My Experience As a Trans Man in the LDS Church – How to Help Your LGBTQ+ Youth As a Church Leader

Ilea at the Salt Lake City 2021 Pride Event (21 years old).

Guest post by Ilea Brinkerhoff. Ilea is a transgender man who attended the Young Women’s program in the same ward of one of our bloggers. By request, Ilea shares his experiences coming out to himself and those around him, and the impact his church leaders had on him growing up.

Look in the mirror at a body that’s not yours, a skin you don’t fit in.

An endless battle everyday you look, one you’re not sure you’ll win.

A frustrated sob rips through your lips as an outfit you love gets tossed aside. It doesn’t fit your body right. Nothing does and you start to wonder if there’s something wrong with you. Your shirt doesn’t sit right on your chest and your pants cling too tightly to your hips. Belt or no belt can save the outline your hips make. No button up or t-shirt can save the fact that your chest feels way too big. Your body feels like a prison, every outfit a different length of sentence. Why should you feel like this? What right do you have? Everyone else around you doesn’t seem to have this problem, so why should you? Grinning and gritting your teeth, you finally decide on an outfit that’s not as bad as the other ones. You walk out the front door feeling crazy, unseen, and unloved. You can’t explain this feeling to yourself, how would you explain it to other people? 

Hi! My name is Ilea 🙂 (eye-lay-a) I’m a 21 year old trans male and I’ve been out for 3 years this month! I came out shortly after I graduated high school in 2019. It was a long and hard road for me for several reasons. I didn’t know how to explain my feelings to myself, much less to other people around me. I kept them inside and did my best to feel “like I should” as a young woman. I rarely missed church or activities. I always felt out of place at young women’s. I had wonderful leaders who loved me, and I loved the people and loved spending time with them. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t belong there in that kind of a setting. Wearing dresses and skirts to church always made my blood curdle and I hated what I saw in the mirror. I was always taught I was a beautiful daughter of God, a loved and valuable young woman within the church. From a very young age I always saw myself as a child of God. Not necessarily one gender or the other. I couldn’t explain why I felt that way, I felt crazy and out of place for even thinking about it. The pressure in the church to marry in the temple was and is suffocating. Thinking about being a perfect wife to a man one day made me sick. I envisioned myself in the masculine role in relationships and always looked to my father for an example on how to behave in a romantic relationship instead of my mother. I didn’t see a way out of it, especially since I didn’t know or recognize the feelings I had. 

Ilea as a junior in high school – from a photoshoot with a fellow LDS ward member (16 years old).

 I started growing breasts around 15 or 16 and I got my first menstrual cycle when I was almost 17 years old. I’d never felt more trapped or scared in my life. I hated my body already, it was only getting worse and I was confused and hurt that I felt this way. I dreaded waking up in the morning because I knew that came with a shower and getting dressed. I chalked it up to being insecure and started to dress more and more masculine with varying degrees of baggy clothes to cover my female body. I hung around mostly guys and it confused me how much more I related to them and their struggles and problems. I had daily breakdowns over my body and all it entailed. I called myself lesbian and left it like that until my senior year and that’s when I really started questioning things and researching the transgender community.

Thoughts of self harm and suicide became more frequent and stronger the longer I tried to live out the identity of being a woman. I was frustrated and angry, I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. I’d love an outfit, then look in the mirror and want to peel my skin off and free whoever this person was inside of me. I had never even heard the term transgender until I met a fellow FTM (female to male) in high school and started doing research on what it meant to feel trapped within your own body. It intrigued me and the more research I did, the more comfy it seemed and the better it fit my feelings and desires. A boy born in a girl’s body, that sounded crazy, but it sounded like me. Something sounding like me, at last, gave me more comfort than I had ever known. 

Ilea as a senior in high school. First day of 12th grade (17 years old).

I came out in September 2019, less than four months after I graduated high school. I told only my closest friends, I didn’t tell my parents or the general public until this year. I don’t regret it, I never have. I’ve been on hormones for about five months now and I have never been happier with my appearance and my general life. I still believe in God. I believe I am a Child, a Son of God and that he is there for me and he loves me. I believe he loves all transgender adults and kids, and that we are all his children. Growing up trans in the church was hard, but I wouldn’t trade it or change it. It made me who I am today and I am so thankful for my leaders and ex ward members who made me feel supported and loved during that time and now. Being trans is the most scary but the most fulfilling thing for me. I can’t imagine my life being any other way 🙂

Ilea getting ready for a soccer game (9 years old).

Leaders need to know that LGBTQ+ kids are everywhere. Sometimes the kids never give clues or never come out, which is why leaders should always be inclusive with what they say and teach their kids. Church leaders heavily influenced my mindset when I was part of the church. I took what they said to heart, and a lot of the time it wasn’t a good thing. My young women’s leaders were better, they encouraged me to be myself and to strive to love myself as I was and am. They were a perfect example of how leaders should be. Kids and teenagers are especially impressionable and leaders and adults around them should take careful thought with what they say and do.

Some of my good experiences as a trans youth in the church include, like I said above, having really great young women’s leaders. I really lucked out in that department. I got along really well with the girls there as well and I had many friends who loved and cared about me. I always felt safe in young womens. Off and unsure? Yes. But I was always safe as long as I was in young womens. I came out as lesbian and no one turned their back on me. They loved me, if possible, even harder and fiercely. They fought for me to go to girls camp when priesthood leaders wanted to exclude me for my sexuality. They stayed supportive when I came out as trans and reached out with love and acceptance. Along with a wonderful woman who worked with my mom as a scout leader 🙂 They followed my social media story and liked my posts and never forced gender roles onto me. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

Bad experiences included priesthood leaders attempting to exclude me from girls camp. I never felt like I should be there, but I always had fun and learned a lot from my experiences there. I still looked forward to it every year, and it crushed me when I found out people in my ward who are supposed to love me, were working hard to make it come to an end. It broke my heart to hear people tell me that it was a phase, and Satan was working his plan on me to keep me from God. That I needed to resist this temptation and stay on the straight and narrow path to God. They talked about gender roles and put heavy pressure on being the perfect “mormon housewife”  and scoffed or made jokes about people who didn’t fit in the binary. Ragging on trans people and how they were confused and didn’t know what they were talking about. That if they simply prayed and asked God for guidance and forgiveness that he would “heal them”. I begged God for years, crying and pleading for him to “make me normal”. To make me “like the other girls”. Leaders need to be steadfast in helping their kids feel loved and wanted, no matter who they are or will become. Trans youth and other LGBTQ youth need to feel loved and supported. 

Ilea climbs everything, as he usually does. (20 years old)

It would mean so much to me, and other youth no doubt, if leaders talked about trans relatives or friends in positive ways. Focused on the core beliefs of the gospel and on Jesus Christ instead of gender roles, and temple marriage. They made more inclusive activities. I can’t count the amount of times we only did crafts or some art project while the boys played dodgeball or some other sport. I understand that crafts and art are important and fun as well, but there should be a better balance between the two than what was introduced when I was a youth. I wish leaders were more openly supportive and loving towards LGBTQ youth and people as a whole. Not everyone is going to have or has had as good leaders as I was blessed with. I want that to change and I truly hope that it continues to get better as years go on. The amount of times I would be close to figuring something out about my identity, only to show up to church to have gender roles re-shoved down my throat along with my self discovery and new thoughts. I plead with church leaders, male or female or otherwise, to support and love your youth. It will make all the difference in the world to them, I promise you. 

Ilea’s sister insists on taking a picture of him during “golden hour”. (21 years old)

Thank you to those who are kind and supportive. To those who may not understand or know everything, but still reach out a kind hand. Thank you for inviting your youth to things and never giving up on them. Thank you for noticing the days that they’re more down and sad and giving them a hug. The reason I still believe in God and Christ are because of people like that. Thank you to those who make us feel loved and help us to belong when we feel like we don’t or shouldn’t. That is the dream of every youth, trans and cis alike. My good and bad experiences made me into who I am today. If it weren’t for the bad, I wouldn’t have grown and learned as much as I did. If it weren’t for the good I don’t know if I would have made it much longer. Sometimes it only takes one gesture, one action, one conversation. Be a light and make that change happen. 

Ilea admires his outfit choice and dark hair (20 years old).

Pride Event. Ilea has turned into a butterfly. 😉 (20 years old)

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15 Responses

  1. Robert says:

    Thank you so much, Ilea, for your courage and wisdom. So glad you ended up in a good place.

  2. Abby Hansen says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Ilea! I agree that there are trans (and other LGBTQ kids) in every ward, and if leaders can learn to include everyone with their language and actions the ripple effects will be experienced far and wide. Thank you for your vulnerability and insights.

    • Ilea Brinkerhoff says:

      Of course! Thank you for the opportunity to share my experience and being so willing to help me out with this post and with anything and everything.

  3. Constance Strong says:

    I was so impressed with your story and journey. I too hope that I and others will reach out a be inclusive and kind to all. As you say, many may carry a silent burden and it will be lightened if it is shared.

    • Ilea Brinkerhoff says:

      Thank you so much. I’m glad it communicated so well to you, and I wish you the best on your journey as well. Because you’re absolutely right. All we can do is be inclusive and kind. Life is hard enough sometimes without making it harder for others 🙂

  4. ElleK says:

    Ilea, this was so insightful and helpful. I admire how you’re able to hold space for both the good and the bad you experienced in the church. Thank you for sharing here.

    • Ilea Brinkerhoff says:

      I’m so glad it was! I’d hoped to reach peoples thoughts, but more importantly, their hearts. I’m glad it seems to be doing that. It was hard at first to accept and move past the hard for sure, but in the end it is worth the experience and the wisdom I can give to others. You’re welcome, thank you for reading it 🙂

  5. CS Eric says:

    I am most impressed with the idea that you are a *child* of God. That’s a paradigm shift for me, and helps me understand you better. Thank you for sharing your story.

    • Ilea Brinkerhoff says:

      Thank you 🙂 Everyone is a child of God, I think people focus far too much on whether you’re a daughter or a son. We are all his children, and that is what matters in the end. Thank you for reading and for your kind words 🙂

  6. Katie Ludlow Rich says:

    Thank you, Ilea! I also wish that leaders would assume that they were always talking to a group with LGBTQ individuals, even if they don’t know it.

    • Ilea Brinkerhoff says:

      My pleasure, genuinely! I wish that too. We should always talk and behave inclusively because you never know who you may be talking with 🙂

  7. Cate says:

    Ilea, thank you for sharing your experience. I hope you don’t mind if I in turn share this essay with a few others. I think we can all benefit from your insights!

    • Ilea Brinkerhoff says:

      I’m flattered you want to share it. Please do! The more support the youth can feel and know, the better their lives will be for it. Thanks for reading and being willing to share 🙂

  8. Richard says:

    Wonderful example of God’s unconditional “love in action” and those who showed unconditional love towards Ilea. Amazing how a few individuals understand the power of inclusion as loneliness and isolation are a strong precursor to suicidal ideation and self-harm. Thank You for your powerful sharing and shared experiences of how not be judgemental and ostracising You are never alone with the grace of God.

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