Grace Oliver

My aunt, Grace Oliver, died at age 75 in the early morning of Christmas Day.

Born Stephen Beasley-Murray, her reinvention and transition from Stephen to Grace, and from Beasley-Murray to Oliver, was a journey that lasted most of a lifetime.

Throughout their seventy-five years, Stephen/Grace was curious and prepared to follow their curiosity and desire, sometimes whatever the cost, for them or for others.

Stephen grew up in South London, but went to university (to study sciences) in Liverpool in the early 1970s. He stayed on in the city, working with social services and the Anglican church, under the aegis of former cricketer turned left-wing bishop, David Sheppard.

I think that his time in pre-Thatcherite Liverpool, combining religious vocation with practical work for social justice, was a golden period for him, to which he would often look back with nostalgia, and even try to recreate.

But something went wrong, and he left for the United States, where his parents (my grandparents) were living in Louisville, Kentucky. There he enrolled in graduate work at the Southern Seminary, where he wrote a PhD dissertation on the “metaphysics of the sacred.”

It was also in Kentucky where he met his first wife, Angela (Angie), with whom he had three children (Mark, Philip, and Amanda), and with whom he later travelled, as a Northern Baptist missionary, to live and work in Hong Kong.

Missionary life did not agree with him, however, not least its fundamental premise that “we” in the West had more to teach “them” in the East than they had to teach us. He and Angie withdrew from the mission and settled in New Haven, Connecticut, where Steve became a secondary-school teacher.

By this time, he was increasingly radical. He joined the Communist Party of the USA and began explorations in Wicca beliefs and practices. When he also started experimenting in naturism, I would refer to him as my “nudist, Communist, witch” uncle.

Steve and Angie split up, very acrimoniously, and he moved to Texas with Charlotte Oliver, who became his second wife. He took her name in the marriage. In Texas, he taught philosophy in various colleges and universities.

A decade or so ago, on his retirement, Steve and Charlotte moved to Liverpool where they lived in a small housing-association property, and once more became involved with Liverpool Parish Church, as well as with the Society of Friends (Quakers). They joined the Labour Party, and were fervent supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. They had a caravan in a naturist park in Cheshire.

At some point, Steve began questioning issues of sexuality and gender identity, and started living as Grace. A couple of years ago, they underwent gender-reassignment surgery.

Perhaps Grace finally found the peace and fulfillment that, I fear, Stephen seldom or never did. Indeed, I may be wrong, but my feeling is that Stephen Beasley-Murray was not often happy. I never met him as Grace, but hear that Grace seemed much happier and more relaxed than Stephen had ever been.