Since they were 3 years old, Irvin said, they were certain that they were male. “But I didn’t know the word ‘transgender’ until I was 28,” said Irvin, who is now 31 and a student at Brigham Young University, a school bound so tightly to the Mormon faith that enrollment rests on evaluation by religious leaders. That requirement could place Irvin’s education in jeopardy.
Three years ago, posts on Tumblr caught Irvin’s eye — someone was discussing a way in which gender expression could differ from the sex a person was assigned at birth. “That was when I learned that there was such a thing as transgender people,” they said.
They also learned that cancer wasn’t the only way to free them from their breasts, discovering on the blogging and social-networking site a procedure called “top surgery,” which typically involves breast removal and male-chest reconstruction. Adopting their middle name, “Kris,” at 18 and having a hysterectomy at 24 “have been the best things I’ve done for my dysphoria,” Irvin said in an interview. “Top surgery is the last thing I need to do to be happy.”
With that, Irvin also envisions public strife that could test foundational church rules about gender. Irvin, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, studies English at Brigham Young, which enrolls 30,000 undergraduates in Provo, Utah, and they hope to be an editor for a publishing company specializing in young-adult novels. They live with their husband and 10-year-old son about 30 minutes away in Bluffdale, Utah.
The Mormon Church’s flagship academic institution, founded in 1875, enforces an honor code holding students, administration, faculty and staff to “the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” It requires chastity and forbids “not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.” Dress and grooming standards proscribe beards and form-fitting clothing. Students live in sex-segregated housing.
The university has no formal policy on transgender students, said Carri Jenkins, a university spokeswoman. “We handle every case on an individual basis,” Jenkins said. But Brigham Young students are “required” to obtain an “ecclesiastical endorsement,” according to university policy.
Endorsement is a local matter, decided by a bishop presiding over a given ward, or congregation. Still, Jenkins said the final decision about a student’s enrollment lies with the university. She declined to say whether Brigham Young had ever taken disciplinary action against a transgender student. Experts interviewed said they knew of no prior case.
Irvin could be the first. Their bishop, Jake King, considers top surgery an affront to church teachings, Irvin told The Post. The student argues that the procedure could be considered a form of cosmetic surgery, distinct from sex-reassignment surgery, which the church discourages. Irvin said their bishop told them he would look down on either one.
Irvin said they first explained their situation to King this summer, after he came across a GoFundMe campaign for the surgery. “He called me into his office and said it will be cause for church discipline,” Irvin said.
Irvin sent him an email the next day, laying out their reasoning for seeking the procedure and saying that they felt they were being forced to choose between their well-being and their faith. They also pointed out what they observe to be a double standard: that surgery performed to reduce physical pain or conform to a cosmetic ideal would be permitted, but surgery aimed to cure gender dysphoria would not.
Irvin sought justification in scripture, specifically in Psalms 139:13-16.
“It says that God knitted us together in the womb,” they wrote. “If God does not make mistakes, and we are created in His image, then it stands to reason that He made me transgender on purpose and for a reason.”
The bishop saw matters differently. In a response, which Irvin provided to The Washington Post, King told them that “no surgery can bring you true peace and comfort in this life. Only Jesus Christ, your personal Savior, can do that.”
“It’s not prerequisite that the church and church leaders accept elective transgender surgery in order to accept, love, and serve LGBTQ+ members,” he wrote. “I know that all church leaders, including me, want everyone at church to be able to enjoy all the fruits the gospel brings.”
An email and a Facebook message to King seeking comment were not returned this week.
Despite his finding in their case, Irvin said they love their bishop.
“He has tried his very best to understand me, and pray and to understand what I’m going through,” Irvin explained.
Though the university maintains that it has ultimate say over a student’s enrollment, Taylor Petrey, an associate professor of religion at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, said the rule has long been that “everyone who goes to BYU has to pass through the gateway of their local ecclesiastical leader.”
“One can find injustices of all sorts in the way that bishops might yield their power over younger people and control their access to education,” said Petrey, who is Mormon. “There is potential for spiritual abuse.”
Irvin’s case exposes “the poverty of the church’s teachings” on the issue of gender identity, Petrey said.
Despite the scarcity of formal church policy on transgender members, there was a high-profile instance last year in which a transgender woman who had been in priesthood leadership was excommunicated.
A 1995 church document, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” declares that “marriage between a man and woman is ordained of God” and that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual pre-mortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” In a handbook for church leaders, only parts of which are publicly available online, there is some guidance on same-gender attraction and marriages, listed in the same section as instructions on pornography and “occult affiliation.”
Mormon practice is highly organized by gender, said Rosalynde Welch, a scholar of Mormon theology affiliated with Brigham Young’s Maxwell Institute. “Gender is a thoroughgoing category that informs every aspect of the Mormon experience,” she said, pointing to the all-male priesthood and forms of religious worship segregated by gender. As for transgender members, she said, “there’s been no grappling with this question at the official level.”
In 2015, a high-ranking church leader, Dallin H. Oaks, acknowledged in an interactive interview that “we have some unfinished business” concerning “the unique problem of a transgender situation.”
Petrey said he was “way too optimistic” that the statement would be “a kind of opening leading to change on that point.” Oaks’s words had little impact. But Irvin’s case, Petrey said, presents a possible “test case for finally getting around to rethinking this policy, for rethinking how we treat trans individuals.”
A church spokesman, Doug Andersen, wouldn’t comment on Irvin’s case, offering only a general statement. “Local leaders . . . are best suited to provide counseling, offer support and teach principles to guide these individuals as they seek to understand and live the gospel of Jesus Christ and to remain in full fellowship if they desire,” Andersen said.
For their part, Irvin said they haven’t figured out how precisely transgender identity can be reconciled with the gospel, though they “truly believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is not homophobic or transphobic in any way.”
“I don’t know if being trans is an eternal thing or if it’s just an in-this-world thing,” they said. “Until I was about 10 or 11, I believed that my spirit was male and had gotten lost on the way to my body. A youth teacher told me that was impossible. That confused me, and I guess I’m still confused. Various friends say various things. We’re a church that believes in continual revelation through our prophet and direct personal revelation.”
As for their place at Brigham Young, Irvin said they hardly represent a threat to campus life, as they’re not “planning on running around shirtless all the time.” A friend, Irvin said, wore prosthetic breasts for years so he could attend temple. Now, he is starting testosterone treatments and withdrawing from the church.
Irvin hopes to undergo top surgery before next summer, they said. The procedure, which will force them to raise $4,000, is one that their husband, Nate, is against. “I married a woman,” he tells his partner, according to Irvin, who added, “He’s not attracted to men, so he doesn’t want me to transition or go on hormones.” Still, their marriage endures. “We laugh every day,” Irvin said. Their husband has agreed to let them try testosterone for one month, Irvin said, “to see if it helps with my depression and anxiety.”
The verdict of their son, Toby? “I like that you’re different,” Irvin reported. But he also tells his parent, “I don’t want you to be another daddy. Daddy sneezes too loudly.”
Absent official guidance, the degree of acceptance of transgender Mormons rests on the political leanings of local congregations, said Petrey, the religion scholar in Michigan. But the increased visibility of transgender people, he said, will test some of the basic tenets of the Mormon faith.
“The church has made it a theological proposition that males are males and females are females,” Petrey said. “How that plays out in real life is incredibly complicated. Kris is asking the question: Are breasts essential to femaleness, and, if not, then what’s the problem here?”
Irvin’s aspiration isn’t necessarily to realign social attitudes about gender, they said. Their aim is more narrow. One of the reasons God “made me this way,” they wrote to their bishop, “is to help church members and leaders see and get to know queer Mormons who are trying to stay faithful.”
“But the church definitely does not make it easy for queer Mormons to remain Mormon,” Irvin warned.
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