Emmett Claren is a member of the Mormon Church, but he may not be for much longer.
That’s because Claren is a transgender man who is about to receive “top surgery” to remove his breasts. In a recent interview with KSTU in Salt Lake City, Claren opened up about his journey from sister missionary to faithful Mormon man, which he has been documenting on YouTube. By going public with his gender transition, he risks church discipline but that won’t stop him.
“Even if I were to lose my membership in the church, I would still come to church every Sunday,” he told The Daily Beast.
Claren had a sense that he was transgender from a young age. Then, when he hit puberty, he started begging God to alter his body.
“I was praying to Heavenly Father every day to change me to a boy, to make me flat, to take away these body parts I didn’t want,” he said.
Claren would wake up the next day and realize that his body was still the same, which made him feel like his faith “wasn’t strong enough.” The resulting emotional pain was so severe that, like one-quarter of transgender youth, he attempted suicide. But he stayed in the closet long enough to serve an 18-month mission as a young adult.
After coming home, he faced renewed pressure from church leaders to continue living as a woman and to marry a man. That proved to be the catalyst for his gender transition.
“I was trying so hard to date boys and to do what they said was right, and I was miserable and suicidal and depressed,” he said. “That’s when I just knew I’m transgender and I’m going to change.”
After coming out, everything changed except his faith. He is happier, more confident, and ready to pave a path for future generations of LGBT Mormons. On his YouTube channel, Claren has been documenting the effects of testosterone therapy for the last six months. His top surgery, which he crowdfunded online, is scheduled for April.
But the Mormon Church, formally known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, forbids transgender surgeries.
According to the most recent handbook for local leaders, people who are “considering an elective transsexual operation” cannot be baptized. Current members like Claren who seek a transgender surgery are subject to “formal Church discipline,” which can end in excommunication.
But Claren told The Daily Beast that enforcement of this policy varies by congregation. Some of his transgender Mormon friends have been threatened with church discipline over hormone therapy alone. Others have been told that top surgery is acceptable but “bottom surgery” to alter the genitals would be grounds for discipline.
Claren said that his local leaders have largely been “supportive and understanding” of his transition. Once, a regional leader told him to attend Sunday meetings in a dress. But the young man held his ground. He now goes to church in a shirt and tie.
In fact, Claren captured his first Sunday attending services as a man in a touching YouTube video recorded in September of last year.
“I’m terrified of going to church today,” he said in the video. “But I’m more concerned of what God thinks of me than what people think of me.”
Even though Claren is in his congregation’s good graces now, that could change at any moment if top leaders institute more precise, church-wide policy.
In recent months, following the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, the Mormon Church has taken a more bullish stance on LGBT people.
Gay, lesbian, and bisexual Mormons are technically allowed to remain in the church so long as they do not engage in same-sex dating or sexual activity.
But last November, the church instituted a controversial policy that labels members in same-sex marriage “apostates” and bans their children from being baptized unless they move out and “specifically [disavow] the practice of same-gender cohabitation and marriage.”
That policy sparked massive outrage and a wave of resignations. It also caused Claren to worry about what might happen when the Mormon Church finally does address its small transgender membership.
So far, top leaders have largely dodged questions of gender identity. As the Human Rights Campaign notes, they have not “publicly confronted the issue of transgender Mormons.” Last January, as Slate reported, a mother told Mormon apostle Dallin H. Oaks that she was worried about “retaliation” from leaders for supporting her transgender child. His response implied that church policy on transgender people was not yet fully formed.
“Being acquainted with the unique problems of a transgender situation is something we have not had so much experience with and we have some unfinished business in teaching on that,” said Oaks.
Over a year later, as Claren’s case proves, that business is still unfinished.
As it stands, the handbook leaves several open questions: Can transgender people who are not seeking surgery remain in the church? Can non-Mormons who have already received a “transsexual operation” still be baptized? And, if so, what’s the problem with surgery anyway?
At present, the Mormon Church seems to be doctrinally opposed to transgender people, whether or not they have received surgery.
According to the church’s 1995 proclamation on the family—a document that is often framed and hung on the wall in Mormon households—gender cannot be changed: “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”
“I’ve gotten that quote so many times from so many people,” recalled Claren. “And I tell them, yes, gender is an essential and eternal characteristic—and my gender is male. That’s who I believe I am and that won’t change. God does not make mistakes and I am not a mistake.”
The Mormon handbook does leave open the possibility that people who have already undergone sex reassignment surgery can be baptized in the rare event that they obtain the approval of the highest governing body in the church.
In other words, if Claren hadn’t been born into the church, there is a possibility, however slight, that he would be able to join after surgery. But even then, he would be barred from participating in many of the same ceremonies as other adults.
Nor would he be allowed to join the priesthood, which is the church’s organization for men ages 12 and over. Currently, Claren only attends the portions of Sunday worship service that are not segregated by gender. When the men and women split up, he goes home to avoid creating problems for his local leaders.
Official Mormon Church spokesman Eric Hawkins told The Daily Beast that these local leaders—known as bishops in the Mormon faith—handle transgender members on a case-by-case basis.
“Bishops in the Church recognize that these situations are difficult and sensitive,” he said. “They also understand that the emotional pain many of these people feel will be addressed by a loving God who understands each individual's circumstances and heart. Each case is different, but bishops work within guidelines as they administer the Church locally.”
Hawkins also reiterated the church’s official doctrine that gender is eternal.
“Because of this, the Church does not baptize those who are planning transsexual operations, and those who choose to have a transsexual operation may place their membership at risk,” he wrote. “We teach our members, including our local leaders, to be prayerful and loving toward anyone who struggles to understand and live the doctrine of the Church.”
Even if Claren can get top surgery without being kicked out, he is planning to get bottom surgery in the future. That decision would almost certainly lead to excommunication. But Claren told The Daily Beast that, member or not, he’s planning to be in a pew every week.
“I would show them that you can kick me out and you can scribble out my name but I still worship God and I still follow Christ,” he said.
Besides Claren, there are a handful of other high-profile transgender Mormons trying to remain in the faith.
The 2014 documentary Transmormon followed Mormon transgender woman Eri Hayward in the lead-up to her sex reassignment surgery. It concluded with the postscript: “She is currently working with church leaders to determine the future of her membership.”
Affirmation, an unofficial organization for LGBT Mormons, is also increasing its attention to trans issues.
At a recent Affirmation conference, a transgender speaker named Paula Ison said, “If Jesus Christ can grant the seemingly supernatural gift of immortality…then my faithful prayer to be a woman just can’t be that big of a deal.”
Claren hopes that his YouTube presence and his willingness to be visible will help other young transgender Mormons find hope.
“When I was going through this, I didn’t know anybody else who was,” he said. “And I don’t think that anyone should have to struggle that way.”
But in so doing, he may also put the Mormon Church’s tolerance for transgender members to a very public test. The possibility of pushback makes him “nervous” but, when he’s scared, he finds comfort in a verse from his favorite Mormon hymn.
“I believe in Christ,” the verse begins, “so come what may.”