Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

When your Mormon child comes out … as trans

A guest post by Mette Harrison

As I’ve become more active in Affirmation and Mama Dragons, I’ve been taught by dear friends who are transgender about this unique part of the rainbow spectrum, the “T” in “LGBTQ+.” I also had the gift of having my “nephew” (his parents are aunt/uncle to my children, though not by blood) come out as trans and walking alongside him in transition. Grayson Moore is my nephew, and Neca is one of my dearest and oldest friends. Through her and my own activism, I’ve become connected to wonderful mothers like Karin Berg who have helped shepherd their own children through their own transitions, which often take several steps.

Neca and Grayson.

Grayson was born to a Mormon family in Utah, assigned female at birth. As he grew up he was attracted to women, so he labeled himself as “lesbian,” but then gender dysphoria became apparent. When he learned about the possibility of being trans, he realized that many of his feelings were likely because he was a transgender young man. He told our family at the age of 16, when he began to transition, that he had the “soul” of a man in a woman’s body.

Neca suggested that this was very much in line with the Mormon “Proclamation on the Family,” which says that gender is innate and unchangeable, which is how she feels that Grayson’s gender is. He did not “choose” to be transgender, but rather was made this way by God. Grayson was an active Mormon for many years, though he’s on “sabbatical” at the moment. Neca remains active in the Church.

Neca says that she knew that Grayson (not his birth name, which can be triggering for some transgender people) was not a typical little girl, but she and her husband weren’t gender typical themselves, so that never bothered them. They expected a nerdy child who liked building toys and playing computer games, and Grayson fit into that mold very well. But at puberty, things started to change and Grayson was very unhappy and confused about the accompanying body changes.

Many parents of children who are on the rainbow spectrum experience multiple transitions. Some come out first as bisexual, then as gay. Some come out as gay first, then as trans. Some settle on “queer” as an identity and others as “non-binary,” meaning they don’t feel like either gender binary is for them. They switch between genders or are androgynous or something individual that feels right for them.

For other parents, Mormon or not, who have a trans child, Neca suggests the Facebook group “Parents of Transgender Children” for more information, but it’s a closed group. There’s also a Mama Dragons subgroup (a group of women who advocate for their kids who are LGBTQ+) for mothers with trans kids. She suggests asking to be added because there has to be privacy for parents to talk about things before their child comes out fully. If a child is pre-pubescent, Neca suggests that puberty blockers might be possible, to help delay puberty changes that can be so distressing. But she also says that keeping open conversation between parents and child is the most important thing.

For Neca, there was never a grieving period after Grayson came out as trans, though she says it is very common. Many parents mourn the loss of the future they imagined they would have with their child, a future that had specific rites of passage that mark one gender or another, like Scouting in the Mormon church or bride’s room activities and childbirth for women. Neca says, “Grayson is right here, the same person he has always been.” But she herself is still angry that society is so unsupportive of transgender people, especially many within the Mormon church.

When Grayson first came out as trans, his ward was supportive, but the handbook says that undergoing “elective transsexual operation” (what this means is undefined, and could refer to hysterectomy, breast removal, or other surgery doctors may consider necessary) “may be cause for formal church discipline.” Grayson was asked not to attend priesthood meetings. But later, his YSA wards were more accepting and welcomed him where he felt comfortable. For Neca, some particularly joyful moments have been Grayson’s singing in the “One Voice Community Choir” that includes many members of the Mormon church.

Karin and Skye.

Karin Bergtold me about her transgender daughter Skye’s transition and how difficult it was within a Mormon context that taught that her daughter would be “healed” in the next life and made to accept that she “really” is male. She talks about Syke’s father’s belief that being transgender was wrong, and that the whole family needed to fast and pray to change Skye. But no matter the prayers, Skye was still transgender, and Mormon theology didn’t seem to have a way to deal with what happens when God doesn’t answer a prayer like this.

Karin is concerned with the number of suicides she is seeing among transgender Mormons, especially the youth. They are told to be faithful and endure, that they will be “healed in the next life” and will “no longer have to suffer with this affliction.” That doesn’t help in the here and now, though. Most of the Mormons around Karin and Skye continued to believe they should be praying more to change the feelings of gender dysphoria instead of moving toward transition to the proper gender, as medical professionals now recommend. Even worse, Karin felt that many other Mormons gave the impression that they believed Skye’s transgenderism was infectious and could “rub off” on their own children, so they withdrew former friendships and made Skye feel very alone. This is one of the reasons Karin has officially resigned and Skye has stopped attending the Mormon church.

When I asked Karin if she had had a feeling all along that her child was different, she said that she thought the child she had named “Michael” was gay. When Karin was growing up, someone she loved deeply had to hide the fact that he was gay, and she was determined her children wouldn’t have to do that. She saw differences in “Michael,” but tried to give lessons on how to be more “male.” She feels guilty now that her child had to hide for eighteen years. Many parents have this sense of guilt at least initially, but it slowly resolves over time as they have more experiences with their child’s new identity.

Karin writes, “She used to fantasize that she was a girl, as a child as young as four or five. She determined that all little boys did this.” And “She spent most of her time alone, because she didn’t fit in with boys, and the girls didn’t want her either.”

Skye was taught at church that being transgender was a sin, “Oh my god, the battle she fought within herself. Skye believed who she really was couldn’t be real. That she had to be making it all up. . . The shame was overwhelming.”

To other parents, Karin gives the advice to “step back from themselves and all their fears, and remember this isn’t about them. No matter how much it hurts.” Though parents have expectations for every child, sometimes these expectations have to be given up. The gift we can give to every child is that of seeing them clearly, and accepting them as they are. They need to determine their own lives. Karin says, “We can be warriors for them, or roadblocks.” She chose the former. She doesn’t believe there is much to be done in the Mormon church, however, and feels she has to move beyond that.


Other guest posts by Mette Harrison:


 

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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