In June of this year, I was honored to be allowed to contribute a guest post for “By Common Consent,” a site devoted to cultural and social and doctrinal issues in relation to all things related to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Now that several months have transpired, I want to preserve this post here on my own site. I was also pleased to see so many discussion points raised by visitors to the guest post, which I think were done in a spirit of seeking understanding regarding my viewpoints. Addressing some of those questions resulted in some rather extensive replies on my part, which I also want to preserve on my site. Here is the link to the original guest post on BCC,
followed by the post and subsequent comments and questions as of 8-22-2019. I am grateful for the opportunity BCC gave me to participate and the engaging discussions that ensued. Lona.
I Am Worried about Jessica.
Lona Gynt is a friend of BCC. She is a Latter-day Saint and works as a physician in the Eastern United States and also shares poetry and other comment in her blog “Scattered thoughts made a little more random” at lonagynt.wordpress.com. She is a transgender woman who writes under a pseudonym for the time being.
I am worried about Jessica.
Jessica is not her real name, but this can get confusing since she does not consider her legal birth name to be her real name either.
I met Jessica through my friend Sophia. Like me, Sophia is a transgender woman, but we do have some key differences. I am a lifelong Latter-day Saint. I have not openly transitioned socially to a female role, even though I have been treated with female hormones for many years to medically transition my body to match my internal identity and to combat overpowering gender dysphoria. Sophia lives in Europe, she is not Latter-day Saint, she has transitioned medically and socially to the female gender. She is a compassionate and empathetic person, so I paid attention when she wrote me the following:
I’ve been chatting to someone who is interested in talking to you. She is 16 years old, born biologically male, and has been experiencing what sounds like very heavy gender dysphoria her entire life. She is Mormon, lives in Utah, and goes by the name “Jessica.”
She cries her eyes out in panic and distress every single day over her gender dysphoria, and wants to transition very badly. But she is afraid to tell her parents. She’s also afraid of what the church will think. She is devoted to her religion and wants to keep being Mormon, but she is confused and terrified over what will happen when people find out about her transness. She is also scared about whether Utah’s medical system will be kind to her in regard to the transness.
I am more than thirty years older than Jessica. It would be difficult to compare her world with the one I inhabited when I was sixteen, but the shared chasm between our transgender and Mormon identities may make any generational divide between us seem small by comparison. I know a little bit about what it is like to be young, transgender, and Mormon, and I know it is a very lonely and potentially dangerous place to be. I said I would be willing to hear Jessica’s story and talk about possible support networks she could pursue in her local milieu (we live on opposite sides of the country). I wanted her to feel safe in our correspondence, so I confirmed with her that I would never ask to meet her personally nor ask for any identifying information or pictures etc.
Meeting Jessica has caused me to reflect on what my life was like when I was her age. I grew up in the Wasatch Front Mormon corridor with mountains of support and context about the meaning of what it meant to be Mormon. I was raised by a loving and pretty happy family. We had hard work, lots of fun, laughter, and Family Night. My Dad would pour his heart out to us and my Mom was simply fantastic. I got the whole deal and simply just ate it up: Primary, Mutual, Scouts, Seminary…, I loved it all. I really did love the scriptures and my teachers and sought out my own “Sacred Grove Experiences” in the mountains and in my bedroom, and some of the most profound experiences occurred as I gave talks and testimony from the pulpit of our red-brick-two-story-white-steepled Wasatch Front meetinghouse. At fourteen I remember being joyfully overwhelmed by the generosity of the doctrines of proxy temple work and the redemption of the dead and how God excludes none of his children from the reach of His love.
I hope I was not too insufferable, but by the time I was sixteen I seemed the stereotypical “Peter Priesthood,” and believed and felt the whole big Latter-day Sh-bang to be true. It was wonderful, my only trouble is that I felt more like a Molly. I had never quite felt right in my masculine skin. I had experienced varying levels of clarity and vagueness from a very early age that I would fit in better with the girls and should have been one. Although I had so many advantages in my life, I had absolutely no context or support at all for this persistent background feminine feeling.
As a three-year old I remember seeing a happy girl’s face like my mother’s looking back at me from the mirror[i].
At about six years old I asked my Mom what I thought was simple question: if they call girls who like to wear jeans and play sports “tom-boys” do they call boys who want to wear dresses and play with girls’ toys “tom-girls?” She usually had a cheerful and ready answer to my questions, but for this one I recall primarily a prolonged and heavy silence that preceded whatever she actually ended up saying. It would not take too long to learn from the world around me that the usual monikers for this concept were “sissy” or “faggot”, and it was not seen as adorable to be one.
I forged on with my life and tribe, burying my identity as deeply as I could. I had never heard the term “transgender” as a youth, but was about twelve when I first heard about people undergoing a “sex-change” when my older brother happened to off-handedly mention something about a famous tennis player who had worked with doctors to change from a man to a woman. The news hit my body like a joyful lightning bolt to hear that such a thing was possible. I asked in amazement if they could completely change, get pregnant and have babies and everything. He gave a not-unkind scoff, and said, that no, they couldn’t do all of that. I felt a little deflated, but the conversation would ever remain a stark and powerful memory.
I moved on. I did well in school, started at BYU in the mid-1980’s, and went on a mission, and came back to BYU. I was interested at the time in becoming a clinical psychologist and was majoring in psychology. We spent about fifteen minutes on transgender issues in my Sophomore level Abnormal Psychology class in which the professor posited that it is difficult to go through life having to endure all of the roles and circumstances of a gender that does not align with one’s inner identity. This was the first remotely empathetic thing I ever remember hearing about how I was feeling. Typically, I can ask a lot of questions in a class, I can even be annoying, but I was terrified to ask anything on this topic. I felt like someone might guess something if I did.
Another student asked the professor’s opinion on whether it was wise for transgender people to undergo sex change. He said that he doubted the wisdom of filling one’s body with “artificial” hormones and that it might be better for people to try to learn coping strategies to help them fit in to their assigned societal roles. We have since learned that severe gender dysphoria is very dangerous and correlates with one of the highest rates of both attempted and completed suicides seen in any group[ii]. Current evidence consistently shows that the best alleviation of gender dysphoria is achieved by transitioning to the internally identified gender with as much affirmation and support as possible from the person’s milieu[iii]. But this was 1985, the evidence was not yet so prominent and I really respected this professor, so even though I felt a pang of emptiness at his words, I still did not raise any additional questions.
Also, I am not sure that I wanted to hear any other type of answers at that time because I really did not want to be transgender, and considered any thoughts I had that I was feminine as a disgusting demonic influence. I prayed more, studied, and worked, and ran-ran-ran from those thoughts, and it seemed I could somewhat keep them in check for rather long periods of time.
I am not saying it was all bad, in fact, most of life was great. I met a wonderful woman, and we married and moved to another state for her job and I continued my studies. Hard work paid off with admission to medical school and I experienced great joy with arrival of children and active enjoyment of church callings and family. My church involvement was not just a rote societal exercise for me, I felt devoted to the restored gospel and felt close to the Savior in my efforts, but I still had no concept at all that my transgender feelings were anything other than sinful.
I have written elsewhere about some of the challenges and dangers of the ensuing years[iv]. My primary purpose now is to highlight that I had grown up with no context at all for what I was feeling. What were the results of this lack of context thirty years down the road? Do we now live in an era in which increased knowledge and context might offer Jessica a different path with less heartbreak for her and her loved ones than what I experienced and unleashed? We might even venture to ask the question, “Where will it lead?” Can we do more than just watch in suspense as events inch slowly closer to conclusion, grasping us in their patient jaws?
My experience might be an example of where such lack of context could lead. Despite all my devoted and constant efforts, the dysphoria continued to intensify. There were decades in which I felt largely dissociated from my outwardly very successful life. There were several secret dangerously-near suicide attempts. I finally sought professional help and was directed to a skilled therapist who patiently helped me in the process of affirming my worth. Prayers started to be answered in ways I had not anticipated. Eventually I was blessed with the realization that being a transgender woman is not sinful, that female hormone therapy would help to dispel some aspects of the crippling dysphoria, and that God and Christ understand and accept my circumstance and do not condemn me, and would even accept my efforts for life-saving transition from male to female even if it were accompanied by various levels of rejection from church, tribe, and family.
The most painful part of all of this relates to the effects of these circumstances on my family. I have a wonderful wife and children who have now been drawn into the web of consequence stemming from my lifelong lack of context, denial, and intrinsic transphobia. It is a grim calculus at times to have weighed whether it would be less harmful for my family for me to transition or simply just end my life. Gratefully, I had been blessed in those close moments to land on the correct side of that question and have covenanted that I am going to live, even if that requires me to more fully transition socially. The very first step we all took on the covenant path was to come here to mortality to live[v], and I am going to do everything required to keep that first covenant.
At this point I feel very strongly that I am going to need to more openly transition socially to female roles at some level in order to survive and live authentically. The potential consequences of this choice may not always be as stark as life or death, but they are very daunting nonetheless. More than three years of cross-sex hormonal treatments have really helped me to feel present and right in my own body, and have been a critical step in saving my life, but they have come with heart-rending changes in our marriage and further social transitioning may eventually cause my marriage to end.
As I proceed with socially transitioning, I am likely to be ostracized by my much of my church family and tribe, but of even greater concern for me is the possibility that my adolescent daughter’s mostly Latter-day Saint peer-group may freak out and make her pay a terrible price at a critical time in her life.
My red-state bible belt primary care medical practice would likely suffer to a significant degree, making it more difficult to meet my commitments to a wife who left a vibrant career to be home with the kids. Changes in her technical field since she left work have made it nearly impossible for her to reenter her prior career, thus increasing her sense of vulnerability and dependence.
Now this next part is especially tricky… and some of those closest to me never quite believe me when I say this. I do not regret the path my life has taken. My younger self’s clueless lack of context has spun a web of confusion that has not only caught me, but my family, in its grasp, but these challenges have made us who we are, and I think that if we could change the direction of the arrow of time to alter our lives we would probably only make things worse (unless we were blessed with the fortitude of Albus Dumbledore). I would not trade the love I have enjoyed with my wife and children for more context in my past, even if it meant that I could have lived life with less dysphoria and less danger.
But what if I had not been so clueless? What if I had actually possessed some context or knowledge about what I was going through? What if I had felt then as I do now, that being transgender is part of the biological spectrum of God’s creation and not just so much “gender confusion”?[vi]
What if my younger self had been given a sense, or even just an inkling, about the dangers of dysphoria and pain that it would eventually cause my wife and family? Would it have been ethical or righteous to knowingly drag them all into this whole wonderful mess for the sake of staying on the prescribed covenant path? Could I have entered marriage with the hope that it would cure me of being transgender? There may be parallels to the dubious history of people entering marriage as a “cure” for same-sex attraction – an approach that seems to have produced more pain than efficacy. Would it be right to knowingly pursue a similar path to deal with transgender identity?
Apart from the questions of my own past lack of context and knowledge, how would we propose going forward for those in the younger generation who face this challenge now that we live in an era with more data, more context, and with some slight degree of increased acceptance? How might things be different for Jessica? What additional counsel do we have to offer her than to show her the Proclamation and label her plight as “gender confusion?” Do we tell her to pray more, study more, go to church more, serve more? Sure! We should all be doing those things more, regardless of whether we are cis or trans or somewhere in between. But what do you do when these “Sunday School Answers” aren’t sufficient to save your life? Are we going to tell her to just choose not to be transgender? Do we have any other tools to offer her as a church and a people over and above those I had available when I was her age?
I can hope she has parents who indeed grieve when they discover what their child is going through, but who don’t get angry and let the child know they are loved. I can hope for visits to a team of professionals who can carefully help to identify what is happening and what it means to be transgender, offering context and professional insight into her challenges and choices.
I can picture Jessica meeting other transgender Latter-day Saints and discovering that she is not the only person who faces the challenge of being a transgender person who is also striving to be devoted to the gospel and LDS Church. I can hope that she could receive comfort in personal prayers about her place in the world and cosmos even if that place is not easily understood by others. I can hope that she could progress through her life feeling peace and affirmation about her individual worth and divine nature and be confident in her prospects of meeting the challenges life brings her, and I am convinced that the good news of Christ is large enough to afford her every opportunity in the eternities.
I could hope that she may one day find a uniquely loving person to build a life together based from the beginning on an honest recognition and appreciation for who she really is.
I hope that she could have joy.
She has contacted me only once, she has not shared any details about her life with me, other than asking if I would be interested in listening to her story. Her letter was kind and intelligent and tender. I think she must be incredible. I think she could thrive. She has not yet, however, shared her story with me and it has been several months since she has contacted either Sophia or myself. The last news I have heard was from Sophia. It says that Jessica told her that things have become very hard at home, that her parents have found her bag of clothes, and that she is in trouble…
I feel the wellsprings of hope are deep, but still…
I am worried about Jessica.
[i] [i] Here is a link to my Haibun poem about the mirror. https://lonagynt.wordpress.com/2018/11/02/btt-44-changeling/
[ii] Here are just a couple links about the shocking rates suicidality among transgender people. https://www.hrc.org/blog/new-study-reveals-shocking-rates-of-attempted-suicide-among-trans-adolescen
[iii] Here is an excellent review of the efficacy of transitioning on alleviating dysphoria and the attendant dangers. https://whatweknow.inequality.cornell.edu/topics/lgbt-equality/what-does-the-scholarly-research-say-about-the-well-being-of-transgender-people/
[iv] Here are two of the most relevant long-reads that can lead to the above-mentioned “elsewhere.” https://lonagynt.wordpress.com/2017/06/26/btt10-miracles-of-astounding-normalcy/
And here are two considerably shorter poems on the same subject if you prefer verse to pedantics. https://lonagynt.wordpress.com/2018/05/10/btt-32-hair-cut-non-transitioned/
[v] see Job 38:7
[vi] I have to wonder at the term “gender confusion” If it is confusion, what is the source of the confusion… the devil, biology of a fallen world, a societal defect, or just a choice to be confused? And if it is a choice, why on Earth would anybody choose it? I wouldn’t – I spent most of my life ACTIVELY trying to choose not to be transgender, and I couldn’t. A loved one has told me that Christ can change this. I do feel that Christ has changed me in wonderful ways in my life, but he has never changed this in particular despite years of supplication. The change I was finally blessed to receive was to actually embrace who I am. It was only then that I no longer felt confused.