“Transmormon” Sheds Light on Trans Members in LDS Church

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by Randall S. Frederick

Last summer, production wrapped on a small project called “Transmormon,” a 15-minute documentary focusing on the Haywards, a Mormon family whose transgender child was pursuing sex reassignment surgery. On the day that production wrapped last year, July 7, 2013, the family boarded a plane to Thailand to complete the process of “Eddie” becoming Eri.

As the documentary points out, the Haywards were conservative Mormons who were not sure how to respond to their child when she came to them, confused that she felt like two people – the boy in the mirror and the girl she knew herself to be. Eri’s father, Ed Hayward, said that Eri came to him at one point, “when she was probably about four years old, crying, saying, ‘Daddy, I want to be a girl.’ At the time, I just thought she was going through a phase.”

Like much of America and other branches of Christianity, the LDS Church has been trying to step away from previous statements and re-evaluate their position on marriage and sexual expression. It was only last year that they changed their position on female missionaries, allowing them to depart at an earlier age instead of staying at home to await marriage. Whatever may come of these new considerations for today’s religious teenagers and their families, the world that Eri grew up in left no way to articulate or even question her identity.

The teachings of the LDS Church have maintained a firm line between sexual attraction and sexual expression for decades. A person’s sexuality is based onbehavior, not orientation – a curious loophole in wording where a person is “straight” (and thus accepted in the church) so long as they have straight sex. Whatever the feelings and attractions one has, orientation is irrelevant. The LDS Church has been trying to move away from this view and change their language in official documents to discuss sexual realization as a “trial” more than a “choice.” Confronted with a tide of questions about what exactly this means, given that eternal lives were at stake, a 1995 statement by then-LDS President Gordon B. Hinkley, The Family: A Proclamation to the World, elucidates that God defines a family as a man and woman who are married with the intention of having children together. Those who strayed from this ideal “would bring upon individuals, communities and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.” It was under these teachings that Eri was raised, taught that she would grow up to become a father, not a mother. As a part of a good Mormon family, Eri says she would try to rationalize with herself. “I was a boy and it was because God had made me that way,” adding that this “didn’t really make for a great relationship, as a five year old, between me and God.” Adding to the confusion was the LDS religious culture. Along with church and fellow Mormon friends, Eri and her sister attended a private Mormon school. She found herself surrounded by a culture where questions would be “dismissed because it’s either not prevalent or it was just hidden [awaiting a later revelation/oracle].” Caught in the tension of the LDS Church’s teachings on transgender people and her sexuality, Eri created a fantasy world for herself that she could escape to. “I would pretend that I was a princess hiding as a boy because bad villains were out to get me or a fairy godmother would one day come to turn everything right one day. Without my imagination I don’t know what would have happened to me.”

On the outside, things seemed to have worked themselves out by her teens. “Eddie” was ordained to the priesthood in her church and appointed first assistant to the bishop. Now in “his” teens, “Eddie” – identifying as a boy at this point – began to date a girl from the church. The family relaxed, believing that things were getting better. “Eddie” was behaving less effeminately, but inside she knew something didn’t fit. One day after church, Mr. Hayward came home to a crying Eri who told him, “Dad, let’s face it. I’m gay.”

Like most conservative branches of Christianity, questions about sex and sexuality are repressed. Inside, Eri still felt that she was a girl, despite the male body and genitalia she saw in the mirror. She began to wear women’s clothing, but continued telling people that she was gay because she was attracted to boys and had been raised to believe she was a boy as well. That was what her body was, after all, and there was no way to sort out what she had been feeling her whole life. “Being LDS was our life. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t find out what trans was until I was an adult and out of high school! A lot of people think, ‘You didn’t know what gay people were until 14 or 15? Where did you live?’ Well, I was living in Utah in a saturated Mormon community, and either home-schooled or going to a Mormon private school.”

Self-image was becoming a severe problem for Eri. “I didn’t have any confidence in my appearance. It is something that I really struggled with. Being told that I was not as good looking as my sister, or that I was a good looking man was not a compliment. Being told that I was a pretty boy or a girly boy were compliments, in my mind.” She developed an eating disorder and experienced continual senses of loneliness and depression. One of the hardest parts, she said, was watching her sister begin dating. “That was really hard. I was like, ‘Of course. I’m this ugly boy, and my sister is this beautifulgirl. That was a really, really difficult thing for me to deal with.”

Most teenagers and young adults look to inspirational figures during crises like the ones Eri was experiencing. Some find their heroes and heroines in fiction – the cast of Jane Austen novels, comicbooks, or celebrities. Figures like Laverne Cox, who recently made the cover of Time magazine, and supermodel Andreja Pejic have been generous with their gratitude towards and defense of young fans questioning their own identity. Eri’s first heroine was perhaps telling. “My very first hero was probably my mother followed closely by Sailormoon. Then Cinderella. They are all wonderful examples of love, friendship, kindness, and caring. Also, my obaa-chan.” It was Eri’sobaa-chan (Japanese for “grandmother”) who first realized and gave a name to what Eri was feeling.

Eri had quit high school by this point. “You know, being at a Mormon private school, I didn’t graduate; I just stopped going when I came out.” The family decided to send her to Japan to stay with her grandparents in the hopes that a change of scenery might help. One day, Eri was watching television when a panel of trans people came on. “My grandmother turned to me and was like, ‘Oh. This is all about you!’”

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When she returned to America, Eri approached her father and told him what she felt to be true about herself. “She came to me,” Ed Hayward recalls, “And she said, ‘Dad, I want you to know I’m not gay. I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body. That’s why Ithought I was gay.” Again, a sense of stability came to the family – a collective sigh of relief. They finally had a name to call the feelings that had persisted for so long, “transsexual.” But psychological incongruence began to surface. Eri began having dreams of cutting her penis off. The dreams began to increase in frequency, intensity, and violence. Suffering in “a really dark place” in life, Eri developed a plan to fulfill her dream. At one point, she tried to perform surgery on herself to remove her penis. The family, naturally, took preventative steps by seeking counseling and finally a diagnosis so that “Eddie” could begin hormone replacement therapy. Thereafter, they scheduled sexual reassignment surgery,

Which is around the time that director Torben Bernhard heard of Eri Hayward’s story. Bernhard had originally heard about Eri while working on a project for NPR’s Salt Lake City affiliate, KUER, and began seeking her out to tell her story. In the process, he found out that Eri had developed a small Facebook following who was just as interested as he was. “While discussing potential projects, a blog interview featuring Eri that had been floating around Facebook came up,” he said. “As soon as I read the interview, I knew I wanted to make this documentary.” That was July 1st. Bernhard realized he had less than a week to capture the Hayward’s story before they boarded a plane and the opportunity would close. He and his crew hustled. “I was primarily interested in their specific story,” he said, speaking of his interest in areas of faith and focusing one’s life. “What if the picture that comes into focus jeopardizes your relationship with a religious organization that has loomed so large throughout your life?”

Bernhard had been raised Mormon as well, moving from one point of America to another. After serving as a LDS missionary to Thailand, he settled in Utah. It was quintessential Steinbeck, a physical expression of an internal reality as he sought to focus his own life. As part of that process, five years ago, Bernhard broke from the Latter Day Saints. It was a significant part of the Hayward story that he wanted to capture on film. “I know how hard it was, leaving the church,” Bernhard said, “As I had gone through it myself. This is one of the first times I’ve ever been open about it. I know, without any of the challenges that Eri has gone through regarding her gender expression, that for me as a straight, white male, just going through that process of leaving the church and growing distant from the faith I had was tough. It was really hard on my family.”

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The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back for Bernhard was the furor overProposition 8. The bill, passed in 2008, prohibited same-sex couples from marrying, but was declared unconstitutional in 2010 to the frustration of many conservative groups. Already expressing serious doubts after returning home from his missionary experience, Bernhard, together with his wife, began experiencing a quarterlife crisis of faith. “The issue of Prop 8 came on the heels of us already feeling alienated. We felt like we didn’t have much of a community at church because we were so different in our views. We happened to be in a ward that was hyper-concentrated on Prop 8 and had a Stake president (a kind of bishop over LDS churches) who made it a priority to discuss Prop 8 nearly every week. He even went as far as requesting that we make campaign calls to California. It just got to the point where we saw how theologically distant we were and decided to transition out.”

Bernhard had grown up under the same church conditions that Eri had. He was aware of the the Proclamation by then-church President Gordon B. Hinckley where he had said, “We cannot stand idle if [gays and lesbians] indulge in immoral activity, if they try to uphold and defend and live in a so-called same-sex marriage situation. To permit such would be to make light of the very serious and sacred foundation of God-sanctioned marriage and it’s very purpose, the rearing of families.” Citing Hinckley , Bernhard says he became frustrated with the tension between what had been revealed to the LDS leadership “for this moment of time,” and what remained a “mystery left to be resolved.”

As he understood it, Bernhard felt that the LDS Church was presenting people with an impossible dilemma. The address categorically denied anyone who felt that their physical gender was different from their gender identity, stating “In the premortal realm, spirit sons and daughters knew and worshiped God as their Eternal Father and accepted His plan by which His children could obtain a physical body… We declare the means by which mortal life is created to be divinely appointed.” In other words, you were male before you were born, you were born male and you will eternally be male. Any confusion about this would, again, “bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.” But there remains a large gap in LDS theology, the anticipation of further revelation. This anticipation allows mercy and compassion to be extended by the Church in theory but in practice, it is often manifested in harsh ways. “It’s very set and strict policy, so you have revelation that’s not forthcoming or hasn’t come yet, but on the other hand you have people that are directly affected by the fact that that revelation hasn’t come. To put this in another way, the Church, as an organization, has strict policies regarding topics that are still awaiting revelation. So, though there is not very much that has been said about transgender members, they are still subject to discipline if they go through with sex reassignment surgery. To me, that seems like a very hard line to understand. ”

Bernhard’s two-year mission in Thailand had exposed him to “many people” who were transgender. “It’s very common in Thailand.” He knew them to be good people, but “I didn’t really understand it at all, to be honest. Thai culture is very accepting of transgender individuals, but at the same time, they’re still often portrayed as caricatures in movies for comic relief.” When he heard about the Haywards, he wanted to extend the compassion that he felt trans people deserved. It was a conviction of his. Something compelled him to tell their story, exposing the tension that so many other Mormon families have had to suffer through in silence. “I was really interested in bringing up that juxtaposition, the complexity of a family that is actually going through this and what it looks like, as opposed to a policy that is summarized in one sentence.”

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After completing the documentary last December, several outlets began to notice and congratulate Bernhard for capturing the Hayward’s story and bringing to light the Church’s stance on transgender people. “I was with [the Haywards] and Eri on a panel about a week ago,” he said, “And Ed was talking about going to his leaders early on, trying to understand what he should be doing as a parent or what the church’s position was on the decision that she was making, or rather, recognizing what she was going through and, at one point, he said he received a response from his leader saying, essentially, ‘The Church doesn’t know any more than you at this time. There’s been no revelation on it.’”

The Haywards, meanwhile, are trying to sort out where they stand with their community now that Eri has had her surgery. So far, the response has been positive. “My experience,” Eri says, “Has been that people are trying to make the best decisions they can based on what they know, feel, and think is right. I am so excited to think that maybe the story of my family can help to pass along the love and support that I was so lucky and blessed to have felt from my friends, church leaders, and family.” But some doubts remain.

Eri’s father says that he believes the LDS leadership “are receiving revelation that helps them to better serve in the callings that we’re given in the priesthood” he said. And he is aware of the 1995 proclamation, “which states very clearly that marriage is between a man and a woman. In my opinion, Eri is a woman, so I don’t see a problem with that and I’m hoping that the leaders of the Church are going to see it that way and that she’ll be able to get married in the Temple.”

Eri admits she has stopped attending church with her family, as she senses judgement. “I’m willing to do all of these things,” Eri said, “But even if I were to do all of them, there are specific limitations – whether it be biological or the Church principles – that say that a trans person, even after [sexual reassignment surgery], can’t go to the Temple. That means you can’t get married or have kids. So why try if you know you’re going to fail?” In the last year, she has spent a lot of time still thinking about the last several years and whether remaining in the LDS community is a challenge she wishes to continue enduring. “I have since come to realize that while very difficult and a lonely struggle at times everything that I experienced because I was made a boy has made me who I am today. For that I am grateful. It has strengthened my belief that things may not be how we think they ought to be, but that is only because we cannot see the big picture. Our part is to be good people and let God take care of the why and what is happening in the Universe.” In a sense, things have finally normalized. “It’s really funny because I spent so much time dreaming about how amazing and magical it was going to be for me to wake up and look down and to see my brand new vagina, but when it actually happened, I looked down and thought, ‘Oh… I am normal me now.” But being normal, she says, looks a lot like the fairy godmother experience she spent so much time fantasizing about. “Being so normal in itself was the magical part.”

For my first interview with Torben Bernhard, click here.

For my interview with Eri Hayward, click here.

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