumed I was straight, and I had dated boys to try to fit in, in the strange way under 11s do.
I remember being confused when I was 12 and having sexual dreams involving girls. I tried to convince myself that it didn't mean anything and that I was interested in boys, and I managed to squash it for over 3 more years. I was aware that I liked boobs, so I banned myself from ever looking, because I thought it was wrong and dirty.
During that time I threw myself into my faith, which said that being gay was 'disordered' and that I could never have a relationship with a girl. I read books, and went to church religiously, I thought I knew so much, but I was missing the key, the heart. I had all the head knowledge but my heart was not allowed to get involved, because there was this part of my heart that I had been squashing for so long.
Although the feelings had already begun surfacing, my desire to have a relationship with a girl really came to a head when I started my first summer job at the age of 15. The person who employed me is gay, and I believe it was the first time I had ever knowingly met a gay couple. They were so normal, and it made me actually properly ask myself the question for the first time, could I?
Could I be gay? Could I have a relationship with a girl? How did lesbians even have sex? Then at this point I was overwhelmed with guilt. I felt bad and sinful for even having thoughts about having a relationship with a girl, let alone sex, and I turned to self-harm as a way to relieve that guilt.
I had watched my brother struggle with my parents on the issue of his sexuality, they had not been accepting at all, and my overall impression is of them being very angry and controlling. I had very little desire to come out to them.
I came out to a couple of other school friends, and eventually my whole friendship group knew. On the whole, I received so much love and support from them, for which I will always be so grateful.
I never intended to come out to my parents, and it was not my choice to. When I was 16, my dad sat me down and pretty much forced it out of me. He knew about my self-harming, and wanted to know why, he lulled me into thinking he was going to be supportive, and started guessing. He hit the nail on the head and guessed that I was gay, and my non-answer gave it away. Initially, to his credit, my dad seemed quite accepting, but it didn't take long before the façade slipped away.
He told me that I wasn't gay, that I was confused, that I hadn't met the right boy, that I was too young to make such a decision. His favourite argument of all is that he dislikes labels, and doesn't think I should label myself. He was also convinced that somehow my brother, or someone else had influenced me and turned me gay.
It's taken me years to reduce the guilt, and I am still not sure I'm fully there yet. It has been difficult to reconcile my Catholic faith, with my experience and convictions surrounding sexuality. Now however, I could never go back behind those barriers of shame, I fall in love with who I love, and there is nothing broken about me.
Today we had a very fraught catholic university chaplaincy/society meeting. There was a lot of emotion and the whole atmosphere felt quite awkward. People obviously had strong feelings on a few subjects that were being discussed, and a few members were brought to tears, and some got up and left at various points.
I don't pretend to fully understand all the tensions and the connection some of these people have with the chaplaincy, as I've only been there a few months, and these are just some of my thoughts on what I took away from today.
The meeting was called to discuss the chaplaincy retreat that we had voted on in the first society meeting of the year, back in September. It was rather ominously stated that the chaplaincy could not support the retreat, initially with no further explanation given. The committee of the society looked very awkward as they talked about this, and didn't feel they could expand on it without our priest being there.
Once we'd located him, he explained his reasons for not feeling like he could support the retreat that had been planned. One reason, which I think should have been the main reason, was that the retreat centre we were planning to go to was not wheelchair accessible, and especially now we have someone who uses a wheelchair attending chaplaincy it would not be appropriate for the chaplaincy to support a non-accessible event. His other reason was specifically to do with the community who were going to be running part of the retreat, and I think this was based more on personal reasoning.
Understandably there were people with a close connection to the community in question who were offended by his comments on the nature of the community. I think they had wished to be able to compromise and discuss the issues, coming up with solutions rather than taking the decision to cancel the retreat altogether.
There were also some other issues which came up in the discussion and I think too much of the dialogue seemed quite accusatory. Some things probably weren't appropriate to be discussed with the entire society present, and there seemed to be a lot of underlying emotion, a lot of which I didn't quite follow, probably because I haven't been a part of the chaplaincy that long.
The end result of the meeting was that the retreat is to be cancelled and another retreat will be run in its place. We voted on some options for an alternative retreat, and although it was a close call between the number of people abstaining and the number who voted for one of the alternatives, we have chosen an alternative retreat. I think this is a positive outcome, but I can see that not everyone will think that, and may not be happy with it. I don't think the situation was dealt with very well on the whole, and there could have been better communication.
Personally, I think that cancelling the retreat on the accessibility issue alone, would have been valid. The chaplaincy has links with the university and as such has to follow their policy on accessibility, and from what I gathered they had sought advice from the university and had been told that if possible an alternative retreat should be run. However, regardless of university policy, and whether or not we perceive that we currently have disabled members, I believe that we can hardly consider ourselves Christian, or indeed good human beings, if we are not inclusive and accessible to all.
The chaplaincy has suddenly had to consider members with disabilities as we had a wheelchair user unexpectedly arrive, and have been scrambling to make adjustments ever since. In my opinion this isn't really good enough, we should try to be proactive and have suitable adjustments or resources already in place to accommodate those with different needs, rather than reacting when someone comes through the door.
Of course it's good that there has been a reaction, and movements have been made towards change, but I think it's indicative of a huge problem that needs to be addressed at the root, rather than trying to plug the gaps. We need to consider inclusivity as a whole, in advance, and then be prepared to continue to make adjustments.
I have my own personal concerns about the retreat, as being trans I don't really know how they will deal with me. I spoke to someone after the meeting today who assured me that it had been considered. I wasn't entirely sure whether everyone at the chaplaincy were that aware of me being trans so I was actually somewhat relieved to find out the people who I wanted to know were aware. I would like to be treated just like any other guy, but I can never be certain how exactly it will play out, especially as the accommodation will probably be arranged by gender.