Lancaster University Transformed My Life

Rachel Mann, Anglican Priest, Broadcaster

To call The Rev'd Canon Dr Rachel Mann’s time at university transformational, would be an understatement. Not only did she arrive presenting as male and leave having transitioned to become a woman, but she also turned her back on atheism to discover her unexpected vocation as an Anglican priest.

Even from her current perspective as a high-profile speaker on religious, philosophical and trans matters as well as an author, poet and recently appointed full-time Archdeacon of Bolton and Salford, Rachel (MA Philosophy 1993, BA Philosophy, 1991, Cartmel) finds it difficult to view this extreme time of turmoil with clarity, but she has no hesitation in acknowledging the deep debt of gratitude she feels she owes Lancaster.

“My experience of transition - which was absolutely necessary and absolutely right - was at the same time intensely difficult,” she recalls. “I could not have transitioned in the way I did, with a sense of completeness and wholeness, if I had not done it in a place where I felt safe and held.”

Rachel speaks of her undergraduate years with happiness. This was the late eighties and the skinny youth with dreadlocks from Worcestershire she was then, was after fun and to prove herself in every way, including how well she could handle ‘this guy thing’. She had, from the age of five, felt uncomfortable about being seen as a boy.

She’d fallen in love with Lancaster on sight at an open day. “The level of welcome from the Philosophy Department blew my mind,” she reminisces. “I have never forgotten that sense of ‘we are absolutely delighted that you are here’ and that mattered so much more to me at the time than anything else.”

For her, philosophy was about ‘winning arguments and being clever’, which she had done successfully at school and continued to do at Lancaster. “I thought it would arm me against my vulnerability against the world,” she says. “I discovered that I was good at it and I have taken those analytical skills into the rest of my life and that capacity not to be tricked by what looks like a good argument.”

Rachel’s life appeared to be that of a typical bright male undergrad – academically able, playing in a psychedelic prog rock band called Out to Lunch, drinking in Cartmel bar, guitarist in student musicals such as Godspell and Little Shop Of Horrors (with future Game of Thrones/ The Office star Ralph Ineson). She even took part in drama productions that gained her an invitation to join the National Youth Theatre, which she had to turn down to go and teach in Jamaica for a year.

Before transitioning, she even briefly married a female fellow student following a whirlwind final-year relationship, in a bid to block out the growing confusion about her own gender identity. The decision to return to Lancaster to do a Master's in Philosophy gave her the safety to take a giant step. She remembers: 'I had not transitioned and was in complete terror and denial - so much so that I couldn’t even articulate any element of my sexuality or gender identity. I felt as if I was constantly trying to maintain this mask of masculinity.”

But in an environment where she shone academically and felt valued by the staff and fellow students, she felt confident enough to make the life-changing decision to begin transitioning in 1993. Over more than two years she received treatment in London to make the change, began a PhD and stayed on at Lancaster as a teaching fellow in the Philosophy Department.

She talks with admiration at the stability the department provided as her appearance gradually changed and her colleagues accepted her new name and adapted to the need to treat her differently: “ I was held and valued and able to get on do things that I loved and teach people and learn from wonderful seminar students. That's why I stayed there for so long.”

Studying philosophy, she says, allowed her to discover that she was in fact a theologian, but nothing prepared her for the next dramatic life change - her conversion in 1996 from self-styled “God hater” to Christian, with a calling to be ordained as a priest. “I wasn’t just an atheist – I was a Dawkins-style atheist - religion was ‘evil’,” she recalls. “But sometimes those who protest loudest are the most likely to become converts.”

Her time at Lancaster had come to an end. She moved to Manchester in 1997 until 2003 to test her vocation for the ordained minister. She was one of the first two trans people recommended for training to the ministry and the bishops had to work out how to incorporate them, and whether it was even right for a ‘post op trans' person to be ordained. She did her training for the ministry in Birmingham from 2003-5 and joined the Manchester Diocese in 2005, until recently as the Rector of Burnage. In June 2023 she took up the role of Archdeacon of Bolton and Salford.

In parallel with her work, she has written a number of books (including her autobiography ‘Dazzling Darkness’ and her first novel ‘Gospel of Eve’) numerous chapters and papers and a well-received collection of poetry. She is also a regular broadcaster and media commentator.

The higher profile of trans issues is a good thing in her opinion, but she takes a relaxed view of the use of specific pronouns and of the trans loo debate. She thinks that universities need to take a leading role on gender and trans issues, as part of supporting students to learn and develop, whatever their needs.

‘My instinct is that the support of trans students should be the same as for people in wider society,” she explains. “We should respect people when they choose to reveal something so personally important about themselves and offer them the adaptations and support to thrive in a university setting or community.”

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