Transgender Mormons struggle to feel at home in their bodies and their religion

The Salt Lake Tribune/March 30, 2015

By Peggy Fletcher Stack

Sixteen-year-old Grayson Moore had no label, only metaphors, to describe the disconnect he felt between his body and soul.

It was like car sickness, he says, when your eyes and inner ears disagree about whether you are moving.

"It makes you sick," Moore says. "That's the same with gender."

When Moore's mother gave her then-daughter a vocabulary for the feelings — "gender dysphoria" or transgender — there followed an immediate sense of relief and recognition.

And, he says, God confirmed that he was not just a tomboy. He was in the wrong body.

Such moments come in the life of all transgender persons — times when vague feelings of general discomfort with their identity crystallize into that realization.

Annabel Jensen was deciding whether to serve a Mormon mission. Sara Jade Woodhouse was married and had fathered a child.

In these three cases, their Mormonism — with its emphasis on the physical link between bodies and spirits and its insistence that gender is "eternal" — initially made it tougher to acknowledge what was happening inside of them.

Since switching genders (though none has had sex-reassignment surgery), all three say they have found psychological and theological peace, even divine approval, and a surprising welcome from their local LDS leaders and congregations.

They are among a growing but little understood minority in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Transgender Mormons in Utah have formed a support group, march in gay pride parades — though most are not gay — and talk openly about their experiences. A weekly "Family Home Evening" group routinely draws about 30 participants along the Wasatch Front.

Efforts to bring awareness are crucial, they believe, because most members of the Utah-based faith know little or nothing about what it's like to be transgender. And many judge and reject transgender loved ones.

Even LDS apostle Dallin H. Oaks acknowledged recently that Mormon leaders "have not had so much experience with [transgender persons]. ... We have some unfinished business on that."

Still, the faith does have policies in place, saying elective sex-reassignment surgery "may be cause for formal church discipline," according to the church's Handbook.

In some Mormon missions, including Thailand, with its many transgender persons, missionaries ask would-be converts if they are in their "original gender."

An official LDS document, "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," written and approved by the faith's top leaders, states that "gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose."

"Because of this," church spokesman Eric Hawkins writes in an emailed statement, "the church does not baptize those who are planning transsexual operations. If a person has already had such an operation and wishes to join the church, they may be baptized only after an interview with the mission president and approval by the First Presidency.

"The church does not ordain transgender people to the priesthood or issue temple recommends to them," Hawkins adds. "Church leaders counsel already-baptized members against elective transsexual operations, and bishops may refer specific cases to the stake president for possible resolution at that level or by the First Presidency.

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