The following address was given by Nick Gregory at the fireside, “Of One Heart and of One Mind: A Faithful Conversation on Race, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity,” on Sunday, March 8, 2015, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Thank you very much Karen for that—for the words that you said. It was a good lead in into what I wanted to talk about today. First, it’s really nice to be here. I’m very grateful for the opportunity and it means a lot to me to be surrounded by friends and family. It’s very overwhelming and I’m very grateful for your support and prayers.
So, as you may have gathered, I am here to talk about the transgender experience that we find in the church. But, before I get into too many details about that, I wanted to talk about how this will fit within the theme for tonight. We are talking about a Zion community, “of one heart and one mind” (Moses 7:18). When I was pondering about what it is to have one heart, I realized that in the scriptures, it’s not the same definition for heart that we typically use today. Usually, we think of the heart as the center of our emotions and the mind as our rational being. But, in the scriptures, the heart actually is the complete whole. In the scriptures, the heart is our entire self, our entire inner identity [Strong’s Concordance]. It’s our rational parts, and our emotions secondarily. It’s interesting to me that in the Zion community we are supposed to be of one heart and one mind. And I think often in our community in the Church, it’s really easy to find that type of unity with God. It’s easy for us to share our hearts with God, to share our innermost selves, because God knows all about us. We are completely vulnerable to Him and He can see who we are and He still loves us for who we are. That openness is easy. Sometimes I find, though, it’s difficult to have that same unity in human to human interactions. Sometimes it’s difficult to open up our hearts, to be vulnerable, to show people our inner selves because of fear of rejection. My hope by talking today is that I will be able to provide somewhat of a foundation into a perspective of someone who is transgender, who experiences/experienced gender dysphoria. That way, you can see a little bit of myself and my heart. And when you encounter someone who is transgender, you will have a better idea of how to talk to them, to accept them, to notice that the heart doesn’t have to be closed there—there can be a connection. They are a person. Being transgender is just one aspect of who they are.
So we already had a little bit of a definition from Karen about being transgender; I would like to expound upon that. Transgender is usually a term that refers to a large spectrum of experiences that people have where they have a conflicting sense of inner identity about their gender compared to their physical appearance. Typically, we think of transgender as someone who is born biologically male or female, but inside they think they are the opposite gender. Transgender can also refer to other parts of the spectrum. That’s on one end. On the other end, it can be someone who feels dissonance with their gender identity and so sometimes they may cross-dress, for example, to express that side of themselves. So, it’s a spectrum. It’s important to realize that for people who are transgender, the experience is different for every person. They may lie on different parts of the spectrum, some will have similar experiences, but every experience is individual and it’s different for them. So, with that being said, I would also like to talk about gender dysphoria, which is a term that is thrown around a lot. This has to do with a psychological condition that comes to people who are transgender. Because there is a discrepancy between their identity and their physical appearance and how they are seen by society, it causes a certain level of stress, anxiety, and even depression. It’s a very painful experience because there is dissonance within themselves and dissonance with the people around them. They don’t know how to connect sometimes with themselves and with the world around them.
That being said, I would like to give you a little bit of insight into my experience and talk a little about what it is like being transgender, what I experienced, and then relate that to what others who are transgender may experience and how we can better connect with them. When I was fairly young, I knew something about me was a little bit different, but I wasn’t able to understand exactly what it was until around the age of puberty (around 11 or 12)—when I began to understand and appreciate what gender was, what gender roles kind of were, what I had to look forward to in the future as far as being male or female, and what physical sex was. I began to notice there was dissonance within myself. I began to realize that I preferred to be seen as female. I, inside myself, did not believe that I should be male. I was repulsed by my own body. I felt that I wanted to have the gender roles that society has for women typically—that felt more natural to me. My interests seemed to be more feminine and when I first began to feel these they didn’t really bother me. Gender was still fairly fluid at a young age. But, as I got older, I began to realize that this was something that was different; this was strange. And I was so scared by it that I didn’t tell anybody about it. I was scared of who I was because I felt like I was a freak. Something was deeply wrong. I had never heard about it before. I had no experience with what transgender was. I just thought I was the only one in the world who felt that they were in the wrong body. It wasn’t for any lack of love on the part of my family; it was something I was personally terrified about and I felt that I would be rejected if I shared with anybody. It was something that was so unfamiliar. And I’m a fairly, decently rational person occasionally. I was able to realize it’s weird, you know. I’m clearly biologically male; why do I feel this way?
As I grew older, I began to develop a testimony of the Church. I was raised LDS and I began to grow in my relationship with God. I had the misconceived notion that my experience was external—that it was something evil. That I was evil. The problem with labelling it this way is I was not able to separate my own identity from something that was external because it isn’t external. It’s an internal thing; it’s part of who I am. And so I spent several years in quite a lot of spiritual anguish. At times I felt that I was not worthy of God’s love. I didn’t know how I fit in the plan of salvation. I didn’t really want to be male and I didn’t know I could even have the option of being female. I just kind of felt stuck. I didn’t belong anywhere. I tried different ways of coping with this. Some of them being: I would try and turn my depression and stress into anger and burn it when I was exercising. I also found that if I stayed really, really, really busy just doing anything I possibly could, I wouldn’t have to think about it—it wasn’t on the forefront of my mind that I was in the wrong body. I didn’t have to worry about it. And so I tried to always be distracted. As you probably realize, these are not super healthy ways of coping with anything and they took their toll. I was able to reach a part of my life where I felt like I could avoid dysphoria for months at a time. But when the dysphoria came, they were terrible, terrible overwhelming things that affected my day to day living. I could not get it out of my mind that I was truly female and I was living a lie. When I went on my mission, I was hoping that it would go away. It didn’t. I’m sure people here can empathize with issues that just don’t go away because you do something spiritual. It was there that I really started to learn a lot about transgender. I learned that I was not alone. People do experience this. I also learned that this was probably something that was a part of me. This was not external. It was not something that would go away; I needed to learn to deal with it. I needed to make a choice about it. I also learned that if I were to seek the extreme of changing my body by having sexual reassignment surgery that I would be on grounds of excommunication or other Church discipline and that terrified me. I love the Church; I have a testimony of it and it again reinforced those fears that I was unworthy of God’s love; that I did not belong. I didn’t know how to reconcile it. I still did not confide in any person.
This lasted for a few more years until I reached a point where I broke. All of my coping mechanisms simply failed. I realized that I was in a place that was very bad and my relationship with God was not what I thought it should be. This was a wake-up call to me that I needed to own who I was and decide about my experience. Through a couple years—this was a few years ago when I had this break down. Since that time, I have grown in my connection with God and through personal revelation—through prayer and pondering—have found out that He does not want me to transition. That’s the path that He feels is best for me and so I have done my best to be obedient to that path. And He has given me many ways of much healthier ways of coping with being transgender. I no longer feel dysphoria like a felt before; it doesn’t cause me a ton of anxiety. I’m still transgender, it’s still in the back of my mind, but I have peace in the path that I’m in. I know I am making this journey with God and He’s given me tools.
So how does this relate to other people who experience transgender? One thing that I am fairly confident most of them experience is a profound sense of loneliness. Especially if the feel they don’t belong anywhere—not even with God. The best way, in my mind, to counteract that—to connect—is to let them know that they belong. This is also very important for people who have a different path than I have. My path is not transitioning, but other people’s paths may be different. As I said before, being transgender is a very individual experience. Only God knows what they are experiencing and what their path should be—the best way to deal with it, to navigate it with them. Unfortunately, at this time, we don’t have a lot of guidance from the Church about this particular experience. So we need to have the flexibility that the Gospel enables us to have, to love and support the people who are doing their best to find their connection and path with God. I wish, when I was younger, that I had confided in my family—that I had trusted them to know that they would not have rejected me. Since the time when I have started coming out, my family and my friends have been my greatest support and they’ve given me the stability to be able to make a faithful decision with God. One particular experience that stands out to me was when one of my friends came up to me and said, “I think you are an amazing person and I would still be your friend if you were a woman.” That meant the world to me. It removed the shame from my heart, the fear of being rejected. That gave me a stability that I knew that whatever I did, God would love me—I would belong with Him and I would have a support group that would accept me. It allowed me to have a place where I could be clear to revelation, to understand my path with God. It would be very unfortunate if, in our interactions with people, we inadvertently cut them off from that connection with God because we do not connect with them—because we judge them or reject them and they think, “Oh—they’re people in that Church; they’re people who believe in this God. I don’t want to be around those people and therefore I don’t need that relationship with their God.”
Like I said before, God is the only one who knows the situation and we need to respect their paths that they take with God. We need to create an environment where we can be of one heart to see who they are on the inside. When you do come across someone who is transgender, be their friend. Get to know them. You don’t have to focus on that one part of themselves being transgender. They are also a human. They have interests and desires. If they prefer to express a certain way, please respect that. Understand that they are trying to navigate an extremely difficult issue. They’ve probably had enough self-loathing and hatred towards themselves. They don’t need to feel that from the people around them.
I have great hope in the future for the Church and this community—for all people who suffer. All of us here have different experiences that bring us turmoil—that bring us pain, but give us room for an amazing amount of healing and connection. Not only with each other, but also with God. I feel that Zion is possible. That as we are willing to exchange vulnerabilities and accept people for their imperfections and for their experiences that are different from us that we’ll be able to have a more loving community—a more Christ-like community.
In closing, I want to leave you with my personal testimony. I know that we have a Father in Heaven. All of us here are His children and He loves us and nothing will ever separate us from that love. I know that we have a Savior, Jesus Christ, and I know that He knows intimately our experiences. As we try to navigate our lives, even when we make mistakes, He’s there to bring us healing and comfort, courage, and connection. I know that this is the true Church of Jesus Christ on the earth—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—with the proper priesthood authority. I know the Book of Mormon and the Bible are both the word of God and will bring us connection with God and help us reflect that connection with others. Again I want to express my love and gratitude for everyone attending here. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.