By Fran Darlington - Retired Priest, Diocese of Niagara
Published: May 2008
Related Topics: People
A popular song contained the line, "I never promised you a rose garden..." God has promised us much, not necessarily a rose garden, but many other blessings and delights, if not in this life, then certainly in the life to come. We go adventuring through this life, confronting countless challenges and decisions. For many, faith in the love and mercy of God carries us through those challenges and decisions, and gives us courage to carry on "no matter what."
Susan Huxford-Westall exemplifies those gifts of faithfulness and courage, having experienced in her long, full life transforming challenges and decisions known to few people, either by personal experience or acquaintance with others. Many readers of the Niagara Anglican are familiar with Susan through her regular column, and are challenged by her honesty, informed by her thoughtfulness, and encouraged by her humour. Now the writer is being written about, her story told to other faithful Anglicans of this Diocese, at a time when many are struggling with recent and ongoing events, and perhaps hoping for some inspiration to carry us through to a new way of being that God has in mind for us.
Born in Portsmouth, England, proud of her Certificate of Confirmation at 16 at St. Mark's Church, Kennington, (one of four Churches built in London to celebrate the Battle of Waterloo) in London, England, in 1937, "to prove I'm an Anglican," Susan remembers her mother as "always busy at home, God-fearing and active in the Church." Her father was "a radio pioneer in the Royal Air Force, formed in 1917, (and was) badly burned in an air crash in 1919. He received the Air Force Cross because he went back into the plane to rescue (another airman)... Dad had a radio business till the depression; he lost everything, but no one would employ him because his hands were so badly damaged. But he could write, did cabinetry--he made beautiful things!... He knew Marconi (inventor of the radiotelegraph), and lived to see man walk on the moon. He had a faith of his own, but only went to church once, for an aunt's funeral. We couldn't talk about religion in the family because my aunt and cousins were Roman Catholic."
In 1931 the family, including younger brother, Arthur, now living in Rugby, England, moved to London to live with an aunt, and it was there that a literally life-transforming experience happened for young Susan--or Ted, as she was then known. In 1933, Ted had a bilateral mastoidectomy at St. Thomas' Hospital. "I can remember coming out of the anaesthetic, worrying did I talk in my sleep, did I tell them I wanted to be a girl?" Typically, Susan chuckles, honestly assessing the situation: "It was completely irrational! I was a perfectly good male and proud of it!"
The experience led him to make radical changes: "In the hospital I decided that things would be different! I had been bullied in school, (but) I was going to stand on my own two feet - I owed it to my Dad. I became active in school clubs, a school prefect, house captain, Company Quarter-Master Sergeant in the Cadet Force, one of two senior positions a student could hold, and Cricket Captain, and I enjoyed it! I took up cross country running; never any good at it, but I had to set an example, so I went gung-ho!" Going "gung-ho" remains an apt description of Susan's life to this day!
In 1937, the British Museum acquired the Codex Sinaiticus, a fourth century version of the New Testament. The BBC ran a radio study program on it, and the Headmaster of Archbishop Tenison's Grammar School "had the whole 6th Form in the library listening to broadcasts. I learned how the Bible was written, and the higher form of Biblical criticism. That got me thinking--which Confirmation classes never did! They were a waste of time--it's all set out in the BCP!"
In 1938, returning to Clapham Road from a trip to French battlefields of World War I, Ted heard of Neville Chamberlain's discussions with Hitler in Germany, and his famous announcement, "peace in our time!" In 1939, Ted was awarded a two-week trip to central Canada by the W.H. Rhodes Educational Trust; on the train to Montreal to sail back to England, he heard the announcement that German aircraft had attacked Poland and been fired at. Susan remembers a World War I officer saying, "I hope you fellows don't have to go through what we went through."
Blacked out, repainted in gray camouflage, the ship arrived in Liverpool just four hours before war was declared. On board, Ted had met a "certain Girl Guide Captain, Edith Wilson," foster child of her aunt and uncle in Hamilton, Ontario.
Having passed his Higher School Certificate, Ted volunteered to become an Air Force meteorologist. Refused because of his ear surgery, It "wasn't a disappointment, because I got to find something else to do!" "Something else" meant joining the Signals Corp, but this time Ted was told he was too young. He got a job in the Chemical Inspection Department (C.I.D.) of the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, London, doing chemical analysis of high explosives. An obvious target in the 1940 Blitz, the C.I.D. was evacuated to Slough, near Windsor. On December 12, 1940, Ted signed up for the Signals Corp, and was sent to "boot camp" in Wales, training previously experienced as a cadet at school.
Ted and Edith became engaged in 1941, just before Ted boarded a troop ship for India. On board, Ted "picked up a book by John Hadham, 'Good God!' and I followed that up with 'God in a World of War.'" (Reflecting on her current reading, Susan lists 'The Other Bible,' the Gnostic Gospels, Dead Sea Scrolls, Visionary Wisdom Texts, Christian Apocrypha, Jewish Pseudepigrapha, Kabbala, and the National Geographic Geography of Religion: "There's so much to read! One book leads to another through bibliography...")
Commissioned as a British Army Royal Corps of Signals Staff Captain, Ted served in India until his return to England on VE Day, May 8, 1945. He and Edith married in June of 1945, but because the war continued in the Pacific, Ted was still on "active duty." Captain Westall was sent to Hanover, Germany, where he commanded the main switchboard between London and the British Army's German headquarters and trained German telephone operators. A friend told Ted he should go into teaching: Susan grins, "That's the last thing I thought of!"
Demobbed at the end of 1946, Ted went back to England to confront the future. "What do I do now? What I used to do? Chemistry!" Then, "No, this job is not for me, I'm interested in people." Taking his friend's advice, Ted got a job as a temporary teacher with the London County Council while he waited to get into College.
Pregnant with the couple's first child, Edith went to visit her foster parents in Hamilton. (Julie was born there in 1948, and Wendy in 1952.) In London, Ted saw a sign encouraging emigration to Ontario, inquired, and was told, as an analytical chemist, "You'll do." "I told Edith, 'Don't worry about coming back. I'm coming over!" They met in Toronto in November, 1947, and Ted went to the Department of Education, where the Minister enabled Ted's transfer from his English training school to Hamilton Normal School, as Teachers' Colleges were then known. "It didn't worry me because I'd already taught in East London."
Years of teaching with the Hamilton Board of Education began: Grade 6 at Central School came first, where "we were making models with asbestos powder!" Ted was also asked to do vocal music. After a stint as Principal's Assistant in two schools, in 1951 Ted was appointed to Tweedsmuir School to teach vocal music. ("As a boy, I'd enjoy evenings around the piano with my aunt. I had an offer to go to St. Paul's Cathedral (London), but my Father refused, and I'm glad he did. I'd done a little singing, had a music group at Normal School, and had been invited to join the choir at the Church of the Ascension.") Remaining at Tweedsmuir until 1957, Ted "dabbled in piano, but I wanted to get into high school, teaching Geography, but it was all Social Studies. So I wanted to do Math. I had done vocal and instrumental classes, and applied to teach Music outside the city, but I was offered the Math job at Delta (High School).
"I had a scientific education, and math. I was not much good at math, failed, but I had a second chance. I went back and did it again and discovered my mistakes." Turning that experience to further good, "I taught 'slow learners, I could see where their problems were, and could present things in a way they could grasp... They weren't dumb, they just had all the confidence knocked out of them. I had counselling sessions with them. They said 'We're dumb-dumbs.' I said, 'You all have a talent. Find out what it is, and play it for all it's worth!'" Ted's encouragement, still uttered with firm conviction out of his own remarkable experiences, surely rescued many lost young people.
Ted was exploring his own talents: returning to school one September, he was assigned classes in Ancient History ("I loved it!") and the school choir. He had been directing the boys' choir at the Church of the Ascension, and was a Licensed Lay Reader there, but transferred to St Mary's, continuing those ministries there. "I enjoyed St. Mary's. I was a Bishop's nominee on the Diocesan Outreach Committee. I was on the joint Presbytery Deaneries Committee dealing with the union of the United and Anglican Churches; that lasted only two years and came to nothing."
Ted was also continuing to explore his understanding of Christianity. "My biggest beef is that we have been indoctrinated! We have been brainwashed about theology as a creed! I do not say the word 'only' (in the creedal phrase about Jesus as "God's only Son, our Lord...")--we are all children of God; Jesus is my brother! The crux of the whole thing is to get back to what Jesus taught!"
Referring enthusiastically to author James Redfield (The Celestine Prophecy, etc.), Susan says, "All of us have this sense inside, and try to live it out. Our task is to find out our purpose in life. All the time I've been bugged by this sense I'm in the wrong sex."
The self-knowing that alarmed 11-year-old Ted as he woke from anaesthetic never went away. He continued teaching both elementary and secondary schools in Hamilton: Delta, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir John A. MacDonald, finally as Department Head in his beloved Geography. In 1974, he and Edith separated, to divorce in 1977, the year Ted retired "to sort myself out. People said they weren't worried about me, because I'd always have something to do." Edith died in 2005, but her picture is on Susan's mantelpiece.
That "sorting out" took Ted into an adventure totally unlike anything else he had ever experienced, as one of the first people in Ontario to go through the complete transition from one gender to another. "I moved to Toronto, out of the Diocese of Niagara. I booked an apartment there for Edward Westall and his sister, Susan. I went to England, where I lived in the male role with my mother. I had also adopted the female role at times. I came back to Canada as a female, and told the apartment manager that my brother had stayed in England. I told VISA I wanted a second card for Susan; the bank was a little more difficult.
Ted contacted the parish church, St. Andrew's, Rexdale. "I told the Rector about myself, and that I had been Warden of Lay Readers in Niagara. He said, 'Come here.' I finished up in the choir as a tenor in the female role. I was Outreach Rep for the parish, and on the Deanery Outreach Committee. I became secretary-treasurer for Rexdale Ecumenical Social Action, an incorporated interdenominational organisation which ran a good used clothing store in Rexdale. All the churches donated. The money sent needy children to summer camp and filled Christmas baskets for families."
Over four and one half years, Ted gradually transformed into Susan, becoming physically the person he had always known he was meant to be. In early 1981, Ted's mother died in England: "I could not go to the funeral. I had a passport but I couldn't go back to the male role." Ted did everything legally, retaining only his citizenship in his male name, and making statutory declarations for everything else. "Now, my passport is in the name of Susan Huxford-Westall. I like the 'Huxford' in there because it was my mother's maiden name, and some people knew me as Susan Huxford."
Susan's daughters had very different reactions to the transformation. Sadly, Susan's second daughter, Wendy, "doesn't want a relationship," but her elder daughter Julie's reaction to her father's experience was an amazed "You haven't changed!" Susan replied, "I'm still me," and they remain close. Julie and her husband, an Inuit she met while nursing on Baffin Island, live in Edmonton.
Susan moved back to Hamilton in February, 1982, first as Susan Huxford, then adding Westall. "I went to my parish church, All Saint's, but was rebuffed by the Rector at first. It was my parish church! I joined the choir, and became Warden when I was 76."
Reflecting on her experiences, Susan explains, "I've had the marvellous experience of having two lives in one. I've been a man, and a successful man. And I'm a woman, and I'm beginning to say a successful woman too." Then, with typical honesty, "There are some things I haven't experienced because I haven't been a woman all my life.
"I don't have to say it any longer! I am a woman and people accept me as such. It's how they see me and how we interact. It's true of all people: we all say 'How do people see me, accept me?'"
Typically, Susan has applied her transformation to enabling others. "As a teacher, you get some psychology, but I've run a group for transgendered people. Among gendered males who have gender dysphoria (feeling and thinking of themselves as female), the fantasy level is amazing. I blame Hollywood; it has built up beauty and led (men and women) into fantasy. The latest development is to prevent aging--but we do get old!"
Susan has been interviewed on television and radio, counselled many transgendered people, organised a seminar for the Gender Identity Clinic at the Clarke Institute (Toronto), and, as a member of the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association, presented a paper in Bordeaux, France. She has been a member of the Canadian Sex Research Forum, and recording secretary of the Western New York Society of Sexuality Professionals.
Susan continues to encourage others experiencing gender dysphoria, and to educate Canadians about them. "Transgendered men feel at home in the gay community, but... they're not realistic. They have little or no education or training, because they left school because of bullying, and some were sexually abused. The stable ones are genetic females who go to males because they know they're going into a dog-eat-dog society. As many women become men as the other way. The insignia for female-to-male is the appearance of a beard, and for male-to-female is the development of breasts. What causes transgenderism? There's now some thought that our sex centre in the brain is displaced."
Though researchers work to unravel its mystery, human sexuality still has many secrets. Humans tend to fear what we do not understand; fear unsettles us, and leads to strong reactions. Openness to learning and compassion for others, especially those different from oneself, can reduce that fear and bring humanity to new wisdom, wholeness and fulfillment of that phrase in the baptismal covenant, "Will you respect the dignity of every human being?" Susan chuckles as she says, "What an uninteresting world it would be if we were all the same! There'd be no challenge!"
With courage and commitment, Susan continues to challenge spiritual complacency. She explores the work of the Jesus seminar, a group of internationally renowned scholars who study the Bible, especially the New Testament, trying to determine what is truly authentic and what is editorial comment. "Pitman's shorthand hadn't been invented, and nobody had a tape recorder! I've been reading Luke's Gospel, the seven last words. Not one of them is accepted by scholars as said by Jesus, but they were written in later. How can they be anything else (but editorial commentary)?" Then another challenge: "The four symbols of the Gospels? The very same figures were used in the Gnostic Gospels." (The name, Gnosticism, derived from the Greek word for 'knowledge,' refers to a complex religious movement, ancient in origin and appearing in the Christian community in the second century A.D.)
Susan's exploration of her deep faith leads to clear questions: "One of my big problems with the Church is that the Number 1 work of the Church is to worship God. Is God narcissistic? Because if he is he did a rotten job on creation! God did not want puppets on a string; if he wanted a creation to do exactly what he wanted, he would have created worshipping people who would bow down and worship him. God took a gamble on us and gave us free will--even though the early Church couldn't accept that--but God gave us free will, the opportunity of returning to him." Susan grins, "Some people would say some others wouldn't make it!" Asked about them, she continues, "That's the question. What about reincarnation? There are people who seem to have had the experience."
On another tangent: "Hell is a place where we keep repeating the same mistakes. I believe that from earliest times God has wanted us to know him. Early humans could only understand the things around them. I believe that God has revealed himself through his creation in many ways that could be understood by various cultures."
"What is God? We must worship (God) in spirit and in truth. We cannot measure, see (God), but I have a strong sense that (God) is there. In part we can sense, (because God) manifests itself in other forms. Is God pure energy?--because that would account for the life in anything! There's certainly plenty of energy in the core of the planet; it's all part of God's creation."
Susan grins, adding "These are the things I want to write about. I've already referred to it in my article about Stephen Hawking (the brilliant British physicist). I've started a book called 'God's Great Adventure.' It's a scientific fact that nature abhors a vacuum. (Perhaps) God said, 'Let's put part of my Spirit into something that's alive, and it will find its way back to me!
Never one to conceal her reactions to the unfolding Anglican history, Susan says, "I have seen a wake-up call--God is at work! The enthronement of Bishop Michael is an indication of that!" In her column in this paper, Susan has revealed much of her sense of God's participation in this life, but there is more: "If I was to write about my faith, the old-timers would call me heretical." Susan explains "my own thoughts about what happens when we die: your spirit passes into another dimension, 'surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses' (Hebrews 12:1)." Susan interrupts herself to ask a rhetorical question: "Where is heaven? We can put out our hands to touch it, but we cannot feel it!" She continues, "We move through into this other dimension. When I die, I will face God, but Jesus will be standing beside me, and God will say, "There's your model. Judge yourself! You've had the example; how did you measure up?"
Past President of the St. George's Society, and a founding member of the board and recording secretary for the Friendship Centres for the Psychiatrically Impaired (formed to support people trying to reintegrate into the community but sadly closed three years ago), Susan remains an active participant in the life of the Church, intrigued with Anglican events far beyond this Diocese of Niagara. Signed on to the website for the Anglican Church of Canada, she gets "news up to four times a day! It's very useful."
At 87, Susan Westall's enthusiasm for life remains undiminished: "There is so much in life! I've been told I should write my story, but I get distracted. I have started, got through my teen years, up to the War. Now I want to write about my faith, my life, what life's all about! I could say so much; I've had time to think about it!
"I've kept going, and now I've taken up writing for the Niagara Anglican, encouraged by Chris Grabiec (Editor) and my friend for years, (the Reverend Canon Charles Stirling, member of the Publisher's Advisory Board). My prayer is 'Lord, it's in your hands; I'll go on working as long as you want me to.' I can say I love life, but I can also say I'm not afraid to die."
Rose gardens have thorns. Some people complain because God put thorns among the roses, but others praise God because he put roses among the thorns. Susan Huxford-Westall has dealt with thorns most people never imagine, but remains an example of faithfulness, courage and compassion. Standing before God, with Jesus beside her, she'll probably measure up very well indeed!