When Jo Inkpin was a child, one of her greatest objects of desire was a box kept in her grandmother’s attic in London.In it were piles of sumptuous clothes, a “wonderful array of amazing costumes”.
She would slip the “gorgeous dresses” over her head, slip little feet into long shoes and twirl, thrilling to the beauty of silks and satins against her skin, “the swirl of long skirts and tapered folds and pleats, reflecting grace and elegance”.
Dr Inkpin, who is Australia’s first openly transgender Anglican priest, had realised she was different when she was four or five, she says.
She “couldn’t put her finger on” exactly what that meant. But she knew she was not like other boys.
When she dressed as a Norman soldier in a “terrific” costume her father made for her — for a fancy dress competition in the small rural community in northern England she grew up in — she kept looking longingly at her sister’s Queen Elizabeth I garb.
This was “part of the story of my life”, she now reflects in her home in Brisbane, Queensland, “trapped in a false costume, encased in something that doesn’t fit my spirit”.
But it is only now, in her 50s, that she has decided to transition and live as a woman. Which, for a priest, is extremely rare.
The Anglican Church in Australia, which displayed fierce internal divisions during the same-sex marriage debate, has never even debated the subject of transgender amongst parishioners, let alone priests.
But Dr Inkpin says she can no longer hide who she is. And now she wants the church to focus on hearing and healing transgender people living with shame, depression, anger, self-hate and suicidal thoughts.
Dr Inkpin’s calling to the priesthood was one she could not deny; she wanted to spend her life in service of God, and she felt a “great sense of peace” when she was ordained in 1986.
There were some benefits to being a member of clergy too, she says:
“I think that was a space where sometimes you can exist in a way between sexes — in previous centuries they called it the third sex. And I could mix with women and be more feminine and express myself in different ways.”
Sometimes she would secretly drive to a cross-dressing service in Manchester where she could put on women’s clothes and then go to a little flat out the back and potter around making cups of tea.
But when she met and married Penny Jones, one of the first female priests in the UK, and now the rector-in-charge at the parish of Auchenflower-Milton in Brisbane, the challenges became more acute, her conflict sharper: she was denying her truth not just to herself, but to her wife.
One day Rev Jones found some women’s knickers in their bedroom and confronted Dr Inkpin, who was forced to confess they were hers.
Rev Jones told ABC News she then tried to understand what she at first thought was a sexual fetish. But it remained a private one.
The more their careers in the church progressed, and the more Dr Inkpin accomplished professionally, the angrier and more depressed Dr Inkpin became as she was consumed with repressing her true identity.
She tried to purge her cupboard, throwing out all but one of her dresses. And in the meantime she trained her body like a machine, trying to control and contain it through sport and exercise.
She also prayed fervently, and eventually, she says, the masks fell away.
It became clear to her, she says, that this was not about cross-dressing but was a fundamental question of identity and wanting to live authentically as a woman.
Being transgender is not a ‘choice’
When, in 2000, Dr Inkpin read the story of Carol Stone, the first transgender priest to transition in England, just as she was packing to move to Australia, an “electric shock” of recognition went through her.
Then, one day — coincidentally an international day against homophobia and transphobia — she boarded a plan to Paris, where she was due to attend a religious conference.
She settled in to watch a French film in which the husband was coming out as transgender.
“The film reduced me to tears, it was like a dam burst,” she said.
“As soon as I stepped off that plane I knew I was coming home, to myself.”
As she tells this part of her story, she starts gently crying.
“I didn’t want to upset my parish or my family. My counsellor said, ‘You are thinking the worst-case scenario, that everyone will reject you’ … I thought, ‘You don’t know churches, they can be awful’.”
But sometimes, she says, they can be astonishing, too.
What many people don’t understand, Dr Inkpin suggests, is that being transgender is not a choice. Nor is it lightly undertaken.
Listing the prolonged and difficult process many trans people endure — the hormones, the electrolysis, breast removal and for some, surgery — let alone explaining yourself to everyone, constantly, she says: “If it wasn’t something in the deepest part of you, who would do it if you didn’t have to?
“But when I took hormones for the first day, I don’t think it was just psychological, I just felt for the first time I was comfortable in my own skin.”
How is the church responding?
The momentum for recognising transgender people — and priests — in the global church is slowly building, as it is in the broader society.
Last year the Church of England synod in the UK passed a motion by a strong majority — 284 votes to 76 — calling for transgender people to be “welcomed and affirmed in their parish church” as part of the “long and often complex process” of transitioning, and asked bishops to consider preparing a nationally approved liturgy to mark a person’s transition.
In 2012, the American Episcopal Church officially voted to change “non-discrimination canons” to include “gender identity and expression” so that transgender people could not be barred from becoming priests.
In the mid-2000s, the first openly transgender clergy had been ordained, and several other priests announced a public transition.
In Canada, the world’s first openly transgender Roman Catholic nun wrote a book for LGBTI people, called Why God Doesn’t Hate You, and was last reported, in 2014, as preparing to enter a community of Carmelite women.
The same is true in the education system as schools begin to grapple with students transitioning.
Earlier this month an Anglican girls school just west of Brisbane, the Glennie School, announced in a letter to parents that, “In our Middle/Senior years, we have a young girl who was born into a boy’s body.”
The letter that laid it out
When Dr Inkpin finally decided to make her transition public, she posted a statement online alongside an image of herself holding a baby.
She wrote: “Like my little grandchild cradled in my arms in the photograph, I feel more intimately part of God’s ‘new creation’, a little child cradled in the love of God.”
She also wrote a letter to fellow Anglican clergy in Southern Queensland explaining what was happening:
You may have noticed some alterations in my appearance over the last few months and it is now time to explain what is going on.
I am a transgender person. I have always been so.
However, I have fought this reality for most of my life and have done my very best to make my life work with my male-assigned body and roles.
In particular, I tried to bury my true sense of self when I came to Australia 16 years ago, pouring my energies into rebuilding life, relationships, work, and, crucially, the health of my then ailing family.
Alas, despite many outward joys, my inner discomfort only increased over time, and, after Easter last year, I entered into expert counselling to explore my options.
With the support of a specialist GP and a leading psychologist in this field, I was soon diagnosed with gender dysphoria, the treatment for which includes psychotherapy, hormonal treatments and/or various surgeries.
She had been confiding in friends and family, she said, and gradually changing the gender on her official documentation to female.
“I know that this will help make me a better priest,” she wrote, “and I hope that you will find me less distracted and more content”.
As far as she is aware, Dr Inkpin is the first openly trans priest in Australia.
She points out that some trans clergy in the UK retired or left church ministry before coming out, and suggests the same might be true here. But none have taken the bold step of publicly telling their story.
Not everyone has been accepting
The Archbishop of Brisbane Dr Phillip Aspinall supported Dr Inkpin and passed on her statement to clergy in July 2017, along with his wish that “unhelpful speculation” might be avoided.
It was, he said, “a deeply personal journey involving a lifetime struggle with gender issues and personal identity. That journey has now culminated in a decision to transition gender and a formal request to be known by the wider diocesan family as Josephine or Jo”.
A few months later, at the meeting of the national Anglican governing body, the General Synod, an apology to the LGBTQI community was proposed, but after some politicking, was not voted on.
Then, in November, a comprehensive report on gender identity prepared by the Sydney Diocesan Social Issues Committee was tabled at the Sydney Synod.
It was unequivocal in asserting that people are born male or female, and should not change, stating that, “attempts to undergo gender transition are opposed to Christian teaching”, and, “biological sex is an objective biological fact which cannot be altered at will”.
The authors argued against transitioning on medical, psychological, theological and mental health grounds, and suggested other alternatives should be sought.
They also expressed regret that in the past, “some gender non-conforming people have experienced rejection or lack of compassion” in the church, and called for better care for any experiencing “gender-identity issues and incongruence”.
Some puzzled by the debate
One of the authors of the report, Rev David Ould, Senior Associate Minister at St John’s Anglican Cathedral in Parramatta, asked recently on his blog:
“How have we arrived at a point in our western culture where there is such a broad mainstream normalisation of the idea that a person’s self-perception of their identity is paramount, even when it appears to be in 100% contradiction to their physical state?”
‘We’re a pretty good example of a really good marriage’
To come to a point where she can publicly tell her story, Dr Inkpin, who is a lecturer in history at St Francis College in Southern Queensland, had to wrestle with the fundamental ideas of self-sacrifice and self fulfillment. And so did her wife.
While Rev Jones has gone through a period of mourning, Dr Inkpin says, her transition has deepened their intimacy and their marriage.
But the difficulties were real — their fear of professional consequences, of criticism from clergy, of having their marriage challenged or of telling their children and their parishioners.
So what is the status of their marriage? Is it now officially a same-sex union?
Rev Jones says they are not a same sex couple, but simply “anomalous”.
“Jo is the love of my life so I don’t know what that makes me. I love Jo and that is all I can really say. I am not otherwise attracted,” she said.
“We have been married for 33 years this year and we adore each other. We are each other’s best friends, our soulmates.”
Dr Inkpin agrees: “We are a pretty good example of a really good marriage,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter if we are male or female, CIS or transgender — that’s not the point of marriage.
“The point of it is not a construction of individuals but the quality of the relationships that are in it.
“Marriage is something to help people flourish.”
Far from contrary to biblical truth, Dr Inkpin thinks her story embodies it.
“The Christian gospel in its roots is inclusion, valuing the marginalised and Jesus doing extraordinary things with ordinary people, that’s how God has always worked,” she said.
“Transgender people enlarge life and our understanding of spirituality and justice and the nature of God and Christian community … we can offer our truth … but it’s helpful if other people allow us to do it.
“We are living embodiments of something deeper: the living mystery of existence.
Human beings are far more wonderful than we thought before.
“God is far more than male and female.”
Now, she says, we need to expand our ideas of what we believe is possible, and allow for a “new creation”.
“I long for the church to be more welcoming,” she said.