In Defiance of BYU, This Trans Mormon Refuses to Leave Their Faith Over Top Surgery

It took Kris Irvin 29 years and $4,000 to get here. But it’s finally June, and after a lifetime of feeling like an outsider in their own skin, Irvin can look at the calendar with relief. Top surgery is scheduled for October of this year.

“I’m freaking out,” tells NewNowNext Irvin. “I’m really excited.”

Out of respect for privacy, reporters aren’t supposed to ask trans people about gender confirmation surgery. But Irvin, a transmasculine, non-binary student at Brigham Young University, the largest university affiliated with the Mormon Church, has been fielding questions about their surgery from reporters since August 2018.

That’s because last summer, Irvin was presented with a devastating choice: forgo top surgery or face expulsion from BYU. Irvin was told gender confirmation surgery violated church rules, which also bans cosmetic plastic surgery. They were forced to pick between an education or a body that matched their gender identity.

Today, Irvin refuses to make the choice at at all.

Entrance to Brigham Young University

“I was looking at BYU and thinking, you know, it’s just not worth risking my mental health and worrying that I’ve got a classmate that doesn’t like trans people,” they say.

Irvin has been pursuing a degree on-and-off for 15 years. They have two-and-a-half semesters left at BYU. Just 30 credits shy from a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature, Irvin has decided to transfer schools.

“I don’t really want to go and contain my awesomeness,” they say. “I just want to be able to be proud of who I am and not have to pretend that I’m straight or that I’m cis”

Irvin, 32, knew they were trans at age 3, even if they didn’t have the right words for it. Now that they do, there’s simply no way to go back.

“The church, they believe that gender is eternal, and I can get behind that,” says Irvin. “I don’t necessarily know that my spirit is a female. Maybe my spirit is male. And in fact, that’s what I thought up until I was like 10.”

Identifying as LGBTQ and mormon can be complicated. The church considers acting on sex-attraction a violation of the faith. In November 2015, just a month after Irvin came out as trans, the church introduced a policy that banned children of same-sex couples from blessing and baptisms.

Irvin’s husband, Nate, is a cis man. Their 11-year-old son, Toby, was baptized in the church. The policy raised serious questions for the couple: If Irvin transitioned, would that make Kris and Nate a same-sex couple?

Kris Irvin

Kris Irvin (R) and their family.

In April, that policy was finally rescinded, though the church still held to its policy against same-sex marriage.

But the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn’t have an official transgender policy. Neither did BYU in 2013, when Irvin enrolled. Even now, the school doesn’t have an official policy.

A BYU spokesperson, reached by phone, did not respond to questions for this article, but Todd Hollingshead, media relations manager for the school told INTO last summer that, “We handle every case [involving a trans student] on an individual basis.”

That doesn’t mean that trans students are safe from expulsion, however. BYU students need an Ecclesiastical Endorsement—a recommendation to continue school—from a religious leader to study every year.

In Irvin’s case, that endorsement came from their bishop, Jake King who stumbled on Irvin’s GoFundMe campaign for gender-confirming surgery last summer. King told Irvin that if they went through with surgery, Irvin would face discipline and lose the endorsement to attend BYU.

“I love him, he’s a great guy,” Irvin previously said. “He’s supported our family really well. He’s just wrong on this one.”

King did not respond to a request from NewNowNext to be interviewed.

The impasse profoundly changed Irvin’s life.

The Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Local and national media covered Irvin’s story. While Irvin came out as trans four years ago, they had never been so public about their gender before. Being in the spotlight as a trans Mormon, Irvin made a lot of queer friends. They also lost straight friends and family.

“I tried really hard to be a girl for 25 years,” they said. “I tried really, really hard, and it just didn’t work, and I was depressed.”

For Irvin, there has been no going back. The threat of expulsion and the resulting media coverage spurred an influx of donations to Irvin’s GoFundMe for surgery. They raised $4,000 in a matter of days.

After nearly a year of waiting, they scheduled surgery for this October. In the interim, they have been on leave from school. Though Irvin doesn’t intend to go back, they continue to stay true to Mormonism, down to smaller lifestyle choices. They don’t drink coffee or alcohol.

The church presents a minefield of small indignities, of quiet compromises that most non-binary people don’t have to consider. During a recent musical number in church, for instance, the congregation divided into a men’s and women’s choir. Men and women lined up on opposing sides of the room.

“They like had this huge gap in between them,” explains Irvin. “ And I’m like, why don’t we move together? So I ended up standing straight in the middle.”

Irvin goes to Sunday school after church, which is segregated by gender. In a room full of women, Irvin stands out in a suit and tie.

“They’re used to me now,” says Irvin. “It’s not like a big deal.”

But why stay in the church? Why mute their “awesomeness?”

“That’s my spiritual home,” says Irvin, simply.

George Frey/Getty Images

Protest of Mormon Church policies on the children of same-sex couples in 2015.

Still, there are deeper incongruities, ones that feel like that spiritual home is not a space that will always hold you.

“Even if I transitioned, the church would never change my gender marker,” Irvin concedes. “Even if I had it changed on my government records, I would always be female in the eyes of the church.”

Irvin is curious lately about other faiths. They don’t necessarily want to convert, but living in Mormon-heavy Utah, it’s hard to know what else is out there. A report last December by the Salt Lake Tribune noted that even though the of percentage Latter-day Saints in Utah had slipped, it remained nearly 62%. Irvin wants to know what other people believe, even if they don’t intend to exit the faith.

Leaving BYU is one thing, leaving the church is another. It affects more than just Irvin.

“I really am trying to stay in the church because I want to be that person that I needed when I was younger; I needed a queer mentor,” they say. “I needed somebody like me and I just didn’t get that. And so, I stay to be visible and to let queer kids know that you can be queer, and it’s okay.”

Kate Sosin is an award-winning, trans-identified news and investigative reporter.

@shoeleatherkate


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