Joy Everingham, chaplain at the University of Kent,  has become  the first transgender minister to be ordained by the Methodist Church in Canterbury.

For 43 years, she was forced to suppress her true identity, fearing that the revelation would result in hate or ridicule from the Methodist community and wider society.

She first joined a church at the age of 15, after battling with her identity for several years. She found support, but the church she joined was rather conservative, and it taught that being gay is ‘sinful’. She continued to hide her true gender, and began dating her best friend Ruth as part of a heterosexual couple. They married at the age of 22.

When Joy was introduced to the Internet, she finally learned the meaning of the word “transgender,” and this opened up an entirely new society where she felt at peace with herself.

After suffering from depression for years, Joy was admitted to a gender clinic, where she was diagnosed with gender dysphoria.

At the age of 41, she decided she wanted to become a Minister with the Methodist Church; during her interviews and training, she was honest and open about her gender dysphoria, and she received the position in September of 2014. She told her family and church about her intentions of transitioning, and she was surprised by the overwhelming support she received from the community. Her wife and kids have been accepting of her decision, and they continue to stand by her side during the transition.

InQuire sat down with Joy to discuss her transition, the relationship between Transgender issues and the church, bathroom laws and the teaching of gender theory in schools… oh and Doctor Who.

Since becoming ordained as a minister how has the last year been? 

Its been fine actually! You know, everybody thinks working for the church and being Trans is just going to be awful but its not!  Its been really, really good. The local congregation have been amazing. I think in some ways it has been a bit of a relief [for them]! When I first got here I was a very feminine man. Very androgynous. It was a relief to everyone. It was like “oh that’s why!”.

When you first started in the ministry did you think where you are now would be possible?

I didn’t actually, no. I honestly thought it was going to be a hard struggle but it has been one of the simplest things to transition as part of the church. Not that transitioning is easy, but I never thought this would ever happen.

Your story has been published quite a lot recently to an international stage! That must have been scary?

Yeah! It was a bit of a shock! It quite affected me actually. Suddenly I’ve come out to the world. I’ve done this little coming out over the years. To my parents, church people, friends and then suddenly everybody knows. I’m sure not everybody has read it, but it feels like that.  It feels like being back at the beginning of coming out which I did years and years ago. Now all you have to do is google and you will know and its scary!

What has the response been like?

Mainly good, I’ve had lots of emails from all over the world. Most of them nice, some of them really nasty! Mainly from America, the south of the U.S. I got a really lovely one from someone in Virginia that said I should be in Auschwitz! That’s, yeah, proper nasty. The biggest trouble with people is they don’t know. It’s ignorance. Most of them aren’t nasty, they just don’t understand.  Some say, “I feel sorry for the wife” but we made this decision together. It’s not me just going off and doing things. It’s been a long hard road for both of us. But mostly its been really positive and some Trans people in other places have said “I’m a part of the church and also never thought this would be possible.”

What about the LGBTQ+ community of Canterbury? What’s their response been like?

It’s been great actually! Churches in Canterbury, there’s not very many that are openly welcoming, I should say. There’s probably only two or three who would be openly welcoming to LGBTQ+ so it’s helped just to see another face  to the church that is LGBTQ+. From the Trans Community its been overwhelmingly good. Very welcoming.  If I hadn’t of transitioned and I tried to start support groups, people would have been very suspicious of why I wanted to do that as a minister. Obviously, the connection of the Church has never been a great one with the LGBTQ+ community. But I can come from a positive position rather than a “oh you should change! Repent of your sins!” one.

Along with the support groups you held a service for Transgender Day of Remembrance, how was that?

It was a beautiful service if I do say so myself. I wasn’t the only one involved. It was a very simple vigil. I tried to make it not as Christian as possible, if you know what I mean, so that it is open to everybody. That’s what it was about, looking after a community that’s hurting. We lit candles and read the names of the people who have been murdered this year.

A lot of people would argue being Transgender and being Christian are two difficult identities to mix. How do you find you’ve mended that bridge for your own identity?

It’s a difficult one really. Some people would say those two things can’t co-exist. At all. I would beg to differ. They always pull out a quote from Genesis which is God created them male and female. They read that as male or female. I read that as he created everybody both male and female. It’s a bit semantics I suppose but everybody has got some femininity and masculinity within them to different degrees. Its on a scale. Its just normal biology that everythings on a sliding scale its not one or the other and I think that fits wonderfully with Christianity. Christianity is all about transitioning. Moving from one thing to another and not staying in one place. From Jewish pilgrimages to taking on new names, it’s all in there.

There’s been a lot of false accusations about Transgender people. Things like costs of them in the military, bathroom usage etc. You were saying earlier there’s ignorance.  Public knowledge and understanding in your view is not there. Do you think that will get better?

I think it will get better. You know, I think back to the Gay rights movement of the 60’s and 70’s. Similar kinds of things were said. “We don’t want those people in our bathrooms we’re gonna get attacked”. People have always been like this with bathrooms. And that’s an issue that comes back over and over again. I hate it. Especially with us you know, they will say “if you let Trans people in our bathrooms our kids are at risk of sexual assault and rape” and there’s been no, literally no, accounts of anybody who is Trans sexually assaulting anybody in a bathroom where as the other way around, Trans people are continuously, if not sexually than physically assaulted in the bathroom. We’re the ones in danger and [bathroom laws] are making it worse.

But I think it will get better as people learn more and more about it. Trans people in the past have tended to transition and then go into stealth mode. Nobody knows they’re Trans. Most people once they’ve transitioned you can’t tell so why would anybody know! They live a life under the radar. You don’t want something that personal to be broadcast all over the world! We need some people to stand up and say,I’m Trans and I’m in the church” or in the police  force or whatever. If more and more people see us and get to know Trans people they will go “well, you’re just normal” as normal as people are anyways.

Australia’s ‘No’ campaign for same-sex marriage dwelt a lot on the teaching of gender theory in schools. Do you think we should be opening up these conversations to children at a younger age?

It’s like anything else, it makes sense. Teaching evolution in schools there was a similar outcry about that. If we teach it in schools, I don’t think it confuses children, they go “oh yeah, its bigger than [two genders], some people aren’t”. most people in the world are happy being cis-gendered, one or the other, masculine or feminine, or whatever.  To say, “some people aren’t like that” kids go, “okay”. It will help the kids who are Trans go “yeah that’s me”.  They wont have to hide or live in the shadows or think it is wrong. I knew when I was about 5 or 6 years old I was different, if I had been taught [about gender] I would have gone “that’s me! I’m not weird or strange”. If I had known then it would have saved a lot of heartache, questioning and not understanding. The kids who are cis will just say “oh that’s not me”. Kids are quite clever. Intuitive really and we don’t give them credit for how intuitive they are.

When you came out to your own son he asked if your transition is like that of Doctor Who. How did you find telling your own children went?

My eldest being autistic, I thought that was going to be so difficult to explain to him. Things [to him] are in a way, black or white, right or wrong. Some concepts he struggles understanding because they’re a bit abstract, but he just got it. Doctor who, you know, changes from one body to another but it’s the same person. When I started being Joy full time he said, “it’s a bit weird seeing you in a dress” but he got used to it and now its just normal life. My youngest struggled a bit more but he struggled with a lot of things. I think he was more worried me and my wife were going to split up. How are mum and dad going to cope with this. They still call me dad, its quite funny in supermarkets when they go “dad!” and I go “yeah?” and people [around us] go “huh?”

Your family was the main reason you did not transition for a long time. Do you think that had an affect on your mental health and psyche?

Yeah it takes a toll on you. Because you are in a way living a lie to everyone and people don’t see you for who you actually are. That’s the biggest problem. People didn’t see me for me and they call me “he” and “sir” and inside I’m screaming “no that’s not me! You don’t see me! You’re seeing somebody else that I’m not”. To hide and go along with that is like being complicit in a lie. Now its no longer an issue but it has taken a toll on me.

What would you say to Ttransgender people who fear that they will lose loved ones coming out or transitioning?

It does happen. A friend of mine lost everything. She says to me “looking back it was an awful time but it was worth it to go through that, come out the other side. I think the story of Job [in the bible] really does go along with how that transition goes. He does lose everything, and everybody discusses him but actually it has nothing to do with him at all.  He still lives through it and is very faithful and got it all back.

Before we finish could you tell us a bit more about the Transgender support group you run at the university? 

It’s basically a very informal group of Trans people and spouses or significant others to come together to a safe space and find community in there. People who have gone through it like me and a few older people come who can give advice. Also, navigating the NHS system is just ridiculous and you can help each other. It is just mainly sitting around making coffee and having a chat but it’s a safe space where you can talk about things you wouldn’t normally talk about in cis company. Its every other Wednesday at 7 o’clock in Keynes.