"Yes, ice machine" -- Hotel Employee on phone to Petra
Question #89130 posted on 03/12/2017 9:13 p.m.

Dear Van Goff,

You've mentioned that you identify as trans. Would you mind sharing a bit more about your experience as a trans member of the Church, and a student here at BYU? Feel free to share anything else you would like to, as well; I'll be happy to read anything you want to say, especially because I find I'm pretty ignorant on transgender issues, and I would love to rectify that. If you'd rather not share all this on the internet, that's fine, too, and I won't be offended :) Thank you!



Dear 'Ponine,

Thanks for respecting my privacy and asking first, that's really kind of you. As a general rule, I feel comfortable talking about trans topics so long as they're relevant to reader needs. Although the 'nym gives a sense of anonymity, however, I'm going to keep my experiences directed towards reader needs and maybe diverge from more emotionally personal aspects that would be more fit for an email or even a one-on-one conversation. 

First, I identify as transgender. More specifically, I'm a trans man. This means that while biologically female, I identify as male. Growing up, I saw myself as male, though I didn't really understand differences between men and women. As a toddler I'd "insist" that my mom call me a more masculine name (Bob, if you're wondering) and up through preteen years was not super concerned about gender but identified with male figures and role models. It didn't occur to me that I was physically different from men and thus had no need to think about it. Then adolescence (and hormones) happened, and I felt both physical and emotional discomfort that confused me and distressed my quality of life.

As I knew very little about trans people, I didn't connect the dots until I was around sixteen. Realizing I was trans was at first very shameful, which ties into the religious aspect of your question. For a long time, I thought that being transgender was a really sinful thing to be. If people knew that I identified as male, I thought that they'd no longer love me or treat me the same. I felt unclean and broken, that my life was a horrible mistake. It was not until I was around eighteen as a BYU freshman that I met other LGBT Mormons and realized that being LGBT isn't morally wrong and that you can maintain a healthy duality of both identities.

Which leads into your first question.

Trans Members and the Church

Being a transgender member of the church is hard. Doctrinally, we know that the Family: a Proclamation to the World states that gender is an eternal, unchanging characteristic. What it doesn't differentiate is between gender and sex. This leaves a lot of questions for trans members, many of which feel that their spirit was born into the wrong body. They feel that just as some people are born with physical limitations or chronic disorders, such as cancer or diabetes, they have been born in a body that doesn't reflect their spiritual gender.

Whether or not this can happen, who knows? But this life was never meant to be easy, nor were we meant to understand everything that happens or why. As Paul said, we "see through a glass, darkly." (1 Corinthians 13:12) Many trans individuals believe that maybe the answer is different for everyone. What a trans member can do, then, is just try to do the right thing for their situation and live in a way that gives them peace. Personally, I haven't received an answer and don't know if I will in this life, or at least not right now. I have met some people who feel they have, and it seems to bring them comfort regardless of the answer.

LDS policy has little to say about trans members, as of writing. The most they instruct is that individuals who receive gender confirmation surgery cannot hold temple recommends (with exceptions, of course, for intersex individuals), and that converts with gender confirmation surgery need written consent from the LDS presidency to be baptized. Surgery, however, is not an essential aspect of transitioning. In fact, many trans individuals do not pursue it. Church policy doesn't cover social transitioning or hormone replacement therapy, and trans members generally decide what is best for their situation based on their own feelings and the guidance of their bishop.

Some members transition either hormonally or socially (or both) because they feel it puts their body in alignment with their spirit and alleviates their dysphoria considerably. Other members feel that this is not right for their situation and identify as a "non-transitioning" trans person. There is no right or wrong thing to do as a trans Mormon, and it's very much left to the individual's personal convictions. Whether policy will change for trans individuals (or how) is unknown. We do know that Church leadership is aware of trans individuals but currently don't know enough about the issue to reach a conclusion.

Additionally, the policies and Proclamation concern trans individuals on the non-binary spectrum. Non-binary describes any person who doesn't identify within the gender spectrum. They may identify with neither gender, both genders, or somewhere in-between. It's very much an umbrella term. Hearing that gender is an eternal characteristic leaves some nonbinary people confused or conflicted with little understanding about how their identity relates to their spirit and what it means on a religious level.

If you'd like to know more about the trans experience as a church member, Affirmation and North Star both have excellent resources where you can listen to trans members' stories, from those who have transitioned and those who have decided not to. I also recommend North Star's Transgender 101 because it does a good job of putting gender dysphoria into a spiritual context.

Trans Students at BYU

As with LDS policy, BYU does not have a policy concerning trans students. Whether a student socially transitions or takes hormone therapy is not necessarily an Honor Code question but is currently to be discussed with their bishop. That being said, many trans students don't feel socially comfortable at BYU. Even though they may take steps towards transitioning, they might repress that aspect of them because they worry others will avoid or dislike them. 

Some trans students receive comments that other students can't respect their "lifestyle" or feel uncomfortable using correct pronouns for them, which can leave trans students feeling rejected, especially if they feel their lifestyle is just as any other member of the church. That's probably one of the hardest things: even if you're living in alignment with BYU and Church policies, sometimes the atmosphere makes you feel like you have this horrible "lifestyle" that you should learn to control. One person I know compared my decision to transition to having an abortion, which hurt even though I know they had good intentions.

Resources for trans students are also very limited at BYU. BYU currently does not have an LGBT Resource Center, which can make a trans student feel like they have nobody to turn to. Policies here are very binary and gendered, meaning that it works great for those who identify strictly as their birth gender. They're not so great, though, for people on the transgender spectrum. Housing, bathrooms, and name/gender markers are just the tip of the iceberg of policies that can be uncomfortable for trans students.

When coming to BYU, I hoped that the spiritual atmosphere combined with counseling would "knock the trans out of me," so to speak, but life didn't turn out that way and I slowly, painfully came to terms with my gender identity. I'm glad I came here because it gave me the chance to reconcile with my gender identity while still maintaining a religious foundation. Transitioning at BYU has been quite the tumultuous process, and I've found that some people are more comfortable than others, but overall I've felt an overwhelming amount of love from both my LDS and LGBT friends at BYU, which has made the process worthwhile.
Although BYU doesn't currently have as many resources for trans students, there is support available for those who need it. USGA can be good if a trans student wants to connect with other LGBT students, which can help them feel less alone and find ways for them to cope in their individual situations. I also heard that CAPS has an LGBT support group this year, though I know little about it besides its existence. Encircle isn't BYU-affiliated but is an LGBT resource center located in downtown Provo, and I think they are also starting a transgender support group.

What We Can Do

Understanding trans issues is important, but it's also important to know what to do with this information. Doctrine is not the only difficulty for trans members. Culturally, a stigma still exists around trans members. Sometimes, they may not feel comfortable or welcome at church, and they may feel alienated from their ward for how they present.

One of the best things to do is just treat a trans member kindly and help them feel more welcome at church. Even taking the initiative to sit by them in church meetings or chat with them in the hall can go far. A lot of my trans friends feel unwelcome at church or that they are a "ward project," so helping them feel normal and loved can mean a lot. Same goes for meeting trans students at BYU. We don't need you to understand or agree fully with our choices. There is much that we don't understand, either. But compassion and friendship can go a long way and be very meaningful for both people involved, and it can help a trans person feel less isolated.

Getting to know a trans person can also help you stay informed on trans issues and see them as people. When you don't know someone, trans students or members can seem like a statistic or not really existing. Befriending a trans person can help you understand what they're facing on a more personal level and see them as more similar to others than different. That being said, trans people are a minority and you might not have the opportunity to meet one right now. The resources above from Affirmation and North Star that share trans stories can be good if you want to gain a more personal understanding of issues trans Mormons face.

Hopefully this helps! Sorry if it's a little long. If you have more specific questions (or if there are any LGBT individuals that would like connection to resources), you are welcome to email at van.goff@theboard.byu.edu. Good on you for taking the initiative and seeking to understand transgender issues!

-Van Goff