This is a tricky one.
That’s a headline this morning on the BBC News, addressing one of the initial concerns over the election of new Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron: namely, his declared and devout Christianity, and whether he’ll be able to do justice to a liberal party in light of it.
Imagine you’d read the Bible, but had no other contact with Christians or Christianity. You might be forgiven for wondering how Christian religious convictions could possibly be considered an obstacle to liberal values. Jesus, as he’s presented in the Bible, preaches a message of kindness, compassion, tolerance, co-operation and understanding – the exact values that a liberal society should hold dear. He wasn’t an anarchist, by any measure: he did believe that God had rules and that, as far as possible without conflict, the faithful should still abide by the laws of their land.
There are many, many Christians who hold true to that image of Jesus: people who, by both their innate character and their honest religious perspective, embody that kindness and compassion.
But it can fairly be argued that Jesus – his figure and story – has been appropriated and misrepresented by strongly conservative elements, especially prominent in the United States, who seek to use him to promote a political ideology that is largely in opposition to what Jesus actually preached. Instead of tolerance, they demand conformity; they agitate for orthodoxy, and reject and condemn those who don’t comply.
This conflict has been highlighted with the recent decision in the Supreme Court of the United States to require all state governments to recognise same-sex marriage. This has upset a lot of conservative Americans, who for the most part appeal to ‘traditional Christian values’ as the reason why one man may not be joined to another man, or one woman to another woman, in marriage. It’s condemned in the Bible, they say. Unfortunately for their argument, the Bible actually says very little about same-sex relationships, and certainly doesn’t condemn them in any substantial sense.
The Supreme Court decision was widely considered a huge victory for LGBT rights – human rights, even – but it stirred panic in some sections of American society. Conservatives across the western world continue to equate their political beliefs with the preaching of Jesus, and so to hear a political leader – especially the newly elected leader of a party that’s recently suffered a crushing electoral defeat – declare himself a devout Christian does create nervousness in his party, and in others concerned with human rights and freedoms.
So Tim Farron was asked, outright, whether he believed homosexuality was a sin. He avoided a direct answer, saying only that he believed “we are all sinners”.
That might not be a bad sign: it might well be that he doesn’t agree with homosexuality, but accepts that it’s one ‘sin’ amongst many, and that he doesn’t consider himself righteous enough to judge. That wouldn’t be the best stance, but it wouldn’t be the worst, either. But he did go on to say that he was “passionate about LGBT-plus rights”, and said, “I’m a liberal and I absolutely support equality”.
As long as that’s true, I see no real need to push him any further about his religious position. He’s given us his political position, which seems broadly acceptable – and it’s politics, not religion, that he’s been elected to do.
So what’s the tricky bit?
He also said that marriage equality needed to be extended, and that transgender people didn’t enjoy equal marriage rights because of the spousal veto. If you’ve not met it, that’s the mechanism in law whereby one party to a marriage can have the marriage annulled should their partner declare an intention to undergo a gender transition.
Tim Farron suggests this needs to be removed. But does it? As a trans person myself, and married, I might be expected to argue for the maximum rights for trans people. Rights are a funny thing, though: you have to balance them. I expect to be treated with the same respect and dignity that’s afforded to non-trans* people, and to be extended the same rights. But.
It’s often the case that transgender people – usually not through any sort of malice or deceitfulness – don’t feel able to confront their transgender nature until after they’ve lived a ‘normal’ life for a fair few years. So it’s frequently the case that trans people are already married – and perhaps have been for a long time – when they realise and accept the path they need to walk.
Which is all fine and good. But the non-transitioning partner is now bound in a marriage that, realistically, they might well now feel deeply uncomfortable about. They might well feel that the person they’re now married to isn’t the person they made their vows to. As a trans person I can argue that point: I’m still me. But in the end, what I feel isn’t the issue. What my spouse feels is. And if she (in our case) felt that she no longer knew me, or that I’m a different person now, or that the change is just too much, then without the spousal veto she would have no recourse, no way to end that union, without undergoing a long, arduous and potentially expensive process of divorce.
The veto allows for a swift and relatively straightforward annulment – one which, with good faith shown on both sides, might well be able to preserve a reasonable degree of amicability and dignity.
On the other hand, people change over time anyway, and there are plenty of marriages that, for all sorts of reasons, become a bond that one or both parties would rather shake off. Yet in these cases, not related to gender at all, we still expect the parties to go through the divorce process.
So the question is: does removing the spousal veto for the partners of trans people boost trans rights in isolation – a good thing; does it boost trans rights at the expense of the rights of the non-trans party – a not-so-good thing; or does the existence of the veto in the first place actually serve to highlight a shortfall in the rights of all married people, whatever their circumstances? It does, after all, demonstrate that a late annulment is socially acceptable and legally practical – so raises the question of why we force any couple to go through the upset and expense of full divorce proceedings.
Send your answers on a piece of batter pudding to the usual address in Bexhill-on-Sea.
* I’m never clear on what’s the best terminology to use for people who aren’t transgender. I’m supposed to say they’re ‘cisgender’, but a lot of people find it offensive to be given a label based on something I am; whereas a lot of people object to ‘non-trans’ because it implies a lack of some sort. ‘Normal people’ is unacceptable because of course it is. So it’s all very confusing.