Welcome and Acceptance: Meet two trans Brethren
By W Bro Omaid Hiwaizi PAGDC, MetGCO
The United Grand Lodge of England adopted its transgender Policy on 17th July 2018 – closely followed by both the Order of Women Freemasons and Freemasonry for Women (FFW, previously known as the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons or HFAF).
Needless to say, this attracted widespread support and some concern amongst Brethren. Five years later, we wanted to see how it’s going and what it’s like for trans Brethren; so we spoke to W Bro Jo Lyons LGR of Lodge of Honor and Generosity No 165 and Bro Lisa Keen of FFW’s Stability Lodge No 1.
I’d spotted Jo receiving her London Grand Rank in 2022, and was curious to find out about her journey. She was assigned male at birth, and is now a woman. She’s 63 and teaches economics at Millfield School in Somerset. She was initiated in 1995, and is a fifth generation Mason (on both sides of her family) – although she didn’t join her father’s Lodge in Dartford, preferring to take the step on her own.
Jo’s journey started when our Metropolitan Grand Secretary, Matthew Christmas, subtly opened the topic over lunch when they worked together at Canford School. Jo understood what Matthew was alluding to due to her family connections; and the die was cast.
Jo’s expectations of Freemasonry had been set in the 70s through Ladies Nights and other social events organised by her father’s quite formal, traditional Lodge in Dartford. When she was Initiated, she found her London Lodge quite different – more informal, brisker, with a large proportion of senior masons, and 5.30pm starts with the intention of being in the bar by 7! Her father attended her initiation and delivered the charge. Quite a moment for anyone!
Jo didn’t “feel right” from the age of 13-14 and questioned her identity at various points. In the 70s, there wasn’t an understanding of trans identity, but she was very clear she wasn’t homosexual and it was only in the 90s that she became aware of trans people. “I’d buried myself in competitive sport – canoeing – and represented Great Britain”, she says. After winning a medal at the 1995 World Championships, she felt she could retire. “My brain then started to question who I was”, she notes. However, she was focused on marriage and parenthood. “Then, I felt tied by parenthood so it was only 6 or 7 years ago – when I thought the children would cope, that I could focus on my identity. And it turned out my wife was hugely supportive – which is amazing.” Jo’s been out as a trans woman since 2018. And her father? “It was touching how receptive and accepting he was – he took it straight on board. That was a pleasant surprise and helped me move through the process.” I asked Jo whether his accepting reaction may have been partly because he was a Freemason. She replied “I think so: he did live the tenets and that probably helped him live a calm, meditative life.”
Outside Freemasonry and beyond her immediate family, she’s found older people and more distant family struggle to understand. Inside Freemasonry, it’s different. “I can’t think of a situation when anyone has got it wrong; and that’s quite an achievement when I look at the rest of the world who get it wrong more than 50% of the time.”
“When I came up to get London Grand Rank, I was worried I might feel isolated – but 20 or 30 Brothers came up to me to introduce themselves and tell me how amazing it was.”
UGLE have connected her with other trans Masons to offer support: “It would probably be good if trans masons knew there were others out there and, if we are willing, to communicate with each other. There are times when you feel very isolated. We’re a pretty marginalised chunk of society and there are times when you feel pretty down. And it just takes one more negative comment. There are reasons why suicide rates amongst trans people are so high. The knowledge that there are others out there, and even perhaps who might go to a Lodge meeting I was at, would be very supportive. There might be others who are reluctant to come out but need to know Masonry is a safe place to do so.”
I was introduced to Bro. Lisa Louise Keen via a Brother who is a member of FFW. She’s 47 years old, an HGV driver by day and a professional photographer by night. She was assigned male at birth.
Lisa was Initiated into FFW’s Stability Lodge No 1 in 2019 which met at the old FFW Headquarters in Finchley Road, but now meets at the Southgate Centre. She’s a member of two other Lodges, Lodge of Wisdom No 55 in Harrow and Athena Lodge No 59 – a Universities Scheme Lodge – which meets in Stoke on Trent. She’s a regular visitor at other FFW Lodges.
Her introduction to Freemasonry was through photographing Ladies’ Festivals, when W Bro Paul Clark (who she knew through line dancing) asked her to take photos at his. After meeting quite a number of Masons, reading about Freemasonry’s charitable work and with some encouragement and guidance from Paul, she eventually joined mutual friend Phyllis’ Lodge, Stability Lodge No 1. As the Junior Deacon, she’s now focused on the ritual and floor work and is also part of the FFW Mentoring Team: “I’m becoming more of a teacher and someone to look up to.”
Her preconceptions had been that Freemasonry was for people of upper class, or wealth or “know people in the right places” but has found that it’s open to all and it doesn’t matter what class you consider yourself to be in.
Lisa had been cross dressing for many years, very much with the understanding of her female partner. When her partner sadly passed away, she started the process of transitioning, again with the support of her current wife, who knew her throughout her transition which she completed a year before becoming a Freemason. She’d felt different since middle school (age 11-13) – in 80s rural Suffolk – a time when there was no internet and little public knowledge of trans issues. She told her mum she had been cross dressing at age 18, and they went to see the doctor for advice. She was introduced to a transvestite group for support, but it was only when she moved away to Lincolnshire in 2006 that she was able to live as a woman more or less all the time.
Throughout her introduction and Initiation into Freemasonry, it was never brought up that she was transgender and she hasn’t been treated any differently, with perhaps only one third of her FFW Brethren knowing. She gets a lot of support and encouragement from both female and male Masons she knows, with some seniors saying “we can’t wait to see you in the chair!”
“The Worshipful Master in two of my Lodges are both openly gay”, adds Lisa, “I find that in my Lodges diversity is welcomed. Freemasonry is moving with the times”. In fact at the first Ladies’ Festival she photographed, Lisa met two Women Freemasons from Canada who were wife and wife. She says “from that moment onwards, I knew I wouldn’t have any problems of acceptance within Freemasonry”.
She thinks that what makes the difference for trans people and others from diverse backgrounds is that those with higher ranks openly express their support – as did Pro Grand Master Peter Lowndes, when the UGLE transgender Policy was first published.
A final comment from Lisa: “Join If you want friendship, to better yourself through new skills, to grow confidence and to find out more about yourself. If you’re transitioning, you won’t have a problem – you’ll have support in Lodge and out of Lodge.”
Jo’s final comment to me summed it up: “I have found this organisation to be at the cutting edge of acceptance and welcoming to someone like me. If anyone is thinking this is something they might want to do, whatever their circumstances, whatever their creed, colour, sexuality, this organisation has demonstrated to me that it’s readily accepting to whoever is willing to accept the principles. If you’re into Masonry’s principles, then Masonry will be into you”.
I came away from speaking to Jo and Lisa thinking Freemasonry can best support trans people by being very open about it, by making it normalised, and connecting trans masons so that they can support each other.
This article is part of the Arena Magazine, Issue 52 August 2023 edition.
Arena Magazine is the official magazine of the London Freemasons – Metropolitan Grand Lodge and Metropolitan Grand Chapter of London.
Read more articles in the Arena Issue 52 here.