Our Church Needs More Transgender Members
(Edit from the author: Just to be extra clear, my audience in this blog post is the general membership of the church, to remind them what *we* are missing out on when we neglect our duty to make transgender people feel safe in our pews. It’s not aimed at making any trans members feel like they are obligated on any level to attend church. They should do whatever they need to to be safe, and in the meantime I promise to do everything I can in my corner of the universe to make church a safer place for any trans person who does decide to attend.)
In November of 2015, only a couple weeks after the Policy of Exclusion was leaked, I sat on the back row of Sunday School holding my breath with my head buried in my hands. I was trying not to move or inhale or do anything that would trigger a sob, because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I also didn’t want to leave, because I was hearing things said by members of my own church that I needed to hear. I didn’t know if I could ever walk back into that room, and I wanted to remember what was happening and being said that day.
My military husband was deployed that year to the Middle East, and I’d taken the opportunity for the first time in my life to attend other churches than the one I was raised in. My favorite was the South Valley Universalist Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, complete with a female minister and a diverse and welcoming congregation. They met Sunday mornings and sometimes I would make the drive from my home in Lehi with three kids for a chance to hear something different, new and always uplifting. This Sunday I’d done both their meeting in the morning, and come back to attend my own ward at 1:00.
There were two transgender women who I’d noticed frequently at the Universalist Unitarian Church. They stood out to me because they were tall and had masculine facial features while wearing dresses, heels and makeup. I’d only met a few transgender people in my life at that point, and all within the past two years at Pride Festivals I’d attended with Mormons Building Bridges. It was not a world I understood yet, and I never met or spoke to either of these trans women who attended those Sunday morning meetings with me.
This Sunday I’d already sent my kids downstairs to the children’s classes, and I was sitting alone near the back. The row in front of me had one man sitting on it as well, who looked like he was about my age and pretty average in every way. A few minutes into the service, one of the two trans women walked in and sat down on the edge of the row in front of me, several empty seats away from this man. He looked up from him hymnbook and noticed her. He smiled and waved, and immediately scooted several seats closer to offer to share the music with her. As soon as he was at a close physical distance, he gave her a friendly side-hug, and they started to sing together. At the end of the song there was a second ending, and since neither of them read music very well they kept singing along to the wrong part, which caused both of them to laugh and exchange a whispered comment about how non-musically inclined they both were.
I was sitting right behind them during this quick interchange. They had no idea I was watching and eavesdropping, and I had no idea it would impact me so profoundly. It wasn’t a big deal – honestly, it was just a regular guy at church seeing an LGBTQ person and treating her as a friend. But to me, the lifelong Mormon mom who’d grown up learning and internalizing so many cultural homophobic ideologies and only having recently begun to understand what a transgender person was, it was earth shattering. It felt like the heavens parted above us and shined down a light on the most beautiful and Christ-like act of love I had ever witnessed. It was just someone being nice to someone else who was different, but it changed my world.
I went back to my own ward just a couple hours later, and sat alone on the back row of Sunday School. It occurred to me that no one in that class looked different or stood out. Honestly, we all kind of looked the same. We wore the same type of clothes and talked and behaved similarly. It was quiet and reverent – which I didn’t hate, but which felt bland and solemn after the energetic music and colorful personalities I had just spent part of my morning with. Everything was fine until the teacher turned the topic of discussion to the new policy on gay and bisexual members and their children. He expressed our need to defend what the brethren were inspired to teach us, and that if we found ourselves questioning what came from the leadership of the church it was us who needed to get in line, not them. One woman raised her hand and talked about “those people”, referring to the LGBTQ community and those who were accepting of them. The thing was, I had just been with some of “those people”, and they were awesome. They were beautiful souls. They were everything I wanted to be like.
Another person raised his hand and explained that teaching the gospel in our homes was more important than ever in today’s world, because it was the only line of defense our kids had to keep them from becoming confused about their gender and sexuality. I knew that was wrong and totally unfair to parents. Having an LGBTQ+ child is not the result of how many times you missed Family Home Evening. Many of my LGBTQ friends have come from the most stalwart and faithful of homes in the church!
Hot tears started to blur my vision and I put my head down and tried to message my husband over Skype. He was awake on the other side of the world and suggested I leave the class and just talk with him in the foyer for the rest of the hour, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t stop taking in what I was hearing, and I couldn’t deny the stark difference between what I was seeing in my own church compared to the act of unconditional Christ-like love that I’d witnessed earlier with no fanfare and no idea that anyone was watching. We sat comfortably in our Sunday School class in nice clothes, congratulating each other on knowing God’s plan better than anyone else in the world. But I knew we were wrong. We weren’t the ones who had figured it out yet – the unknown man who sat in front of me during his congregation’s opening hymn and hugged a trans woman – he had figured it out. I wanted to be like him with every piece of my soul. It felt as though God was reaching through the universe and opening my eyes to the difference between where I had been and where I wanted to be in the most powerfully effective object lesson of my entire life.
I have never been the same since that day, and while my interactions with the transgender community has grown immensely, it’s still limited to about a dozen friends who I’ve had the honor of meeting since that day. I have come to understand and love this hidden gem of a humanity that took me 3 ½ decades to discover, and all I want to do is be their friend, advocate, and show everyone else what I’ve come to see.
I hope to see more trans people out and accepted in our church pews in the coming years. We need them more than any of us realize. They are brave, creative, brilliant, kind, and resilient. I want a tall trans woman to come sit on the edge of my pew one day, so that I can finally get a chance to scoot over, hug her, and share a hymnbook together. We’ll never become the full body of Christ until this happens for all of us.
I know it’s not easy to find a transgender person out of the blue if you don’t already know one, but my first introductions to the trans community came by the way of Youtube videos and online documentaries. I’m including some of those below for anyone who is interested in understanding the transgender members of our community. June is the celebration of Pride, so take some time this month to learn more about the LGBTQ+ members of our church! You will not be disappointed.
- This a short documentary film about a transgender girl who grew up LDS. It interviews her parents about their beliefs of how she came to be transgender. This was my own first introduction to the transgender world within the church.
2. This is an interview with a transgender man (Grayson) and his mom (Neca), both from my home stake in Syracuse, Utah. My dad used to sing tenor in the stake choir with this trans guy even before he transitioned from female to male, and my family loves them all.
3. Emmett Claren is a transgender man who I’ve had the chance to meet once at Provo Pride, but mostly whose cool YouTube channel I just like watching. Check it out! Here’s one video from him:
Emmett was also interviewed on a podcast, and I really enjoyed listening to his story! Check it out both Part 1 and Part 2 here:
4. Laurie Lee Hall is a more recently famous transgender Mormon woman. She was a bishop, a stake president, and the chief architect for the LDS church for 20 years. She created many beautiful buildings and temples for the church, including the recently constructed new Provo MTC, the restoration of the historic Tabernacle at Temple Square, and the famous Provo City Center Temple that was restored after the Provo Tabernacle’s devastating fire. After hiding that she was part of the LGBTQ community as a trans woman most of her life, she finally chose to come out, and the world is a better place for hearing her story. This is a recent talk she gave at an Affirmation conference that can also be downloaded in podcast format, but the Youtube video allows you to see the photos in her presentation:
5. Kris Irvin is a trans man, BYU student, member of both the church and the Exponent community, and my friend. If you’ve ever wanted to find a trans person who is fun, easy to love, and who will make your introduction to the world of transgender Latter-day Saints easy and painless, try becoming their friend. Here’s a recent Facebook post from Kris about an experience in Relief Society:
6. Finally, my friend Ann Pack is a transgender woman who also lives in my hometown of Syracuse, Utah, and is active in the church. She and her wife Bridget (a cisgender woman) are two of the coolest people ever. They were interviewed by Richard Ostler for his podcast Listen, Learn, & Love (a terrific podcast featuring many LGBTQ+ church members) in this podcast here: