A Woman in a Man’s Body?

Growing up in suburban Scarborough back in the late 70’s and early 80’s we knew nothing of political correctness and LGBTQI type thinking. We only knew of ‘poofs’ and ‘lesos’ and to be fair none of us knew too many of them either. A ‘poof’ was generally a softer kind of bloke – anyone who couldn’t muscle up in a game of football – or who liked art… You couldn’t always define a ‘poof’ but you ‘knew one when you saw one’ and we were quick to label. ‘Lesos’… well – can’t say I ever met any of them… or maybe I did, but it just wasn’t the era for making it public.

Those were the 70’s and 80’s when if your sexuality wasn’t straight as an arrow you definitely didn’t bring it up in casual conversation and you certainly didn’t wear it proudly. Much has changed and we live in a very different world to that of my teen years, so much so that as I read Honeybee by Craig Silvey this week I found myself both intrigued at the shape this young person’s life had taken and also saddened by how difficult their struggle had been – and would likely continue to be, partly because of people like me.

I have read Silvey’s two previous books, Jasper Jones and Rhubarb and enjoyed them – not in the league of a Winton, but nevertheless a very good local author, so I downloaded Honeybee without knowing anything of its subject matter or content. Had I known it was the story of a young boy’s struggle with his sexual identity (believing himself to be a female in a male body) I have to admit I would have hesitated simply because of my upbringing. There is still a fair amount of that old Scarborough boy in there and this aint my kinda story…

But I’m really grateful for the whole experience of reading the book and the world it opened up. I imagine it’s a tough gig for a straight man to write from the point of view of a transsexual teenager, but Silvey does a fantastic job of drawing you into Sam’s world and genuinely sharing his pain and struggle. The story opens with two people about to end it all – Sam and the much older Vic enjoying his last cigarette before jumping to his death from the bridge. Vic ends up delaying his own death by reaching out to Sam and inviting him into his home. It was Sam’s own ‘family’ – his alcoholic mother and her abusive partner – along with feeling like a woman trapped in a man’s body, that brought Sam to this point.

The story takes us back and forth through Sam’s short life, from his tragic and traumatic early childhood to his his devastating early adolescence, depicting a young person just trying to fit in, but knowing they didn’t ‘fit’ anywhere. The thugs Sam’s mother associates with make Sam’s life hell and he ends up moving in with Vic, a beautiful father figure who only ever has the best in mind for Sam – who accepts him as he is and who starts him on the road to finding some sense of peace with his identity. Along with the more caricatured Peter (male nurse and drag queen) and the counsellor Dianne and his Sri Lankan friend Aggie, Sam eventually come to realise that the world is not against him, but rather there are people who see him and accept him as he is.

Silvey does a great job of depicting the dark underside of suburban life, often hidden by pretty gardens and garage roller doors that protect those inside from being truly seen. While the story may be seen as a little predictable in its trajectory it still tugs on the heart strings in a very believable way as we (late in the narrative) hear how the book came to be called ‘Honeybee’.

Perhaps you wonder, ‘if the old Scarborough boy in me has a tough time engaging with such a story then how does the Baptist pastor go?’ Short answer would be ‘very differently to the Baptist pastor I was 30 years ago.’ Back then I would have had dual reason to dismiss a book with what I would have seen as such a crass and disturbing storyline. It wasn’t culturally appropriate even for secular Oz and it was still the era of gay folks as ‘abominations and perverts’ in church culture.

As I sit here today 30 years later I am conscious I have been influenced partly by the culture and partly by the Bible (although I’d say culture made the first move) to be genuinely accepting of other human beings who have a different sense of their sexual identity and that has been a very good and much needed shift. That said I can’t help but read the Bible largely thru more traditional eyes – and maybe it is simply ‘tradition’ – but I still feel it as true. I have tried on the different ‘sexuality lenses’ but for me they feel forced and awkward and I can’t buy the arguments that go with them. Maybe that would be different if my own experience was closer with people of the LGBTQI community, but its not. Maybe in time I will discover I have been ‘wrong’ on this issue and I will change my perspective, but up to now I haven’t been moved that far.

That said I feel like the volume has been dialled well down on the harsh language and attitudes of the past and has been dialled up on our call to genuinely love and accept everyone however they ‘sexually identify’. We have some challenging roads ahead as the church, and I don’t have a firm plan for how we will navigate them, but I do sense that we (those of us who hold a more traditional view) have to both adhere to what we see the Bible teaching, but with an attitude of real love, grace and seeking to listen and understand rather than simply drawing lines marking who is ‘in’ and ‘out’. It feels like we are getting better at it, but my initial internal baulk at the subject of Silvey’s novel reminds me that old prejudices still lurk.

And while the questions around homosexuality in general continue to bump around, the issue of trans-sexuality is a whole new arena. Can you genuinely be a ‘woman in a man’s body’ as Silvey writes of? How do we understand that conundrum and how do we move forward with that one? I want to say we start with the Bible in one hand and the person’s story in the other, but the sheer lack of relevant biblical material on this subject means we have to do some interpretive and constructive theological thinking to arrive at a conclusion that is more nuanced than simply ‘right or wrong’.

Who wants to be a pastor?…

(And if you want to pick me up on my use of the male pronoun for Sam then before you get all PC on me read the book and maybe you will realise why I use it.)

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