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First transgender minister ordained by Methodist Church

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University chaplain Joy Everingham is proud to be the first transgender minister ordained by the Methodist Church. But behind her beaming smile lies a struggle that saw her hide her true identity for 43 years. She spoke to Joe Walker to mark Transgender Awareness Week

Reaching into his mum's make-up bag, the eight-year-old boy grabbed at the lipstick and started applying it liberally to his face.

A rush of excitement filled his slight body as he raced to the front door, ready to jump on his bike and head to the park.

Joy Everingham is a minister attached to St Peter’s Methodist Church, Canterbury
Joy Everingham is a minister attached to St Peter’s Methodist Church, Canterbury

But as he reached the hallway his mum pulled at his arm, spotting the rouge around his mouth and dragging him back upstairs to scrub it off.

It was the first time Joy Everingham had been forced to suppress who she really was, and it wouldn't be the last.

Her journey began in the small mining village of Beighton, Sheffield, where she grew up the son of an ex-military man, with an older brother and sister.

“It was a time when trans people weren’t even heard of and the word transgender meant nothing,” she says.

“In the 70s and 80s, the only people we saw on TV were Danny La Rue and Boy George, who were gay men who put make-up on.”

From the age of five, Joy knew she was different, remembering vividly how she asked teachers which toilets to use at primary school.

“I didn’t fit in with everyone else,” she says.

“I wasn’t like the boys. I was always more like the girls. My dad used to joke ‘I’ve got three kids, one of each’, so I was obviously different. I couldn’t hide it.

Joy Everingham pictured when she was living as a man
Joy Everingham pictured when she was living as a man

“I went through my teenage years trying to be as boyish as possible.

"It always felt really disjointed, so I hid. If I’d admitted how I really felt at secondary school I think I would have been beaten with sticks.”

Joy started to lead a risky double life, sneaking home on her lunch breaks while her parents were at work.

“I’d put make-up on, put my mum’s shoes on,” she says.

“It was liberating, but at the same time I felt dirty, and I felt wrong. I felt like I was the only person in the world who was like that.”

At 15, and battling with her identity, Joy made a decision that would shape the rest of her life.

“I became a Christian,” she says, smiling.

“It was absolutely life-changing. I was a very introverted, shy child and suddenly I had opinions and was interested in how the world works. I came out of my shell.

"If I'd admitted how I really felt at secondary school I think I would have been beaten with sticks" -Joy Everingham

“But I went to quite a conservative church and they were very much ‘being gay is bad’.

"Dressing up as a woman would be bad, so in a way I suppressed those feelings even more.”

Aged 19, Joy started dating her best friend of six years, Ruth, and the pair married three years later, exchanging vows that Joy was prepared to forever live a lie to honour.

For eight years Ruth was oblivious to the secret life her husband was living, unaware he was hiding clothes in the loft and continuing to dress as a woman.

The advent of the internet revealed to Joy for the first time she was not alone.

“I got a computer and found out transgender was a thing,” she says.

“It wasn’t just fetish, which is what society deemed it to be, and I had never felt it was sexual. It started to make sense for the first time.”

Shortly after the birth of their first son, Joy, 27, travelled to Leeds on a secret trip to a transgender club. It proved to be a defining moment in her journey.

“It made me realise it wasn’t going to go away,” she says.

“I felt so at ease with myself. I felt normal. Coming back to the hotel that night I was thinking ‘I don’t want to take ‘me’ off’.

"I didn’t want to go back to being what I what was. I knew I had to tell Ruth.”

Joy wrestled with the thought of revealing her true self, fearing it could the spell the end of her cherished marriage.

The walkouts will begin with five days of strikes on Thursday February 22
The walkouts will begin with five days of strikes on Thursday February 22

“We were sitting in bed and said ‘I’ve got something to tell you’,” she recalls.

“I started crying and couldn’t breathe. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

"Ruth was convinced I was either having an affair, or I was gay. It was obviously a bit of a shock.

"I thought she was going to leave me, or kick me out, but she said ‘I’ve got to think about this’.”

Much to Joy’s relief, Ruth was prepared to help her explore her identity, but with one crucial caveat.

“She was adamant that if I transitioned to a woman she wouldn’t stick around,” she says.

“I said to her ‘I’m not going to do this until you’re happy with it.’ I’d vowed in public, before God, that I would stay married to this person, and I meant that.”

After the birth of the couple’s second son in 2002, they decided Joy would live full-time as a man and all of her clothes were taken to a charity shop.

Canterbury-based Deacon Joy Everington
Canterbury-based Deacon Joy Everington

But having to live a lie again sent Joy into a spiral of depression. “I put on this face for everybody else, this act,” she said.

“It led to a nervous breakdown when I was 35. I felt I couldn’t cope anymore.

"I’d drive down the motorway and think if I turn into the central reservation, it’s all over. I told Ruth I had to do something about it.”

Joy was referred to a gender clinic and diagnosed with gender dysphoria, finally validating the mismatch she had always felt with her own identity.

“I thought ‘this is real, it’s who I am’,” she says.

“It helped me integrate these two people together, because I felt like I was leading two separate lives.”

But despite doctors confirming what she always knew, the threat of Ruth leaving was very real, forcing Joy to continue to lock her true identity away.

Aged 41, she decided to become a minister with the Methodist Church, which had never ordained a transgender person.

"I put on this face for everybody else, this act...it led to a nervous breakdown" - Joy Everingham

“People talk about callings, and it was that. It’s a very similar thing, in a way, to the transition,” she says.

“It’s a pull and I tried running away from it, but I couldn’t resist it any longer.

“Sometimes I felt like God had cursed me, but I had to trust in a god that loves me, whatever I am.”

Joy went to interviews with the church over a six-month period and was truthful with leaders about her gender dysphoria.

After two years of training in Birmingham, Joy started work at St Peter’s Methodist Church in Canterbury, arriving in the September of 2014 and setting up home in Faversham.

The following month Radio 5 DJ Stephanie Hirst – then called Simon – revealed on air she was going to transition to a woman.

It would prove the catalyst for a moment Joy thought would never come.

“Ruth listened to it and just went ‘that’s you, everything about what she’s saying is you’.

"The feelings of wanting to end your life, the feelings of depression. It was like the same life lived by somebody else.

"And Ruth said ‘I’m overjoyed for her, and I need to do that for you as well’.

“It was the point where finally, after 16 or 17 years, she said ‘I can do this, we can do this together’.

It took Joy more than 40 years before she felt she felt comfortable enough to not hide her true identity. Picture: iStock
It took Joy more than 40 years before she felt she felt comfortable enough to not hide her true identity. Picture: iStock

"I didn’t think it would ever happen. I thought I’d have to live like that for the rest of my life.”

Joy started to prepare for her transition, but first had to break the news to her two sons, who had no idea their dad had been living a lie.

“My eldest is autistic so I thought it’d be really difficult for him,” she says.

“I said to him ‘you know how your brain works differently to everyone else’s, well mine works in a different way too.

"My brain’s female and my body’s male. I’m going to change my body to match my mind’.

“He said ‘oh, you’re a bit like Doctor Who then’. I was like ‘yeah, you’ve got it’.

“My youngest struggled with it a bit more. He said ‘I love you, and it’s a bit weird, but I’ll get used to it’. And he’s proud of me now, they both are. They’re amazing.”

Joy told senior church leaders of her plan to transition, receiving their full support, before revealing it to her new congregation in a notice handed out before a service.

“People sat down and started reading it, and then I could see them looking up and around,” she says.

Church leaders have been supportive of Joy Everingham's transition
Church leaders have been supportive of Joy Everingham's transition

“I was scared to death, but people kept coming up to me and saying ‘well done’.

"A couple of people didn’t speak to me for a bit, but they had to work it out for themselves. I was expecting it to be a long hard trek to justify who I was, but it’s not been like that.”

Joy began living as a woman full-time and 18 months ago started taking cross-sex hormones.

"Her voice has softened and her breasts have grown, and the stares she once received in the street have all but stopped.

Life now is a good as it’s ever been, but Joy knows there will still be bumps in the road ahead.

“It’s an interesting and ongoing thing,” she says.

“Ruth loves me for who I am, but she’s still attracted to men. I’m not sure she is really attracted to me sexually anymore.

“We’re still in love and we’re still best friends. She still sees me as the same person, I just look a bit different.

"Transitioning has made our lives easier. It has become wonderfully normal.

"There have been times when it’s been difficult, but it’s actually made our marriage better, because I’m suddenly content with myself. The struggle isn’t there anymore.”

A transgender symbol
A transgender symbol

Joy has used her experiences to set up the Canterbury Trans Network, a support group which allows people to explore their gender in a ‘safe space’.

She says: “We just sit around with a coffee and talk. There are people who are questioning their own gender and people who are fully transitioned."

The group meets fortnightly on Wednesdays at the University of Kent and is attended by up to 30 people.

Joy, who is a chaplain at UKC, says it is invaluable for some, given the issues and discrimination transgender people continue to face every day.

“I’ve had people shout ‘freak’ at me in the street and I know people who have been beaten up in Canterbury just for walking home,” she says.

“It’s social ignorance and it’s usually trans women who get physically and verbally assaulted.

"There’s a long, long road ahead to turn the tide, but look at the gay rights movement.

"Over the last 50 years it’s become very acceptable in society, mostly, and it’s becoming that way with trans.

"Not everybody knows I’m trans, but I don’t hide it. I welcome people asking questions.”

For more view the Canterbury Trans Network on Facebook.

A service at St Peter’s at 7.30pm on Monday will mark Transgender Day of Remembrance. It remembers those who have been murdered as a result of transphobia and to raise awareness of the continued violence endured by the transgender community.

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