The last two Sundays were the first time I had been to church in 5-6 months, mostly because I feared going. The last time I had gone, I was wearing a suit and tie. Last week, I showed up to church in a skirt and wore make up.
For months, I had let fear and doubt keep me from attending. For a brief period, I had lost my testimony of the church. I still believed in the restoration, the Book of Mormon and in the gospel generally, but I made some common mistakes that keep many trans* people away. In this article, I want to discuss the lessons I learned in hopes that others will not have to go through this soul-wrenching experience.
Most Leaders Will Listen (With Appropriate Documentation)
Before I stopped attending entirely, I had met with my bishop and stake president and received the expected response. I was told by both of them that a “decision” to transition, even without surgery, could “impact my membership”. I was given counsel to stay away from transition, discontinue HRT and see an LDS Social Services counselor who they had consulted with. My non-member psychologist, on the other hand, felt that transition was necessary in my situation. Facing a choice between transition and excommunication on one hand and a lifetime of suffering on the other hand, I stopped going.
For that 5-6 months, I thought it would be easier to remain in a limbo of sorts. I feared disciplinary action and the ostracization that would accompany it, but I also knew that leaders rarely would go after an inactive member.
A few weeks ago, I decided that it was time to get this all settled, but kept hitting the snooze button on that feeling. Eventually the bug bit my wife, who was feeling like the spirit had been drained from our home. We were both feeling depressed, getting less and less done, and were having problems of all kinds.
It’s common knowledge that the church will discipline a member for an “elective transsexual operation”, so I obtained a letter from my psychologist stating that she felt that my treatments thus far are not elective. After sending that in, along with my name change documents and my feelings on the matter, the stake president met with my wife to see what she thought about it. After that, he expressed to us that he felt disciplinary action wasn’t appropriate in our situation.
Because I had followed the normal protocols for HRT and transition (psychological help and doctor’s monitoring/prescriptions), I had what I needed to deal with the church. Had I gone the foreign pharmacy or “street” route, things wouldn’t have gone nearly as well for me.
Church Leaders Are Not Infallible
One of the reasons I had gotten away from the church was some of the disagreements I have with church leadership. I do not agree with their stance on marriage, some of the wording of the Proclamation, and attempts to redefine free agency that I have observed. Sadly, whenever I have expressed these disagreements to other members, they’ve often told me that I am not sustaining my leaders or that I am not keeping covenants by harboring these feelings.
Fortunately, Fair LDS has a good pamphlet on the topic. They make it clear that prophets are not infallible, that they are affected by contemporary beliefs that may be wrong, and that the bar for what is to be considered “official” doctrine is set much higher than general conference talks, the Proclamation or other writings that are not added to our scriptures.
Past leaders have been wrong, it is likely that current leaders are wrong on some things, and in the future it is practically guaranteed that leaders will be wrong.
As Bruce R. McConkie said in reference to the 1978 changes allowing blacks to receive the priesthood,
Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.
I also found an old Ensign article that explained the Church’s position on the Equal Rights Amendment. They made it clear at that time that members do not face discipline for disagreements with leaders as long as those disagreements don’t include ridicule of the leaders or other actions that set the mission of the church back. Even politely expressing the disagreements or supporting efforts for things like gay marriage is fine. We just need to not cross the line into opposing the mission of the church itself with our words or actions.
The church and its leaders don’t have a monopoly on light and knowledge. Sometimes they get drug, kicking and screaming like the rest of us, to truth. Sometimes personal revelation will lead an individual member to truth before the rest of the church arrives there, but that doesn’t mean we are wrong when we go against the grain a little while waiting for them to catch up.
Patience Is Key
Like most who undergo transition, it took years to arrive at knowing that transition was right for me. I struggled long and hard in prayer to know that I have a female spirit, but thought that maybe it was best to wait for the next life for a resolution to this issue. Eventually, though, I reached a point where I knew that I wouldn’t have a good life with this unresolved issue. The related depression and social problems had cost me jobs and almost cost me my marriage, and the future wasn’t looking any better.
After discussing this with my wife, she took weeks to arrive at the same conclusion, and she was more familiar with the problem than any other person alive.
While ideally I would like to see people be more accepting of my transition, I watched family (my wife included) and others struggle to reach every step of acceptance. Some relationships were strained, while others were broken. Some have come around while others have not. Some might never come around on the issue.
I realize now that expecting everybody else to quickly arrive at acceptance on an issue that took me years to process is unrealistic. While I have been pleasantly surprised to see some members accept this quickly, many more are still struggling with it. I need to give them time before I judge them harshly for their lack of acceptance.
Few, If Any Will Be Rude About It (At Least To Your Face)
When we first went public with my transition, there was some negative feedback. We got a nasty message from my aunt condemning us for ruining our children’s lives, among other things. The usual gossipers at church came out in force and started badmouthing extended family, including my younger brother. With all of this nastiness, I was afraid that people at church would feel emboldened to share negative feelings.
Fortunately, none of this happened when I returned to church. Nobody said a cross word, and several people came up to me to express their happiness at seeing me attend. One woman even came to introduce herself, thinking I was somebody she had never met before (the effects of hormones can be fairly drastic). I went to the first two hours of church and headed home.
Things are getting much better now. Not only do I have much of the burden of dysphoria lifted from my shoulders, but I also have the spirit returning into my life. I find myself better able to do the things I need to do as a spouse, parent, student and small business owner. I have been told to continue my calling. Things are looking up.
However, it isn’t all rainbows and skittles. I’m not allowed to use the restrooms at the chapel. I am not currently allowed to attend Relief Society or renew my temple recommend, mostly because clearance to change my name and gender in church records requires First Presidency approval. The stake president has asked me to wait a while before asking for the records change, possibly because he is hoping that with more church attendance I’ll change my mind. Once we submit the request, I’ve heard from others that it could take more than a year.
These things are drawbacks, but I have to remember the lessons I have learned. The leadership is not infallible, but I must show them and the rest of the church the patience I showed myself. The church is not the cult some make it out to be; dissent is tolerated. I have to realize that the situation is (slowly) changing and that I have it much better than many other transgender people have had it in the past. The ward membership has largely been kind and the leaders are listening to the experts.
If you are a trans* member who has either transitioned or is considering transition, don’t believe the internet hype about the church. You can still be active in the church. You can still keep your testimony and sustain our (imperfect) leaders. Just like our pioneer forebears, the walk will not be very easy but is worth every step.