Transforming views of gender change

Lee Gale from Heeley and his photograph which appears in the Living My Life exhibition celebrating the trans community currently on display in Sheffield. CREDIT Dan Abeledo
Lee Gale from Heeley and his photograph which appears in the Living My Life exhibition celebrating the trans community currently on display in Sheffield. CREDIT Dan Abeledo
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A photographic exhibition celebrating positive images of the trans-gender community has opened in Sheffield. Health Writer Sarah Dunn spoke to former Sheffield student the Reverend Sarah Jones, the Church of England’s first trans-gender priest, when she returned to the city to launch the showcase.

SHE admits it is not an easy task - but the Reverend Sarah Jones is passionate about the cause.

Pictured at the Workstation , Is the Rev Sarah Jones , who was at the Workstation to share  her experience of making a gender change and becoming Britains first trans priest

Pictured at the Workstation , Is the Rev Sarah Jones , who was at the Workstation to share her experience of making a gender change and becoming Britains first trans priest

Rev Jones, who attended college in Sheffield as a mature student and secured the A-level results which landed her a place at Oxford University, is also the Church of England’s first ever trans-gender priest - and is back in the city where she studied to launch the new ‘Living My Life’ project on display until Monday February 28 at The Workstation on Paternoster Row.

Taking part in public events comes with price, the Anglican priest admits.

“It is hard, and it does cost me emotionally,” she said.

“But it is a cost I am prepared to take because other people have had that cost before me.”

Penny Haywood from Derby and her photograph which appears in the Living My Life exhibition celebrating the trans community currently on display in Sheffield. CREDIT Dan Abeledo

Penny Haywood from Derby and her photograph which appears in the Living My Life exhibition celebrating the trans community currently on display in Sheffield. CREDIT Dan Abeledo

Rev Jones, now a 49-year-old woman and priest of the parish of St Mary’s Church in Ross on Wye in Herefordshire, was born a boy.

She doesn’t want to reveal the name with which she was brought up as a male - “the most hurtful thing anybody could say to me now would be to refer to me by that name”, she says - but confesses she “always knew” she was “a little different” growing up.

“The thoughts and feelings of ‘this isn’t quite right’ would come and go at that time,” she said. “I’d think about it, but then 10 minutes later I’d be off on my bike and forget about it again!”

By her mid twenties she was a married man, working in industry in a “straight-laced” environment. It was then she was faced with the realisation that something had to be done to address the way she was feeling.

Tonia Frew and Aimee Josebury from Leicester and their photograph which appears in the Living My Life exhibition celebrating the trans community currently on display in Sheffield. CREDIT Dan Abeledo

Tonia Frew and Aimee Josebury from Leicester and their photograph which appears in the Living My Life exhibition celebrating the trans community currently on display in Sheffield. CREDIT Dan Abeledo

“I woke up one morning and it felt like out of nowhere it had become the single biggest issue in my life,” she said. “I’m sure it didn’t just happen overnight, but that’s how it felt.”

She and her wife separated and divorced amicably, and Sarah gave up her job. “I didn’t think I could continue it while working through the things I needed to do,” she said.

A visit to her GP - who agreed to refer her to any institution she believed might help - was the first stop on the journey to becoming a woman.

Rev Jones discovered the Gender Identity Clinic in London, but it was a further nine years before she underwent the surgery to change her completely from a man.

The process first involved a ‘social change’ which started the day she left Sheffield for St Hugh’s College in Oxford to study psychology.

Rev Jones, who lived in Sheffield near the Northern General Hospital, said: “It was terrifying at first, but as soon as I calmed down the world settled down too. Because I’d never really fitted in as a guy - I never really was one - it just clicked.”

Her years in Oxford were “amazing” - but there was still the issue of surgery to complete the gender change.

“At first I was very keen not to upset God and the big question for me as a Christian was if He had made me a man, could I do anything about it?” she said.

“I did everything I could not to change. I tried to see if there was a point I could stop off at on the way - was I feminine guy? Was I a gay guy? Was I a transvestite? No. It eventually got to the point where I knew it had to be done.”

The operation was finally arranged to take place once she had finished her studies.

Afterwards she went back into industry, but soon felt the pull of a vocation in the church.

She said: “I didn’t think they’d even look at me. I told them at the end of my first interview - they said they had no idea what they would do but they would get back to me.

“In the end, they decided they would test my vocation in the same way they would test anybody else.”

She passed the tests with flying colours, and was ordained a Deacon in July 2004 in Ross on Wye, the parish where she is vicar today. She settled into life there and “forgot” about the change - until one day in 2005 when she received a phone call from a Sunday newspaper probing her past.

Countless newspaper and TV interviews followed, and with them the reactions of her congregation.

“That was a very hard week - it was a small market town and everybody knew me,” she said. “But the town supported me then, and they’re still supporting me now.”

Throughout it all Rev Jones said it was her faith that carried her through.

“However bad it got, however strange it got, I did really believe there was a God who cared about me, who knew me, and one day it would all be okay. That gave me the context I needed for my life.”

It’s that courage she hopes to convey to others through the new exhibition in Sheffield.

“I’ve never seen anything like this exhibition before and I think the people featured within it are awesome - fantastic role models.

“This project is so important because someone, somewhere, right now, will be thinking about telling their mum, dad, brother, sister, friends about issues like this.

“If they and their families can see some of the fabulous people in the booklet and read some of the positive experiences outlined, it has to make it easier.”

The Living My Life project, over two floors in The Workstation, is made up of a photography exhibition and booklet, providing guidance for people who identify themselves as trans or who are beginning to explore their gender identity.

The booklet is available through the Centre for HIV and Sexual Health. Visit www.sexualhealthsheffield.nhs.uk for more information.

‘We can be proud of our bodies and feel sexy’

AMONG the faces smiling out from the wall at The Workstation’s Living My Life photography exhibition is local man Lee Gale.

The 21-year-old from Heeley in Sheffield provided input to the project as it developed, and was an influential voice thanks to his work setting up the TransBareAll organisation, which works with the trans community to help them accept their bodies and live fulfilling lives.

He knows exactly the kind of issues they face - because he was born a girl.

It was around 10 years ago that he started thinking about making the change, culminating in a hysterectomy procedure in November 2009.

Medically and emotionally, Lee now feels his transition is complete and is keen to support other people as they explore their gender identity and come to terms with the impact of the changes both mentally and physically.

He said: “It all started about three years ago when me and a couple of friends decided we wanted to put together a trans man calendar - something to show we could be proud of our bodies and feel sexy.

“Everyone who took part came away with a great boost to their confidence and a greater idea of who they were.

“It became obvious there was nowhere the trans community could meet to talk about their surgery or about things like sex and intimacy. What followed from that was our first retreat, over a weekend, which saw about 20 trans guys come together and share their experiences.”

Lee said he is thrilled to have be involved in the Living My Life project and the positive message it is working to put across.

“When I first started transforming there was a bit of stuff on the internet, but it was just starting out,” he said.

“This information booklet will be great for people who are in the situation I was.

“It is a long awaited resource and the information is easy to read, inclusive and so valuable to someone exploring of questioning their gender identity.

“Trans issues are still very unknown or misunderstood in the wider community so having a resource like this will make accessing information and help so much easier for trans people.

“The photography exhibition is really important too - if people who are trans, or who are starting to explore that idea, can see these happy, smiley faces they will realise it can be a positive experience.

“They might be going through having to come out to family and friends, or trying to access treatment in the health service, and all sorts of other things that can be very stressful.

“But to have this project celebrating and showing off the diversity of the trans community, and providing such useful information and advice, should really help and support them as they go through it.”