At age 13, Emmett Claren used to lie in the middle of a football field behind his house, look up at the sky and beg God to strike him with lightning and change his body. “I would tell him, ‘I have a lot of faith. I believe in you. I know you can do anything,’” Claren, now 22, recalled.
The Utah resident and member of the Mormon church is a transgender man, which means he was assigned female at birth, but knew since he was a young child that he identified as male – even though he didn’t learn the term “transgender” until many years later.
“‘Just change me to a boy right now,’” Claren said he would ask God every day. But his prayers went unanswered.
After wrestling with his faith and identity for years, struggling through periods of severe mental anguish, he came out as transgender at age 21 and is now pushing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to welcome transgender members.
Claren is part of a growing movement of trans Mormons in Utah publicly fighting for acceptance in a conservative church that has long alienated LGBT people.
Claren’s advocacy, on YouTube and in local Utah media interviews, is risky. He could face discipline or excommunication from a church that has always been a fundamental part of his community, faith and identity. But Claren also knows firsthand that if trans Mormons don’t speak up, and if the church doesn’t shift its views on LGBT members, the consequences will continue to be dire – and in some cases deadly.
The LDS church – which is headquartered in Salt Lake City, 40 miles north of Claren’s home in Orem – prompted significant backlash in November 2015 when it unveiled a new anti-gay policy saying that children of same-sex couples can’t join the church until they turn 18 and won’t be baptized unless they move out of their parents’ home and disavow same-sex relationships.
The policy raised concerns about a potential increase in depression and suicide among LGBT Mormons and prompted many to leave the LDS church.
This is one reason Claren’s story is unique: He refuses to leave. On the contrary, he hopes his story will encourage other transgender members to come out and stay in the church – and in some cases even consider returning if they’ve already resigned over fears of discrimination and excommunication.
While the church has long opposed same-sex marriage, Mormons don’t have a clear policy on transgender people.
Pressed on the matter, Mormon leaders recently said the church is unfamiliar with trans issues and has more to learn – a statement some LGBT advocates have interpreted with optimism, hoping the church may consider embracing trans members.
Asked about policy on transgender members, Eric Hawkins, LDS church spokesman, said in an email that bishops “recognize that these situations are difficult and sensitive”, but added: “We believe that gender is part of our eternal God-given identity and purpose. Because of this, the Church does not baptize those who are planning trans-sexual operations, and those who choose to have a trans-sexual operation may place their membership at risk.”
Under that ambiguous guideline, some transgender LDS members, including Claren, have been able to remain active in wards with tolerant bishops.
But according to Brigit Pack, who co-founded a Facebook support group for trans Mormons and their family members, others have faced discipline, which in some cases could mean they have to pledge not to present themselves as their preferred gender. And some trans members have been excommunicated, meaning they are formally kicked out, she said.
“The majority really want to stay active in the church,” said Pack, a 37-year-old Syracuse, Utah woman whose spouse recently came out as transgender. “Instead of fearing what we don’t know, I wish we would embrace everyone and love unconditionally.”
There’s no reliable data on transgender Mormons, but Pack said her Facebook group now has 87 members who identify as trans, and there are likely many more locally who have not yet discovered the group or come out.
Claren said he always knew he was not a girl, but spent years of his childhood trying to conform to gender norms and the expectations of his church and parents.
At age 14, he attempted suicide for the first time.
It wasn’t until he was 17 years old that he learned about transgender people from a friend, and he instantly knew the identity fit. “It was like, ‘I’m not the only one that feels this way. I’m not crazy. This is who I am.’”
Claren subsequently served as a Mormon missionary in Salt Lake City and enrolled at Brigham Young University (BYU) Idaho, a college run by the LDS church. But he still struggled to come out as transgender, and at least one counselor advised against it: “She said, ‘If this is the direction you’re going to go, I can’t help you,’ and she dropped me,” he recalled.
He fell into a deep depression and again attempted suicide at age 21.
“I was just done with life,” he said. “I was begging God to keep me alive.”
But in a moment of deep prayer alone on campus, he had a revelation – that God loved and accepted him.
Knowing the college would kick him out once he began presenting as male and transitioning, Claren dropped out of BYU. University spokesman Brett Crandall confirmed this policy in an email, saying, “Deliberately dressing or presenting oneself as a member of the opposite biological sex … is an outward expression that is inconsistent with the university’s Honor Code.”
Claren moved to Utah, changed his name and pronouns and began taking testosterone. In April, he is scheduled to undergo a procedure known as “top surgery” to remove his breasts.
Claren said his parents have struggled to understand and accept him, but they are trying. If his family had positive guidance from the church, they would be much more likely to embrace him, he added.
That’s one of the reasons he stays in the church. “How am I supposed to help people and change things if I leave? I need to be here to stand up for myself and other people like me.”
Meanwhile, Claren has found a supportive community of trans Mormons in Utah, and more of them are speaking out.
“Every one of us knows what it feels like to be alone and to believe you’re the only one,” said Ann Pack, Brigit’s spouse, who transitioned two years ago and is still active in the Mormon church. “To finally connect not just with other trans people, but trans people in the church, and to see they’ve had similar experiences as you is huge.”
Grayson Moore, a 21-year-old transgender man who transitioned when he was 16, thanks God for helping Utah trans Mormons connect and uplift each other. “It feels like the lord is really doing his work in gathering us together,” he said. “The trans LDS community exists now. When I first transitioned, there wasn’t anything.”
The slow rise of Mormon trans activism has been exciting to witness but is also nerve-wracking, said Sara Jade Woodhouse, a 50-year-old trans woman who lives in South Ogden, north of Salt Lake City.
She hopes their efforts will encourage the church to celebrate trans people, but she fears that it could have the opposite effect and lead to the creation of an explicitly anti-trans policy. “We’ve seen what’s happened with lesbian and gay Mormons. They could do the same to us and make some really horrible changes.”
Moore said he wants to see a shift in the attitudes of church leaders and members, but for now, the number one priority is helping trans Mormons love and accept themselves: “We’re very much focused on supporting each other and keeping each other alive.”
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