York St. John research chaplaincy support of trans and non-binary staff and students at Anglican foundation universities.

York St. John research chaplaincy support of trans and non-binary staff and students at Anglican foundation universities.

Sharon Jagger  s.jagger@yorksj.ac.uk


The current public discussion around trans and non-binary gender identities reflects a deep cultural and social ambivalence towards changing attitudes that challenge traditional understandings of gender. The recent UK Government consultation on the Gender Recognition Act, allowing gender to be self-identified, attracted significant mainstream Press coverage, igniting a debate that revealed public anxieties that coalesced around the perceived impact on women-only spaces. Yet increasingly, people are exploring what gender and sexuality mean beyond binary configurations. There are now possibilities for non-binary and trans identities to be more fully expressed, but this also leaves some people vulnerable to hostility at both the personal and the institutional level.

In this context of shifting social meanings around gender identity, universities are grappling with how to respond to the support needs of trans and non-binary students and staff in practical ways and in ways that shape the cultural and social environment. Sexual harassment and assault on university campuses is a current area of challenge affecting persons of all identities and sexualities, and there are issues around provision of gender-neutral spaces and flexibility in administrative systems. Staff and students with a faith background may turn to the chaplaincy for advice in the aftermath of sexual harassment and abuse; they may also seek guidance in respect of their own beliefs and practices, their perception of the official position of their religious community, and the negotiation of their identity and sexuality with friends and family.

How are chaplaincies positioned within the network of support on campuses? This is an important question, particularly in the light of the equally public debate raging in the Church of England over gender and sexuality, leaving observers with the impression that those who are trans or who do not identify in binary ways are received with ambivalence in church communities.

Researchers at York St. John University are exploring the question of how university chaplaincies provide safe space for trans and non-binary staff and students, whilst they also represent the Church of England. Does this create a tension for chaplains? Focusing on those universities with an Anglican foundation, Dr. Esther McIntosh and Sharon Jagger are seeking to identify the learning curves chaplains are experiencing and the resulting good practice being developed. The research aims to gather ideas and experiences that provide a ‘toolkit’ for effective support of the trans and non-binary university community, whether they have a faith or not.

The research has two main elements: a questionnaire is currently being circulated amongst Anglican foundation universities to gather views and stories from trans and non-binary staff and students about their experiences of university life and the support they feel they require. Whilst the research is focusing on how chaplaincies are positioned to provide support, those who have no contact with their university chaplain are invited to contribute their views and experiences to help form a wider picture of university life for those who identify as non-binary or trans. The researchers are also asking for participants to share their experiences in more detail in confidential (and friendly!) interviews. The link to the questionnaire is below.

The second element of the research aims to gather views from chaplains. Several interviews have taken place and these discussions have highlighted the important work already embedded in many university chaplaincies. There is, for some chaplains, an imperative to disrupt the negative messages about the welcome of trans and non-binary people of faith that are circulating around the Church. The visible bringing together of the clerical collar and the rainbow badge or lanyard on campus, for example, is seen as a sign of ally-ship with all who identify under the LGBTQI+ banner. This seems to be a practical and proactive way of dispelling fears amongst staff and students that chaplaincies mirror the ambivalence in the Church over sexuality and gender. Chaplains are in fact striving to provide an inclusive Christian space.

This research project is significant because chaplains inhabit the place at which two institutions and their ideologies meet. The inclusivity and diversity policy of the university may appear to be at odds with official or mainstream religious discourse and this is a potential barrier for chaplains in providing support. Though the research is in its early stages, it seems that chaplaincies have to negotiate ways of minimising tensions that arise because of their representative role and work consciously to untangle their people-focused work from some of the Church’s doctrinal problematising of non-traditional sexualities and gender identities.

Importantly, this research is being guided by senior trans voices in the Church. Rev. Tina Beardsley and Rev. Rachel Mann lend both their support and their stories to the project, ensuring the research is rooted in the lived experiences and the views of trans and non-binary people. Amplifying the voices of staff and students who identify as trans or non-binary is a key aim for the project, so that lessons can be identified to help develop practice and understanding amongst chaplains.

The conclusions of this project will be reported fully and widely in 2020. In the meantime, the researchers are seeking as much input as possible from staff and students at Anglican foundation universities who identify as trans or non-binary. The questionnaire will be treated as confidential and all responses will be anonymous. The researchers would particularly welcome those who identify as trans or non-binary at an Anglican foundation university to participate further as interviewees and there is an opportunity to respond to this invitation at the end of the questionnaire.  Alternatively, please email s.jagger@yorksj.ac.uk.

Click here to respond to the questionnaire.