Dazzling Darkness – Gender, Sexuality, Illness and God

Gill Coffin reviews the autobiography by Rachel Mann

Rachel Mann is an outsider – a male to female transsexual Lesbian with chronic illness and disability – and an Anglican parish priest. She writes with great honesty about her personal journey from being Nick to becoming Rachel; from being a hedonistic atheist young person to joining a church and subsequently becoming ordained, and from health to illness, disability and pain.

I read it because I struggle to understand trans issues, and this book, alongside a number of personal encounters with trans friends and Friends, has helped me to understand more – although probably I can never fully enter in to what it’s like to feel trapped in the wrong body.

Even as a young child Nick felt “wrong” and as he grew older the gender dysphoria became more intense. Eventually, he decided to make the transition, and Rachel, as she now is, writes movingly about the impact of this on family and friends. The process was interrupted at the point where she would have had surgery by the discovery that she had Crohn’s disease – an inflammatory bowel disease for which there is currently no cure. Her life since has been punctuated by pain and surgery to control the spread of the disease.

Eventually, Rachel had the operation to complete her transition from male to female, and also began to take steps to become an Anglican priest. She explores the theology of being an outsider, and of confronting rejection, failure, loss, pain and loneliness. Some of this was too deep for me.

Recalling the controversies within lesbian and feminist circles about whether to accept M-to-F trans women into our intimate discussions, I was glad to find that, towards the end of the book, Rachel admits that being a young man had a lot going for it – freedoms that young women are rarely allowed. She regrets, of course, not having been a young woman, and wonders how things might have been different if she’d transitioned earlier.

Not an easy book to read, but well-written, with great honesty.