Interview: Thomas Stitchbury; pictures: Markus Bidaux
Keeping faith was a sticking point for Sarah Jones — the first person to have made a gender change and then be ordained in the Church of England (CoE) — at the beginning of her trans journey. “One of the obvious things I had to do was square my queerness with my faith. I think the basic question was: if God had made me a guy, did I have any licence at all to change that? Bluntly, was it sinful?” she asks, rhetorically.
“I remember going on a retreat and speaking to the retreat warden and he didn’t know anything about transgender people. He was lovely and he said, ‘I know nothing about this, but it strikes me that what you are is God’s gift to you, and what you become is your gift to God.’ I thought, wow, what an amazing thing to say.
“After a lot of searching, I decided it’s not really against anything in Christianity,” continues Sarah, who felt an inclination towards ordination at a young age. “Now I might be wrong, but you know, all of our lives, it’s just a best guess, and this is my best guess, so here I am. I’m only going to know on Judgement Day, aren’t I? I’m hopeful.”
"I quietly got on with my life"
The word transgender never resonated with Sarah growing up: “This was the ’60s and ’70s and there weren’t any trans people really around,” she says. Then, in 1991, she had her gender confirmation surgery: “It was easier in some ways then than maybe it is now, because it wasn’t political... I quietly got on with my life and it was just instantly right for me.”
In July 2004, she was ordained in the CoE — “I have to say the institutional church is not normally noted for being a bastion of equality and diversity, and yet actually, it treated me very well” — and a few months later, she was ‘outed’ to a national newspaper.
“I got a phone call, which I always knew might come, from a journalist saying they’d been ‘tipped off’,” Sarah recalls. “I walked up and down the high street of the market town I lived in on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday [before the headlines] practising for what the next walk would be like.”
She goes on: “By and large, the town supported me and so did the bishop, who’d always said, ‘If you’re outed, I will defend you’ – and do you know what, he was as good as his word. Not everybody was happy... not every churchgoer was thinking, oh, great, this is wonderful. I think a few people quietly distanced themselves. Although it was worrying, it turned out OK.”
Now the priest-in-charge of the “very diverse and inclusive” City Parish of St John the Baptist in Cardiff city centre, Sarah reflects on the sacrifices she has made to live her life as a trans woman.
“Some of the friends I lost along the way have remained just history... I thank them for the friendship that we had,” she maintains. “The relationship with my dad never really did get repaired [either]. He and I did see each other a bit after my change, but it was always like – one time it would be fine and he’d be proud of me, and the next time he was angry with what I’d done. He was old school, and I can’t blame him for it, I guess. He died a few years ago.”
"I have phoned the Samaritans once or twice in my life"
Transphobic encounters, though few and far between, have knocked the 59-year-old over the years. “I’d done a funeral once for a family and the reception was in a social club afterwards, and I needed the loo. Some of the young guys from the party delivered me to the gents,” she recounts, with a shake of her head.
“It’s exhausting at times being queer in a straight world. Even if everything’s good, it just is very tiring. When our energy gets low, when our batteries get low, things can get a bit emotional, and I think it’s important for us all to say this. I have been there. I have phoned the Samaritans once or twice in my life. Fortunately, that’s not where we live most of the time.”
A keen public speaker on matters revolving around inclusion and gender, Sarah shifts her attention to the rising anti-trans movement: “I’ve been caught by surprise by how politicised being trans has [become], and people who I would consider as allies, some of them have turned very critical against trans people and that’s been disturbing and quite upsetting... There isn’t an agenda, we’re not out to do anything but just be ourselves.”
"You are welcome in more churches than you would dare to think”
When things have got tough, Sarah has been able to summon strength from religion — and she argues that the good book is in fact rather queer. “What I would like to put over is Christianity is not as homophobic and straight- centred as people might think,” she insists.
“All those people out there who’ve been told that they’re not good enough for God, that God might not love them, or they’re going to hell, I really just want you to know that you are loved... you are welcome in more churches than you would dare to think.”
Asked what pronouns she uses for God; Sarah really does take us to church with her response. “I grew up referring to God as ‘he’, but over the years I’ve started to question this,” she begins. “The creation story in Genesis, God makes humankind in our image – it’s ‘our’, the word is ‘our’. And what does God make? God makes male and female.
"If you put that together, I would say that somewhere within the heart of God is not just a ‘he’. God is beyond gender anyway, and I’d like to think that all possibilities, all of our notions of gender are somehow subsumed there and held in God. God is not a ‘he’. I don’t suppose God is a ‘she’, either. I think God is beautifully non-binary.”
“There’s the Daily Mail headline,” she laughs.
Read more about this year's Pride Award recipients in the Attitude Summer issue, out now.